One Week in Another Town: The good, the bad and the plenty

The Toronto International Film Festival is the most comprehensive, best-organized and -operated, most international-press-friendly and - for my money - most important film festival in North America.

Running 10 days in early September in the Onatrio metropolis and showing upwards of 300 films (features and shorts) in 20some venues, it offers just about everything new the cinema gourmand could want to have a look at, with points of geographical and spiritual origin as diverse as Singapore, South Africa, Latvia and Hollywood, U.S.A. If you couldn't get to Sundance, Berlin, San Francisco, Cannes, Venice or Telluride, and can't make it to Lincoln Center later in the month for the ultraselective New York Film Festival, don't worry: the pick of those crops will (mostly) be on tap somewhere within hailing distance of Bloor and Yonge streets. Moreover, at least since 1999, when the year's surprise top contenders for the Academy Awards, "American Beauty" and "The Cider House Rules," were both unveiled there, Toronto also has become marked the unofficial kickoff of the Oscar season.

I've made it to Toronto 11 of the past 16 years and, apart from one unforgettably awful Indian meal, it's hard to come up with anything resembling a regret. The good films - the ones you catch and the ones you only hear others raving over - go a long way toward defining what the given film year is about, and even the bad ones are good for perspective.

You'll see things at Toronto you'll probably never have another chance to see - some because they're disappointing, others because they're too offbeat or specialized in appeal to warrant the costs of distribution and advertising. (During one festival in the early '90s I left halfway through Agnieszka Holland's "Europa Europa," which I knew I'd have no trouble seeing elsewhere, to catch an obscure fictional account of Fritz Lang's convalescence from World War I wounds in Slovenia. Not much of a movie, as it turned out, but I'd still be kicking myself if I hadn't taken the opportunity.) Mostly we made pretty good choices this year, but even when you find you haven't, there's usually another promising candidate just about to start in an auditorium down the hall. Fully eight auditoriums and four intimate VIP screening rooms in the Varsity multiplex are reserved exclusively for press and industry; you could see six films a day, or sample countless more, without leaving the blissfully air-conditioned building.

Not, I hasten to add, that Toronto's festival is only for professional film people. The local community enthusiastically queues up for virtually everything on public view. We had tickets to a 9:30 a.m. Sunday public screening of David Cronenberg's "The History of Violence" and showed up early. Early, ha! Thirty-five minutes before show-time the line for the cavernous Ryerson Theatre went two-thirds of the way around the block (and Toronto has very long blocks). In addition to the film's excellent advance reputation, Cronenberg is, of course, a local hero. Our tickets meant we'd have got in, but standing in the climbing-toward-90-degree heat and sun for half an hour wasn't my idea of a good time, so we boogied on over to the cool, dark Varsity for a 10 a.m. shot at Michael Haneke's "Caché" - as it turned out, one of the very best films of the festival.

Alternative options are nice to have, but it can get maddening. Just to put you in the picture, between 9 and 10 a.m. the very first day of press screenings (on subsequent days they started at 8:30 a.m.), the choices included "Banlieue 13," the latest actioner from Luc Besson's production company; something called "Eve & The Fire Horse" by Canada's Julia Kwan; "The Well," a Swedish-made documentary about Orson Welles that sounded pretty swell when described, on and off throughout the day, by fellow Seattleite Jim Emerson (who edits Roger Ebert's Web site); "The Smell of Paradise," a Dutch-Polish coproduction (and one of several "Paradise" titles to keep track of at the fest); and this deliciously emblematic either/or: Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," the directorial debut of the guy who wrote "Lethal Weapon," "The Last Boy Scout" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight," and Im Sang-soo's "The President's Last Bang," a coruscating skyrocket of South Korean history, political satire, advisedly near-slapstick (but bloody) mayhem and deep-steeped misanthropy. The Black exerted a naughty, playing-hookie appeal, but we opted for the comparative decorousness of one "Bang," and our personal festival was off to an exhilarating start. (Again, see Murphy for details.)

Then there was noontime on Day 3 when three of six attractions running more or less simultaneously shaped up as must-sees: Roman Polanski's take on Dickens' "Oliver Twist," Terry Gilliam's second 2005 effort "Tideland" (his "The Brothers Grimm" is now in release) and Tommy Lee Jones' mouthful of a title, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." (Happily, we had already seen Jean-Paul Civey-rac's "À travers la forêt," a haunting journey into the mind of a young woman obsessed with lost love, the night before.) Actually, this was a no-brainer. Polanski is one of the world's great filmmakers, but his and Gilli-am's movies would be in general release soon. Jones' big-screen directing debut (he previously helmed the made-for-TNT Western "The Good Old Boys") was still without a dis-tributor even though it had copped two prizes at Cannes in May, Jones for best actor and his Texas buddy Guillermo Arriaga for best screenplay. "Three Burials" it would be.

Start learning to pronounce Mel-key-odd-ess right now, because eventually you may want to tell people you just saw the best movie of the year. The picture starts with the more or less accidental discovery of the title character's body in the south Texas countryside, wends its way through flashbacks - that somehow don't feel like flashbacks - of his friendship with ranch hand Pete Perkins (Jones), lets us in on the private and working lives of a macho Border Patrol officer (Barry Pepper, the sharpshooter in "Saving Private Ryan) and the afternoons of his bored young Cincinnati bride (January Jones) and the genially overlapping love lives of Pete, the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and a gloriously seasoned hash-slinger at the (lone?) local eatery (Melissa Leo), and somehow escalates into the oddest pilgrimage/pursuit into Mexico to bear Mel's body home. Superbly shot by the great Chris Menges, who renders everything from a fluorescent-lit diner to sunstruck desert-scapes to a rattlesnake den in its own unique and ravishing light without getting fussy about it, the movie is frequently hilarious, though it's not exactly a comedy; a drama set in the West, with guns and horses and plenty of true grit, though it's not exactly a Western; and a tale of revenge, though the nature of the vengeance is most peculiar. "Three Burials" surprises us from moment to moment, without ever seeming to be wantonly clever or cute about it. Somewhere in a cantina on high, Luis Buñuel and Sam Peckinpah are chuckling.

My space is used up and I haven't even mentioned Ang Lee's "Broke-back Mountain," an Annie Proulx-based tale of the years-long romance between two cowboys (Jake Gyllen-haal and an apparently transformed Heath Ledger) that won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival the same day we caught it. Or Michael Winter-bottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," which takes Laurence Sterne's pre-postmodern 18th-century novel, pretends to be making a film of it and turns the enterprise into a hilarious inside-showbiz "Making of..." starring Steve Coogan and Ron Brydon. Or Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto," his most playful and dazzling film since 1997's "The Butcher Boy" (likewise based on a novel by Pat McCabe), with Cillian Murphy as a gender-switching knockout in direct line of Jordanian descent from the enchanting Dil in "The Crying Game." Or Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," about the breakup of the writer-director's parents' marriage - a brilliant, witty film with great performances by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as two critics forever watching the movie of their lives even as they live them.

On the other hand, I am spared any attempt to describe Guy Ritchie's latest, terminally self-indulgent traducing of the British gangster genre, "Revolver," which was met with a virtual tsunami of loathing from the press-screening audience. But in a horrible way, that, too, was a Toronto moment to be cherished.

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