By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 - 0 Comments
I’m the last journalist in town to blog last night’s TFCA Awards gala at the Carlu in Toronto. As TFCA prez, it’s hard to run a show and write about at the same time. By now, the story has been amply reported elsewhere, so I’ll be brief.
It was a big night, not just for Toronto Film Critics Association, but for the Canadian film community. The TFCA’s newly endowed Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, now worth a staggering $100,000, has become the richest arts prize in the country. Sarah Polley won for her astonishing family memoir, Stories We Tell, while the other two nominees Denis Côté’s zoo documentary Bestiare and Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy, Goon, took home $5,000 each as runners-up. Polley also won the TFCA’s Allan King Documentary Award for Stories We Tell, accepting it from a hilarious Rick Mercer, who told a yarn about Polley visiting his parents in Newfoundland. (I wasn’t taking notes; you had to be there.) Don McKellar, who presented the Rogers prize to Polley, mused about three disparate nominees—”movies about zoo animals, hockey violence and adultery”—and quipped they could be melded into one great Canadian movie. I hope that mogul Robert Lantos, who was in attendance, was listening.
McKellar also delivered some devastating standup about the elephant in the room: the surreal incongruity of a bunch of critics presenting a prize that, for some Canadian filmmakers, would constitute multi-picture funding. He talked about how he and his colleagues have such a hard time raising money for Canadian films. Then along come the critics—”Hey, here’s $100,000!” Polley, meanwhile, gave a gracious and emotional speech as she saw her professional and personal life merge with uncanny symmetry. The gala dinner happened to take place on her 34rd birthday. Having released two features in 2012 (Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell), and giving birth to a baby girl, she said this has been “the best year of my life.” And host Cameron Bailey, TIFF artistic director, led the room of 260 guests in a singing of Happy Birthday. Praising Rogers Vice-Chair Phil Lind for supporting Canadian filmmakers with such a generous award, she spoke about the importance of the private sector lending its support to the arts. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 9:57 AM - 0 Comments
It takes courage to uproot the accepted “truths” and mysteries of your own family,…
It takes courage to uproot the accepted “truths” and mysteries of your own family, but Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s documentary inquiry into the tangled secrets of her home life, Stories We Tell, is a triumph of the form. Last night, the toughest audience in any theatre–the Toronto Film Critics Association–awarded her the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award.
The $100,000 prize, newly endowed by Rogers Communications Inc., is the richest arts award in Canada. Runners up were Denis Côté, who directed Bestiaire, and Michael Dowse, for Goon. Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications, called Polley’s film “a thoroughly engaging and interesting depiction of her own family and its stories.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 12:31 AM - 0 Comments
I bring you breaking news from the Toronto Film Critics Association—of which I’m president but do not control. It’s what they call a democratic organization; one critic, one vote. At a weekend meeting, over platters of crustless sandwiches fit for a garden party, we voted on our favorite films of 2012. There was some spirited debate, and some very close races, but no one lost an eye. Unlike the characters in the movie we liked best, we didn’t swig moonshine or wrestle each other to the ground. The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70 mm epic about a cult leader and the ravaged war veteran who falls under his spell, dominated the TFCA winner’s circle, taking four categories, including best picture, director, screenplay and supporting actor. This is the second time an Anderson film has won the TFCA’s top prize: In 1999, his Magnolia won awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and he shared the Best Screenplay prize with Being John Malkovich author Charlie Kaufman. (Anderson was also named Best Director in 2002 for Punch-Drunk Love, making this his third time winning that award.) Yes, P.T., we like you; we really like you.
