TIFF: Thank God It’s Toronto!

Gay cowboys, a 60-foot rubber lobster, a pair of Siamese twins who play guitars and become pop stars, the usual menu of war, chemotherapy patients, dope fiends, wife beaters, child abusers, born-agains, violence, rape, rock ’n’ roll and Liza Minnelli. Toronto 2005’s got something for everybody. Thirty years ago, three broke Toronto movie buffs who wanted to go to the movies free but couldn’t get into Cannes, Venice or Berlin started their own film festival by begging everybody to bring their movies in exchange for all the Canadian Club they could drink. Three decades later, the Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF) is one of the biggest, best and most popular cinema events on the planet. It is also one of the most exhausting.

Over-programmed to the bloodshot eyeballs with 335 films in 10 days, culled from 3,545 entries and representing 52 countries, projected at the rate of five films per hour on 23 screens spread across a five-mile radius of metropolitan Toronto, there is, needless to say, no way to see everything, or even a fraction of it. I am seeing five or six films a day, living on a junk-food diet of Tootsie Rolls and popcorn, yet every time I exit bleary-eyed from a two-hour saga about a suicide bombing in Jerusalem featuring forensic footage from Hamas military videos and the bomber’s home movies, I run smack into another dazed critic who tells me I just missed “the masterpiece of the festival,” about an underground terrorist training school in Baghdad. (The only masterpiece I’ve seen is Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s beautiful, sensitive, heartbreaking epic about two men who love the American West and each other. More about that in a minute.) Meanwhile, if the movies in Toronto are any gauge of what’s coming, scaring people to death will be popular this year, but at the halfway point of this year’s cinematic circus, my biggest fear is about what I did with my extra-strength Advil.

With so much to do and so little time to do it, some people come to TIFF for movies, some for disco parties, and others just to get a glimpse of Johnny Depp. Looking like a pothole on the Santa Monica Freeway, greasy-haired and badly in need of a dentist, he tells everyone how much he doesn’t want to be a movie star. If only somebody would listen. Elsewhere, I run into Cuba Gooding Jr. in a cowboy hat, a chain-smoking Robert Downey Jr., who is on his honeymoon, and a frazzled Heath Ledger, one of the two gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, who shows the strain of being grilled by the press about all those kissing scenes with co-star Jake Gyllenhaal. After locking lips for days on end during the film’s arduous shoot in the lip-chapping mountains of Calgary, one hopes they have a new empathy for what women go through with guys who don’t shave, but in Toronto, they both still look as though they haven’t seen a razor since high school.

Jeanne Moreau is here, and Charlotte Rampling. Sipping a cocktail in the window at Tiffany’s, Kirsten Dunst looks like the freshest thing on the block. Wolfing down a latte at Starbucks, Charlize Theron doesn’t. Daily bulletins announce the arrivals of Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Richard Gere, Val Kilmer, William H. Macy, Steve Martin, Claire Danes, Kurt Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Helena Bonham Carter, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Jeff Bridges, Susan Sarandon, Sydney Pollack, Ray Liotta, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and even Shirley MacLaine. They are here to work, but who has time to watch them do it?

I start out each morning at 7 with a bottle of water and a notebook in my otherwise empty backpack, walk 15 minutes to the press room with 800 mailboxes, and by the time I take my seat for the first critic’s screening at 9 a.m., I’ve got ten pounds of paperwork, production notes, press releases and invitations to cocktail parties on my back. If I make Martin Scorsese’s four-hour documentary about Bob Dylan, I miss dinner with Steve Martin and Claire Danes. The much-heralded performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, lisping his way through Capote, is scheduled for the same hour as Liza Minnelli’s presentation of the new, digitally restored stereo print of her Emmy Award–winning 1972 television triumph Liza with a Z, which one wag later described as being responsible for emptying every gay bar in Toronto. Liza entertained the screaming audience with candid show-business memories (“Bob Fosse was fabulous and dangerous … he was pigeon-toed and you had to learn how to dance just like him … which is why I now have two fake hips”) to keep them cheering. “Restored, Remastered, Remarkable!” yelled press releases on pink paper. Just like Liza herself.

