“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I would feel foolish making such a statement after seeing The Artist, the much-buzzed silent film of the festival circuit, for the film itself refutes the idea that movies have been in a decline the glory days of the silent era. If anything, the style and substance of The Artist demonstrate that the films of today are just as good as they were eighty years ago, if not better.
The Artist was a late addition to my TIFF line-up. You could also call it an early one, since my brother and I were so determined to get tickets that we both awoke in time for the festival’s final release of ‘same day’ tickets at 7am. Being a member, he got to the box office for seven, while I stayed at home to place an order online so that we could beat the members at the front of the queue. Oh, the things we do for film.
The Artist was an appropriate film for our effort, as it is a warm love-letter to the cinema. It starts as a throwback to the silent era, but The Artist ends as much more. Aside from the film’s overlength, director Michel Hazanavicius seamlessly recreates the look, feel, and even the sound (what a score!) of the silver screen days. The artist in the film is a successful silent actor, George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), who finds his career coming to a standstill with the advent of sound. George refuses to degrade himself by working in the ‘talkies’, even though his onscreen/off-screen crush, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is skyrocketing to fame as the fresh ingénue of sound film. Dujardin and Bejo offer fetching physical performances, as do the rest of the ensemble, which includes James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller. “Best in Show,” however, goes to Uggy the dog, who easily bests Arthur from Beginners for this year’s award for best canine performance.
What has not been expressed enough about The Artist, though, is that the film is not merely an exercise in nostalgia. Much like Woody Allen looks to the past for inspiration in Midnight in Paris, The Artist shows that film buffs should appreciate the classics, but also recognize silent film as a product of a bygone era. As The Artist demonstrates with the turn in George’s career, there is a danger in refusing to adapt to the times. The Artist is a joyful tribute to the movies, but it also hints that as films progressed from talking to Technicolor, the medium evolved as well. And film lived happily ever after.
The second film of the day was Moneyball. Brad Pitt steps up to bat and brings Moneyball closer to the Major leagues, rather than the little league where it might have gone without him. Pitt gives an impressive performance as Billy Beanes, the general manager of the Oakland A’s who pulled the team from a slump by stacking their roster with the table scraps of wealthier teams. The film itself is not as strong as Pitt is though, for Moneyball is more of a good story, rather than a good film.
Pitt helps raise Moneyball above TV movie territory through his great synergy with co-star Jonah Hill. The pair is a lot of fun, especially as they riff on Aaron Sorkin’s snappy zingers. (Social Network fans will not be disappointed with the dialogue.) It’s mostly the overall management of Moneyball that prevents the film from being exceptionally moving or enriching. The film receives a surprisingly generic treatment from director Bennett Miller, which is disappointing given the strength of his debut Capote. Nevertheless, my only mild enthusiasm for the film was greatly eclipsed by the energy of the audience, who frequently burst into applause and laughter. It might not be my personal MVP of the festival, but Moneyball undeniably looks to be a crowd-pleaser.
(And if anyone mocked my preemptive Brangelina stalking yesterday, I’m happy to report that my efforts were not in vain, as none of the Moneyball crew attended this screening.)
Immediately after Brad’s movie, I saw the one with his friend George. While I wasn’t crazy about Brad’s movie, I loved, loved, loved The Descendants. The Descendants gives Clooney a virtuoso role and he inhabits it brilliantly. As Matt, a fifty-something workaholic and second-rate dad, Clooney gives an impeccably nuanced feat of dramedy. Clooney’s charm and persona root Matt as a fallible everyman, and his wry wit and mature eloquence take the film on an immaculate rollercoaster of laughs and tears. Clooney is in top form in The Descendants, just as much as he was in 2009’s Up in the Air.
Also making strong impressions are Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller playing Clooney’s onscreen daughters. Woodley gets an especially dynamic part as Alex, Matt’s eldest. The father-daughter combo of Clooney-Woodley could potentially join the mother-son duo of Swinton-Miller on the awards’ circuit. What a fun and dysfunctional family that would be!
Much like Clooney’s performance, director/co-writer Alexander Payne does a remarkable feat of balancing the heart and the humour of the film. The Descendants has the rare skill of being able to elicit uproarious laughter one moment, but then prompt tears the next. In his first film since Sideways, Payne makes a film that is equally strong as his last one, but in some ways, The Descendants more neatly blends the flaws and follies of everyday folks. The Descendants is a sharp, funny, and endearing story of family ties. It’s also sheer perfection from first frame to last.
Clooney, Payne, et al appeared for a fun Q&A after the film and they were greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd. Once things settled down, Clooney and Payne gave some amusing perspectives on their work, and some of the other cast/crew chimed in. After basking in love for the film for another twenty minutes, the audience gave the film a second standing-o as the event came to a close.
The fourth and final film of the day was Take this Waltz, another mature dramedy that made for a good double bill with The Descendants. Waltz marks the sophomore feature from Canadian writer/director/actress Sarah Polley. When Polley made her feature debut in 2006 with Away from Her, she unveiled one of the best films ever produced in this country. It’s a very high standard for Polley to have set for herself, but while Take this Waltz might not be Away from Her, it shows that her first film was no fluke.
Polley smartly moves in the opposite direction of Away from Her and provides a hilarious and provocative story of lovelorn Torontonians. Michelle Williams gives a beautiful performance as Margot, a woman who meets the man of her dreams, but then remembers that she is married to somebody else. Luke Kirby takes the role of Daniel, Margot’s would be Mr. Right, while Seth Rogen plays her kind/dull husband Lou. As Margot navigates the steps of her desires, Take this Waltz builds a sweet and honest tale of complicated love. Adding to Margot’s oddball dance partners is Sarah Silverman as Geraldine, Lou’s alcoholic sister. Silverman has only a few scenes, but her razor-sharp comedic skills are not put to waste; rather, Polley gives Silverman some scenes that are just as funny as the comedian’s stand-up routines.
In addition to providing some droll conversations, Polley grants a warm energy to Take this Waltz through her striking compositions. Take this Waltz has a colour pallet so warm and vibrant it would make Pedro Almodovar jealous, especially as captured through the lens of cinematographer Luc Montpellier. A genuine talent could only make a film so aesthetically pleasing. (The Scrambler scene will take your breath away.) Polley also captures Toronto lovingly, and pays tribute to the city by using familiar settings or by exploiting the sounds of streetcars. Both a picture perfect postcard and a tender love story, Take this Waltz is one of the best Canadian films of the year.
On for Sunday: BBQ at the Canadian Film Centre, followed by screenings of Shame and The Skin I Live in (that’s a lot of skin).