TIFF 2009 Must See Films: 'Get Low', 'Precious' & 'The Road'

The madness continues at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

The talk of the festival right now is the performance of Oscar-winner Robert Duvall in his new film, Get Low, in which he portrays a hermit with a dark secret who comes out of hiding to confront the rumors about him in a small southern town in the 30s. Directed by Aaron Schneider, the film is very much like a Horton Foote story, with those flawed yet all-too-human characters standing front and center.

Duvall, who adored Foote, loved the role and gives one of the best performances of his career. In fact if you recall, it was in 1997 that the veteran actor was poised for similar acclaim with The Apostle, which knocked critics and the film world on their collective butts. Duvall went on to earn an Oscar nomination for that performance, and may do the same here provided Get Low is purchased and lands a distribution deal.For me the best film of the festival has to be Precious, an astounding work that is likely the best American film of the year and in fact one of the finest achievements in cinema I have ever seen...period. From director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) the film is a searing look at the horrific life of an illiterate, obese black girl, who has twice been impregnated by her father, expelled from school and placed in an alternate school, all while facing a barrage of physical and verbal abuse from her mother. That the girl does not let this break her spirit is one thing, that she chooses to do so much with the life she has been given is a testament to her incredible strength of character. The film is based on the 1996 debut novel from poet/author, Sapphire.

Over the course of the film, the downtrodden girl gives birth to a son, befriends the girls and teacher in her new school and eventually breaks from her mother, even after being told she is HIV positive. The performances in the film are electrifying, as though the camera had been placed in the midst of life unfolding - rather than a narrative film, we are watching a documentary. This is more than mere filmmaking, this is a piece of someone's soul up on the screen for all to see. A primal, raw, rage-filled scream for help that will streak through your body, burning into your mind,  scarring you so you never forget this film.

Gabourey Sidibe is a revelation as the titular Precious, giving an edgy performance that on one hand will alarm viewers with its intensity, but then break your heart when her fears come pouring out. In an astounding performance of nearoverhwhelming power, comedian Mo'Nique inhabits the role of the abusive mother with a presence that is frightening. Her performance is all in her eyes, which are watchful with hate, looking for a reason, like a cobra to strike, and when she does, she becomes a force of nature. Both actresses seem destined for Oscar attention.

And yes Mariah Carey is in the film, and yes she is terrific. And nearly unrecognizable.

Check out the official trailer for Precious.

The film I have been anticipating the most, however, has been The Road - director John Hillcoat's film adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about a father and son's journey across post-apocalyptic America. Some critics at both Venice and Telluride admitted to some disappointment with the film, and though I understand their issues with the work, I do not share their opinions. The film is a powerful, deeply emotional work filled with despair and pain, and anchored every step of the way by Viggo Mortensen in a strong performance that is largely physical.

As they journey through a dying landscape, watching trees crash down dead, searching for food and water, gas or shelter, and avoiding the tribes that have become cannibals in their efforts to survive, Father and Son forge a unique bond that makes them curiously dependent on one another. Yet we also understand the father is ill, and what he is ultimately doing is preparing the boy to be alone. Mortensen captures the wounded man's pain in his wonderfully expressive eyes, and despite being faced with death all around him, he is a life force for whom survival is paramount.

Robert Duvall (him again) has a wonderful cameo in the film as an elderly man The Man and The Boy encounter on the road, doing the same as they are, trying to stay alive and trying not to remember too much. Seeing the boy opens memories for him that are painful, and that he is not yet ready to speak of. Duvall gives a master's class of acting in the scene around the campfire.

Is The Road perfect? No. It is unrelenting in its bleakness, and there truly is no hope as we see the world dying all around The Man and Boy. The performance of Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Boy is sometimes grating, though for the most part he and Mortensen have a nice chemistry.

That's it for now from the Toronto International Film Festival. More to come.

Source: John H. Foote, Film Critic/ Historian, Screen Rant Guest Reporter

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