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Murder and mayhem equals quality --- who knew?



For whatever reason, most of the best films I saw at the Toronto Film festival this year were also the creepiest.

Les Revenants, a French film, tries out the zombie movie as an intellectual exercise. Well, zombies may be putting it a bit strongly, since the "returnees" (as the title puts it, though look for the film under its English title, They Came Back) don't have bits of matter hanging off of them, and don't want to eat anybody. In fact, they don't want to do much but wander somewhat blankly, although they otherwise seem to possess more or less the same faculties they did when they were alive. The film examines the logistics we would face in such a situation: how to house them, re-employ them, go back to loving them, and so on.

The low-key approach masks a growing menace as the returnees start to seem like maybe they are up to something. Why they are up to it is disappointingly unclear, and the cheesy last few shots put a ripple in the placid perfection, but it's an intriguing, beautiful film.

Another French film, Innocence, also takes its time while getting the most from a spooky premise. A little girl awakes from a coffin-like box to discover that she shares a dorm with other girls, all of whom have also been taken from the real world to live in a park, which is sealed off with a stone wall. They are allowed to play during the day when not taking ballet lessons, although they must observe certain rules --- not escaping, for one. The girls are waited on by old women who tried just that as girls, and thus may never leave.

Innocence manages the trick of wearing its allegory on its sleeve and maintaining a graceful sense of enigma all at once... kind of like Picnic at Hanging Rock, but with a more satisfying ending. While waiting for that ending to come, I was sweating bullets, worried that the art-house mystery of the film would mean that it would end without answering my questions, just to be, you know, arty, and because it seemed like an impossible feat to pull off (it answers them just enough, as it happens).

I had a similar experience with Old Boy, a Korean film in which the protagonist finds himself suddenly kept captive in a homemade, apartment-style cell for 15 years, for no apparent reason. When he is released, he sets about to find out why he was held --- which is exactly what his captor wants. Violent, stylish, and sporting a great, brooding, Toshiro Mifune-like performance from Choi Min-sik, Old Boy not only answers all your questions, it answers them in spades.

You know where After the Day Before is headed early on, so considering that (not to mention how little actually happens), it's really something that this is one of the most captivating films of the festival. A man sets out on a Kafaesque search for an inherited farm, and encounters little help from the locals. A report of a girl being murdered sets off a dream-like slip out of the constraints of time, as the man moves through his encounters repeatedly and variously, like Last Year at Marienbad as a murder mystery. This Hungarian film bolsters the mood with strong cinematography and music to create a striking piece of cinema, and if the ending is drawn out unnecessarily, it's still the best film I saw out of 40-plus.

Spider Forest, another Korean film, comes in at close second. As lush and creepy as the title would suggest (but with hearty dollops of sex and violence as well), it chronicles the efforts of a man to find out why he woke up in a forest outside a cabin with some very dead people inside. I was never sure if I was off balance as to time because I was supposed to be, but it simply added to the intriguing quality of this visually rich, haunting film. As with After the Day Before, you know at least part of what revelations are in store from the very start, but again it seems probably intentional, as both films pursues notions of inevitability.

Another film whose twist ending is somewhat interesting but beside the point is The Machinist, an atmospheric piece starring a Holocaust-gaunt Christian Bale as a metal worker who hasn't slept in a year and is starting to hallucinate (I think it would have taken me only a few days). Is there a conspiracy against him at his job,or is he just freaking out? The look of the film is way over-stylized at times, but a theremin-laced score gives the picture the smart and spooky feel of a tight little '50s B-movie. That keeps it fun and gives things a charmingly modest feel, freeing one to soak up the mood and the details without worrying about the narrative convolutions.

Equally modest in its aims is Creep, a British film starring Run Lola Run's Franka Potente as a subway rider stuck underground with a malformed maniac after the station has closed. Conceived as an homage to the '80s slasher films the director loved as a kid, it accomplishes exactly that. It even improves on them just slightly, being a bit slicker and sustaining itself better than is typical of the genre. This is no Scream retread, commenting on the films it loves, it merely means to be the films it loves. That said, the maniac's back-story is hilariously, knowingly absurd. I found it all enjoyably disposable, but this simple, straightforward horror movie grows on me the more I look back on it.

And as I look back on the festival (cue strings), there was plenty more to appreciate --- it was a great year for documentaries, and I haven't even mentioned some of my favorite films. But perhaps that's the best way to communicate the experience of the festival --- no matter what you manage to find out about, there's always plenty you missed.

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