Hotel Atlântico (Suzana Amaral, Brazil): The less said about the first film I saw at Toronto, which unfortunately has set the tone for the festival, the better. But this sad pastiche of bad existential literature and dream cinema has at least one charming attribute: the actor Júlio Andrade and his character Alberto. In a mid-film scene that displays a light, humorous touch of humor with a dark edge—a sophistication of tone missing from the rest of the film—Andrade and the director perfectly create a vaguely defined character of an odd little man who looks after a small town church and has an aura of sweet naivety, perverse sexuality, and subtle threat. The actor creates unexpected dramatic developments that tread a line of ambiguity between an undefined danger and chuckling silliness. If only the rest of the movie could undulate so unexpectedly.
Vision (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany): Kkay, so there isn't much music of Hildgarde von Bingen in this film about Hildegarde von Bingen, but there is a really terrific scene where the titular nun espouses the healing power on the body and spirit of music while doing rounds in her nunnery's hospital. Just as someone might turn on a television in the background of a hospital these days, von Bingen's clinic features a live show performed by a young nun sitting in the middle of the room and playing some of von Bingen's absolutely exquisite music.
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China): As I mentioned in my piece on this film, Lu Chuan strenuously avoids any depiction of responsiblity for the massacre at Nanking. But towards the end of the film—the best of this usually terrible but often quite stunning film is at the beginning and the end—there is a profound camera pan across a line of Japanese officers smoking cigarettes and lifting their glasses in toast to their victory. No dialog, no exposition; we are left to posit our own interpretation of this strange non-sequitor, dropped in the film's vacuum utterly devoid of Japanese brass. The scene suggests an intelligence and a poeticism far beyond the bulk of this horrendous film.
A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA): This one is easy: the Korean student and his father. The Coens have subtly evolved their condescending racism from the hilarious tragedy of Fargo's digression into the assosting of Francis McDormand by an old Korean admirer from college. The scenes in this film play on many similar elements of patronizing humor—laughing at charactured ethnic behavior, accents, etc.—but rather than the pathetic despair of Fargo's Mike Yanagita, A Serious Man's two Korean's express a cutting humor, forefront self-awareness, and eventually vindictive assertiveness. From wailing pitiable to funny and mean, that's some kind of progress.
At the End of Daybreak (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia): Despite the cliche of the alcoholic single parent "parented" by their off-spring, Ho evokes a singular kind of relationship a divorced woman has with her son, the unusual sense of intimacy and the way parent-child dynamics turn to something akin to friend-friend or sister-brother. The scene where the mother cuts her son's hair and, smelling cologne on him, surmizes he is dating a girl, perfectly balances a normal relationship between the two and this other, odder, kind.
Waterfront Follies (Ernie Gehr, USA): I'd like to say the two times "on-lookers" behind Gehr's camera address the filmmaker as he patiently films sunsets, but the real stunner in this piece comes in the second shot where the way the setting sun crosses a line of clouds it literally looks like the sun is beginning to disintegrate before our eyes. To top it all off [SPOILERS!], after being obliterated, the sun emerges triumphant and whole again!