"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
One journalist friend of mine describes the Toronto International Film Festival as an exercise in chaos theory or, to put it another way, a gigantic real-world game of Tetris. No other festival in the world has so many simultaneous identities or fills so many niches: Toronto hosts a number of major Hollywood premieres and kick-starts the Oscar season, serves as the North American entry point for adventurous cinema from all over the world, rivals Sundance as a marketplace for American indies and is the principal showcase for Canadian film, all at the same time.
So no matter how many movies you see at Toronto — and I’ve seen plenty over the past week — you come home wishing you could have stayed longer, slept even less or sternly said no to party invitations. Among the films I didn’t see, I particularly regret Jennifer Westfeldt’s suddenly hot indie comedy “Friends With Kids,” Andrea Arnold’s reportedly abstract take on “Wuthering Heights,” Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s horror film “Intruders,” the ass-kicking Indonesian action film “The Raid,” Woody Harrelson’s star turn as a corrupt cop in “Rampart,” Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s “I Wish” … the list doesn’t stop.
All that said, here are 10 movies that were much discussed at Toronto and will definitely make news in the months ahead. The first five are highly plausible or possible Oscar contenders and likely box-office winners, and the second tier consists of “specialty audience” films, as they diplomatically say in the biz. (In English, that means they’ll do well in college towns, but there’s no point booking ‘em in the shopping malls.)
The Descendants This leisurely and rather quiet family tragicomedy from writer-director Alexander Payne (his first film since “Sideways” in 2004) gets by on George Clooney’s restrained and nuanced performance as a battered middle-aged dad and its unusual depiction of Hawaii as a place where people actually live, rather than a tourist destination. But it’s grown on me since I first saw it, and Payne and Clooney are both in line for multiple awards nominations. I expect to see a critical backlash on “The Descendants” in the not-too-distant future, simply because it’s an audience-friendly film that doesn’t have tremendous cinematic ambition and tells a predictable story of crisis and redemption. I don’t suspect Clooney admirers, ordinary moviegoers or Oscar voters will care too much.
A Dangerous Method Another picture that was more subdued and straightforward than many viewers expected or hoped, David Cronenberg’s drama about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the patient-turned-therapist who came between them, remains a commercial question mark. This is a talky, elegant drama for grown-ups, largely shot in the actual European locations where Freud and Jung lived, not a twisted Cronenbergian psychodrama of orifices and nightmares. But I enjoyed its wit and vigor immensely, and suspect I’ll like it even better on second viewing. Brace yourselves, Keira-haters; Knightley is absolutely terrific as the brilliant femme fatale (and pioneering sexual masochist) who got elided from the history of psychiatry. If there’s an Oscar in this film, it’s probably hers.
Shame Arguably English artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Dante-esque odyssey through sex addiction, with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan playing a tormented brother and sister, belongs in the art-house category. (For one thing, “Shame” will require either an NC-17 rating or none at all, which will sharply limit its theatrical potential.) But given the star power, the brilliant acting and McQueen’s audacious filmmaking, there’s at least some chance “Shame” could become this year’s “Black Swan,” albeit on a smaller commercial scale. Fassbender won the acting award at Venice for this role, and an Oscar nod is completely plausible.
Moneyball I’ll be reviewing Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ stats-obsessed baseball best-seller next week, but it’s one of the fall season’s great unknowns. Baseball movies have long been tough sells to mass audiences, and for obvious reasons don’t play well internationally (except in Latin America and Japan). Still most people who saw “Moneyball” in Toronto report that it tells an engrossing story, and that Brad Pitt’s portrayal of innovative Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane could put him in the Oscar race — but if, and only if, enough people see the movie. Jonah Hill’s first major dramatic performance, as Beane’s assistant, might also be an awards candidate.
The Ides of March George Clooney’s cool and stylish political drama, starring the immensely hot Ryan Gosling as an idealistic media whiz facing the first major moral crisis of his young career, got mixed reviews in Toronto and arguably isn’t as distinctive as Clooney’s Oscar-nominated McCarthy-era yarn, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” But this is another case where the so-called smart people need to wait and see how ordinary viewers react. The movie’s beautiful to watch, capturing wintry Cincinnati landscapes as a sort of external corollary to its grim psychological landscape, and Gosling’s grave, measured performance — I’m tempted to call it a George Clooney performance by other means — is a memorable, artful construction. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman could wind up battling each other in the supporting-actor race.
