Turning Back The Clock

There was a lot of grumbling last week at the Toronto Film Festival about how this venerable showcase for world cinema has been turned into a launching pad for Hollywood's Oscar campaigns. With the likes of Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt and George Clooney parading down Bloor Street, one could've easily mistaken the festival for an out-of-town Hollywood press junket. But under the glittering surface was a more interesting story. A striking number of the American movies on display were throwbacks to the cinema of the 1960s and '70s, in both subject and style. Just as the ghost of Vietnam hangs over Iraq, the spirit of the social-protest movies of the early '70s can be felt in the myriad films tackling terror in the Middle East—from Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah" to 1960s maestro Brian de Palma's blistering "Redacted," a fictionalized account of the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl and her family by U.S. soldiers.

Some of the movies truly took us back to the 1960s. Julie Taymor's batty Beatles musical "Across the Universe" tells an insipid love story, propelled by cover versions of the Fab Four's hits, about a Liverpool lad named Jude (hey!) who falls in love with war-protesting American coed Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Far more fascinating is Todd Haynes's playful, puzzling, wildly uneven "I'm Not There," a fantasia on the slippery myth of Bob Dylan. Haynes casts six actors, including the astonishing Cate Blanchett, to represent both real and imaginary aspects of the icon.

Director 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 protagonist couldn't be more '60s in spirit: an affluent kid (Emile Hirsch) who gives away all his money and lights out for Alaska, with tragic results. Penn's movie celebrates his rebellious spirit even as it gives you room to find him a self-important pain. The spirit of Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven") hovers over "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a poetic reverie on the final years of the legendary outlaw, played by Pitt. Andrew Dominik's uncompromising, '70s-style Western turns its back on the fast-cutting style in current fashion. Equally indebted to the '70s—think "The Parallax View"—is Tony Gilroy's gripping anticorporate thriller "Michael Clayton," with Clooney as a law-firm "fixer" risking his life to staunch a scandal. Coproducer Clooney, a huge fan of '70s cinema, seems determined to revive the socially conscious genre movies of that era.

Watching these movies in Toronto felt like eavesdropping on a dialogue between two generations. There was a sense of directors' trying to shed the cobwebs of convention that had overtaken Hollywood, seeking inspiration in the past to find a way to address the uneasy present. The rest—the glamour and the glitz—was just marketing.