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Notes on TIFF 2018: Flying to Toronto With Robert Bresson

TIFF 2018 was my first major film festival. My recent readings from the French master Robert Bresson fundamentally altered how I perceived the films I saw.

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I’m a little ashamed to admit that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was my first international trip (excepting a Canadian camping trip that never ventured into civilization). More momentous (to me) was the fact that it was my first major film festival. I’ve dabbled a bit in a few smaller festivals since moving to Los Angeles in 2016, but nothing with the massive scale of Toronto. It’s a kind of religious festival devoted to cinema, the only god I truly worship.

I’ve always been an unrealistic packer; I bring enough books for a two-month trip no matter how long I’ll be gone, and usually enough clothing to last a couple days fewer than I need. This trip was no exception. I finished approximately 1.5 of the 10 books I brought with me to Toronto — it turns out, when you’re watching three or four or even five movies a day, there’s not a lot of free time for reading. But on my flight across North America, I made it through one deceptively slim volume, Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematography.

The title requires a bit of an explanation: for Bresson, there are two kinds of movies. He refers to the first, most common variety, as “CINEMA.” This category encompasses most of the films you or I have ever seen. Regardless of their quality, they are populated by professional actors, people who have trained and honed their craft for years. To Bresson, this form of moviemaking was hopelessly old-fashioned and built on the clichés of theatre acting. Bresson wasn’t critical of the theatre, but he believed that any form of movie-making had to be a completely separate art, and the acting of most films resulted in a bastardized form of filmed theatre.

His alternative, what he called “cinematography” (not to be confused with the more traditional definition of cinematography), is a form of film in which non-actors exclusively are used. It’s meant to be a new art form, one that decisively breaks from the traditions of theatre. Bresson refers to them as model, not in a derogatory sense, but meaning that they inspire a director the same way a model might inspire a painter. His models would bring their real-life experiences to play on the film and would be free of the acting ticks that audiences have become accustomed to. No model would ever appear in more than one of his films, lest they risk becoming an actor (though a few models would go on to star in other movies). Bresson’s view of the role of acting is diametrically opposed to the way critics and filmmakers generally think of it. The greatest actors are those with experience, education, and technique under their belt. Amateurs are occasionally compelling, but they tend to be viewed as the weakest part of the films they act in.

Bresson’s text is assembled from his notes on film over the years, and most entries are only a few sentences long. They take the form of random thoughts, though most are brutally focused on film and his opinions of the art form. I’ve only seen one Bresson film, the heartbreakingly beautiful Au Hasard Balthazar, but the depth of his thoughts made me want to find all his films. Even when I vehemently disagreed with his invectives against other film styles, I was still seduced by his passion.

My first few days at TIFF were influenced (maybe even poisoned) by Bresson’s strident statements. The first movie I saw, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, seemed dreadfully fake and stagey, even compared to other Leigh films I had enjoyed. There was never a second in which I forgot his characters were all actors. During the molasses-slow first half, the acting was even more exaggerated, as if Leigh was trying to make up for writing overly talky scenes filled with characters we don’t care about. These were far from the models that Bresson preferred, with their real-life experiences.

Jafar Panahi's 3 Faces

Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces

Bresson may have also increased my appreciation of the next two films I saw, Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces and Christian Petzold’s Transit. In Panahi’s film, he and a popular Iranian actress take a trip to find a young woman who reached out for help but may have killed herself out of hopelessness. The leads are all actors or experienced filmmakers, but the story is so tethered to their real lives that they lack the standard acting tropes. The rest of the cast is made up of non-professionals, and they bring a wonderful freshness to the story. Petzold’s film is far different, comprised solely of experienced actors, yet he favors a directness and a lack of actorly histrionics that makes it seem as if these are non-actors, despite being aware of every previous film I had seen them in. He also eschews non-diagetic music; aside from a pleasingly on-the-nose song over the end credits, every bit of sound or music in the film is created by what we see on screen.

Though my Bresson fever came on strong, it broke as the festival progressed. The sublime acting in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, is so moving that only the coldest of viewers could complain about Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan not having lived the story. Conversely, the over-the-top nature of Veena Sud’s The Lie had an IMAX theater’s worth of viewers chuckling; surely not all of them are up to date on Bresson’s views. His most polemical writing may not sway many readers and cinephiles, but even those who have never encountered his work nonetheless absorb bits of his philosophy floating around in the ether.

Now it’s back to home, and a respite from the constant onslaught of film. I’m someone who prefers to savor films, to chew them slowly and methodically, to let the flavors slowly coalesce or separate. One a day is usually enough for me, although a double feature can be an exhilarating adventure. This preference is out of sync with festival schedules, for which three films a day is on the light side. But there’s something pleasing about being bathed in cinema for a week. Many of these films won’t be released widely; some will never even receive North American distribution, instead confined to a zombified existence in repertory theaters. TIFF, and other important festivals, offer us a way to catch these films before they’re gone. Don’t miss the opportunity.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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