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Oh Canada!
The changing faces of the world's premier film event.
Published 10.05.05

(Picture With Caption: Caché)

Some people told me I was lucky. Everybody else said I was crazy, and I knew they were right.

There are lots of reasons to devote nine solid days of your life to chasing movies at the Toronto International Film Festival, but certain ground rules apply.

1. Don't expect to sleep.

2. Forget about regular meals, or any food or beverage that can't be snagged on the run.

3. Put any thought of sightseeing out of your mind. You may be in Toronto, one of the most seductive cities in North America, but you might as well be anywhere.

I knew that spending a week-and-change running around like the proverbial headless chicken at the world's biggest film festival was a dirty and possibly dangerous job. But someone had to do it.

At least that's how I pitched the idea to my editor, to whom I cast myself as some sort of brave and selfless Tampanian cosmonaut hurling myself into the great celluloid unknown in order to bring back news of cinema's future to the landlocked masses back home.

Toronto offers not just quantity (some 256 feature films this year, 180 of which were world premieres), but quality too. It's possible to see a bad movie at Toronto, of course, but you almost have to go out of your way to do so. The Toronto International Film Festival specializes in the crème de la crème of both commercial and non-mainstream cinema, which is just one of the reasons it is now widely considered to be the most important film festival in the world. For a critic, the festival's an all but indispensable destination, and making a haj here is every bit as essential as, say, a doctor's duty to brush up on advances in the field of medicine.

(Picture With Caption: Capote)

At least that's how I sold the story.

The reality turned out to be a bit different, and it began to sink in the moment I set foot in Toronto.

The first time I attended this festival, 10 years ago, I traveled with my wife, and the first thing I dragged her to, as she is forever reminding me, was a somewhat daunting four-hour deconstruction of Greek history and the human condition.

That movie, Theo Angelopoulis' Ulysses' Gaze, was actually pretty remarkable, and although its length has grown in memory (at a mere 177 minutes, it doesn't even clock in at three hours), the fact remains that the film is about as far from multiplex fare as you'll get. I'd hoped to continue the tradition by choosing a movie that was equally unconventional as my first taste of the 2005 Toronto festival: Les Sangantes, an obscure digital production from Cameroon billed as Africa's first sci-fi art-movie. I mean, how could I resist?

And were it not for my plane getting in late, that's exactly where I would have been, with the allegorical space vampires of Cameroon. But by the time I touched down in Toronto, the only film that was available for screening was a much less exotic option: a sneak peak at a Hollywood movie, Shopgirl.

Based on a Steve Martin novella, Shopgirl stars Claire Danes as a young woman wavering between a slacker dude her own age (Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman) and a wealthy, sophisticated and much older businessman, played by Martin. Not much happens here (the movie is very slight and, well, novella-y), but what does happen is dominated by an overripe orchestral score that seems to suggest that every action in the movie is enormously poignant.

Martin settles into Bill Murray's Broken Flowers mode here (which is to say, deadpan and not very funny), but when the veil eventually lifts on his character, he turns out to be so shallow that the film nearly falls apart. Shopgirl features some appealing moments, but the movie ultimately feels like a middle-aged male fantasy that wants to be thought of as painfully honest but is really just sort of creepy.

Even creepier, though, were the guys sprinkled throughout the theater staring at the audience with night vision goggles to make sure none of us were pirating their precious product. Leave it to those guardians of family fun and universal copyright law, the good folks at Disney (brains and bucks behind Shopgirl), to make a guy feel welcome. Yep, even here in rainbow-flag-wavin', peace-lovin' Toronto, the Age of Paranoia has come home to roost.

To be fair, those scary guys with the goggles were all over the place this year -- another sign that the festival and Hollywood have become the strangest of bedfellows.

(Picture With Caption: L'Enfant)

Over the past decade, as it's become increasingly clear that positive or negative buzz at this festival can make or break a movie, Toronto has become an ever more important arena for the big studios looking to get a leg up on awards season. How a film fares at Toronto has become an all-too reliable indicator of how it will do out in the world (American Beauty, Lost in Translation and Sideways were all hits here well before anyone had heard of them), and this year's festival was crammed with film buyers, publicists and journalists hovering around a slew of Oscar hopefuls in a field that was basically wide open.

Some Oscar aspirations immediately bit the dust, as both the Toronto public and critics (including this one) rejected Cameron Crowe's meandering Garden State-wannabe Elizabethtown. Ditto for Curtis Hanson's insubstantial In Her Shoes, which fails to provide much humor or pathos from the spectacle of bad girl Cameron Diaz sleeping with her sister's boyfriend, bonding with her estranged grandmother and (I kid you not) overcoming dyslexia.

