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A scene from A Dangerous Method
A scene from A Dangerous Method

TIFF 2011

Our critics' picks: 10 films at TIFF you should see Add to ...

Globe and Mail film critics Rick Groen and Liam Lacey spotlight the 10 films at this year's Toronto International Film Festivla that you won't want to miss.

RICK GROEN’S PICKS

A Dangerous Method

Turns out there’s an obvious theme to these five picks, inadvertently arrived at but hardly surprising. After all, sexuality is deeply engrained in the annals of film because it’s deeply engrained in us, as director David Cronenberg well knows. Two outings after A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method explores the history of sex, at least as filtered through the psychoanalytic minds of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The story tracks the meeting of those minds, then their fractious parting. En route, Freud, the rigorous scientist, proves to be a witty fellow, while Jung, the mystic, is an earnest adventurer, struggling to balance a sadomasochistic relationship with a troubled patient and a conventional marriage with a rich wife.

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The result feels a bit slight by Cronenbergian standards, or maybe it’s just playful. Either way, you’ll exit the theatre reminded anew that a cigar, the one you can’t smoke anywhere any more, is never just a cigar.

Shame

Oh, Dr. Freud would have had a whole lot to say about writer-director Steve McQueen’s Shame. Following his penchant for one-word titles, this film pursues a New York man’s hunger for sex – the loveless brand purchased from hookers or viewed on porn sites or garnered from libidinous femmes in trendy bars. Coincidentally or not, the addict is played by Carl Jung – well, okay, by Michael Fassbender, who portrayed Jung in the Cronenberg film, where, at one delicious point, he is heard to say: “I don't believe in coincidence.” Make of that what you will.

In the frank nudity here, the debts to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and most anything by Catherine Breillat are obvious. Although the picture packs all the intensity of McQueen’s debut in Hunger, it lacks the same thematic resonance, which will disappoint some. Still, his manipulation of the camera, his marriage of sight to sound, his ability to advance the narrative without dialogue are a joy to watch throughout. What’s more, it’s fascinating to compare Fassbender’s performances – similar primal appetites, but such a vastly different style.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Haven’t seen this yet, but a colleague who has is raving about it. The first feature from American writer-director Sean Durkin tracks the attempted recovery of an escapee from a fundamentalist cult, the kind where obsessive sex is elevated from an addiction to a religion. With Elizabeth Olsen – yep, the twins’ sister – purportedly stellar in the title role, the focus here is again psychological, as flashbacks search the woman’s past to find motives and strive for explanations. Where Cronenberg’s film elevates aberrant behaviour to a general theory and McQueen’s strips it down to nothing but the act itself, this one appears to look for specifically individual reasons and practical fixes: Arrange them in a row and you’d have a partial history of psychiatry.

Café de flore

This, too, is a sight-unseen pick, but I’m curious about it, partly because I so admired director Jean-Marc Vallée’s work in C.R.A.Z.Y., partly because the bifurcated structure has me intrigued: two apparently unconnected stories, with one family in present-day Montreal and another in Paris during the late sixties. According to the advance notes, “unflinching sexuality” is once more at the centre of these domestic matters, and the split narratives eventually unite thanks to a phenomenon that would have warmed the heart of a certain Carl Jung: mystic forces. Back in his C.R.A.Z.Y. days, Vallée charted, among other things, the tensions between sex and Catholicism. But that was then, and this is now, where we seem to be in the territory of the collective unconscious. I’m keen to parse how he got from there to here.

Crazy Horse

A confession: Frederick Wiseman is a hero of mine. Never stooping to voice-over, running for hours yet bursting with human drama, his vérité documentaries rank among the cinematic landmarks of the sixties and seventies, dissecting and critiquing every aspect of American society from education and welfare to health care and the legal system. But, lately, the master has spent considerable time as an American in Paris, and he’s there again with Crazy Horse, peering backstage at the Parisian club to figure out how they put the dance into a “nude dancing show.” The film had no advance screening, but this is a safe guess: Wiseman is way too smart not to turn these frames into a lively dissertation on the themes of exotica and voyeurism – in other words, all the things that might have gnawed at you while watching those four other movies.

Enjoy, but be prepared to pay a psychological price.

LIAM LACEY’S PICKS

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s long nocturnal drama shared the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix. A group of men travels through the countryside at night. Their mission is grim: A prosecutor, some policemen, a young doctor and a couple of confessed murderers are trying to retrieve a corpse, though the prisoners can’t remember where they buried their victim. Along the way, there are a number of chance encounters, some of which incorporate episodes of Anton Chekhov stories, though the core story is based on the experiences of one of the scriptwriters, himself a former country doctor. The cinematography is gorgeous, lit by lanterns and car lights in the brown-black darkness.

Fatherland

Festival programmer Kate Lawrie Van de Ven recommended this one from her City to City program. Director Nicolas Prividera’s essay film relates the history of Argentina through the dead at La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Various people read the words of the writers and political figures buried there, moving in chronological order, to tell the often violent history of the country, intercut with scenes of the contemporary workers in the grand cemetery. Think of Under Milk Wood, but on a national scale, with a lot more voices.

God Bless America

I once asked comedian Bobcat Goldthwait why he writes and directs such relentlessly non-commercial comedies as Sleeping Dogs Lie (about bestiality) and World’s Greatest Dad (teen suicide). “So you’d prefer I wrote Kate Hudson romcoms and wind up in three years in an L.A. hotel with a gun in my mouth?” he suggested. Obviously, he has a pronounced dissatisfaction with mainstream American entertainment, which is the subject of his new film, God Bless America, a black comedy about a disgruntled 45-year-old office worker (Joel Murray) who becomes offended by a cruelly inane television show and, along with a delinquent teenager (Tara Lynne Barr), goes on a killing rampage as a form of cultural protest.

Elles

Prostitution, the world’s oldest profession and one of its most popular dramatic subjects, is at the centre of this film by Polish director Malgoska Szumowska. Juliette Binoche is a Paris journalist writing for France’s Elle magazine whose investigation into student prostitutes upsets her own core values. TIFF directors Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey tipped this film as among their favourites at this year’s festival. When we get a Polish director working in French with Binoche, well, you can’t help think of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Juan of the Dead

It’s the film’s billing as “Cuba’s first zombie comedy” that caught my attention. A documentary about the daily lives of Havana bureaucrats? An allegory of white-legged Canadian tourists hitting the beaches? No, actually. It’s really about Cuban zombies. According to the synopsis, the film features two old friends, Juan and Lázaro, who are floating in the ocean on a raft in Havana harbour when a zombie pops up out of the water. They promptly kill it. When they get back to land and discover they’re in the middle of an undead infestation, they go into business as zombie exterminators, thus proving that entrepreneurship can still flourish under a socialist dictatorship. Director Alejandro Brugues, 34, who is making only his second feature since film school, says the movie is a social comedy about how Cubans “react in the face of a crisis – because we’ve had a lot of them here over the last 50 years.”

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