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jschneller@globeandmail.com

Well, it's Tuesday, we're halfway through TIFF 2009 (unless you're the U.S. press/big-studio folks who scatter after opening weekend, in which case, Godspeed and see you next year!), and everything is right on schedule.

I've seen Roger Ebert at the Varsity cinemas and Brian De Palma on the escalator at the Manulife (note to the makers of Fish Tank: Brian De Palma liked your film). I've witnessed fans waylaying Colin Firth outside the Windsor Arms. (A woman with a video camera was saying, "It's her 21st birthday, and if you could say happy birthday it would mean so much." "Ooo-kay," Firth said, gamely obliging. He certainly is a fine-looking fellow.) I've heard two young women in the fan throng outside the Intercontinental trying to remember who Kyle MacLachlan, who was stepping out of a limo, was. "Ooh! He's on Desperate Housewives!" one finally squealed - proving that you're only as good as your last project, even here. And I've watched a whole lot of sad movies. I don't know when Awards Season Adult Fare = Automatically Sad became the de facto equation, but here we are.

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It started at the first press conference at 9 a.m. last Friday, when Lars von Trier - live via Skype from Denmark, since he's afraid to fly - admitted to everyone at the Scotiabank Theatre that he was pretty much in the middle of a nervous breakdown and couldn't answer questions very well. Shaking and struggling to take full breaths, he said he was suffering from panic attacks and depression, drinking a lot and couldn't come up with one positive thing that had happened to him in the past week.

He called his movie, Antichrist, which stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a married couple grieving the death of their young son, "predictable" and said, "I don't think there is hope for mankind. I see man and civilizations being wiped out in three generations. But we can still be happy about seeing a film."

It was heartbreaking, especially since the first half of his film (also known, to those who've seen it, as "before the fox talks") is a really interesting meditation on grief, and Dafoe and Gainsbourg are wonderfully raw in it. Later that day, Dafoe admitted that the von Trier with whom he made Antichrist was "not the same man" with whom he'd made Manderlay (2005). "On this one, Lars was shaking so much he couldn't even hold the camera," Dafoe said sadly. Weirdly, I then went to two more movies in a row ( Creation and Jennifer's Body, Antichrist being the first) that feature significant appearances by ravens, deer and foxes.

But von Trier started some sort of quest for meaning in me, and I began to catch glimpses of it everywhere (this happens at TIFF, especially if you finish your days with large vodkas, overly loud party sound systems, and no sleep). I saw The Boys Are Back and My Year without Sex, two films that hinge on how swiftly and inexplicably illness can strike. I saw (and loved) The Road, about a postapocalyptic universe so bleak that ordinary things (Christmas stockings! Pink flower blossoms!) take on unbearable poignancy, and deciding not to kill yourself is a daily struggle.

I saw Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire - which is a powerful movie, but I have to say, follows the classic Oprah recipe (she's one of the producers) of seven-eighths waves of suffering to one-eighth blast of redemption - and had to sit in the dark for five minutes after it ended, to finish crying. Then I had an amazingly matter-of-fact conversation with Tyler Perry, another of its producers, about the abuse he'd endured as a child. "I grew up in Precious's situation," he said. "Her mother was my father. I was every four-letter word in the book constantly; he completely hated my guts. You know how in this movie, the mother sits with a social worker and pretends to be someone else? That was my father. He'd be in the house yelling at me, hitting me, one second, and in the next second I'd hear him outside talking to the neighbours, saying what a great, smart boy I was. The first time I saw Precious, when it was over I sat there solid, thinking, 'I made it through.' People need to see this. Everyone who made it through needs to see it, and everyone who's going through it now needs to see it to know that they can make it through." The clarity with which Perry talked about his past, and the positive direction he chose to find in it - that had meaning for me.

I also saw Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, about a man (George Clooney) whose reaction to the inevitable pain of life is to try to stay as unconnected to other humans as possible. "It deals with my personal fear," Reitman said in an interview, "that no matter how much I love my wife and daughter and the idea of being part of a family, there's something exhilarating when I go through airports and look at a plane and think, 'I could just get on one and land who knows where and start fresh with no responsibilities.' " When he added, "I like to make movies about things that everyone thinks but that no one wants to say," I realized that was a pretty succinct summation of what I like, too.

And then I saw the Coen brothers' new movie A Serious Man - not to be confused with two other identity-crisis movies, A Single Man and Solitary Man - which is hysterically funny despite the fact that it's filled with lines like, "Everything I thought was one way was really another" and "Why does God make us feel the questions if he's not going to give us any answers?" and "Even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term." (My recurring nightmare of high school made manifest on film!) It's my favourite TIFF movie so far, because it asks the hardest questions, provides no reassuring answers and still makes you laugh like hell, and that's the kind of meaning that means something to me.

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