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TIFF 2015: Strong International Slate

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With an unprecedented number of films from every corner of the planet, the Toronto International Film Festival is an eye-popping trove of international variety, and the opening day of TIFF 2015 was no exception.

Natalie Portman in A Tale of Love and Darkness
  • Natalie Portman in A Tale of Love and Darkness
I queued up for five films on Thursday, Sept. 10, which was only a sampling of the international fare I'll screen over the next 10 days. For the record, I'm reluctant to call any of them "foreign" films, considering I had to get my passport stamped in order to visit Toronto. All five were good films, but one, from Iranian director Jafar Panahi, was head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Natalie Portman has returned to Toronto five years after her dazzling performance in 2010's Black Swan (which debuted at TIFF) garnered hero a Best Actress Oscar. This time around, she's the director and a star of A Tale of Love and Darkness, an ambitious adaptation of the best-selling memoir by celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz. The story was filmed entirely in Hebrew, and it's a noble effort but ultimately, the movie feels as if it's trying too hard to be an epic.

The Assassin, from China, is gorgeous and should definitely be seen on the big screen. The martial arts are stunning— the genre is known as "wuxia" in China—but the scenery is the real star of the film, with outdoor panoramas filmed in China's Hubei Province and Inner Mongolia. Assassin tells the 9th century tale of a young beauty who is a killing machine. Her master sends her on a perilous mission to kill a powerful lord to whom she was once betrothed. The film was released in Beijng two weeks ago and should become a global sensation.

Dheepan, from France, comes straight out of today's headlines. It's the story of a family fleeing violence in their home country and ending up in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Paris. As a result, the family must use the same survival skills they thought they had left behind. It's a sure bet to be an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film.

Love, also from France, comes from controversial director Gaspar Noe who boasts this 3D film includes un-simulated sex. Unfortunately, the film's shock value isn't matched by its storytelling and unless Idaho's liquor laws change anytime soon, the chance of this film, which will undoubtedly be rated NC-17, being screened at theaters such as The Flicks (which serve alcohol) is non-existent.

Jafar Panahi, director (and driver) of Taxi.
  • Jafar Panahi, director (and driver) of Taxi.
My absolute favorite of the bundle was Taxi from director Jafar Panahi, a living legend in his native Iran. Taxi, which has already won the coveted Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival, is unlike any movie I've seen before.

Panahi was arrested by his government for creating "propaganda against the Islamic Republic" but because of technicality in Iranian law, Panahi's "house arrest" also included his vehicle. Panahi ingeniously used a dashboard camera to film Taxi as he drove the streets of Tehran. The film is sweet, a little sad and mystifying, and the story of how it was made is surpassed only by the film itself. I can't recommend it enough. It is essential viewing.