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is an emotional knockout, a leisurely but beautifully observed love story between two manly cowboys whose magnificent obsession for one another is consistently frustrated through the decades. Featuring a devastating, coiled-up performance from Heath Ledger and poetic Western landscapes straight out of an Ansel Adams photograph, the movie is a profoundly satisfying epic of forbidden and obstructed love, a Douglas Sirk-styled old-school melodrama that slyly updates Sirk's veiled critiques of American mores and gender roles.

Speaking of gender politics, another movie that's probably going to do some respectable box office (and might even nab an Oscar nomination for its star, Charlize Theron) is North Country, a rousing, Norma Rae-esque liberation yarn based on the true story of the female miner who filed the country's first sexual harassment suit.

(Picture With Caption: North Country)

Real life and female empowerment of another sort were also behind two other good movies at Toronto: The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol as perky '50s pin-up queen Page, and Mrs. Harris, with Annette Bening delivering yet another terrific performance as Jean Harris, the messed-up socialite who murdered her famous and even more messed-up lover, diet doctor/guru Herman Tarnower (Ben Kingsley). Producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don't Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol) was behind both of these playfully subversive films, either one of which should cause biopic haters to consider changing their ways.

If you still haven't had your fill of art imitating life, Toronto unveiled two more biopics that may well be vying for Oscars later this year: the Johnny Cash-inspired Walk the Line and Capote, an account of celebrity author Truman Capote's experiences putting together his groundbreaking "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood. Walk the Line is a broadly entertaining, by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser (think of it as a poor man's Ray), but Capote is something else entirely. The film moves with understated grace and confidence from beginning to end, galvanized by an astonishing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a complex and surprisingly focused Capote (before fame, booze and inertia turned him into a bloated caricature of himself).

Hoffman was only one of the visiting celebrities in town during a week where it seemed like every other person you ran into on the street was famous. Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, Elle McPherson and various Camerons (Crowe and Diaz) were only a handful of the stars who roamed the city at will, and if you were really unlucky you might even wind up face to face with Nick Nolte in some dark alley. There were even fake celebrities making the rounds this year, including a faux Bono who successfully passed himself off at several parties before he was finally outed.

Official festival parties and galas of all sorts were ubiquitous as well, from ultra-sophisticated to funky-but-chic, including a bash for Tommy Chong's new movie for which the Toronto Hemp Company supplied revelers with 200 freshly baked pot brownies (which I was told are somehow legal in Canada, although I was told a lot of things that night that turned out not to be true). On one given day, I counted no less than 14 separate shindigs being held at various times and places around the city. Then again, that was the day of the Tommy Chong party, so my count may have been a little off.

Much as all the galas and endless star-gazing have their charm, I've got to admit that the Toronto International Film Festival of 2005 seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be all things to all moviegoers. On one hand, it was nearly impossible to avoid all the glitz and the movie stars being trotted out at every opportunity, as well as the constant attention lavished on Oscar hopefuls and big, cheery chunks of commercialism like the new Wallace and Gromit movie.

(Picture With Caption: The Proposition)

On the other hand, this is a festival that still likes to think of itself as downplaying the more crass, competitive side of the movie biz (even the awards handed out here are low-key, mostly of an informal, peoples' choice variety). It's a festival that continues to pride itself on its commitment to the wild frontiers of world cinema and, specifically, to the risky notion of film as art.

The Toronto festival does its best to balance its dual personalities. But when you find yourself in the thick of this massive, sprawling event -- racing from one screening to the next, segueing from the bubbly hijinks of something like In Her Shoes into the intense artfulness of the Dardenne Brothers' L'Enfant (which well deserves the Palme d'Or it took home from Cannes) -- even the most stable personality can turn schizoid.

I saw nearly 50 films during my time in Toronto, fueled largely by cups of strong coffee that kept magically appearing in my hand (Starbucks was a proud sponsor of this year's fest, and the stuff was being thrust at you from every street corner). As the days wore on and my body wore out, the festival seemed to go through increasingly wild mood swings, forcing me to keep changing right along with it. One moment I was standing in front of a red carpet where Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. mugged for the paparazzi before the premiere of their wacky Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The next moment I was staring up at a silent screen where unsmiling art-world enfants terribles Matthew Barney and Bjork were getting their body hair shaved off in Barney's latest filmic communiqué, Drawing Restraint 9.

Double features like these can make everything seem unreal.

Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black is the director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, by the way, and the movie turns out to be a wickedly funny satire of all those car-chases-and-stuff-blowin'-up-real-good buddy flicks for which Black is so handsomely paid. It's also a gleefully convoluted and surprisingly clever Get Shorty-esque meta-mystery, featuring memorable turns by Downey and Kilmer (as a cliché-busting gay detective who at one point shoots someone with his penis). Very funny stuff, happily enough, and well worth seeking out when it opens in a month or so.