The TFCA (of which I’m president) also announced today the three finalists for the newly endowed $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award: Bestiaire, directed by Denis Côté, Goon, directed by Michael Dowse, and Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley. Each of these movies defies any fixed preconceptions about the character of Canadian cinema. They’re all films of a kind we haven’t seen before. Bestiaire is a visionary documentary from Montreal that explores our relationship to the animal world. Stories We Tell, a doc from Toronto, unfolds as a procedural home movie, investigating the filmmaker’s family secrets; and Goon, shot largely in Winnipeg and set across the country, is a viciously funny comedy about hockey violence.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 7:29 PM - 0 Comments
TIFF announced Canada’s Top Ten list of features and shorts tonight at a Toronto event hosted by actress Sarah Gadon and filmmaker Don McKellar. The list of feature directors offers mostly familiar names—David Cronenberg, Sarah Polley, Deepa Mehta, Peter Mettler, Michael Dowse, Xavier Dolan and Michael McGowan—along with lesser known filmmakers such as Nisha Pahuja and Kim Nguyen. The cultural balance is unusually tipped toward English Canada, with only two Quebec directors in the mix. (Denis Arcand, Denis Villeneuve and Philippe Farardeau didn’t release movies in 2012.) Four of the 10 features are set in foreign countries. Noticeable by its absence is Picture Day, which just won the Whistler Film Festival’s $15,000 Borsos Prize for best Canadian feature.
Canada’s top 10 features, ordered alphabetically:
Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg (Entertainment One Films)
The End of Time, Peter Mettler (Mongrel Media, National Film Board)
Goon, Michael Dowse (Alliance Films)
Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan (Alliance Films)
Midnight’s Children, Deepa Mehta (Mongrel Media)
My Awkward Sexual Adventure, Sean Garrity (Phase 4 Films)
Rebelle, Kim Nguyen (Mongrel Media)
Still, Michael McGowan (Mongrel Media)
Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley (Mongrel Media, NFB)
The World Before Her, Nisha Pahuja (KinoSmith)
The top 10 shorts:
Bydlo, Patrick Bouchard (NFB)
Chef de meute (Herd Leader), Chloé Robichaud
Crackin’ Down Hard, Mike Clattenburg
Kaspar, Diane Obomsawin (NFB)
Ne crâne pas sois modeste (Keep a Modest Head), Deco Dawson
Lingo, Bahar Noorizadeh
Malody, Phillip Barker
Old Growth, Tess Girard
Reflexions, Martin Thibaudeau
Paparmane (Wintergreen), Joëlle Desjardins Paquette
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:08 PM - 0 Comments
Deconstruction is the style du jour this weekend, with the release of five wildly diverse movies that all just happen to be about the artifice of filmmaking or the mirage of celebrity. Three are of special interest to Canadians: Ben Affleck’s Argo, a Hollywood satire/suspense thriller about a fake movie that served as a CIA cover for Canada’s 1980 rescue of Americans in Iran; Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s stunning home movie memoir about the mystery of her parentage; and Antiviral, Canadian director Brandon Cronenberg’s morbid sci-fi vision of a world where fans pay to be injected with patented viruses that have infected celebrities. The other two are Seven Psychopaths, a pulp comedy about a screenwriter making a movie called, uh, Seven Psychopaths; and Nobody Walks, an erotically charged diversion co-written by Lena Dunham (Girls), about a promiscuous young artiste who cuts a carnal swath through a family while finessing her experimental film with the man of the house. I’ve already written extensively about Polley’s gripping documentary, and interviewed the director. Somewhere in our trail of coverage, I even called it a masterpiece, not a word I’m inclined to sling around. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 7:32 PM - 0 Comments
As the TIFF circus folds up its tent, here are my 10 personal favorites from the festival. It’s a subjective list. I watched more than 50 features programmed at the festival, some in Cannes last May. But with so much to see and so little time, there are still bound to be some great movies that I missed. Note that four films on the list are documentaries:
1. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide is without precedent—a portrait of mass murder by the perpetrators, proud gangsters who re-enact their crimes for the camera.
2. Stories We Tell
Boldly putting her entire family on camera, Sarah Polley unwraps the riddle of her parentage with exquisite craft. Deconstructing as she goes, she turns the home movie, real and faux, into new genre of investigative memoir.
3. The Master
Acting doesn’t get any better as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, cast as a L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader and his unstable acolyte, play truth or dare. Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 70-mm period epic decants extra-virgin snake oil of the highest order.
