The first week and a half of the Toronto International Film Festival showcased a lot of challenging, forward-looking films – but on the penultimate night, the traditional spot for TIFF's closing film, the festival went with something very old-fashioned.
"Song for Marion" is the kind of movie the Brits have been making for years, a determinedly heartwarming tale of an unlikely person meeting a challenge – it's a little bit "Calendar Girls," some "Billy Elliot," a touch of dozens of others that will come to mind as Paul Andrew Williams lays out his story of a group of senior citizens who form an unlikely singing group.
With the spunky oldsters showing how young at heart they are, the lifelong cranky guy who needs a reason to change, the impossible task that turns out not to be impossible after all, this is not a movie that traffics in unpredictability; 20 minutes in, you can probably chart out all the coming plot points and tear-jerking moments.
If some of those moments work – and for most viewers, some of them will – it's largely because of the people Williams gets to tell his story. As a terminally ill cancer patient who finds joy in singing with a local seniors' choir, Vanessa Redgrave is as affecting and authoritative as ever; it's hardly a role to place alongside her riveting turn in "Coriolanus" last year, but she's not an actress who knows how to hit false notes.
And as her husband, who has to learn that anger and isolation isn't the way to cope with loss, Terence Stamp makes the most of a meaty role, and steers clear of a fair number of the pitfalls inherent in material this familiar.
Straightforward and schmaltzy enough to be an uncharacteristic entry at this year's TIFF, "Song for Marion" nonetheless ended things on a crowd-pleasing note. Over the end credits of the film, Celine Dion sings a new Diane Warren song, "Unfinished Songs" – and when the credits ended after Saturday night's screening, the Toronto-based ChoirChoirChoir took to the stage of Roy Thomson Hall to keep the music going.
Meanwhile, the festival's press office issued a press release to say that the buyers and sellers in Toronto were pleased, too. Nearly 40 films, it said, have been sold in various territories, including "29 major sales to U.S. distributors."
Films that sold include "The Place Beyond the Pines" (Focus, right), "Spring Breakers" (Annapurna), Liz Garbus' "Love, Marilyn" (HBO), Byzantium" (IFC), "Stories We Tell" and "Emperor" (Roadside Attractions), "Much Ado About Nothing" (Lionsgate) and "Thanks for Sharing" and "Imogene" (Roadside and Lionsgate).
The festival also said it credentialed 4,280 industry delegates this year, representing 81 countries and 2,563 companies.
The figures represent an increase over last year's totals, when the comparable TIFF press release said that 31 films had sold and nearly 4,000 industry delegates had attended the festival. Sales last year included Steve McQueen's "Shame," William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" and Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss," but few of the titles had much impact in the U.S. market.
But is the market too big – or, more to the point, does Toronto simply play too many movies? Eric Kohn suggests as much at indieWIRE. "Even the most enterprising festival audiences can't possibly consume every highlight from each program, which makes it virtually impossible for a single person to deduce the overall quality of the lineup," he writes. "To a certain degree, TIFF is like the proverbial tree falling in an abandoned forest: An argument could be made that there's no such thing as one festival because nobody has the capacity to perceive it."
I'd suggest that he'd be better off with the proverbial blind-men-and-the-elephant metaphor: Each person sees the section of TIFF that they were able to touch, which means we all get small glimpses and nobody has the big picture.
Kohn's glimpses include a couple of notable documentaries ("Stories We Tell," right, and "The Act of Killing"), some Oscar contenders ("Argo," "The Master," "Silver Linings Playbook"), art movies "The Place Beyond the Pines," "To the Wonder") and weird stuff ("Spring Breakers," "Seven Psychopaths").
In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis also takes a look back at the daunting scope of Toronto – a place, she writes, "where towering achievement meets buckets of blood, where the cinematic highbrow jostles alongside the middle and lower realms for 11 crammed, ecstatic, enervating days and nights."
Her version of the "indispensable and overwhelming" TIFF includes a few of the high-profile movies like "The Master" (which she likes) and "Cloud Atlas" (which she doesn't), and also a bunch of more experimental offerings: "Departure" ("a witty, partly abstracted journey across a New York landscape from the vantage point of an elevated train"), the meditative "View from the Acropolis," the North Korean fantasia "Comrade Kim Goes Flying," which she dubs "both a kitsch hallucination and a disturbing freakout."
When it comes to TIFF summaries, the criticWIRE review section at indieWIRE goes deep: As of Saturday night, it had reviewed 95 of the near-300 films in Toronto. There's too much to go into, but here are the highlights:
The top grade, A, goes to these films: "Fill the Void," "Leviathan," "Lunarchy!," "No," "Paradise: Love," "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology," "Room 237," "The Secret Disco Revolution" and "Stories We Tell."
Grades of A- go to "7 Boxes," "The Act of Killing," "Amour," "The Capsule," "Frances Ha," "The Gatekeepers," "Ginger and Rosa," "Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp," "Museum Hours," "Pieta," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Reality," "Seven Psychopaths," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Tabu" and "War Witch."
One final day of screenings on Sunday will conclude with a free 6 p.m. screening of whichever film wins the festival's People's Choice Award.