If the social whirl this year has lacked what Kay Thompson always called “bazazz,” the movies have more than made up for it. The good stuff started immediately, which by the standards of most film festivals is practically “miraculous.” By the second day, I had already seen two colossal achievements and one genuinely unquestionable masterpiece.

The one the critics have gone mad for is Brokeback Mountain. Flying in on a cloud of raves from Venice, where it won this year’s Golden Lion prize for Best Film, Larry McMurtry’s sensitive adaptation of the acclaimed New Yorker short story by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Proulx, under the capable guidance of director Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is visually enthralling and emotionally overpowering. For a Taiwanese-born director who lives in Larchmont, Mr. Lee knows a lot about debunking American myths; from the frigid marital dysfunctions of suburban WASP’s in The Ice Storm to the unspoken feelings of secret sex and love between Marlboro men in boots and Stetsons in Brokeback Mountain, he digs deep into the American psyche and gets it right.

When the story opens in 1963 in the rugged mountains of Wyoming, rancher Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meets Texas rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) on a summer job herding sheep. Chopping their own wood, cooking nothing but canned beans over their campfire, protecting their herd from wolves and coyotes, the two young men slowly bond, isolated geographically and emotionally from the rest of society, with only each other to talk to about their hopes and dreams. Then one night, while sharing the bedroll in their pup tent for warmth in an early snowfall, the two cowboys turn to each other for more than conversation. Their lives take them in different directions after that. They become husbands and fathers, loved by their families and respected by their neighbors, keeping their lonely longings cautiously hidden, but their feelings never fade.

A reunion four years later in a roadside motel near the Tetons cements their passion. Their long-distance love affair survives suspicion, divorce, failure, the hostile homophobia of a society that changed too slowly to save them, and the inescapable cruelty of time itself—but their faith in each other never fades. The consequences are gentle, proud and unbearably heartbreaking. The acting is superior and deeply honest, with the beauty of its feelings matched by the rustic majesty of its landscape and the strength of understated emotions surging without sentimentality. The temptation to call it the first mainstream gay cowboy movie is strong, but Brokeback Mountain is a work of such courage, complexity and greatness that no easy one-liner could ever do it justice. Just call it a magnificent love story, destined to find its way into the soul of a mainstream audience despite subject matter that some may call subversive. Scheduled for general release in December, it is destined to be one of the most talked-about films of the year—and one of the most beloved.

From England, an Oscar-worthy performance by the fabulous Judi Dench is the elegant, hilarious centerpiece of Mrs. Henderson Presents, Stephen Frears’ devilishly delicious tribute to the eccentric owner of the legendary Windmill Theatre in London’s West End, whose nudie shows defied—and survived—censorship, British bureaucracy and even World War II. Part musical, part memoir, part social diary of the 1930’s, this sparkling jewel of a movie smartly tells the riotous (and totally true) story of Mrs. Laura Henderson, a bored, widowed aristocrat and social duenna with money and no experience who impulsively bought an abandoned theater in prewar London with the hope of bringing back vaudeville, and Vivian Van Damm, the colorful, cigar-smoking manager with ideas and no taste whom she hired to run it (crudely, colorfully played by Bob Hoskins). Fighting endlessly over every detail, this odd couple with nothing in common but ambition grudgingly grew into an unbeatable team that turned the Windmill into the most flamboyantly successful emporium of nude musical revues in British history.

Dame Judi is fantastic, and in the act of coaxing his cast into taking it all off for the boys in uniform, you haven’t lived until you see Bob Hoskins take it all off himself. The dazzling screenplay, by the distinguished playwright Martin Sherman, author of Bent, is full of fun and British theater history, and Mr. Frears’ elegant direction re-creates the makeup, hairstyles, costumes, cars and vintage airplanes of the period, as well as the actual songs, tableaux and dance routines that filled the streets with men in uniform throughout Hitler’s air raids and made the old Windmill the only theater to stay open throughout the Blitz. Mrs. Henderson Presents is a sugar plum so rich and vibrant and guaranteed to enthrall, I predict it will be one of the big holiday surprises of the Christmas season.

