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TIFF 2010: The best of the festival

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Natalie Portman stars in director Darren Aronofsky's upcoming film, "Black Swan."
Natalie Portman stars in director Darren Aronofsky's upcoming film, "Black Swan."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Toronto International Film Festival hopes its films become icons of the future
  • Tom Charity: James Franco in "127 Hours" offers immediate visceral impact
  • Festival offers a particularly strong lineup of British films, he says
RELATED TOPICS

Toronto, Ontario (CNN) -- "Some things you see once and remember forever." According to the series of sponsors' messages that preceded each and every screening at North America's biggest annual movie showcase, the Toronto International Film Festival, these unforgettable moments include Janet Leigh in the shower, the robotic skeleton lurking beneath Arnold Schwarzenegger's skin and Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs ... selections that strip cinema right down to its roots in the peep show.

Not surprisingly, the organizers at TIFF take a more cerebral view. Marking the opening of the festival's new year-round facility, the Bell Lightbox, a five-screen art-house made possible by a multimillion dollar donation by father-and-son movie directors Ivan and Jason Reitman, TIFF published its own list of 100 essential films. Top of the tree: the 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. ("Citizen Kane" was runner-up.)

Will any of this year's crop of 200-plus features make the grade and figure in future lists of iconic movies? Only time will tell, but for immediate visceral impact nothing came close to James Franco taking a pocket knife to his own skin and bone in Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," an intense, harrowing and exhilarating film about climber Aron Ralston that had audiences fainting in the aisles. (Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" was the most recent film in TIFF's Essential collection.)

Equally visceral, but more exotic, Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is a feverishly lurid psychodrama played out in the world of classical ballet. Natalie Portman is the goody-two-shoes promoted to principal ballerina in the company's next production of "Swan Lake." Drawn to explore her dark side by the company's manipulative artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and her seductive "alternate," or understudy, (Mila Kunis), the character rapidly loses her grip on reality.

Closer to "Repulsion" than "The Red Shoes," "Black Swan" might have been made on a dare to prove that ballet can be a sexy subject for a movie. It's as brutally physical as Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" -- passionate, scary, more than a little silly, and so fantastically sleazy we can only be grateful Portman wasn't called on to perform "The Nutcracker."

While we're walking on the wild side, the American remake of the acclaimed Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In," sensibly titled "Let Me In," pays the sincerest flattery. Not quite shot for shot -- there is a new chronological loop in the first half, and the cat lady has lost her pets -- Matt Reeves' calm and controlled film generally sticks to the credo, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It works: This tale of a lonely, bullied schoolboy (Kodi Smit-McPhee, from "The Road") who is befriended by a strange, shoeless girl with unhealthy appetites (Chloe Moretz from "Kick-Ass") is simultaneously creepy and sensitive. Yes, there are stomach-churning scenes of bloody carnage, but this is the classiest American horror film in quite some time, subtly insinuating that evil takes root in neglect and abuse, that broken hearts beget broken heads.

If these were the hot tickets, cooler customers might have gravitated toward the surprise Cannes prizewinner, Thailand's "Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives," a limpid, oddly simple movie about a man preparing for his death with advice from the ghosts of his wife and his son, who has returned in the spectral form of a laser-eyed ape-man. There's something you don't see every day.

Catering to more middlebrow tastes, "Never Let Me Go" is a painstakingly gloomy adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel. The excellent Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield star as British boarding school kids who grow up with a very special purpose. Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") has made a faithful, discreet but rather bloodless film, perhaps inhibited by the book's reputation. The same syndrome afflicts Tran Anh Hung's gorgeously visualized but ultimately enervating rendition of Murakami's "Norwegian Wood."

Rowan Joffe takes a more forthright approach in his remake of Graham Greene's English gangster novel "Brighton Rock." Updating the original from the 1930s to 1964, when the seaside resort town was the scene of ugly riots between Mods and Rockers, Joffe sticks to Greene's famously vicious plot, a sick romance between a sadistic hoodlum (Sam Riley) and a naïve girl (Andrea Riseborough, a very promising English actress who could also be seen in "Never Let Me Go" and the populist equal rights comedy "Made in Dagenham").

All in all it was a particularly strong lineup for British films, with solid new work from old stalwarts Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, a lively first film from Richard Ayoade (the coming of age comedy "Submarine") and the inevitable Oscar speculation attaching itself, limpet-like, to Colin Firth in "The King's Speech," to Mulligan in Romanek's movie, as well as Franco in "127 Hours."

English comic Steve Coogan won't figure in those conversations, but hilariously mulls the hypothetical pros and cons when his friend Rob Brydon (also playing himself in Michael Winterbottom's improvised road movie "The Trip") puts him on the spot: You're guaranteed an Academy Award, he says, but in return your child will have to undergo an operation for appendicitis. ... Deal or no deal?

Coogan -- who is constantly fretting over his stalled Hollywood career -- knows what he's supposed to say, but has to wonder if that's the honest truth.

The two comedians spend a week in close company, driving around the North of England eating at the best local restaurants for a magazine feature Coogan has supposedly been commissioned to write. They banter and bicker, compete and compare (a running gag about their rival Michael Caine impressions is priceless), and that's all there is to it. "The Trip" is the kind of film that is easily overlooked, but it's smarter about celebrity, art and ego, and much, much funnier than Casey Affleck's Joaquin Phoenix shock-mock-doc, "I'm Still Here." In all the flurry of festival hype, glamour and hustle, you couldn't ask for a more pleasant diversion.