In a far more subtle fashion, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give an octogenarian master class in acting. Michael Haneke, best known for visions of human cruelty, gears down with a dire, delicate chamber piece about an aged couple facing their mortality in a Paris apartment. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and will likely lead the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
5. The Hunt and Beyond the Hills
I’m calling a two-way tie between these European dramas about intolerance, which (like Amour) I haven’t seen since Cannes. Directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Mads Mikkelsen gives an intense, finely calibrated performance in The Hunt, as a divorced man whose life is ruined after a young girl falsely accuses him of sexual abuse. And in Beyond the Hills, Romania’s Cristian Mungiu tells a horrific but true story of an exorcism performed on a young woman who tries to liberate a nun from a monastery.
6. Silver Linings Playbook
Football, mental illness, dance and romance mix with Altman-esque chaos in an off-kilter crowd pleaser from David O. Russell. Bradley Cooper is pitch-perfect as an ex-mental patient who goes off his meds and moves back home to an OCD dad played by De Niro. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie so deftly we don’t even realize we’re watching a romantic comedy until we’re hooked by the plot’s Hail Mary pass.
7. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tom Ungerer Story
A documentary portrait of the artist as an old man tracks him from his origins as a Nazi-scarred child in Alsace through his various American lives as magazine illustrator, best-selling children’s author, anti-war propagandist and S&M freak. Computer graphics bring his subversive art magically to life.
The documentary camera goes where it’s never gone before in this action painting that takes us into a churning, real-time whorl of fish, men, birds and water from the deck-level POV of a fishing boat at sea. This documentary views industrial slaughter with ferocious intimacy. It also batters the optic nerve with dizzying syncopations of light and dark. So it’s hard to watch, but equally hard to forget.
9. Anna Karenina
Reunited with director Joe Wright (Atonement), and his adoring gaze, a radiant Keira Knightley brings more depth to Tolstoy’s heroine than you would ever expect. An ingenious adaptation, scripted by Tom Stoppard, frames lush visuals with a trompe l’oeil theatrical setting that, has trains thundering across a proscenium stage.
Quebec writer-director Kim Nguyen spent a decade bringing this harrowing drama of African child soldiers to the screen. Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s the tale of a pregnant 14-year-old girl (Rachel Mwanza) who is forced to kill her parents and become a child soldier. Nguyen’s camera shies away from depicting atrocities, finding moments of tenderness and humour in a story of authentic horror. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 11:36 PM - 0 Comments
The juggernaut is winding down. Proof of that came as early as Tuesday when TIFF CEO Piers Handling made a Freudian slip while introducing the Inescapable gala saying, “We’re looking forward to the last two days of the festival.” Maybe he misspoke, or I misheard and he said “last few days.” Either way, there were still five days left to go. But TIFF peaks early. The studios fly in American journalists for press junkets on the opening weekend, and by Wednesday the crowds have thinned. The movies will continue to play until Sunday, but by now it’s time to take stock.
We’ve seen some strong films—and too many mediocre ones that had no business being at this festival, any festival, except to stick mid-level stars like Greg Kinnear on a red carpet. I won’t waste your time with them. But among the heavyweight American dramas, two movies, The Master and Cloud Atlas, loomed largest. And they present polar opposites of narrative bravado. Shot on the lush retro format of 70 mm film by Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master’s story of a Second World War veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls under the spell of a Scientology-like cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an epic storm of emotion. Cloud Atlas, which splices and dices David Mitchell’s novel, is a Rubiks’s Cube of interlocking stories spanning a half dozen centuries and worlds. It’s a conceptual stunt, $100-million toy that recycles a blockbuster bin of genre tropes from films that range from The Matrix, Blade Runner, Avatar and The Lord of the Rings.
Powered by a raging duel of two terrifyingly good actors, The Master is all about character; Cloud Atlas is all about plot, an intricate gizmo of plot that’s constructed as a Transformer-like special effect. But here’s the crucial difference between the artistic ambitions of the two films: The Master examines the snake oil, shakes it up and spills it all around, leaving us disturbed and confused, infected with mystery and doubt; Cloud Atlas traffics in snake oil, drilling us with the same kind of ideological mantra about freedom, enslavement, and heroic consciousness that made movies like The Matrix and Inception much dumber than they pretended to be. Paul Thomas Anderson has made a movie about a bogus religion. The directing trio behind Cloud Atlas—Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski—have made a religious movie. I’m still thinking about The Master and am keen to see it again; once was enough for Cloud Atlas.
