The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, and as usual it’s an enormous smorgasbord for movie lovers. It’s the kind of event that you almost don’t want to attend just because of how maddening it is trying to narrow down and schedule from all that you want to see. It’s especially hard if you want to catch works of nonfiction and fiction, but even anyone interested in sticking solely to documentary will have trouble with this year’s crop. There are just so many premieres of new works by legends of nonfiction cinema, including Wiseman, Morris, Lanzmann and Ophuls.
Below is a list of my ten (eleven if you count the bonus) most anticipated nonfiction titles at the fest, and I barely even cracked the book on the films by unknown directors or so far otherwise unheralded. That only means that I’ll see or hear about docs and other works of note not represented here as they’re unloaded and reviewed. Those will actually be some of the more exciting discoveries. For now, though, here are the films that are most making me wish I was in Toronto this year, the films that I most hope become available to us very soon afterwards.
1. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)
Just in time for the new school year, the latest from Wiseman (Titicut Follies) gives us a four-hour look at a fall semester at UC Berkeley. The TIFF guide makes it sound like it’s a documentary about the state of higher education in America right now, but if you know the filmmaker’s work you’ll know it’s not going to be any sort of issue film, even if through it we can get a sense of current problems regarding college life and administration. Mostly, though, we’re sure to be just immersed in this place for a sense of this place, and with this I believe his longest work since 1999’s Belfast, Maine, it should be a very worthwhile afternoon spent.
Screenings: 9/7 at 1:00pm and 9/15 at 11:00am.
2. Visitors (Godfrey Reggio)
Reggio’s first film in more than a decade (2002’s Naqoyqatsi) and his first feature that’s not part of the Qatsi trilogy, this is probably the one I’m most upset to be missing in Toronto since it’s screening with live accompaniment of Philip Glass’s score by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. One of my favorite elements of Reggio’s classic Koyaanisqatsi is the portraits of people, those candidly walking by the frame and those posed and stationary, and all I know about this is that there are a lot of slow motion close-up portraits of people’s faces and of people’s hands. I think there’s also shots of swamps in Louisiana and an amusement park and a gorilla. I don’t know what all has made it into the finished film of what I’d seen previously. I’ve been trying to follow the development of this for a while, since it was called “The Holy See,” and I’m ecstatic knowing I’ll be seeing it fairly soon.
Screening only 9/6 at 6:00pm.
3. The Unknown Known (Errol Morris)
It’s almost like a sequel to Morris’s Oscar-winning film The Fog of War, which centered around an in-depth interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. This time the man in front of the “Interrotron” is former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Then again, it also could be thought of as a sequel to Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure as we now get to hear from Rumsfeld on what was going on at Abu Ghraib (we also get a score from Danny Elfman again rather than Philip Glass). Personally, I kinda prefer the filmmaker’s lighter, quirkier stuff, but after the problematic Tabloid I’m ready for something like this. And I’m intrigued about there being reenactments in this one. I like the quote from Rumsfeld in the TIFF guide, “Everything seems amazing in retrospect.” It’s true, and that made The Fog of War fascinating and it should make this one fascinating as well.
Screenings: 9/8 at 6:45pm and 9/10 at 9:00am.
4. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann)
The director of Shoah is back with another of his previously unseen interviews conducted during the production of that epic 1985 Holocaust doc. Here we meet Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who collaborated with Adolf Eichmann on the emigration of 120,000 Jews, thereby saving them, and then overseeing the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt during World War II. Sounds heavy, as we should expect from Lanzmann, and at 3 1/2 hours it’ll be tough but enlightening. It looks like this can be seen at TIFF before the Morris doc, and that might make for an exhausting but fitting double feature.
Screenings: 9/8 at 12:00pm and 9/15 at 5pm.
5. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls)
Another doc legend best known for his own film on Nazi collaborators (The Sorrow and the Pity), Ophuls is bringing a more autobiographical film to Toronto. The 85-year-old reflects on his own life and pays tribute to the work of his father, filmmaker Max Ophuls (The Earrings of Madame de…). According to the TIFF guide, Wiseman appears, so that’s another plus. Given that I’ve still never seen The Sorrow and the Pity nor Hotel Terminus (soon, I promise!), nor the elder Ophuls’s films (I’m the worst), maybe I should wait until after becoming more acquainted with the director before visiting with him in this capacity. Regardless, I can be sure this will be quite necessary, whenever I catch it. I already love what I’ve seen, the clip below of Ophuls talking about acting in Frank Capra’s classic WWII propaganda doc Prelude to War, which he calls “totally phony.”
Screenings: 9/10 at 7:15pm, 9/12 at 12:30pm and 9/15 at 7:15pm.
6. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi)
Not entirely a documentary but seemingly still qualifiable as a work of nonfiction, this is Panahi’s follow up to This Is Not a Film, which was my favorite film of 2012. Closed Curtain looks a lot more depressing, or at least just darker, definitely not “surprisingly entertaining” like the prior piece. The Iranian writer/director is still under house arrest and technically officially banned from filmmaking. But now he’s at his beach house, the windows of which he blacks out as he delivers a fictional plot about a screenwriter, played by co-director Partovi (Border Cafe). It’s already won the Silver Bear at Berlin and received some positive reviews, not surprisingly.
Screenings: 9/5 at 9:15pm, 9/6 at 3:30pm and 9/15 at 9:45pm.
7. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
It’s been likened to Marwencol, a film I wasn’t head over heels for like many of doc fans, and it won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. That’s basically the one for “original and different” films. Panh previously directed S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine and is kind of like the Lanzmann of the Cambodian Holocaust, primarily working on the history of Pol Pot’s regime and the genocide during that time. This new film is more autobiographical than usual and it’s noted for its use of clay figurines and dioramas to tell its tales. If it weren’t for The Act of Killing, this would be the strangest take on a mass killing we’ve ever seen. Maybe it still will be.
Screenings: 9/8 at 7:15pm, 9/12 at 9:00am and 9/14 at 9:30pm.
8. Tim’s Vermeer (Teller)
I haven’t seen this, but I did interview the subject (I’ll post that on Thursday) and am extremely curious. And I have been so even before the rave reviews it received at Telluride over the weekend. That subject is inventor and software pioneer Tim Jenison, who is filmed while trying to replicate a Vermeer painting using what he believes to be the previously unknown technique of the 17th century Dutch master, as he has discovered it. Jenison told me it’s going to change art history, which I’ll have to see to believe. I love docs about the art world, and this sounds to be one of the best of the variety. At the helm is Teller, of comedic magician duo Penn & Teller (Penn is also involved on and off screen), making his feature directorial debut. Having been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics already, the film is definitely getting a release soon enough.
Screenings: 9/5 at 6:30pm and 9/6 at 1:30pm.
9. The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney)
In the making since way before Lance Armstrong confessed to doping, the latest from Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) almost feels too late while at the same time promising a very interesting approach to and angle on the subject given the organic way it’s captured the cyclist’s downfall. Gibney had great access to Armstrong before and after the revelation and he often displays an exceptional talent for interviews, so that material alone is going to be riveting stuff no matter what.
Screenings: 9/8 at 2:45pm and 9/9 at 2:15pm.
10. (TIE) Jay-Z: Made in America (Ron Howard) and Metallica Through the Never (Nimrod Antal)
I can’t decide which of these two concert films is more exciting. Jay-Z: Made in America may not seem that remarkable for the most part, but I’m really dying to see how Howard is at directing his first documentary. I can’t believe he hasn’t done one already — though he did produce Katy Perry: Part of Me. As for Metallica Through the Never, which is directed by Hollywood director Antal (Predators), it’s not even totally a nonfiction film given that it has a post-apocalyptic plot about a roadie played by rising star Dane DeHaan. But it’s a hybrid, half an actual Metallica concert film, and it’s in IMAX 3D. I’m not a fan of the group and still haven’t even seen Some Kind of Monster (I know!) but this one just sounds ridiculously awesome.
Jay-Z: Made in America screening: 9/7 at 10:15pm.
Metallica Through the Never screening: 9/9 at 7:30pm.