As for that latest film by Barney, both he and Bjork manage to keep straight faces throughout the proceedings, but not so the audience, many of whom couldn't keep from cracking up at various moments during this often ridiculously pretentious two-and-a-half hour opus. The film is most notable for its dopey, droney Bjork soundtrack and for its shots of her and Barney looking cosmically solemn while lolling about in customized tubs of whale blubber.

(Picture With Caption: Dear Wendy)

Barney and Bjork aside (and since they were the festival's most annoying celebrity couple, outside of Madonna and Guy Ritchie, let's put them far aside), there were some pretty amazing art films to be found in Toronto this year. Alexander Sokurov, the filmmaker who many see as the spiritual heir to Tarkovsky, and who mesmerized Toronto audiences three years ago with Russian Ark, once again transforms history into poetry with The Sun, a fascinating meditation on Japan's emperor "God" Hirohito in the days just after World War II.

Fans of Taiwanese director Hou Hsio-Hsien (Millennium Mambo, Flowers of Shanghai) are likely to be enthralled with Three Times, an ambitious project that extends the filmmaker's lovely, uncluttered style to three vignettes, set in 1966, 1911 (visualized as a silent film) and in the anything-goes present. And Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden), which tells of an ordinary couple having their nerves systematically frayed by an unknown tormenter, is an elegantly enigmatic metaphor for life in the Age of Terror.

A film almost as arty but far more appetizing than Barney's, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is the latest live-action feature from those mad geniuses of the moving image, the Quay Brothers (who, despite the best of intentions, still occasionally seem more comfortable working with animated puppets than with flesh and blood actors). A densely cerebral fusion of The Phantom of the Opera and The Island of Lost Souls (kidnapped female singers, mad doctors -- you get the drift), Piano Tuner's obscurist tendencies and glacial pacing will undoubtedly keep mainstream audiences far away -- but for those with patience, the film is a compelling, hypnotic experience. Outside of Guy Maddin, no one creates worlds so wholly their own as the Quays.

And speaking of Maddin, one of Canada's favorite and looniest sons, his collaboration with Isabella Rossellini, My Dad is 100 Years Old, also screened in Toronto and delighted the faithful with what amounts to a complete history of the cinema in just 16 surreal minutes. At the other end of the temporal spectrum was Phillippe Garrel's sublime, three-hour Les Amants Reguliers, a magnificent black-and-white reconstruction of the white-hot scene that was Paris in May of 1968, from someone who was there and lived to tell the tale.

The director's filmic stand-in here is his own son, Louis Garrel, who also just happens to have starred in Bernardo Bertulucci's personalized take on that same time and place, The Dreamers. With all due respect to Bernardo, Les Amants Reguliers is the film that Bertolucci's should have been. Garrel's movie is a thing of beauty, a spirited blast of art cinema that's about as good as the movies get.

(Picture With Caption: In Her Shoes)

Of course, what would a film festival be without controversy, and plenty of films at Toronto this year supplied just that. Mary, the new movie by that old sensationalist Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York), arrived in Toronto with a heap of awards and critical acclaim in tow, but the film struck me as shrill and shallow. Matthew Modine stars as a Ferrara-like hipster director whose obsessive methods in making a movie about Jesus have driven his lead actress (Juliette Binoche) over the edge.

Ferrara, who often enjoys provoking audiences by juxtaposing extreme amorality and acts of faithlessness with glimpses of spiritual transformation, throws out lots of Big Ideas re-formatted as sound bites -- the media as co-opter of true religion and humanity, the filmmaker as martyred Christ figure, yadda yadda yadda -- but Mary just seems like a mish-mash of half-formed thoughts trying way too hard to get under our skins.

Equally controversial but (to my mind, at least) much better films came from a pair of Danish provocateurs. Manderlay, the second part of the so-called "American" trilogy that Lars von Trier began with Dogville, rakes racism over the coals in 1930s Alabama. Manderlay offers an almost indigestible vision of life as a cruel, Buñuelian joke populated by sadists and willing slaves, but the film feels to me as timeless and as universal as its predecessor, and I'm beginning to suspect that, when finished, this trilogy will eventually come to be considered one of the cinema's most important works.

Von Trier also wrote the script for his compatriot Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy, another film about young Americans who love their guns a little too much. Many thought the movie was overbearing or even silly, but I found it one of the most eloquent and strangely appealing titles screened at the festival.

