Though the star-struck citizens of Toronto didn't mind, there was heard a lot of grumbling last week at the Toronto Film Festival about how this venerable showcase for world cinema has been turned into a mere stepping stone for the Hollywood studios' Oscar campaigns. With the likes of Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt, Keira Knightley, George Clooney and Tommy Lee Jones parading down Bloor Street, one could be forgiven for mistaking North America's most influential film festival for an out-of-town Hollywood press junket.
It's true that for a member of the press it was harder than ever to pursue hidden foreign gems—such as the charming Israeli comedy "The Band's Visit" or Mexican visionary Carlos Reygadas's mesmerizing, demanding "Silent Light," about adultery and transcendence in a Mennonite community. The pressure was to keep up with the fall's major prestige items, such as "Atonement" (based on the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel) or Ang Lee's Chinese-language potboiler "Lust, Caution" or the Coen brothers' riveting film noir "No Country for Old Men," their best film in ages.
But under the glittering celebrity surface was another, more interesting story. What was striking was how many of the American movies on display were throwbacks to the cinema of the '60s and '70s, both in subject matter and in style. One obvious reason was political: just as the ghost of Vietnam hangs over the quagmire in Iraq, the spirit of the social protest movies of the early '70s can be felt behind the myriad movies attempting to deal with terrorism, the Middle East and what the war is doing to the American spirit. These themes were front and center in movies from Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah" to the Reese Witherspoon/Jake Gyllenhaal thriller "Rendition," which deals—with good intentions and a heavy hand—with the secret overseas detention centers where terrorist suspects are held and tortured far from the prying eyes of the U.S. justice system. Sixties maestro Brian De Palma returns to his political roots with his blisteringly angry "Redacted," a fictionalized account of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family by U.S. soldiers, which employs various pseudo-documentary techniques to powerful, if sometimes badly acted, effect.
Some of the movies literally took us back to the '60s, via the music of the era. Julie Taymor's batty Beatles musical, "Across the Universe," tells an insipid 133-minute love story about a young Liverpool lad named Jude (Hey!) who falls in love with war-protesting American co-ed Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), propelled by cover versions of the Fab Four's greatest hits. Surprisingly literal-minded (Prudence, hiding in a closet, in exhorted to come out and play), it joins the ranks of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in the pantheon of misguided musical epics. Far more fascinating was Todd Haynes's playful, puzzling, provocative (and wildly uneven) "I'm Not There," a fantasia on the slippery myth of Bob Dylan. Haynes cast six actors to represent both real and imaginary aspects and alter egos of the enigmatic legend: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere and the very young black teenager Marcus Carl Franklin. Stealing the show is Cate Blanchett, astonishing as the jittery, androgynously seductive enigma lurching his way through London in black-and-white sequences peppered with visual allusions to such '60s classics as "A Hard Day's Night," "Petulia" and "81/2."
Sean Penn's gorgeous and disturbing road movie "Into the Wild," based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction best seller, may be set in the '90s, but its idealistic, radically dissatisfied protagonist, Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, couldn't be more '60s in spirit—an upper-middle-class kid who gives all his money away and lights out for the territory—with tragic results. Penn's movie celebrates McCandless' rebellious spirit even as it gives you room to find him a self-involved, self-important pain in the ass.
The spirit of Terry Malick ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven") hovers over "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a poetic, melancholy, leisurely reverie on the last years of the legendary outlaw's life. Brad Pitt is terrific as the manic Jesse, alternately charming and paranoid, and Casey Affleck superbly creepy as the callow Judas who grabs fame with a bullet. New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik's uncompromising, '70s-style Western, like Penn's sprawling odyssey, turns its back on the fast-cutting, action-dominated style in current fashion. Though it courts tedium at times, it's clearly the work of an immensely talented filmmaker. Much more audience-friendly but equally indebted to the '70s (think of such paranoid thrillers as "The Parallax View") is Tony Gilroy's dense, gripping anticorporate thriller "Michael Clayton," with George Clooney as a law firm "fixer" attempting to staunch a corporate scandal, and risking his life in the process. Coproducer Clooney, who has often proclaimed his love for '70s American films, seems determined to revive the socially conscious genre movies of that era.
Watching these movies one after another in Toronto, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on a dialogue between two generations of filmmakers. You had the sense of directors trying to shed the cobwebs of convention that have overtaken Hollywood movies, seeking inspiration in the past to find a way to address the uneasy present. The rest—the glamour and the glitz—was just marketing.