Toronto Diary: The Hard Sell, 'Descendants,' And A Fierce Mexican 'Miss' : Monkey See Buyers aren't buying (much), there's no universally acclaimed Oscar bait yet, and Lars von Trier is up to more media-baiting tricks. But never mind: There are a few genuinely thrilling films to talk about.
NPR logo Toronto Diary: The Hard Sell, 'Descendants,' And A Fierce Mexican 'Miss'

Toronto Diary: The Hard Sell, 'Descendants,' And A Fierce Mexican 'Miss'

Bride flight: It's the end of the world as we know it in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst (above), Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard and Kiefer Sutherland. TIFF hide caption

toggle caption

Bride flight: It's the end of the world as we know it in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst (above), Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard and Kiefer Sutherland.


Tension is mounting at the festival happy hours here in Toronto, and not just because whippersnappers are angering cranky columnists with their fancy drink orders.

Studio executives, theoretically on hand to acquire unreleased films for distribution, have been extremely cautious about opening their pocketbooks at this year's festival (one of the rare ways in which they resemble regular people), and even well-received films have struggled to find backing.

At least one exec found a way to blame Washington for this, but it could also have to do with the fact that obvious Oscar-bait has been scarce. By this time in 2010, The King's Speech had already been anointed as the Best Picture heir apparent.

The closest thing to an Oscar front-runner that has emerged this year is Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Payne is a director whose past films have usually featured uptight protagonists who finally get the chance to behave badly — think of the midlife-crisis victims on a debauched holiday in Sideways, or the high-school-teacher sabotaging students in Election. The Descendants is about what happens when characters are denied that release: Matt (George Clooney) would love to tear into his wife after discovering that she's been having an affair, but the problem is that he only finds out after she's had a boating accident and fallen into a permanent coma.

Instead of erupting, he's forced to reconnect with his distant children — including a daughter (Shailene Woodley) who, like most teenagers, is learning how to suppress her rage towards the entire world — and travel across the islands of their native Hawaii delivering the bad news to family and friends.

Payne is as skilled as ever in pulling nuanced performances and unlikely physical comedy from his actors (the biggest laughs came when a sandal-wearing Clooney breaks into a desperate half-run, half-waddle after a key revelation).

But there are missteps here too, like overly broad comedy involving a stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) and a script that too often sidesteps painful truths in favor of schmaltz. Payne's finest satires cut like razors. This movie feels like a warm hug.

Warmth is the last thing you'd expect to find in a film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, especially one about the end of the world, but that's part of why his Melancholia is such a fascinating surprise. The first half of this film is an out-and-out comedy about depression, as a bipolar bride (Kirsten Dunst) attempts unsuccessfully to act normally at a wedding reception hosted by her wealthy family (Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg, John Hurt). Angry toasts and taboo-breaking from the talented cast ensue while von Trier films everything with painterly grandeur; think Rachel Getting Married meets Brueghel.

And then, in the film's second half, a mysterious new planet is spotted, on a collision course with Earth that will destroy humanity. Dunst's bride takes this in stride; while everyone else freaks out, she calmly tans nude in the planet's midnight glow. Von Trier seems to be suggesting that the proper way to deal with death is to accept humanity as hopeless and doomed, but even if you reject his extreme pessimism, there are moving moments in his intimate portrait of people coping with the end of existence — particularly in Gainsbourg's role as an optimistic mother. Melancholia has unfortunately been eclipsed by von Trier's press-baiting escapades, but he shouldn't be dismissed just because he makes asinine jokes; the man is a major artist.

Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo may also have ascended to that status with Miss Bala, a thriller that keeps tension on screen, where it belongs. The film follows a would-be Tijuana beauty queen pressed into service as a drug-cartel operative after she witnesses a nightclub shootout. Introducing the film, Naranjo emphasized its value as social commentary; you may disagree, depending on how profound you find the sentiment that "drug lords and corrupt cops are rather unpleasant".

Where Miss Bala really excels is as action filmmaking that trumps almost anything Hollywood has done recently. Naranjo stages blockbuster spectacle — assassination attempts, home invasions, highway gunfights — but he avoids the incoherent cut-cut-cutting of modern Hollywood action, focusing his camera tightly on his heroine in ultra-long tracking shots to show one bystander's experience of mass chaos.

We rarely know more than she does about a given situation, and the experience is terrifying; every camera pan has the potential to reveal mortal danger. It's easy for directors to generate chills by trapping their characters in claustrophobic settings. It's truly impressive when they manage to make viewers themselves feel trapped by the edges of the screen.