Takeshi Kitano's Takeshis' and John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes each had their admirers, but most agreed they were messes. Takeshis' is an 8 1/2 wannabe that degenerates into aimless abstraction and pyrotechnics, while Turturro's movie is a star-studded freak show, with Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini shrieking at the tops of their lungs while doing various gratuitously bizarre things. As for Terry Gilliam's aggressively grotesque Tideland and Guy Ritchie's pompous Revolver, almost no one seemed to like either, and the only real controversy was debating just how low it's possible for a respected filmmaker to go.

The sad truth is that controversy was in many cases all that kept some of these films on the radar at all. Many of the most highly anticipated films showcased at Toronto (as with most movies in general) are certainly not bad, but aren't exactly the sort of thing we'll be talking about in 10 years, or maybe even a few months from now.

(Picture With Caption: The Sun)

Bee Season, the new movie from The Deep End directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee, piddles with the trendy subject of Jewish mysticism in order to mask what is essentially a fairly conventional drama about yet another fractured family. Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies is a not particularly interesting murder mystery that awkwardly incorporates many of the director's favorite metaphysical themes (and would have probably played better as a comedy). L'Enfer (Hell) takes a Krzysztof Kieslowski project left unfinished at the time of the legendary filmmaker's death, and turns it into a stylish but overwrought tale of three sisters' failed attempts at connecting with the world.

Maybe it's just what happens when you see 50 movies in little over a week, but there comes a point when you begin gravitating toward films that seem to come from other planets entirely. As my appreciation for sheer lunacy peaked, I found myself drawn to Thai imports like Bangkok Loco, an Asian Airplane! meets The Monkees on (insert mind-alerting drug of your choice here), and Citizen Dog, a wacked-out dose of magical realism that is basically Amelie transposed from Montmarte to Bangkok.

I found myself thrilled by stylish and unabashedly psychotic South Korean movies such as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The President's Last Bang, the latter being perfectly choreographed chaos that re-imagines a political assassination as the Three Stooges with a major body count.

And then there was Takeshi Miike's insane attempt at family entertainment, The Great Yokai War, a non-stop barrage of bizarre, battling monsters that I ecstatically devoured late one night in a theater packed with howling fans. Next to this, even Sara Silverman's gleefully obscene Jesus is Magic seemed tame.

And then, just when you begin to think if you see one more movie you're going to lose whatever tentative perspective you might have had on this extraordinary and exhausting festival, it simply stops.

The movie stars, filmmakers, deal-makers and journalists all go home, the hotels empty out, the press offices pack up their boxes, the screenings wind down and finally end. Finished.

It's all over now but the shouting, but here are a few impressions of the 30th Toronto International Film Festival that won't be fading soon:

(Picture With Caption: Three Times)

• Hearing a character in the ninth-century epic Beowulf and Grendel tell the hero that he looks like walrus shit.

• Following an ailing Romanian pensioner from hospital to hospital as he fades away in real time in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

• Watching almost the entire audience get up and leave, one by one, during the screening of Tideland.

• Wondering why so many of the very best films at this year's festival -- Brokeback Mountain, Nick Cave's brutally poetic The Proposition and Tommy Lee Jones' Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada -- could all be loosely described as Westerns.

• Laughing with Philip Seymour Hoffman (during a roundtable interview) about the terrible responsibility Truman Capote bears for reality TV and for our current era of celebrities famous for being famous.

• Watching teams of festival volunteers gather on the red carpets to link arms and cry in unison "Lock and load," as they surrounded various celebrities to protect them from over-eager fans.

• Sitting through film after film that tried to make sense of the Jihadist mentality -- including one, The Smell of Paradise, where a Muslim spokesman calmly explains that "Democracy is the last attempt by men to create an alternative to God's law," adding, "and it will end in tragedy."

• Watching the omnibus film All the Invisible Children and realizing that Spike Lee is still a good director.

• Trying to decide if that was really Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry sitting in that car with the male transvestite hooker in the amazingly good Breakfast on Pluto.

• And, maybe best of all, watching time stand still as the kids in Les Amants Reguliers smile the smiles of unlimited possibilities and dance to The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow."

No matter how much you see and do at this festival, there's always the nagging feeling that you've missed something important. There's never enough time, and you'll never come close to being able to see all the films you feel you want or need to see here, so all you can do is take what you can get and try not to obsess on the ones that got away.

(Picture With Caption: Bubble)

For me, the ones that got away this year included Steven Soderbergh's shot-on-DV project Bubble and three films that some claimed were among the festival's best: Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I'm sure there are many others that should be mentioned, but only time will tell what those might be.

For the dedicated cinephile, Toronto is as much about what goes unseen as it is about what we actually do get to see, which seems pretty much in line with how life works, too. Then again, I still haven't caught up on sleep, so I could be wrong about that, too.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the time I spent in Toronto is now a bit of a blur. But it's a beautiful blur, and, all things considered, that'll do just fine.

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