Children kidnapped or abused. Children orphaned, both in live action and animation. Children neglected and estranged and brainwashed against parents. Children imprisoned in a sauna, a cellar, even a ducal palace.
For some reason, the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival seemed to be about the parlous state of young folks on every continent and in every culture. Of the 29 movies I saw during my six-day stay this month, almost half featured a child or young adult in emotional or physical jeopardy.
Maybe a constant sense of international unrest has made filmmakers worry more about kids. Global warming and religious warfare hang over the heads of writers and directors now, the way the threat of nuclear warfare did in the 1950s. But instead of making metaphoric movies about Martians and mutants, they're envisioning worlds where the coming generation will know no peace.
My 10th Toronto fest left me wishing more big fall releases had been included: “Doubt,” “The Road,” “Milk,” “The Changeling,” “Frost/Nixon” and many others were missing. Though I enjoyed myself more often than not – and truly disappointing films were fewer in number this year – I didn't see any obvious Oscar contenders, and I touched greatness only once. Here's a capsule report, listed in order of preference. Most don't have release dates yet (or even distributors), but I stuck those in if I knew them:
“Tears For Sale” – A surreal, funny, sad, small-scale classic about a Serbian village in the 1930s, where war and blood feuds have wiped out all the men. Two sisters set forth to find guys who can repopulate the village and reawaken the hearts and loins of the lonely.
“Goodbye, Solo” – Winston-Salem's Ramin Bahrani shot this in his hometown, hiring a gregarious Senegalese immigrant (Souleymane Sy Savane) as the taxi driver paid to drive an old man (Elvis Presley crony Red West) to Blowing Rock, where he plans to jump off.
“JCVD” – Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a washed-up action hero who is losing custody of a daughter, has a dwindling bank account and is taken hostage in a post office, where robbers make the cops believe he's one of them. His “Being John Malkovich”-like turn is terrific.
“Dean Spanley” – Sam Neill is an Anglican cleric who claims he was a dog in a previous life, Jeremy Northam is a Britisher curious about reincarnation, and Peter O'Toole is the embittered old man who's a link to both. Comically odd at first, then surprisingly touching.
“Still Walking” – This quiet drama from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-Eda (“After Life”) follows a day in the life of the Yokoyama family, whose bickering parents and unsettled children are still affected by the death of the prized eldest son a decade before.
“The Wrestler” – Mickey Rourke makes a fine comeback as a washed-up grappler with a bad heart, who reaches out to an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper he's fond of (Marisa Tomei) before a last big-money match. Darren Aronofsky directed.
“Genova” – A professor (Colin Firth) and two daughters, bereaved by the death of wife and mother, move to Italy for a year to restore normality to their lives. No revelations, but reliable director Michael Winterbottom shows us how they reach a deeper understanding.
“Nothing But the Truth” – Writer-director Rod Lurie stirs up heat with this manipulative, skillful suspense tale, in which a Washington reporter (Kate Beckinsale) goes to jail rather than reveal the source of a controversial story exposing a CIA agent (Vera Farmiga).
“Fear Me Not” – Gloomier than usual Danish fare. A depressed father (the always intense Ulrich Thomsen) takes part in a drug trial and insists his new pills “liberate” him. He becomes the cruel family autocrat he's secretly wanted to be, with creepy results.
“The Duchess” – This glossy historical epic offers Keira Knightley as the high-spirited, intelligent young woman and Ralph Fiennes as the dull, unemotional 18th-century peer who marries her to get a male heir. Exactly what you'd expect, but handsomely done. (Oct. 3)
“Is There Anybody There?” – Impeccable Michael Caine plays an angry magician consigned to a private home for old-age pensioners; Bill Milner (“Son of Rambow”) is the sad son of the owners who bonds with him. Don't fret: The cuteness won't overwhelm you.
“Sauna” – Bizarre Finnish horror movie about brothers, a warrior and a scholar in the 1500s, assigned to draw a border between Finland and Russia in company with Russian soldiers. The somber visual elements and spiritual darkness go together, if confusingly.
“Synecdoche, New York” – Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) makes his directing debut with this odd, long but imaginative look at a community theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) staging a multi-year autobiography. (Oct. 31)
“Who Do You Love” – A biography of white Chicago promoter Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola), who got the world listening to black bluesmen Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. The music, mostly re-created by Keb' Mo', overshadows the bland central character.
“Rachel Getting Married” – Undisciplined, self-indulgent director Jonathan Demme lets scenes run on to the point of distraction, but there's a raw emotional reality in this story of a self-destructive addict (Anne Hathaway) trying to behave before a sister's nuptials.
“The Burning Plain” – Guillermo Arriaga wrote nonlinear scripts for Alejandro González Iñárritu. His heavy-handed directing debut, also a corkscrew of a tale, is about a woman (Charlize Theron) whose life goes astray after her mother burns to death with a lover.
“The Other Man” – A waste of Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Antonio Banderas as a cuckolded husband, a straying wife and the Latino lover on whom the man seeks revenge. There's one clever plot twist late in the game, but the story's improbable from end to end.
“Blindness” – A virus turns almost everyone in an unidentified city blind; they're quarantined and soon behave like beasts. Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) is defeated by a maudlin script and dull acting by Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. (Oct. 3)
“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” – A long-buried Tennessee Williams script crawls out of the grave, where it belonged. A rebellious Southern belle (Bryce Dallas Howard) wants to marry one of her rich, evil daddy's poor, hunky employees (Chris Evans). Oh Lord, no.