Toronto Film Fest 1992: Movies, Critics, and Audience Awards

Toronto Film Festival, September 1992–the 17th Festival of Festival ended a week ago with a festive brunch, during which Helga Stephenson, President of the Festival, and VP Piers Handling announced the awards to anxious critics, industry people, and movie lovers.

After 10 days of a powerhouse festival, considered by some to be the best-programmed in the world, everybody seemed burned out. Toronto is certainly a huge festival: this year included 335 films from 42 countries! During the 9 days I was in Toronto, I saw 39 movies, most of them–to my amazement–good, and some excellent.

There was resentment among some critics over the large number of press junkets, which the big Hollywood studios had in Toronto. On some level, it makes perfect sense for the studios to go to Canada–they get immense publicity from the many international critics attending the festival. But the festival itself also benefits from the media attention granted to celebs on the caliber of Robert Redford, and stars like Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey, whose noir thriller The Public Eye also premiered in Toronto. This year, there were six press junkets, including world premiers of Woody Allen’s highly autobiographical Husbands and Wives, Redford’s memory film, A River Runs Through It, and Billy Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night.

Toronto has arguably the most committed moviegoers in the world. I was amazed to see people standing on line for two hours to see a movie that will open commercially in less than a month. Indeed, when asked what makes the Toronto festival different from other festivals, Handling answers without hesitation, “The public.” The festival provides many treats for the real moviegoer–oddities, midnight movies, one-shots, and films that may never open commercially. In a sense, this is what a true festival is all about–discovery of new talent from all over the world.

The Toronto Festival’s movies are organized in several categories, the most important of which are The Edge, First Cinema, Contemporary World Cinema, Spotlight, and Midnight Movies. These prevail along with film series such as Perspective Canada, Latin America Panorama, Asian Horizons.

Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

The one film that created the greatest buzz this year was Quentin Tarantino’s stunning debut, Reservoir Dogs (Miramax release), which won the prestigious international critics award for best first film. The jury praised Tarantino for “a spectacular debut that combines a brilliant narrative sense, and expressive use of space, and an insightful direction of actors.”

Reservoir Dogs is the fascinating story of a group of men, unknown to each other, brought together to assist a criminal mastermind in a jewelry heist. The tale explores in an unprecedented way the male psyche (macho identity, trust and betrayal, camaraderie) and criminal mind. A deft, all male-cast, headed by Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth assist an original script and flawless staging. Watch out for the bright star of writer-director Tarantino.

Thanking the jury for the award, Tarantino said, “If I was on the jury I would have given the prize to Man Bites Dog.” Well, the critics seemed to agree with the filmmaker. Belgian director Remy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog won the Metro Media Award, a prize voted by the entire accredited press contingent.

Man Bites Dog

In Man Bites Dog (C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous), a match made in heaven is truck between Ben, a serial killer, and a team of directors looking for a suitable subject for their new documentary. Ben is not shy about sharing his professional secrets and philosophical insights; nor is he reticent about showing the “meat” of his work. The filmmakers follow Ben from body-dumping sessions to a choreographed strangulation, from scaring a grandmother to a Mason-like rape and murder. Shrewd, “deviant,” and funny, Man Bites Dog is a satirical stab at our new cultural icons; you begin to understand why there are so many TV movies about serial killers.

Strictly Ballroom

As usual, there was a chasm between the film critics’ choice and the People Choice Awards, sponsored by Carlsberg Light and representing the public’s favorite. Strictly Ballroom, the Australian film that took the Cannes festival by storm earlier this year, grabbed the award to the great satisfaction of Miramax, its distributor. Baz Luhrmann’s delightful romantic comedy is full of youthful dreams about making it. Told in a bold and original style, Strictly Ballroom revolves around love and conflict of two young people fighting for artistic freedom against repressive society. This wild, if sentimental, behind-the scenes look at ballroom dance is most entertaining, a cross between Carmen and Dirty Dancing.

No matter how you look at it, the good news in this festival was the strong presence of American movies–especially independents. The American cinema dominated each and every category: of the 18 films shown in the Gala series, 8 were American. American movies also overwhelmed the First Cinema with 13 out of the 22 films shown.

Indeed, l992 may well be the best year for independent movies. In addition to Reservoir Dogs, the festival showed Tom Kalin’s stylized, black-and white Swoon (now in LA), a retelling of the notorious Jewish homosexual murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The stand-out movies in this category were Anthony Drazan’s Zebrahead, a heated interracial romance between a Jewish boy and a black girl which won best feature at the Sundance Film Festival; and Laws of Gravity, Nick Gomez’s kind of update of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, a study of four Italian-Americans in Brooklyn.

Hard Boiled

Just in case you thought that the Toronto festival shows only serious art movies, along comes John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Set on the streets of Hong Kong, where bullets fly and the energy level is relentless, cops are trying to stop a giant arms-smuggling ring–from within and without. The director’s outstanding skills at action choreography are unmatched by anyone–including our James Cameron.

Ron Mann’s Twist

Last, but not least, the closing night gala was Ron Mann’s satirical documentary, Twist, chronicling the sub-culture of this phenomenally popular dance in the early l960s. In a fast-paced mix of interviews and rare archival footage, Twist brings back all the lewd fun of the dance–and the whole mad whirl of the era.

The young Jewish director was born in l958, six years after his father came to Toronto, where he purchased Mann’s TV & Stereo Ltd., which he has owned and operated for 35 years. After graduate work at the University of Toronto, he began making Super 8 films, soon winning awards from the Chicago Film Festival: for Imagine the Sound (l981) and Poetry in Motion (l982).

“My mother painted,” Mann said in a press conference, “she was the creative side, my father the practical.” The director vowed he would watch Twist at the gala, but never again (“I see too many things I want to change”). Asked about his ethnic background, Mann said: “My family is Jewish, but I don’t belong to anything. My spirituality was drugs, hitchhiking, Kerouac, John Cage and certain lyrics of Frank Zappa. But religious or not, even Mann can’t deny the importance of the family in artistic matters. “My mother taught me to twist when I was 3,” he noted, “and I taught my son to twist.”