In a different vein, a bare-knuckle onslaught by tough/tender macho icon Viggo Mortensen dominates David Cronenberg’s gripping drama A History of Violence. Lean, direct and surprisingly warm, nice guy Tom Stall (Mortensen) owns a diner in the small Indiana town where he lives a quiet, peaceful, happily married life with his lawyer wife (Maria Bello) and two children. Through an accident of fate, a pair of wackos walk in one night to rob the place, and Tom blows them apart in self-defense. In the ensuing publicity, he becomes a national celebrity, the normalcy of his private world shattered. “This will all blow over as soon as they find another hot story,” says his wife. But the sudden fame has an opposite effect. Enter a real bad dude (Ed Harris) in a black sedan with tinted windows, who identifies Tom as a gunslinger named “Joey” who staged a gangland execution in Philadelphia. Now it’s payback time. One act of violence leads to another. Tom slaps his own son. The boy lands a schoolmate in the hospital. Suddenly there are corpses on the front lawn. Is it all some horrible nightmare, or is Tom really Joey? Cramming more suspense and stress into 95 minutes than any single film can hold, Mr. Cronenberg craftily and disturbingly peels away layers of lies in both the structure of small-town family life and the familiar Western tale of the gunslinger with his neck in a noose, trying to escape a past that won’t let go. A History of Violence is a gripping and keenly constructed human drama with a deceptive minimalism that really cements Viggo Mortensen as a strong, silent and formidable star of astonishing depth, range and charisma.

Not everyone has fared so well. For Cate Blanchett, returning to her native Australia after winning an Oscar for The Aviator was a big career mistake. In a dreary downer called Little Fish, she goes from the stylish Katharine Hepburn to the role of a recovering heroin addict who works in a Vietnamese video store in Sydney’s Chinatown and wants to get into the computer business. The movie follows her as she traipses around Sydney, trying to secure a loan without collateral, scoring drugs for her mother’s ex-boyfriend (Hugo Weaving), a junkie who has been having an affair with the biggest gangster in town (Sam Neill, of all people) and bedding an old Asian lover of her own—a slimebag crook who is making a drug dealer out of her younger brother, an amputee. From there, it goes steadily downhill in a vapor of ugly, pointless violence and death. Little Fish is a title that makes no sense, a pathetic waste of a fine actress, and a prime example of the kind of low-budget noir nonsense they used to make in Australia before they learned how to make real movies with a unique style and identity.

Worse still is an incoherent Abel Ferrara fiasco called Mary. Juliette Binoche is an actress playing Mary Magdalene in a moronic mess about the Crucifixion directed by Matthew Modine, who also plays Jesus. When the movie wraps, he heads for Manhattan to edit, but his star heads for Jerusalem to reach God on a cell phone. Obsessed to the point of madness, they all get involved with a talk-show host (Forrest Whitaker) on a show called Jesus From the Hollywood Perspective, but before he can cover the premiere of Mr. Modine’s film, the theater is evacuated by a bomb threat from Zionist terrorists and everything fades to black. Whatever Mary had in mind (a satire, maybe, on the hypocrisy of Hollywood biblical epics in general and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in particular?), it flatlines fast. How did Matthew Modine land in such a pretentious pile of junk? It couldn’t be the money, since Abel Ferrara movies cost less than the Poland Spring budget on a Martin Scorsese film.

Fleeing Mary, I needed some good old American fun, so I dropped in to the party for a charming low-budget comedy called Brooklyn Lobster, with Danny Aiello and Jane Curtin. Outside, crowds gathered to watch while somebody blew up a lobster big enough to enter the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Inside, the film’s eager young New York director, Kevin Jordan, whose father owns Jordan’s Lobster Dock in Sheepshead Bay, was serving 250 pounds of lobster, 50 pounds of shrimp and 700 oysters. The mob applauded as if they were attending the world premiere of Gone With the Wind Goes Disco. Some of the same people who suffered through Mary were guzzling Coronas and sucking crab claws. Here is one of the big differences between TIFF and international film festivals everywhere else: The audiences at TIFF love all movies, good and bad, and the P.R. stunts that go with them; the audiences at Cannes boo a bomb like Mary loudly and scream obscenities at the screen in 14 languages. In Toronto, they’re more polite: They just walk out. Sometimes the crudeness and rudeness of a good old Bronx cheer is better. TIFF: Thank God It’s Toronto!