As in years past, the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in 2010 became the testing grounds for many of the fall and winter seasons’ top films, as well as quite a few Oscar hopefuls. More than any other year, there was an incredible amount of crossover at both festivals, and films that debuted strongly at Telluride gained even more momentum in Toronto. Some other films weren’t as lucky, landing with a thud for both critics and audiences alike.
At both festivals, three films came, were seen, and conquered: 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, and Black Swan.
Director Danny Boyle, who world-premiered his Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire at Telluride two years ago, had just finished shooting 127 Hours a few months ago, but rushed it through post-production in order to follow his successful Slumdog path. The film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, the American mountain climber who amputated his own arm to free himself after being trapped by a boulder in Utah for nearly five days in May 2003. The film is a 90-minute tour de force for its leading actor, James Franco, and Boyle’s kinetic, no-holds-barred approach makes it one of the most exhilarating and uplifting films in a while. Historically, directors have a hard time with the follow-up to an Oscar-winning film, but Boyle is an exception.
The biggest crowd-pleaser and critical darling was Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which stars the magnificent Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in performances that will get plenty of accolades. Firth plays King George VI, who had a speech impediment, but—once his brother abdicated the throne—was forced to regain his voice with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist played by Rush. The biggest surprise of the film is the nuanced performance by Helena Bonham Carter as the queen. The film’s a return to form for the Weinstein Company after the stumbles of the past few years. Expect The King’s Speech to be nominated for many Academy Awards.
My personal favorite was Black Swan, which is Darren Aronofsky’s triumphant follow-up to The Wrestler—actually, you might say they’re companion pieces. The film is about a young dancer (Natalie Portman) who is cast in a production of Swan Lake where she has to play both the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan. Black Swan is a psychological thriller, dealing with the demands that performers put on themselves to accomplish their art. It has been described as a cross between The Turning Point and Rosemary’s Baby. I found it daring, disturbing, and a work of beauty. It will definitely be the love-it-or-hate-it film of the year. But one thing is for certain: Portman goes for broke and gives one of the best performances of the year.
Another love-it-or-hate-it film was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, starring one of our greatest actors, Javier Bardem. The film is an elegiac look at a man coming to terms with death in a complex contemporary world. Some audiences found the film depressing; I found it beautiful and transporting. And Bardem tops himself with every performance. He may not get the recognition he deserves for his work in this film (although he already won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival), but his is the best acting of the year.
Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy Go Lucky) returned to both festivals with one of his most accomplished works, Another Year, a drama set in contemporary London about a group of friends and family. As in past Leigh films, the script was developed through improvisation, and the ensemble’s work is the key; both Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent excel.
One of the nicest surprises in Toronto was the return to form of Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, which is directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole is about a family dealing with the sudden death of their son. The film was purchased at Toronto by Lionsgate, and they will aggressively mount an Academy Awards campaign for this year. Don’t be surprised if you hear several names from this film nominated for the Oscars. Welcome back, Ms. Kidman.
Established directors came and found lesser success in Toronto, including Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, who received lukewarm receptions with their latest works, Hereafter and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, respectively.
The most talked about film at Toronto was the one that didn’t show there, save for a sneak screening for a fortunate few: David Fincher’s The Social Network, a lacerating look at the founders of Facebook. By far one of the strongest films yet in 2010, it is Fincher’s most complex and fascinating work, and Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing) screenplay is, without a doubt, the best of the year.
On a personal and professional note, it was rewarding to meet past Santa Barbara International Film Festival honorees Colin Firth and Javier Bardem at separate private events in Toronto. Both actors reminisced warmly with me about their experiences in our American Riviera. I was deeply humbled.