The Toasts of Toronto: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett in Babel, Penélope Cruz, Reese, Ricci

On one end of the street, President Bill Clinton is celebrating his birthday with 1,000 frosted cupcakes. A few blocks away, President George (Dubya) Bush is being assassinated in a movie called D.O.A.P. (Stands for “Death of a President,” but everybody in Toronto just pronounces it “Dope.”) Somewhere in between, to promote a horror flick called Black Sheep, about innocent barnyard mutations that turn into man-eating monsters, an entire flock of sheep is walking the red carpet wearing tuxedos. Cue lights. Roll film.

These are the only laughs this year at the 31st Toronto International Film Festival, a.k.a. TIFF.

We’ve got 352 films from 61 countries, including Congo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chad. You do the math. So passionate about showing every film that isn’t sealed in a combustible nitrate can and buried six feet under, this annual circus of celluloid is not called the “Festival of Festivals” for nothing. This year, Brad Pitt is the undisputed king of the parade. He’s the biggest star here, appears in the best film in the program, and even showed up at a charity for starving children in Africa, where two people bid $130,000 each to have sex with him. “Not enough,” said His Bradness, and raised the ante by bidding for himself.

First, think quantity, not quality. This clambake has become so gluttonously over-programmed that if you sat in the movies from 8 a.m. to the following dawn, you still could sample only a fraction of the screening schedule. TIFF aims to please just about everybody, and to that goal coerces theaters throughout the city to keep their projectors running 14 hours per day, drafting 12,855 unpaid volunteers to see that 305,000 ticket holders reach their destinations on time.

Crane your neck and you’ll see Demi Moore’s new face, which looks like Penélope Cruz’s old face—both faces gulping an “artini,” this year’s official festival party-circuit cocktail, invented by the bartender at the Four Seasons. The “artini” is a lethal blend of premium champagne, black cherry vodka, blue Curaçao and Hpnotiq cognac mixed with pomegranate juice, and served in an ice-carved martini glass that melts as you sip. For $50 a pop, it should be served by Sharon Stone in a thong, but at TIFF new cocktails last no longer than old careers.

Staged to coincide with the fifth anniversary of 9/11, this year’s TIFF reflects the wounds, the rage and the shock effects felt around the world. Malaise, despair, confusion and fear find their way into the films of directors who have unbalanced the official program with depression and sadness. Only a few movies dare to depict the hole where the World Trade Center once stood, but almost all of them shine a flashlight on the darkness of sensibility that has been left in the human heart. Comedies are rare, and musicals are so retro that I actually looked forward to Kenneth Branagh’s new production of The Magic Flute. Alas, to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart, the film turned out to be a snub to operatic traditions, played out in the horror and mud of the First World War, with Tamino wounded and rescued by field nurses and Papageno as a bird keeper who checks for gas explosions in the trenches. Adding further insult to a pileup of injuries, it’s all sung in English. Simply awful.

The festival started promisingly enough—good weather, sparse crowds and a May-December love story called Venus, with spry septuagenarian Peter O’Toole as a horny, ravaged old goat who finds true love with a housekeeper young enough to be his great-granddaughter. But by the opening weekend, everything turned to pure gridlock. Conflicts make shreds of an organized person’s schedule. If you attend the unveiling of scenes from Sicko, rabble-rouser Michael Moore’s eagerly awaited new broadside against America’s anemic health-care system, you miss the dinner for Brad Pitt. Rescue Dawn, the new Werner Herzog saga with Christian Bale giving the performance of his life as the German-born American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who crash-landed in Laos during the Vietnam War and was imprisoned and brutally tortured in a P.O.W. camp before masterminding a daring escape that saved the lives of his fellow inmates, overlaps with the screening of A Good Year, the new Ridley Scott charmer with Russell Crowe turning into Mr. Nice Guy as a ruthless London stockbroker who inherits an old vineyard in the South of France from Uncle Albert Finney, chucks his job and re-invents himself in the stress-free vineyards of Provence. I managed to see them both by pulling strings and throwing myself on the mercy of press agents (I will pay in hell for P.R. favors) while huge crowds were turned away. No matter. After the first four days of TIFF, watching five films a day, you don’t know what you’re looking at anyway.

