And so it begins.

I arrived in Toronto safe and sound Wednesday evening after a long day of class (six hours worth) and running around. Today was my first day of the new semester at Columbia College. It feels like I have great students this semester, but the first few weeks are always tiring, as I have to be extra alert to how people are reacting and how engaged they are. And then I had to get things ready for the two fine people–Cliff Doerksen and Mike Hertenstein–who are taking over my classes next week while I party at TIFF. Oh, not party. Uh, watch movies. Yeah, that’s what I meant to write.

Speaking of, I thought I’d offer a preview of the fest and which movies I’m likely to see. Those who have read my TIFF blogs in the past know that things can change on the ground, as the buzz builds around a movie for which I don’t have a ticket or mediocre reviews come in for a ticket I do have. I also got shut out of a few movies in the initial ticketing stage, so I’ll either be rushing those or trying to find a suitable replacement. The early weather report is for a lot of rain over the next week, which would be the first time I’ve ever dealt with that in Toronto. Not that I’m going to melt, but part of the fun of TIFF is standing in lines and striking up conversations with people next to you. That might not be quite as much fun if I’m getting soaked.

And I can definitely see some lines in my future. TIFF veterans (or veterans of my past blogs) know that you’re not necessarily shut out of a movie just because you don’t have a ticket. The rush line is a venerable TIFF tradition, where people wait, sometimes for 2-3 hours, for the chance to grab a ticket to a sold-out show. Often several dozen people will get in, as seats open up, either because ticket holders don’t arrive or publicists don’t use all of the tickets they’ve held aside. But sometimes you wait in vain, which I guess is part of the excitement. In all seriousness, though, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in rush lines, as I’ve gotten to know fellow film lovers.

But before I tackle the movies I hope to see, let me give you a sense of my schedule and what I definitely will see. Rather than go chronologically (that’s too easy), I’ll break them up by my motivation in choosing them.

Auteurs

These are the movies I’ve selected just because I love the directors’ past work and am willing to take a chance on whatever they do next. After the Wedding is directed by Susanne Bier, who also made the fantastic Brothers and Open Hearts. Climates is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s follow up to his brilliant Distant, and though the reviews aren’t quite as strong, that’s good enough for me. Half Moon is another film from Bahman Ghobadi about Kurds caught between nations. I hated Tsai Ming-liang’s last film at TIFF (The Wayward Cloud), but he’d have to make several more clunkers for me to give up on him, so I’m excited about I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. Anything Aki Kaurismaki does is gold, and Lights in the Dusk sounds like a perfect way to close out the fest. I’m not as big a fan of Iranian director Jafar Panahi (The Circle) as a lot of cinephiles, but I appreciate his work, and his latest, Offside, appears to be an interesting change of pace. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth sounds a lot like his The Devil’s Backbone, which was one of my favorite movies of 2001, and the word out of Cannes was exuberant. If you happened to read the New Yorker article a few months back about Werner Herzog’s latest, Rescue Dawn, you’ll know that it’s a must see, if for no reason than to see if he can pull it off. But I’ve also become a huge Herzog booster the last few years as I’ve had a chance to catch up with his work. Finally, the great Thai director Joe Apichatpong might be the most inventive filmmaker working today, so Syndromes and a Century is an easy choice.

Prize Winners and Rave Reviews

As you might guess, these are films that have won prizes at other festivals or received strong reviews. Bamako has been called a triumph for Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako. Everyone seems to love The Host, and I get a chance to see it with a raucous Midnight Madness crowd. Requiem was a big winner at Berlin and has wowed the critics. Summer ’04 is another example of the revitalized German film scene. Finally, Ten Canoes is by the director who made The Tracker, and the early word on his latest is outstanding. That might be my most anticipated film of the fest.

National Cinema

Over the years, I’ve found I gravitate towards certain national styles. I’ve been a fan of Iranian cinema for over ten years, so I like to keep up with what’s going on there: A Few Days Later…. I’m disappointed that there aren’t any Moroccan films this year, as the several I’ve seen the last two years have been marvelous. But I’m excited about the apparent emergence of Romanian movies. Last year was Death of Mr. Lazarescu, while this year brings the well-reviewed 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Way I Spent the End of the World.

