Top-Tier Toronto: 15 Films to See

The Toronto International Film Festival reminds me of what Red Skelton said at Harry Cohn’s overcrowded funeral: “Give the people what they want, and they’ll come.” With film festivals, there’s one small difference. They come, in thundering droves, and decide if it’s what they wanted later.

The 25th anniversary of the world’s most popular and user-friendly film festival, which closed on Sept. 16, was a celebration of 25 years of celluloid passion at 24 frames per second. In 1976, when three Toronto film buffs with $250,000 and a dozen volunteers launched “the little festival that grew,” nobody predicted such a shaky start would explode into the cinematic event of worldwide importance it has become today. This year, with 450 paid staff members, 1,000 volunteers and an $8 million budget, Toronto surpassed Cannes. Miraculously, with 329 movies shown in 10 days (including 178 world and North American premieres), everyone got a seat. And if that wasn’t enough, there were alternative mini-festivals throughout Toronto staging tributes to Akira Kurosawa, Leni Riefenstahl, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dalí and the complete Looney Tunes cartoons of Hollywood’s veteran animator, Tex Avery. For 10 days, nobody talked about the Gold Cup, the Olympics, the Dow Jones or the rising cost of heating oil. Everyone talked movies.

There are reasons Toronto is popular. It’s not a tacky beach resort but a sophisticated cosmopolitan city where people are serious about their movies; it’s New York without the attitude and dirt, Venice without garlic breath, Cannes without the body odor. Film nuts plan vacations around this festival. They spend months ordering advance tickets, then stand in line for hours to get in. Everyone is friendly, polite and helpful. Any time you see a jaywalker or a pusher, it’s a New Yorker. The press is treated with respect. In Cannes, every time you get into a film you deserve a medal for courage under fire. In Toronto, there are no Door Fascists. It’s more like a convention than a circus.

You see everyone you know. A Hollywood columnist, not a movie mogul, throws the hottest party in town (the annual George Christy luncheon is the invite everyone kills for), and he tests all the recipes himself. You find yourself balancing 10 pounds of press books under your arm at a coffee urn, and Willem Dafoe holds your cup while you pour. You dash in from the rain to buy an umbrella, and Farrah Fawcett is standing next to you trying on baseball caps. Norman Jewison gives everyone a free can of maple syrup from his own trees. At Sassafraz, a festival bar serving free martinis while you check your e-mails, the guy at the next computer is Ben Affleck. You rush from a Thailand entry about the world’s first transsexual volleyball team to a Texas barbecue for Richard Gere, and you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. I actually saw a movie in which a man gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a chicken. Between the films and the press conferences, there was power chomping with Jeff Bridges, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sally Field, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Duvall, Laura Dern, Lynn Redgrave, Ellen Burstyn, Charlotte Rampling, Ang Lee, Stellan Skarsgård, Ed Harris, Minnie Driver. Let the air-kissing begin.

In this sleepless smorgasbord, I actually managed to see about four movies a day. An exhausting schedule of films from 50 countries–unparalleled for their variety, scope and high quality (the official program cost $30 and weighed more than a pound) and flawlessly projected in 18 clean, comfortable, state-of-the-art theaters–provided something for every taste. Joan Allen emerged as the most triumphant actor of the week with two powerful performances.

In When the Sky Falls , she gives a searingly honest portrayal (replete with impeccable Irish accent) of Veronica Guerin, the gutsy, prize-winning Irish journalist who was brutally murdered by Dublin’s drug lords in 1996 after her fearless crime reporting won her international fame. In The Contender , Rod Lurie’s unapologetically left-wing political broadside against the Republican Party, she plays the first female Senator in U.S. history to be appointed, midterm, as Vice President, only to become the victim of a shocking political ambush staged by a House Judiciary Committee investigation headed by a vicious Republican Congressman (brilliantly and creepily played by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman) with a self-righteous partisan agenda. Charged in a lascivious sex scandal based on an orgy when she was 19, the Senator refuses to confirm or deny the accusations as “beneath my dignity,” plunging the Democratic administration and the entire country into a moral dilemma.

