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Northeast Ohio cinematic types embrace Toronto International Film Festival once again

We're starting to get an idea of the Oscar favorites!
Credit: Focus Features
Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden star in Jon Forman's festival favorite Everybody Knows.

TORONTO – Between them, three Greater Cleveland movie stalwarts already have watched 100 motion pictures at the 43rd annual international film festival here, and one of them went home two days ago.

That would be Cleveland Cinemas President Jon Forman, whose annual six-day stay also again left him with good feelings about a business he’s excelled in for more than four decades.

“Yes, I'm back in Cleveland, and I often return from TIFF with my spirits lifted and with renewed faith in our industry,” Forman wrote in an e-mail. “Naturally, I remain excited about business and the ‘grossing potential’ for many films.

“I just wouldn't use the word ‘many’ this year, in terms of how well some of the films I was able to see will perform at the box office, which is not to say they weren't good. It’s just that some were challenging, while others were depressing and perhaps what many paying moviegoers might not choose to see for entertainment.”

Mallory Martin, director of programming & projection for the Cleveland International Film Festival, and Artistic Director Bill Guentzler both generally agreed with Forman’s TIFF perceptions.

“Overall,” said Martin, “it felt slightly less busy than previous years, with less distribution deals being announced during the festival, as buyers are growing more cautious.” Nevertheless, Martin, whose TIFF viewing approached a whopping 50 films through yesterday, added that there remained a lot from which to choose.

Her standouts include two documentaries, The Biggest Little Farm, which she called ”a charming, yet ambitious autobiographical documentary that chronicles a couple’s determination to live in harmony with nature on their small farm outside Los Angeles,” and This Changes Everything, “a timely and all-encompassing examination of the historical and current systemic issues behind the lack of gender parity in the film and television industry. (The latter comes from Cleveland festival alum Tom Donahue, whose “Casting By” played at CIFF 37.)

Martin also listed Border, Sweden’s Oscar submission this year, that’s “a delightfully dark and strange tale, destined to be a cult classic, about a border agent who can smell human emotions”; Phoenix, “ a debut feature from Norway with some fantasy elements, telling the story of a young girl who is forced to grow up too soon while struggling with her mother’s mental illness”; and Skin, based on the true life story of Bryon Widner, a reformed white supremacist from Sidney, Ohio (though the film is primarily set in Toledo). Widner also was the subject of “Erasing Hate,” a 2011 documentary.

Added Guentzler late last night: “So far I’ve seen 30 films with a few more to go. Two that were great surprises for me were Tel Aviv of Fire, which comically handles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the confines of a soap opera production, and The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia, which features a retired teacher who is invited to another planet by her previous neighbor (who happened to be an extraterrestrial).”

Of course, Martin and Guentzler are here mostly to scout product for this spring’s 43rd annual CIFF, set for another 10-day run of its own, March 27 to April 7 at Tower City Cinemas. That didn’t stop the artistic director, though, from checking out a couple of “addiction films,” Beautiful Boy and A Million Little Pieces.

“They could be two of the bigger titles hitting theaters this year,” Guentzler said. “Both were very well produced, reflected the memoirs well and, of course, are very timely.”

With Forman operating 46 screens at six locations, his TIFF focus was al-inclusive.

“I think A Star is Born (with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga) is very good and will be popular with all kinds of movie-goers, possibly a real crowd-pleaser,”

He’s not as “bullish” about the Neil Armstrong story, First Man, but said he enjoyed it and thinks audiences will want to see it and respond favorably.

“Certain other films resonated with me,” Forman said, “because they reminded me of why I fell in love with the business 40-plus years ago. Even if Everybody Knows is subtitled, it was an extremely well-made and acted family drama with a great cast (including Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem).

“And, while What They Had (starring Hillary Swank, Michael Shannon and Blythe Danner) was a bit of a downer, as films about Alzheimer's can be. the cast and acting were first rate. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (with Melissa McCarthy) also was a pleasant surprise.”

All told, Forman reported, he saw more than 20 TIFF films and “didn't walk out of any (although there were some – which will remain unnamed because I may end up showing them -- that I probably should have left”).

“TIFF still remains a great festival too see many films in a short period of time,” he concluded. “Other than the crowds that demand you line up 45-60 minutes before a film to get in to see special ‘industry’ screenings, it is a festival I look forward to attending every year.”

TIFF 43 runs through Sunday. Return here Monday for a festival wrap-up of award-winners and personal pans and plaudits. Here’s an early preview: Green Book (a true story out of the early ‘60s with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen) will be featured.

Until then, you can check out all the above titles at tiff.net.