In Toronto, It’s Hooray, Hollywood!

If the point of a film festival is to preview the look of the future, then the wall-to-wall smiles at the 26th annual Toronto bash are justified. Before 2001 goes down in the record books as one of the all-time worst years in cinema history, it is my happy duty to inform you that things are about to change. At the midway point of this star-studded, jam-packed orgy of celluloid, running Sept. 6-15, madness is in full swing, attendance is at an all-time high and the 2,348,190 feet of film unraveling from festival projectors on 20 different screens represent 249 features and 77 shorts selected from 2,549 total submissions.

If you think movies are dead and buried six feet under, you should be in Toronto now. Amidst the mayhem, you feel enlightened in the dark.

More amazing than the people who sleep in the streets waiting for early-morning ticket cancellations and last-minute seats is the wide variety of selections from the 416-page, three-pound program book. From sadistic underworld action assaults made in Taiwan to a retro-futuristic MGM-style musical set in outer space, there is something for everybody. If the newest pretentious bores from Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer don’t thrill you, maybe a freshly interpreted Midsummer Night’s Dream from England, performed by a cast of 350 children between the ages of 8 and 12, will catch your fancy. From what I’ve already seen, I am pleasantly shocked to report that this year in Toronto, quality equals quantity.

The best film I’ve seen so far is In the Bedroom , a sensitive, carefully made and beautifully acted work of irony and art that signals a welcome return to the kind of adult movie-making that has almost disappeared from the American cinema, and that restores Sissy Spacek’s career to the mantel of importance it deserves. Meticulously directed and co-written (with Rob Festinger) by Todd Field, an actor with a special affinity for the way real people talk and think and feel, In the Bedroom explores the impact of a violent and senseless crime on an apple-pie American family in a coastal village in Maine. Matt Fowler, a gentle, respected doctor (poignantly underplayed by the great Aussie actor Tom Wilkinson) and his strong, resourceful wife Ruth (Ms. Spacek) are disappointed when their teenage son (Nick Stahl) becomes attracted to an unhappy older woman with two children of her own (Marisa Tomei), then shaken to their roots when the boy is murdered in a jealous rage by her estranged husband.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the family grows divisive in their grief and disillusioned with an ineffectual judicial system, while the town moves on, unchanged. Helplessness grows, tension mounts and anger builds to a shocking resolution in which closure can only be brought by revenge, and the film ends where it begins–in the bedroom. The acting is splendid, but Ms. Spacek has never been more truthful and eloquent, in a moment-by-moment performance that says as much in the anguish on her face as it does in the honesty of her dialogue. The beautiful collage of New England life that forms the backdrop to this wrenching story adds a lot to the moving plight of decent people plunged into one of life’s most punishing injustices. In the Bedroom is a heartbreaking film of masterful and confident restraint, but it’s the powerful account of things too long unfinished and thoughts too often unspoken that left me shattered.

Another long-neglected talent who returns with maturity to the center spotlight is Stockard Channing, drawing raves for her bravura work in The Business of Strangers . As a toned and tough senior executive whose job comes equipped with a boarding pass, she’s the exact opposite of the flighty new assistant she’s just fired (played with a dangerous edge of mystery and cockiness by Julia Stiles). Then both women find themselves stranded overnight, in one of those cold, impersonal airport hotels that cater to weary travelers, and become reluctant companions, passing the lonely hours painlessly.

First, it’s a conciliatory drink in the hotel bar. Then, a workout in the gym, a few jokes in the elevator, a visit to the disco. After knocking back a few scotches, they get around to the subject of men. Then the story turns ugly when their paths cross that of a male headhunter the younger woman remembers as the man who raped her in college. As the night wears on, the women seize their chance to exercise their ultimate power over a male-dominated business world, discovering things about each other that will change their lives forever. First brisk and intelligent, then shocking and scary, The Business of Strangers pricks the veneer of successful and competitive career women in a clever game of manipulation and control over men in much the same distasteful way Neil LaBute examined gender power from the masculine point of view in In the Company of Men . Crisply written and directed by first-timer Patrick Stettner, it’s one of the festival’s most controversial “hot tickets,” and Stockard Channing is one of its most alluring “hot flashes.”