The Contender is a powder keg that I’m predicting will blow in this volatile election year. A brilliant screenplay by Mr. Lurie and solid performances by Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Mariel Hemingway, Sam Elliott, William Petersen and others make this a political thriller of nail-biting sincerity, but it is Joan of Arc Allen whose strength, intelligence and willingness to take risks really turns the film into the most important sniper’s look at American political corruption I’ve seen since All the President’s Men .

Another personal favorite is Billy Elliot , a charming British heart-tugger about the hardscrabble life and dreams of an unusually sensitive and spirited 11-year-old boy who, despite growing up in a bleak town of striking coal miners in the north of England, wants to be a ballet dancer. It’s beautifully photographed, sensitively directed and impeccably acted, starring a fresh-faced newcomer named Jamie Bell (with big ears and a smile that melts crowbars) and featuring Julie Walters as the battered, chain-smoking dance instructor who sees his potential. It’s the feature film debut of acclaimed British stage director Stephen Daldry, who dazzled Broadway with An Inspector Calls . And it’s a triumph.

So is Ang Lee’s eagerly awaited December release, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . After disastrously tackling the American Civil War in his last film (Ride with the Devil ), the Taiwanese-born director has wisely returned to his Asian roots and the movie fantasies of his childhood for a lavish martial-arts extravaganza about the forces of good and evil in ancient China and the search for a magic sword. The film is guaranteed to please all ages. There are enough toys and whirling weapons in this fanciful tale of noble knights, romantic lady warriors, flying villains, desert tribes and balletic battles in the billowing branches of bamboo forests to make it the Star Wars of kung fu.

You Can Count on Me , written and directed by the much-admired playwright Kenneth Lonergan, is one of a number of thoughtful, well-acted films with a gratifying respect for narrative storytelling that premiered in Toronto. Mr. Lonergan’s film is about a brother and sister, orphaned as youngsters and estranged as adults, who are forced to re-examine their relationship as siblings when they each face an individual crisis. Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick give performances as accurate as a Rolex watch.

Even better is The Truth About Tully , a breathtaking independent film of sublime understatement that establishes Hilary Birmingham as a new director of exceptional naturalism and skill. Set in the cornfields of Nebraska, it’s based on a prize-winning O. Henry Award story by Tom McNeal about a serious, hard-working widowed farmer with two sons–a bored, restless, hell-raising stud named Tully and his earnest, shy, serious younger brother, Earl–whose strength, loyalty and affection for each other are severely tested when a terrible secret about their mother’s past suddenly threatens to destroy their farm and wreck their lives. Gorgeous cinematography, an uncommonly intelligent script and moment-to-moment work by three phenomenal actors who deserve to be major stars–Anson Mount as Tully, Glenn Fitzgerald as Earl and Julianne Nicholson as Ella, the freckled neighbor who teaches them how to love–add creative fuel to this lyrical American tone poem of hidden passions, subverted emotions and thrilling subtlety. The Truth About Tully is a work of irresistible homespun artistry reminiscent of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden .

Two fresh spins on the horror genre gave festival tongues plenty to wag about. Willem Dafoe, an offbeat actor who has always been drawn to exotic roles, gets a plum career assignment in Shadow of the Vampire . It’s a haunting and creepily tongue-in-cheek combination of movie lore and fright-flick innovation about the filming of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu that suggests the film’s shadowy star, the mysterious Max Schreck, was not an actor at all but a real Transylvanian vampire promised live blood in exchange for his curdling performance! John Malkovich, an actor I normally loathe, is quite funny as the absurdly pretentious German Expressionist director Murnau, but it is Dafoe who really steals the show as the blood-sucking fiend who turned Nosferatu into vampire history. With his face shrouded into an evil death mask and green fangs, pointed razor-sharp ears and bony fingers sprouting four-inch nails, it’s a role he really, er, sinks his teeth into.

