Feasting At The Festival

Imagine a Wal-Mart superstore that contains Prada boutiques, antiquarian bookstores, Japanese comic books and semiautomatic weapons, and you have an inkling of the Toronto Film Festival's vast, eclectic largesse. It's become North America's most important film festival by offering... everything. You can catch up with movies unveiled at Sundance and Cannes, get a juicy taste of Hollywood's fall offerings and sample movies from Cameroon to Croatia. The big studios love to showcase potential Oscar entries in Toronto: local audiences are notoriously friendly, star-struck and likely to leap to their feet in applause.

I spent six days at the festival, and there were 256 movies to choose from--and almost as many publicists trying to convince you that theirs was the one to see. For a movie critic, this is the equivalent of the Tour de France, except that you rarely see sunlight and no one's testing you for illegal substances. Fortunately, if a movie should prove beyond hope, you can dash for the exit and, with the proper press pass, pop into another just as it's starting.

There are always dozens of new Canadian movies on display in Toronto, and I've always felt guilty for steering clear. So it is nice to report that one of the unqualified successes of this year's festival was made by the Pride of Canada, David Cronenberg. "A History of Violence" is an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller that works as both a straight-ahead genre movie and a provocative study of the nature of violence itself. Viggo Mortensen stars as a happily married small-town American hero whose family is suddenly confronted with the possibility that he's an entirely different man than they knew: not the sweet owner of a diner in Indiana, but a savage gangster from Philadelphia. Sexy, scary, sometimes oddly funny, Cronenberg's masterly movie doesn't have a wasted motion.

Violence, both emotional and physical, simmered close to the surface in almost every movie. In Michael Haneke's stunning "Cache" ("Hidden"), the refined lives of an intellectual Parisian couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) begin to unravel when they discover their lives are being taped. There's a moment in this intense highbrow thriller that produced the loudest audience gasp I've heard in years.

As for American movies, the evidence at the festival suggests that we're heading into a rich season. For pure emotional impact, it was hard to top Ang Lee's groundbreaking "Brokeback Mountain," a love story, based on Annie Proulx's great short story, that left few dry eyes. The lovers are two Wyoming ranch hands played, with great imploded passion, by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. What a relief to see homegrown movies that aren't always in a rush. The same clear, steady gaze graces the smart biopic "Capote," which takes a mordant look at Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at the time he was writing "In Cold Blood." It's an etched-in-acid portrait of a writer whose talent was as ruthless as it was brilliant. There's another memorable novelist (played by Jeff Daniels) in Noah Baumbach's painfully funny, meticulously observed meditation on the dissolution of a marriage, "The Squid and the Whale."

The festival was full of show-stopping turns: Judi Dench as an aristocratic widow sowing wild oats in "Mrs. Henderson Presents"; Claire Danes in the small but haunting "Shopgirl," which Steve Martin's adapted from his own novel, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, slipping effortlessly inside the skins of Johnny Cash and June Carter in the biopic "Walk the Line." The trajectory, from rags to riches to drugs and back, is numbingly familiar, but the chemistry is delicious.

Toronto had its fair share of disappointments--none more baffling than "Elizabethtown," a tone-deaf, miscast and interminable romantic comedy from the usually beguiling Cameron Crowe. (Just before the lights went down at the press screening, we were informed it was a "work in progress.") At the gala public screening, where the stars were in attendance, Crowe's movie reportedly got a standing ovation. That's Toronto, too. When glam Hollywood meets the local audience, it's hard to say who's the more eager to please.