The weirdest film I’ve seen is Novocaine , a noirish thriller with comedy undertones about a dentist (Steve Martin) with a profitable practice and a great love affair with his luscious hygienist (Laura Dern), whose life turns into a curveball from hell when a new patient (Helena Bonham Carter) turns out to be a junkie goth who introduces him to sex, decadence and murder. With Steve Martin, it’s hard to take the macabre side of this odd, manic tale seriously, but when he starts yanking out his own teeth with pliers in a bloodbath of self-mutilation, you know you’re experiencing something awful. Some people laugh, others cover their eyes with horror. Grim and quirky, Novocaine is different, all right, but even for black comedy it never really convinces.

Vastly more terrifying is John Dahl’s hair-frying road-movie thriller Joy Ride , about two brothers with distinctly different personalities (Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) who drive from California to New York in a yellow ’71 Chrysler Newport equipped with a CB radio, with a brief stop in Colorado to pick up a girl (Leelee Sobieski). En route, they play a hokey joke with an unseen trucker who turns out to be a psycho. For the rest of the movie, the voice on the radio with the handle “Rusty Nail” stalks, chases, threatens and terrorizes the three preppies while grotesquely mutilated corpses pile up on the highway. Convincing performances by the three actors, bone-chilling action and slick, pulsating direction by the imaginative Mr. Dahl add up to a dark, violent, fast-paced mirror to life on the American highway that never pauses to inhale. One Toronto critic rudely called it “a nasty-assed Road Runner cartoon on diesel fuel that moves like a mother,” but that doesn’t begin to explain the screams of terror exploding from the audience. Joy Ride is the best wacko-trucker flick since Stephen Spielberg’s Duel .

On a smaller scale, there is Tape , a low-budget indie-prod shot on digital video by the eccentric festival cult director, Richard Linklater. A three-hander shot entirely in the claustrophobic confines of a seedy motel room in Lansing, Mich., it observes with the eye of a spider three old friends who haven’t seen each other in years as they play increasingly dangerous head games about their final days in high school. The film begins with a pace so slow I started to walk out: Ethan Hawke pours warm beer down the sink, crushes the can, strips to his corny boxer shorts, does pushups between the beds, stares at the wall, cracks his toes. What is going on here? Then Robert Sean Leonard shows up. He’s a filmmaker whose first feature is being screened at a local film festival, while his old pal, a drug dealer who peddles pot to aging hippies, has frittered away his potential. An intellectual battle of wits ensues about which one is better qualified to analyze the downward spiral of society. They drink more warm beer, smoke a joint and argue a lot. Then the film takes a dramatic right turn without a signal.

Mr. Hawke goads the affluent, accomplished and socially superior Mr. Leonard into admitting he raped a girl named Amy (Uma Thurman) in senior year and tapes the confession on a cheap recorder from Kmart. Amy, who is now an assistant district attorney, arrives and all hell breaks loose. Once again, a woman outsmarts the men and leaves them devastated. The performances by Mr. Hawke, Mr. Leonard and Ms. Thurman are triumphant, and the film–despite dizzying, amateurish camerawork that makes you think it’s being directed by a trapeze artist–is so riveting you may find yourself in need of an anti-anxiety pill.

Like most film conventions, Toronto has its highs and lows. The low point is Mulholland Drive , a moronic and incoherent piece of garbage by David Lynch that was shot as a TV pilot and rejected. Not good enough for television, but lapped up as a centerpiece for the forthcoming New York Film Festival. Has everyone gone mad? Incomprehensible gibberish is no longer a good excuse for titillation, even at Lincoln Center. Fortunately, there is enough good stuff to sweeten the taste of bile peddled by hawkers of pretentious rubbish like Mulholland Drive .

In Toronto, diversity reigns, and there is plenty of it on every street. Dark, moral fables from China compete with political tracts from Bosnia, werewolves from lost planets howl for attention at the same hour as the latest frothy comedy from Miramax. They all have one thing in common: Every film is shown in its original language with English subtitles, unlike Cannes, where German films are shown with French ” sous-titres ” while a woman with an undecipherable Cockney accent translates over headphones, five scenes behind what you’re seeing on the screen. There is much more to come, but for the first half of a 10-day orgy, Toronto has offered better odds than the Nasdaq.