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29th Toronto International Film Festival

By Jeffrey M. Freedman,, Toronto
Oct 23, 2004, 13:08

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You just can't make too many generalizations about the 29th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). With over 300 features, shorts and documentaries, there was no shortage of very good, very bad and everything in between on the screens, in media briefings, in the hotel lobbies and at the parties.

In addition to the films, there was also plenty of gab about the upcoming Presidential election in the United States. When filmmakers, buyers, distributors, shmoozers weren't talking shop, they seem to be prognosticating about whether the current occupant of the White House is likely to be reelected or not. While most thought the race was too close to call at this point, the preponderance of attendees made it clear they want the privileged yahoo sitting in the oval office tossed out in November.

Sean Penn, who played would-be assassin Sam Bicke in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," pretty much summed up the political buzz at the Festival when he said, "The problem is that statistically there's a lot more (Bicke-like underachievers) today, and we can be grateful to President Bush for that," Penn said. "The poverty level is at an all-time high.

"I'm a believer that society has to deal with the issue of how this administration oppresses people in (the U.S.) and in other countries," Penn added. "If they take away people's hopes and beliefs, (these oppressed people) will do something."

"Going Up River: the long war of John Kerry" and the Iraq-invasion documentary "Gunner Palace" also generated lots of talk at TIFF about the possible hazards of another four years of the Bushmen. It seemed to be a Festival in which filmmakers who focused on the ultimate consequences of human fallibility, in politics, war, and physical constitution, produced some of the most remarkable features this year. Here are my top pics at the 29th TIFF:

Bruno Ganz plays Adolf Hitler, Heino Ferch plays Albert Speer
DER UNTERGANG (Downfall) After thoroughly researching the final days of Adolf Hitler and the generals and Nazi cabinet who remained loyal to him to the bitter end, producer Bernd Eichinger wrote a script that is structurally seamless and charged with the terror, torment, insanity and inexplicable fealty to the most destructive political regime in history. Largely based on the memoirs of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, and the memoirs of German historian, Joachim Fest, Bernd brilliantly captures the insanely monomaniacal dictator as well as the extremely flawed human being Adolf Hitler was.

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler
As portrayed by Bruno Ganz, the Furher comes across as all too human and this is both the most disturbing and greatest achievement of the film. No one will come away from this movie believing Hitler was Satan incarnate or any other kind of inhuman monster. More disturbing than what he did to others, the film effectively illustrates the fact that the most difficult thing to accept about Adolf Hitler is that he was what we are, a human being.

Juliane Köhler plays Eva Braun
Director, Oliver Hirscbiegel, effectively orchestrates the death knell of the advancing Russian forces with the almost unbearable tension in the bunker and the unraveling of Hitler and his generals. Eichinger's Constantin Films of Munich, the company that produced 'Das Boot' and 'The Name of the Rose,' spent $16 million on the project and, judging by the visceral response it has been eliciting from audiences worldwide, the film accomplishes everything Eichinger hoped it would.
Alexandra Maria Lara plays Hitler´s secretary Traudl Junge

MODIGLIANI A beautifully wrought film by Mick Davis in which the passion and self-destructive tendencies of the Italian Jewish artist, Amedeo Modigliani, are presented within the life-affirming gaiety of Paris in 1919. Produced by Philippe Martinez of BauerMartinez Studios, the film focuses on the rivalry between Picasso and Modigliani. Davis adroitly weaves the other stresses and torments of the Modigliani's life, a star-crossed love affair with Jeanne Hebuterne, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, drug addiction and financial insecurity, into a compelling portrait of the artist and his times. Despite the darkest aspects of the artist's life, Davis succeeds in portraying the artistic and creative energy of Paris in the second decade of the last century and his protagonist's ability to channel his conflicts and addictions into some of the most beautiful art from the cubist/post-impressionist period. Andy Garcia as Amedeo Modigliani and Elsa Zylberstein as Jeanne Hebuterne are brilliantly cast. Their valiant efforts to save their child, preserve the artist's legacy and sustain the love they had for one another despite the formidable misfortune and cruelty which conspired to separate them, makes the film an emotionally charged experience from start to finish.

DER NEUNTE TAG (The Ninth Day) Directed by Volker Schloendorff ('The Tin Drum,', 'Palmetto'), the film is based on the true story of a priest from Luxembourg who is released from Dachau concentration camp by the Nazis who hope he can be used as a pawn to convince the Catholic Church to cooperate with Hitler's occupation forces. Superb portrayal of Abbe Henri Kremer by Ulrich Matthes.

KINSEY Bill Condon's feature stars Liam Neeson as the visionary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey who overcame Protestant repression and the myopic morality of his era to earn the sobriquet "most dangerous man in America." Casting is top rate as is the pacing and balance of a bio pic that presents a comprehensive look at the courageous achievements of a remarkable pioneer in the field of human sexual behavior.

THE SEAS INSIDE Alejandro Amenabar's emotionally wrenching, true story about Spanish quadriplegic, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem). The film is surely one of cinema's most human and humane treatments of the subject of euthanasia. In addition to Ramon's nearly 30-year battle against the authorities who try to prevent him from ending his life, the story focuses on his relationships with a female lawyer who advocates for his right to choose death over life, and a local woman with her own financial and child-rearing problems who tries to convince him that his physically vegetative life is worth living. All this against the backdrop of a family that is strained to the limits as they attempt to provide compassion and round-the-clock care for Ramon. As much as 'The Sea Inside' makes the tenuous nature of physical health painfully evident, it also makes it very clear what the tenacious nature of the human heart and spirit can overcome.

WHISKY ROMEO ZULU Enrique Pineyro is both director and main character (pilot of a shoddily run Argentinean airline) in what is a gripping, inside look at another based-on-reality feature that is bound to have most viewers reconsidering the joys of train travel. Back-story of the romance between Pineyro and a childhood sweetheart disrupts continuity, but other than that, 'Whisky Romeo Zulu' is a fast-paced thriller with convincing performances.

Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is a magnificent documentary, by Xan Cassavetes (John's daughter), about the founding of the seminal HBO-like 'movies in your living room' channel. 'Star studded' doc featuring almost everyone who either worked for or was familiar with Jerry Harvey, the force behind Z whose paroxysms of ambition and mood swings catapulted the movie channel to success but also led to the murder of his wife and his own suicide in 1988. Before the tragic end of the story, the film documents how Harvey was a champion of lesser-known screen gems by Sam Peckinpah, Henry Jaglom, Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, and Paul Verhoeven, to name just a few. Jaglom aptly said that Z Channel was "like a film festival in your house every night."

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