Cool Photos

Don’t underestimate the power of the striking program photo. I’ve had great luck in past years choosing movies just because something in the picture rubbed me the right way. Opera Jawa, Times and Winds, and The Violin all fit into that category.

Fun, Fun, Fun

I’ve realized in past years that I need to mix up my schedule. Since I’m naturally drawn to slow, meditative dramas, it makes sense that a lot of those would find their way onto my schedule. But 40 over 10 days can be a bit much, so this year I decided to choose at least a few movies that wouldn’t require a whole lot of thinking: Jade Warrior, Summer Palace, and Summercamp! sounds like they’ll fit the bill.

Getting Paid

To offest the costs of TIFF (at least a little bit), I’m doing some freelance work for Time Out Chicago, which includes covering movies like Chronicle of an Escape, Thicker than Water, and hopefully The Italian, assuming I can get into what is strangely a sold-out screening. Who knew that a Russian film about a little boy would be so popular?

The Combo Movies

Or movies I’m interested in for a variety of reasons. Hamaca Paraguaya–Argentine film is starting to make a name for itself, and this earthy, slow drama sounds right up my alley. Trying to get a ticket to D.O.A.P. is absolutely impossible, and I’m not sure I want to get swept along in the hype anyway, but The Prisoner, or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair looks both formally interesting and politically compelling. Belle Toujours and Fantasma are on a double bill together. The former is by the great nonagenerian director Manoel de Oliveira, while the latter invokes Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of my favorite movies of the last several years (I’ll put up my review sometime soon). Dong is a documentary by the up-and-coming Chinese director Jia Zhangke, while Invisible Waves pairs director Pen-ek Ratanaruang and cinematographer Chris Doyle. Grbavica features what seems like a compelling mother-daughter story, and it’s set in the Balkans. Red Road combines a striking photo with comparisons to Michael Haneke. The Banquet stars Zhang Ziyi. Enough said.

Films I Hope to See

I got shut out of Manufactured Landscapes, but given that the buzz is great and it’s a documentary about images and photography (a huge interest of mine), I’m definitely going to try to rush that one. Woman on a Beach sounds like it has promise, and it fills a slot that’s otherwise open. And I’m trying to decide between L’Intouchable and Day Night Day Night, which play at the same time. Any thoughts?

And there’s one last film that I won’t be able to see: Colossal Youth. The write-up in this issue of Cinemascope has me drooling, and the interview with director Pedro Costa is extremely insightful. Unfortunately, there’s no way to fit it into my schedule without giving up something even more important. I just have to hope there’s a Costa retro in Chicago’s future.

The Already Seen

A few TIFF films were shown in Chicago last week, so I got a head start on the fest.

Stranger than Fiction–every film critic in the world will use the phrase Charlie Kaufmann-esque. The plot is too clever by half, but it eventually builds to something earnest and even moving. Will Ferrell puts on his serious face (seen previously in movies like Winter Passing), and he’s fine. The direction gussies things up with on-screen graphics, and certain plot contrivances pop up to move things along, but Marc Forster has made a solid movie. Not worth taking a slot from something else you want to see, but it’d be a nice change of pace if you have too many European miserablists on your schedule.

The Last Kiss–schematic storyline leavened by some funny dialogue and solid performances. Zach Braff seems to be re-channeling his performance from Garden State, and the director re-uses that film’s musical motifs. Nice to see Blythe Danner in a somewhat meaty role. Certainly not worth giving up a fest slot for, but not a bad date movie when it comes on cable next spring.

Starter for 10–formulaic college dramedy with British sensibilities. One of those movies where you absolutely know that the hero will, in the end, walk by the pretty blonde to kiss the brainy brunette.

Well, that’s about it for Day 0. Given that Friday is a full, full day of movies, I may not start the actual TIFF blogging until Saturday. But I hope to be consistent once I get started. Thanks for reading.