The Toronto International Film Festival is an incredible bombardment of movies from every conceivable nook of the world, and while some of the festival's 300 selections will go on to Oscar glory, many of them will never see theatrical distribution beyond their home countries. TIFF often proves to be the only chance to catch films of the latter type on the big screen, and because distributors have a nasty habit of picking titles based on their commercial value and not their quality, these films tend to be some of the vast line-up's true gems.
So I've culled through the TIFF 2010 roster and - based on the descriptions provided and whatever else I might happen to know about these movies - I've selected 10 especially enticing films that I almost guarantee will never play in an American movie theater. Because you'll be able to see Black Swan anytime you like come December, but that Radiohead-obsessed Japanese flick about a teacher who seeks vengeance on her students by infecting them with HIV is probably not coming to a theater near you.
1. Confessions (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
"A stylized mixture of cruelty and compassion, the film spins the dark tale of vengeance of a teacher whose little daughter has been killed by two of her students in seventh grade."
The only film on this list that I've had the opportunity to see, I'm as convinced of Confessions' greatness as I am that it's too bold and inflammatory to ever receive a stateside theatrical run (despite being a commercial hit in its native Japan and displacing Alice in Wonderland from the top of the box office). With Confessions Tetsuya Nakashima (Memories of Matsuko) becomes one of Japan's most important and dangerous filmmakers, displaying his formalist gifts by spinning a gleefully twisted tale of calculated revenge and adolescent isolation. A whodunnit that opens with the detective (in this case a schoolteacher) solving the murder and dives headlong into the post-mortem, Confessions rhythmically subverts the media of our day in a fashion as dark and delirious as anything you've ever seen - it's like early Fincher set to a waltz. The opening sequence (in which a teacher explains to her texting students that she knows her daughter's two murderers are among those in the classroom, and that she's introduced HIV-infected blood into the killers' milk cartons) is worth the price of admission alone, and is so arresting that some distributors just might not be able to say no. This is one of the very best films of the year, and if that first scene seems to violate the virus' properties, well... you'll see. I hope.
2. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (dir. Andrei Ujica)
"Culled from one thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this spellbinding montage epic unfolds as if from the nostalgic, solipsistic memory of former Romanian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu, after his reign was brought to an abrupt and tumultuous end in December 1989."
Also playing at the New York Film Festival, Andrei Ujica's film is a 3-hour collage of newsreel footage about a foreign tyrant, a prospect ostensibly made all the less accessible by its complete lack of voice-over narration. Ujica has been toiling away on this thing for upwards of four years now, and it supposedly plays like a fever-dream of assembled memories that spilled piecemeal directly from the Romanian ruler's dreams. Autobiography sounds like a rich and spellbinding theatrical experience, but an esoteric approach and a startling lack of Taylor Lautner make this something of a financial gamble. I could definitely imagine Film Forum picking this up for a brief run, but it seems like a film likely to suffer the same fate as Wang Bing's equally long Ghost Town, a documentary which played to raves at last year's NYFF and is still awaiting American theatrical or even DVD distribution of any kind.
3. Cold Fish (dir. Sion Sono)
"Equal parts black humour and bloody dementia in this true crime portrait of a Japanese tropical fish dealer responsible for over forty murders."
Sion Sono's (Ringu, Suicide Club) last film was his crazed 4-hour Love Exposure, a hilarious, sexy, and eccentric video masterwork that never had a prayer of being projected in an American multiplex (it's about - ostensibly - a secret cult of "upskirt" photographers, and you must watch the trailer right now). Described as a Japanese Sweeney Todd, Cold Fish clocks in at a mere 144 minutes but judging from the trailer seems to be every bit as whacked out and vital as Sono's greatest films. Reviews are hard to come by, but this promises to be one of the festival's four or five best films about a serial-killing fish merchant.
4. Erotic Man (dir. Jørgen Leth)
"Danish master Jørgen Leth travels the globe in this sensual, provocative and sometimes autobiographical essay film about a man searching ... searching the world for the nature of the erotic."
Festival-goers might be familiar with Jørgen Leth from his wonderful and head-rattling collaboration with Lars von Trier, The Five Obstructions. Leth - as that movie illustrates - is very much a significant filmmaker in his own right, but his work tends to be less accessible than that of his prickly friend and, as a result, his name doesn't ensure the worldwide distribution that even the minor entries of the von Trier canon receive (with von Trier, canon and cannon apply equally). And now Leth's made a feature-length essay film about sex. Sex and human failure - a combo that tends to hit too close to home for most American viewers to embrace. The premise seems remarkably similar to that of The Five Obstructions, with Leth re-staging the same scene in far-flung locations, and interrupting the sequences with documentary footage of him expressing his doubts to the camera. Leth has long been intrigued by the veracity of filmic representation, addressing the subject in a way both more humble and human than classics of the genre like Orson Welles' F For Fake. This one is guaranteed to work your noggin - that 9:45 A.M. screening is recommended because you're not going to want this to be your 4th film of the day.
5. Hair (dir. Tayfun Perselimoglu)
"An ailing Istanbul wig-maker becomes obsessed with a woman who enters his shop one day."
