Notes from Toronto

Can a film festival be too much of a good thing?

Cannes is more glamorous, Sundance has better recreational drugs, but Toronto is still home to the best film festival in the world. It may also be the most schizophrenic, at least for anyone foolish enough to attempt a "complete" experience of this ridiculously multi-faceted event.

The Toronto International Film Festival is a one-stop shopping destination for movie lovers of all stripes, with a sprawling scale and eclectic scope that becomes both blessing and curse. Esoteric offerings from the most far-flung fringes of world cinema stand shoulder to shoulder with high-profile Hollywood fare, and so many films are presented (256 this year, from more than 50 countries) that no one could possibly see them all during the festival's 10-day run. Overambitious cinephiles or those with addictive personalities are likely to wind up feeling like an over-stuffed glutton the morning after an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I saw nearly 50 films at Toronto this year, which is probably a few more than any sane person would want to attempt. I planned my schedule carefully (OK, obsessively), running from one screening to the next, subsisting mainly on coffee and vending cart snacks, and keeping parties, celebrity gazing and all non-essential activities to an absolute minimum so as to maximize the sheer amount of movies I was able to consume. Again, probably not the healthiest way to experience this festival, but we all make our own choices.

In any event, I'm not going to lie and tell you I've been to the top of the mountain and seen cinema's glorious future. The 30th Toronto International Film Festival offered some intriguing glimpses at what's being produced around the globe, as well as sneak peaks at homegrown offerings that will vie for Oscars a few months from now — but there were no major revelations, few real trends and fewer masterpieces. This was a good year for the festival, but certainly not a great one or even a particularly surprising one.

Oscar hopefuls were everywhere this year at Toronto, which now more than ever resembles a testing ground/launching pad for Hollywood product positioning itself for awards season. The beautifully crafted Capote and Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's so-called "gay cowboy movie," more than lived up to my expectations, and you can bet the farm on Best Actor nods for both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger.

The news is less good on the much-ballyhooed Johnny Cash bio pic Walk the Line and Steve Martin's Shopgirl, both entertaining in spurts but with little to stick to the ribs beyond the performances of their female leads (Reese Witherspoon and Claire Danes, respectively). Even more disappointing were Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and the Carmen Diaz showcase In Her Shoes, two hotly anticipated dramadies that turn up dead on arrival. (Crowe claims "significant" edits are in store for Elizabethtown, but the film's myriad problems seem unfixable).

Probably the oddest story to come out of this year's festival was the fiasco surrounding Thank You For Smoking, a clever little black comedy that both Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics claimed to have bought (Fox was eventually revealed as the winner). Thank You got all the press, but Toronto unveiled lots of other, equally good films on our cinematic horizons, most notably the smart and sassy The Notorious Bettie Page; Shane Black's thriller-cum-meta-comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; and a pair of brutally poetic westerns for the post-Peckinpah crowd, Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and the Nick Cave-penned The Proposition. All are well worth seeking out when they begin to trickle into theaters over the coming months.

Best of all was Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, an irreverent and enormously entertaining romp through the history, politics and pop culture of 1970s Ireland, with a beautiful cross-dressing dreamer as our tour guide. Breakfast on Pluto is a smarter, edgier Forest Gump minus all the pandering, and if there's any justice in this world it'll be a huge hit.

Other films that knocked me out came courtesy of international auteurs from whom I'd expect nothing less, and had already been critically pre-approved at Cannes and Venice. Michael Haneke's Caché, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun and the Dardenne Brothers' L'Enfant all live up to their high-art buzz. But the one that overshadows them all is Philippe Garrel's astonishing Les Amants Reguliers, a three-hour black-and-white homage to 1968 Paris that is one of the most seductive reconstructions of time and place that I've ever seen.

Festival audiences were somewhat divided on Manderlay, Lars Von Trier's sequel to Dogville, but I found this eloquent film every bit as powerful and provocative as its predecessor. Other established auteurs didn't fare nearly as well in Toronto, with Francois Ozon's Le Temps Qui Reste and Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies both seeming like mildly interesting retreads of familiar themes, and Abel Ferarra's Mary a braying, sensationalistic joke.

Some movies aimed high only to crash hard, like Takeshi Kitano's autobiographical abstraction Takeshis' and John Turturro's star-studded genre-bender Romance and Cigarettes. As for Terry Gilliam's almost universally reviled Tideland, a movie that trips over its own feet in a rush to be as bizarre and offensive as possible, the best thing one might say about it is that it's not The Brothers Grimm. The only movie I saw at Toronto that was more disappointing was Guy Ritchie's Revolver, a convoluted mess that shows this director can be as pretentious as he is stylistically glib.

The real pleasures to be had at Toronto had nothing to do with auteurs du jour or getting an advance peek at some hot-shot movie that will be showing up in theaters in a few months. For me, the very best moments of this festival were those rare times when I allowed myself to go "off schedule" and wander into a film I knew nothing about or that I felt no compulsion to review.

Immersed in the rough Romanian reality of The Death of Mr. Lazerescu or the fabulous 1966 Hong Kong of Wild, Wild Rose, howling at the Thai brain-blaster Bangkok Loco, reveling in Douro, Faina Fluvial, a 1931 silent gem from Portugal — these are the moments that will bring me back to Toronto.

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