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A critics' notebook from TIFF

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 5:27 PM EDT, Mon September 19, 2011
"Melancholia" boasts the best female performance in years in Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of Justine.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the 2 or 3 most important film industry events
  • "Melancholia" is nothing short of a masterpiece
  • "Moneyball" turns out to be a well-written, exceptionally acted and stylishly directed film

(CNN) -- The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is massive. Hundreds of members of the global film industry descend on Canada's "Queen City" each September to partake in the city's premiere cultural event. This year, more than 330 shorts and features from 65 countries were screened, and directors, actors and crew members from many of them were in town to promote their films.

Not only that, many actors had more than one film screening at TIFF, including Clive Owen ("Killer Elite," "Intruders"), Michael Fassbender ("Shame," "A Dangerous Method"), George Clooney ("The Ides of March," "The Descendants"), Rachel Weisz ("Page Eight," "360," "The Deep Blue Sea"), Ryan Gosling ("Drive," "The Ides of March"), Gerard Butler ("Machine Gun Preacher", "Coriolanus"), Carey Mulligan ("Shame," "Drive"), Seth Rogen ("50/50," "Take This Waltz") and others. Mark Duplass even starred in one film (Lynn Shelton's magnificent "Your Sister's Sister") and co-wrote/co-directed another ("Jeff, Who Lives At Home") with his brother Jay.

The fest typically contains a mix of films with U.S./Canadian distribution (many U.S. distributors use TIFF as a junket for their fall releases) along with those hoping to be acquired, films with major stars and those without, and of course films in dozens of languages.

Toronto is also one of the 2 or 3 (depending on who you talk to) most important film industry events on the calendar (along with Cannes and Sundance) and is a frenzy of virtually every aspect of the international film business.

TIFF is also the first large North American festival for audiences and industry to catch up on some of the big hits from Cannes. (The Telluride Film Festival screens many just before TIFF but is a much smaller, more rarefied event.) Many of these films will open before year's end, and many are highly touted Oscar contenders.

Right out of the gate: a masterpiece

One of these films was the subject of much (unnecessary, in my opinion) ballyhoo in Cannes earlier this year: Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (Magnolia Pictures; on-demand October 7, in theaters, November 11). You might remember that back in May, von Trier got in a spot of trouble when he appeared to sympathize with Adolf Hitler in a news conference and was subsequently declared "persona non grata" by the Cannes Film Festival. The thing is, anyone with any sense knew that he was not being serious, and while it may have been a joke in bad taste, it was clearly not a statement of loyalty to the Third Reich. If you want to read everything in context, Google it; but to quote the Bard, it really was much ado about nothing.

As for "Melancholia," it is nothing short of a masterpiece. I say that as a wishy-washy fan of von Trier's work. Much of what I have seen of his is very difficult to watch and can't decide whether they're masterpieces or pieces of ... another kind. OK, I'm being a little hyperbolic, but really, I don't think I can watch "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark" ever again. While I concede that they may well be works of genius, I won't subject myself to such emotional abuse again.

I don't feel even remotely like that about "Melancholia," however, and I can't wait to see it again. It is, in every way, an astonishing achievement. Quite likely the first disaster art house film, it is about as visually stunning a film as you're likely to see and boasts the best female performance in years in Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of Justine, a young newlywed who is slowly cycling through crippling depression while the world around her is literally ending.

In the (e-mailed) words of her co-star Stellan SkarsgÄrd ("Thor," "Breaking the Waves"): "Kirsten's performance is not only brave it's a very subtle description of depression's travel through a mind, and all only in her eyes. One of the best performances I have ever seen." I can't agree more. This film is not for everyone (those who liked "Transformers 3" need not apply), but if you're a true lover of film, you owe it to yourself to give it a look. I hope to write more about this work of art closer to the film's release.

When is a studio film not a studio film?

I've been going to film festivals since before I made my living in the industry and suspect that should I ever choose a different career path, I will continue to go to them. One reason is the wide variety of films offered. Don't feel up for a studio comedy? Well, there's a sexy French mystery playing in 15 minutes across the hall. Feeling a little overwhelmed with life and need a break from it all? There's a heartfelt indie romantic comedy-drama starting in an hour. Documentaries, comedies, erotic thrillers, slapstick ... even silent movies. TIFF has them all.

One of the studio films doing a lot of its prerelease press in Toronto was "Capote" director Bennett Miller's outstanding "Moneyball," (Columbia Pictures, September 23). Boasting a cast of Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") and Jonah Hill, as well as writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, "Moneyball" has been tipped as a best picture contender for months, and I'd say it's got a pretty good shot. Of course, it's early to be tossing nominations around, but I'm not going out on a limb by saying that this one's on the short list.

On the surface, "Moneyball" doesn't sound like a winner. It's a film about baseball that focuses on the general manager of the Oakland A's, a small market team that has just had its star players leave via free agency. It's also based on a true story, so baseball nerds (like me) already know what happens at the end, and there's no romance.

If I haven't already scared you off, then good, you're in for a treat because "Moneyball" turns out to be a well-written, exceptionally acted and stylishly directed film. Pitt is Billy Beane, a failed former player and the general manager of the A's who is stuck with a team that has just lost its superstars to the Yankees and Red Sox and who doesn't have enough money to replace them. While discussing possible trades with the general manager of another team, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) an overweight, nonathletic Yale graduate who crunches numbers to identify the best players, rather than using the time-tested method of, you know, watching them play.

Brand has identified on-base percentage as the key statistic that determines whether or not a player helps his club, and that, combined with other stats and formulas that I don't even pretend to understand, is the best way to evaluate talent, especially if you don't have a gazillion dollars to spend like, say, the Yankees or the Red Sox. Basically he's distilled the game down to an obvious truism: If you score more than the other guy does, you win; and to score runs, you need men on base.

Like any story about someone trying to change the way things are done in an "old boys' network" (and you don't get much older, tradition-steeped, and male than professional baseball), "Moneyball" is full of Beane and Brand pushing a metaphorical rock up a hill, trying to convince the establishment that they're right.

There's an "us against the world" feeling in this film and, believe it or not, an atmosphere of those classic indie-minded 1970s films that studios used to make. In fact, Miller told EW that "All The President's Men" was a particular inspiration, and as odd as that may seem on the surface, it's really not that strange. After all, that was also a true story, but it still had all the suspense, excitement and sense of seeing someone buck the system to make it a great film. "Moneyball" is a great film.

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