The description hides echoes to Patrice Leconte's masterful The Hairdresser's Husband, but the description makes Tayfun Perselimoglu's film seem a bit less of a fairytale and more of a nightmare. By "ailing" the guide actually means "rapidly and resignedly dying of cancer," and by "obsessed" it means "the wig-maker endlessly fetishizes a braid of her hair." Perselimoglu's films resemble the laconic flow of his homeland's most famous working filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and so I bet Hair is as opaque and contemplated as any of the film's selections. But populated with the likes of cell-phone addicted undertakers and smothered under a thick layer of melancholy, Hair enticingly sounds more like a Haruki Murakami novel than an Antonioni mood-piece. In a related story, I am hereby changing my name to "Tayfun."
6. L.A. Zombie (dir. Bruce LaBruce)
"Corpse-eating meets poverty politics in this pornographic art film set on the streets of Los Angeles, where an alien zombie brings dead men back to life."
With a tagline like "He came to f**k the dead back to life," I'm gonna go out on a limb and bet that Bruce LaBruce's 63-minute hardcore gay porn film is you're only chance to see some zombie penis at TIFF 2010 (I'm Still Here offers plenty of the next best thing). The TIFF guide is quick to caution that the sex in L.A. Zombie cleaves to traditionally pornographic representations, but it also likens LaBruce's film to the work of Jacques Rivette, so I'd wager that this has a lot more on its half-chewed brain than most skin flicks. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's guaranteed to provide a short jolt of something different for those burnt out by the notorious TIFF grind, and adventurous movie-goers could be rewarded with an important new piece of queer digital art. Peep the vaguely NSFW but YouTube-approved trailer here and agree that odds are
7. Mothers (dir. Milcho Manchevski)
"A child's friend is accosted by a flasher so she decides to go to the police herself; a film crew sets out to find the old traditions and discovers a grandmother living alone in an abandoned village; retired cleaning women are found raped and strangled in a small town."
Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain remains one of the most woefully under-seen gems of the 1990s despite a foreign language Oscar nod and a Criterion DVD release, and the Macedonian filmmaker's name does just about nothing to help his films achieve global distribution. He doesn't make a feature all that often, and Mothers' return to the fragmented structure of Before the Rain bodes well for his first film in three years. Replace "rape" and "strangulation" with "vampire" and "vampire" and Mothers might have a shot, but this provocative and supposedly difficult film seems devoid of the patriotic uplift with which Before the Rain tickled Oscar voters, and isn't likely to receive the same loving home video treatment that Criterion granted Manchevski's debut. But Manchevski is a name that should be on the radar of any film geek, and TIFF is as good a place as any to get acquainted.
8. Our Day Will Come (dir. Romain Gavras)
"Two outcast redheads - a bullied teen (Olivier Barthélémy) and a psychologist (Vincent Cassel) - embark on a hallucinatory journey to Ireland, in a quest for freedom."
Thanks to M.I.A. Vincent Cassel, and an esoteric bit of nepotmism, this one might just find its way to your city if it's any good. The debut feature from which that kid-exploding M.I.A. video was distilled, Romain Gavras' (son of Costa-Gavras) film is here to prove that while humans are the most dangerous game, redheads are, um, the most dangerous game of the most dangerous game. The trailer (which someone sneaked some covert nipples past that guy whose job it is to watch every YouTube video on a tireless quest for nipples) is even more gorgeously stylized than the music video, and promises to frame illicit fantasy in a (potentially facile) tribalist context. Gavras appears to have imbued his ramshackle locations with a striking and transporting quality, and Our Day Will Come should be quite immersive if nothing else, and it's hard not to have faith in the offspring of the man behind Z and Missing. Kind of. If you can't catch Confessions but don't feel right leaving Toronto without seeing some children explode, this is probably a good choice. Also a good choice: psychiatric counseling.
9. The Place in Between(dir. Sarah Bouyain)
"A biracial woman travels from France to Burkina Faso in search of her mother. In France, a white woman seeks to learn an African language for reasons unknown."
If Claire Denis' White Material is still stuck in distribution limbo, Sarah Bouyain's debut doesn't have a chance. Not that the two films have all that much in common beyond a loosely shared geography, but I feel there's some underlying truth to that thought. Running at a scant 82 minutes, The Place in Between has been branded as a quiet and gentle story of origins and dislocation, and the rhythms and milieu in which it unfolds will likely prove a refreshing change of pace from the more abrasive stories that dominate the festival roster. If Confessions spits you out dumbstruck onto the streets of Toronto and this bit of balm is playing nearby, dive in.
10. Score: A Hockey Musical (dir. Michael McGowan)
"A seventeen-year-old hockey player becomes an instant star when he is signed by a junior league team. He soon discovers that stardom comes with a price – including the expectation to fight on the ice."
TIFF 2010's opening night film is pretty much the most Canadian thing in the world this side of... no, nothing has ever been this Canadian. Score: A Hockey Musical is - get this - a musical about hockey, a game some astute scholars refer to as "Objectively the most glorious and graceful sport ever conceived." Less likely to secure American distribution than L.A. Zombie, this zany musical comedy finally brings singing and Sidney Crosby jokes together, where they belong. I'm kind of powerless to resist this (I mean, if Little Fockers had a hockey subplot I'd be in line already), but for those of you who don't hold Mark Messier in equal esteem with Orson Welles, this might still prove a delightful way to gear up for the TIFF grind. The festival is such an extreme mosaic of international films that it quickly loses any distinct character, but Score might pack enough home flavor to last the entire fortnight. Besides, if you go to Canada and don't participate in something hockey related, you're doing it wrong. Have fun, everyone.