Take Shelter Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ creepazoid psychological thriller, with Michael Shannon as a working-class Ohio man who becomes possessed by dreams and visions of apocalyptic storms, has been playing the festival circuit all year — and will finally be released just as this fall’s hurricane season winds down. I’ll be reviewing this soon, but here’s the two-second version: Holy cow! Made on a low budget and pitched halfway between a Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick nightmare and, say, M. Night Shyamalan, “Take Shelter” looks to me like one of the most memorable American films of the year. Shannon could be an Oscar dark horse — and certainly deserves to be — and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain is very good as his troubled wife.
Your Sister’s Sister Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton made the festival hit “Humpday” a few years ago, which utterly failed to cross over to mainstream audiences despite tons of media chatter. Here she tries again, sticking to the improvisation-based relationship yarn but moving up in budget and in star quality. Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass play a pair of close friends with a complicated past (she was his late brother’s lover) who are clearly being drawn together, only to have the ever-terrific Rosemarie DeWitt, playing Blunt’s dogmatic vegan-lesbian sister, come between them unexpectedly. Comedy turns to darkness and then to some degree of redemption, and even in the overcrowded indie market, this satisfying and highly authentic-feeling indie could be Shelton’s breakthrough.
The Eye of the Storm Literary, dense and loaded with sharp observations, veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of a novel by Nobel laureate Patrick White (a terrific writer not well known outside Australia) was my personal Toronto discovery. There’s nothing trendy or fashionable about “Eye of the Storm,” but check out the cast: Geoffrey Rush as a fading, horndog Australian actor and Judy Davis as his brittle, neurotic sister, a bankrupt Parisian divorcee with a ludicrous aristocratic title. They come home to Sydney to confront their immensely rich mother (Charlotte Rampling), who is near death and views them both with varying degrees of contempt. Add a delicious supporting cast and a hilarious portrayal of Aussie society circa 1972, and you have — well, you have something that I liked a lot, and I suspect, perhaps naively, that a grown-up, book-readin’-type audience is still out there somewhere.
Think of Me Lauren Ambrose, who played the red-haired teenage daughter on “Six Feet Under,” has been waiting for her breakout role as an adult, and if writer-director Bryan Wizemann’s downbeat single-mom drama isn’t quite that, it’s pretty close. As a struggling Las Vegas single mom named Angela, Ambrose walks the line between likable and utterly intolerable. Angela turns tricks (sometimes ineptly), works two jobs (not very well) and drags her 8-year-old daughter from one perilous situation to the next. Ambrose is on-screen for virtually every second, emanating a gorgeous, doomed charisma, and holds you in suspense the whole way. Ultimately, I suspect that “Think of Me” is too depressing to offer Ambrose her “Winter’s Bone” moment, but it’s a worthwhile recession-era drama built around a terrific performance.
The Loneliest Planet OK, I haven’t yet seen the newest film from ultra-smart indie auteur Julia Loktev, who made the strange and powerful terrorism drama “Day Night Day Night” in 2007, but I’m going to crawl out on a limb for it anyway. (It will screen at the New York Film Festival in a few weeks.) Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenburg play a gorgeous and privileged couple who go hiking in the Caucasus, with explosive and unexpected consequences. Inspired by a Tom Bissell short story that was itself inspired by a Hemingway story, “The Loneliest Planet” will probably end up as a modest theatrical or VOD release — but everybody I know who saw it in Toronto said it was remarkable.
Bonus Pick: Take This Waltz I’ve already written a lengthy review of Sarah Polley’s potent, sexy, audience-dividing relationship flick, which stars Michelle Williams in one of her best performances. There’s still no news on an American distributor, and the Toronto scuttlebutt suggests this may not be released until 2012, to avoid competition with Williams’ presumed award-candidate role in “My Week With Marilyn.” It’s still great! But we’ll have to adjourn the debate for another occasion.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)