Even scarier (and funnier) is a Canadian film called Ginger Snaps , from a spirited and uncannily original new director, John Fawcett, that quickly became the underground sensation of Toronto 2000. In this sick, twisted and often hilarious obsession, two morbid teenage sisters form a Goth-geek suicide pact to shock the A-list high school classmates who ostracize them. But before they can complete their mission, the older sister, Ginger, gets her period, attracts a strange animal lusting for blood and turns into a werewolf. While Ginger goes mental when the moon is full, her sister tries to keep her under control and find a cure for lycanthropy, and their dysfunctional mother (Mimi Rogers)–who has no clue what’s going on in her own house–keeps the fingers of one of Ginger’s victims in a Tupperware container in the fridge, thinking they’re part of the girls’ school science project. Sometimes you laugh out loud (with lines like, “How does a sexy werewolf hide her growing tailbone in gym class?”), other times it’s so gruesome and scary you have to hide your eyes, but Ginger Snaps is a work of daring imagination.

The most profoundly disturbing film in Toronto for me was Before Night Falls , the meticulous, slavishly detailed biography of the exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, a homosexual who spent his life fighting for freedom of expression under Fidel Castro and endured unspeakable degradation, humiliating censorship, life-threatening tortures in prison and endless struggles for personal and artistic rights before he finally escaped to New York and died of a drug overdose while suffering from AIDS in Greenwich Village in 1990, at the age of 47. Directed by Julian Schnabel, with an inspired performance by the mesmerizing Javier Bardem and a distinguished cast of hundreds that includes Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, Before Night Falls is rapturous, intoxicating filmmaking that will make a blazing centerpiece at the forthcoming New York Film Festival. Don’t miss it.

For iron stomachs, there was Requiem for a Dream , a suicidally depressing adaptation of the book by Hubert Selby Jr., about desperate, hopeless losers in Brooklyn at the end of their ropes. Dreaming of landing on a TV game show, a fat, wasted and discarded old woman (Ellen Burstyn, of all people) gets hooked on diet pills and ends up in an asylum, while her son (Jared Leto) turns into a heroin addict and his girl (Jennifer Connelly) supports her own drug addictions by selling herself to a gang of maniacs who stage depraved sex orgies. Everybody acts all over the place, vomiting and shooting up and turning green, while director Darren Aronofsky piles on the fisheye lenses, grotesque angles and pretentious special effects. It’s hysterically paced, exaggerated and thoroughly unconvincing.

Almost as lurid, but slickly fascinating and with more substance, The Yards is a nasty tale of violence and corruption in the New York subway yards, with fierce and believable performances by Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn and James Caan, edgy camerawork and careful direction by James Gray ( Little Odessa ). More than just another action thriller, it’s also an explosive nail-biter about the internecine complexities of a family fueled on crime and the poor relative who must betray them all to save himself.

Military themes are as rare in a film festival as comedies, but Toronto unveiled two of the best I’ve seen in years. Freeing himself from his usual Hollywood shackles, Joel Schumacher came up with the best film of his career, a deeply affecting and relentlessly exciting low-budget work called Tigerland , about an eight-week combat-training program at an army barracks in Louisiana for grunts on their way to Vietnam. Strong characterizations, firm plotting and a group of unknown actors with star potential turn familiar territory (in the tradition of Robert Altman’s Streamers ) into a minefield of unexpected surprises. Tigerland is a survival course in how to stay alive in Hell.

Men of Honor is a big, emotion-filled epic based on the life of Carl Brashear, the dirt-poor Kentucky sharecropper’s son who fought overwhelming odds to become the first black Navy Seal and, after losing his leg in battle, further distinguished himself by being the first Navy amputee to be restored to active duty. Cuba Gooding Jr. finally becomes a star of the highest rank in this galvanizing portrait in courage, and Robert De Niro is as good as it gets as the angry, prejudiced instructor determined to wreck his ambitions only to end up, years later, his most devoted champion. Men of Honor deserves to be one of the year’s most attention-getting Christmas blockbusters.

More about that later, as well as Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women , with Richard Gere graduating from charm school at last as a Dallas gynecologist driven over the wall by a world of gorgeous, dysfunctional Texas babes in a comedy that is more thoughtful than it sounds. There’ll also be more to come on Best in Show , a laugh-riot “dogumentary” from Christopher Guest that is 10 times funnier than his first film, Waiting for Guffman . This time he aims his satirical arrows at the fruits and nuts who populate dog shows. The canines in that one got a standing ovation in Toronto, along with a pig standing in line and a headless rooster represented by the William Morris Agency. Toronto is looking more like Cannes every day.