The so-called real world, meanwhile, held its own at TIFF in what turned out to be an exceptional festival for documentaries. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 at 4:40 PM - 0 Comments
If you’re looking for evidence that Canada’s media culture is a kinder, gentler place than its American and British counterparts, look no further than the case of Sarah Polley. Today the 33-year-old Toronto filmmaker and actress finally went public with a family secret that has been known to certain members of the film community and the media for well over a year—that actor Michael Polley, the man she’s called Dad all her life, is not her biological father, and that her mother, who died when she was 11, conceived her during an extra-marital affair. Sarah revealed the secret in a blog post on the National Film Board’s website, as she braced herself for the Venice and TIFF premieres of Stories We Tell, an astonishing documentary in which she unravels her family history. I’m one of several journalists who became privy to the secret ages ago but, at Polley’s adamant request, refrained from going public. I had tried to talk her into giving me the story. But I respected her wishes, partly because her privacy seemed more important the public’s need to know. But also because to do otherwise would seem like dubious journalism: sure, I could have cobbled a piece together from sources, but without Polley’s confirmation, and the details she could provide, breaking her secret seemed at best shoddy and at worst unethical.
Now that I’ve seen her documentary, which premieres in Venice next Wednesday, I’m glad I didn’t spill the beans. It’s a brilliant film: an enthralling, exquisitely layered masterpiece of memoir that unravels an extraordinary world of family secrets through a maze of interviews, home movies, and faux home movies cast with actors. And now I find I’m reluctant to reveal details that Polley has put on film—not to preserve her privacy, but so as not to spoil the story she has told with such consummate skill and sensitivity onscreen.
If you want to know more — spoiler alert! — here are some excerpts from Polley’s NFB blog post:
“In 2007 I was on set in Montreal, shooting a scene for the film Mr. Nobody. I received a phone call from a friend warning me that a journalist had found out a piece of information about my life that I had kept a secret for a year. I got in touch with the journalist and begged him not to print the story. It was a story that I had kept secret from many people in my life including my father. It took some time and many tears to convince the journalist not to print the story within the week, but I left that conversation convinced that it was not a secret I could keep for long, and that if I wanted the people in my life and outside my life to know the story in my own words, I would have to take action.
“I flew to Toronto that night to tell my father the news. He was not my biological father. This had been confirmed by a DNA test with a man I had met a year earlier. I had met my biological father almost by accident, though I had long suspected based on family jokes and rumours that my mother may have had an affair that led to my conception.
“My father’s response to this staggering piece of news was extraordinary. He has always been a man who responds to things in unusual ways, for better or for worse. He was shocked, but not angry. His chief concern, almost immediately, was that my siblings and I not put any blame on my mother for her straying outside of their marriage. He was candid about his own lack of responsiveness towards her and how that may have led her to the point where she sought out the affection of another person. And then he began to write. And write and write and write.
“He wrote the story of their marriage, her affair (which he put together from other people’s memories), and his relationship with me. He wrote about our need to tell stories.
“My biological father, at my behest, had also begun writing the story of his relationship with my mother. He is a fine storyteller too and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Each of us had a deep and growing need to tell the story, different parts of it, in different ways, with emphasis on different details, in a way that reflected our own experience and what was most important to us as we are now.
“My siblings began telling the story to their friends. Journalists who heard the story from various sources began calling me and asking me to be interviewed about this discovery. Everyone who heard the story seemed to want to own it. . . “
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, August 29, 2012 at 10:25 AM - 0 Comments
Canadian film maker gets close to home with new film, Stories We Tell
Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley has revealed that her biological father is not the man who raised her.
Polley’s family situation is the subject of her new film, Stories We Tell, which screens today in Venice.
She has chosen not to do interviews about the film until it has completed the festival circuit, opting instead to describe her motives in the blog post.