I normally think it's presumptuous to pass judgement on film festivals as a whole. With only a handful of exceptions, even the lowliest of fests packs more films into each day than anyone can possibly see, so even if you see nothing but lousy movies, there's always the chance that the fault lies with your selections rather than the programmers' choices. But as days went by at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I searched in vain for someone who was having a better festival than mine, which was composed of a lot of middling stuff, a few outright stinkers, and a small handful of good-verging-on-great. I found no one. Only towards the very end of my week-long trip, which included nearly three dozen movies, did the enthusiasm level start to rise, due largely to Kelly Reichardt's lyrical anti-Western Meek's Cutoff and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
Uncle Boonmee has proven elusive for me; I skipped it at Toronto, planning to catch the press screening at the New York Film Festival, which I then got shut out of. Luckily it's part of the just-announced lineup for the Philadelphia Film Festival, which also includes a number of movies I saw at Toronto and a few I regretted missing. Short takes on the opening and closing night movies, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, figure in my TIFF overview for the Philadelphia City Paper, although I would have devoted less space to those titles had the PFF lineup been announced a few days earlier. I also fell hard for the aforementioned Meek's Cutoff, which I think I'll like even more the next time around (and when I'm not at the fag-end of a week where I never got more than 6 hours sleep a night), and James Gunn's delightful Super, a blackly comic superhero story that, to put it bluntly, kicks Kick-Ass's ass.
This fall's PFF marks the debut of the festival's new programming team, which includes Ryan Werner and Tom Quinn, better known for their day jobs at IFC and Magnolia, respectively. Not surprisingly, the 107-film slate includes generous helping from both distributors' slates: Five from Magnolia, mostly in the midnight movies section, and a whopping 16 (out of 95 total) from IFC. To be sure, IFC owns a hell of a lot of films, and of those I've seen, there are none whose inclusion I'd quarrel with. Werner and Quinn have definitely adopted more of a "best of the fests" approach, cherry-picking many of the better-received titles from Cannes and Toronto, but considering how frequently the festival's former programmers would pass over, say, the new films from Godard or Weerasethakul, I'm only too happy to have Uncle Boonmee and Film Socialisme pay a visit (although the latter is going to leave a lot more people frustrated than intrigued).
What's more interesting than the expected surfeit of IFC and Magnolia titles is which distributors' films aren't in the festival. Most notably, Sony Classics scored a big fat goose egg, which is the first time in memory that one of their prestige titles hasn't occupied a prominent slot, and Fox Searchlight has only three, all carryovers from Toronto. The Weinstein Company has two, and Miramax scores another zero. Compare that to four films from tiny Strand and four from even tinier Film Movement.
Just to be clear: No one is suffering from having to wait a few months to see The King's Speech, which won Toronto's audience award but sounds like a middlebrow special. But it's worth noting that some of IFC and Magnolia's bigger competitors have effectively been shut out of what is now the city's only major film festival, while their smaller brethren move towards the head of the table. The list of titles I'm excited to see at this year's PFF — including Le Quatro Volte, Heartbeats, The Housemaid, How to Fold a Flag, Lebanon, PA, A Screaming Man, Serbian Film, Tiny Furniture and We Are Who We Are — is longer than ever. But so is the list of movies I've already seen.
UPDATE: PFF Executive Director J. Andrew Greenblatt got in touch to clarify a few issues (and correct my faulty addition skills; the size of this year's slate is actually 107 films, which I've corrected above). His response read, in part:
Regarding the lack of Sony Pictures Classics films in the Festival, we love their films and certainly wanted to feature them in the Festival. I believe we invited 6 of their films, but unfortunately were unable to program any. Hopefully we'll have them next year. We programmed all the films Fox Searchlight had available this year (3), and also invited more films from the Weinstein Company and Miramax, but were unable to secure them prior to schedule-lock. That said, we are extremely proud of our line-up, and are very excited to present these fantastic films to Philadelphia.