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After six and a half days at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival, I'd had enough. In other years I'd stayed for the entire ten days, but heading back to Chicago after 33 movies, I felt I'd seen almost all the entries that were my priorities, confirming my sense that the 2008 festival, though good, lacked the "wow" factor of last year. A sign of a great festival is that you leave wanting more.
I first started going to Toronto a dozen years ago, and this visit didn't stack up to a number of previous trips. That's not a knock on TIFF's programmers: they pick movies only from what's available and ready by Toronto's deadline (and not claimed by another festival insisting on exclusivity). If it's a so-so year at Cannes, you can't expect Toronto to pull rabbits out of a hat four months later. The key to maximizing your TIFF experience is choosing films in advance, making a schedule, and sticking to it. The 249 features on offer unspooled in venues scattered across the city, which requires, in the space of concentrated 12- to 15-hour working days, factoring in enough travel time so as not to get shut out of full houses. Miss one screening, and you may not find another that doesn't cause a conflict elsewhere down the line. For most journalists, that leaves little room for selections based on personal preference. Yet, thanks to the city's efficient, frequent, and easily navigable subway, I still saw much to admire.
My favorite film, Danny Boyle's exhilarating Slumdog Millionaire, arrived at Toronto with American distribution already in place, and the first press and industry screening was packed almost to capacity, a sign of robust word-of-mouth. From the director of Millions, 28 Days Later, and Trainspotting, this is a crowd-pleaser of Dickensian sweep: its hero, an uneducated, lower-class Mumbai chai wallah (or tea server, played as an adult by Dev Patel), keeps winning on the Indian version of TV's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because his memories of adversity (related in flashbacks) inspire him to answer the host's questions correctly. With a large cast of characters and a bounty of themes—poverty, sibling rivalry, religious intolerance, child exploitation, star-crossed romance, globalism—Slumdog Milliionaire is a sprawling, ambitious epic, and a testament to the power of faith, hope, and tenacity. Plus, the end credits roll over a Bollywood musical number. Ticket buyers voted it the People's Choice Award winner.
Kim Jee-woon's South Korean box office hit The Good, the Bad, the Weird was one of two westerns I saw, and its tongue-in-cheek homage to spaghetti westerns got the drop on Ed Harris's muted Appaloosa. Kim brings together three top Korean stars—Song Kang-ho as a bumbling train robber, Lee Byun-hung as a stylish assassin, and Jung Woo-sung as a laconic bounty hunter—in a rousing adventure set in 1930s Manchuria, where the occupying Japanese army joins the chase for a stolen treasure map. Of all the movies I saw in Toronto, this was the most fun.
My three other top festival picks are considerably more serious. The somber Austrian thriller Revanche by Gotz Spielmann begins in a Viennese brothel, where an errand boy (Johannes Krisch) is secretly involved with one of the immigrant hookers (Irina Potapenko). To raise money to escape their situation, he robs a bank, but the job goes awry when a policeman (Andreas Lust) notices the illegally parked getaway car. The thief's scheme for revenge against the cop transforms several relationships in surprising ways during the course of a story about redemption and healing.
Hunger, the directing debut of British artist Steve McQueen, is a controversial, searing drama based on the life of IRA member Bobby Sands, who in 1981 led a hunger strike among fellow Irish convicts to protest Britain's refusal to recognize them as political prisoners. McQueen and cowriter Enda Walsh masterfully shift the point of view from one inmate to another as the prisoners are humiliated and ritually brutalized. One extended scene, a heartbreaking conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham), encapsulates the tragic history of "the troubles." Not for the faint of heart, Hunger is a period piece that's also topical in condemning torture. All the performances are rock solid, but Fassbender, who lost a shocking amount of weight during production, is the standout. Hunger won the Diesel Discovery Award, given by the festival press corps.
From Israel comes Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman's devastating, surrealistic blend of animation and documentary based on his traumatic tour of duty in the Israel Defense Forces during the first war in Lebanon. In cartoon form, Folman and several of his real-life fellow soldiers confer 20 years later to try to unearth buried memories. The movie brings to mind both Richard Linklater's Waking Life, another series of introspective conversations, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, another wartime memoir, though these comparisons are inadequate. Waltz With Bashir is a groundbreaking film that raises the bar for animation, tracing the complex political factors that led to the horrific massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Unsettling, graphic, and adult, it's not appropriate for younger viewers—unless, perhaps, you want to teach them to abhor war. Were it only that simple.