All of which makes it easier to skip Spike Lee’s four-hour requiem for Hurricane Katrina and the 30 other documentaries about abortion, pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, blind mountain climbers, terrorism and the Dixie Chicks. Unfortunately, I did make the mistake of wandering into a crock of merde with the longest title in town. Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights—Hollywood to the Heartland is just what it sounds like: a cracker-barrel documentary of a 30-day tour of one-night stands in which the beer-bellied comic tries to channel the spirit of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show. Thirty days? I fled after 30 minutes, leaving the flatulence to anyone who can survive two hours of Vince Vaughn in cowboy boots without acid reflux. Ghastly.

So far, I have seen only one film that I consider a genuine masterpiece, and it is Babel, an award-winning smash in Cannes that is set to open in the U.S. in October. Nothing else I’ve witnessed here compares in scope, humanity or importance.

Directed by the great Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), who co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, Babel was filmed in Mexico, San Diego, Japan and Morocco using cutting-edge time shifts and multiple storylines that revolve around one central event. The cast may be headed by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, but there is no dominant lead. Instead, Babel is a rich ensemble piece with an impeccable cast that tells a universal story extending beyond geographical boundaries. A dirt-poor goatherd in the rocky mountains above the Moroccan desert spends his savings on a long-range automatic rifle to keep the jackals away from his flock. In his absence, his curious sons disobey his rules and use the new gun for target practice. Playfully aiming bullets at the highway far below, they inadvertently hit a sightseeing bus, critically wounding an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). While her desperate husband tries to save her life in a remote region of the world where no ambulance is handy and nobody speaks English, the Moroccan police track down the terrified kids who pulled the trigger, compounding the horrors of the blistering day.

Back in California, the American couple’s Mexican housekeeper in San Diego irresponsibly packs up their two children without permission and takes them with her to attend her son’s wedding in Tijuana, losing them in the desert on her way home. Meanwhile, far away in a penthouse overlooking the night lights of Tokyo, a miserable and naïve deaf girl searches for love and sexual fulfillment in all the wrong places. Some of this awesome film’s most suspenseful qualities center on the mystery of how these four stories relate while four different tragedies build simultaneously. While none of the people in the four plots ever share the screen at the same time, the powerful and compelling pieces of their fates escalate individually in all four specific stories while the bigger canvas reveals the differences and similarities in the emotional lives of all the people involved.

Like the ripple effect of a stone in water, one careless accident causes international repercussions, affecting the lives of people in four languages who demonstrate the vital importance of speech as a link to all human communication. The result is a breathtaking experience that left me exhausted, intellectually stimulated and shaking with excitement. Mr. Iñárritu won the best-director prize in Cannes for obvious reasons, and Babel stands a chance for this year’s Best Picture Oscar that will be hard to challenge.

Amidst speculation and controversy, D.O.A.P. arrived the morning after its British director-writer, Gabriel Range, completed the first print, and it turned out to be much more intriguing than most skeptics expected. Combining real archival footage from numerous sources with a clever, thoughtful and totally believable script, D.O.A.P. is a sobering fictional account of the murder of George W. Bush, told as a narrative story within the style of a documentary. The President is in Chicago to deliver a speech on the economy when a violent underground protest movement places the chief in harm’s way, and in the chaotic attempt to move him to safety, two shots are fired that change the course of history. From the ensuing manhunt and resulting jury trial that targets and convicts an innocent man suspected as a Syrian terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda, to the swearing in of Dick Cheney as the 44th President of the United States, your blood runs cold. The news correspondents, security advisors, White House staff, and law-enforcement officers from the F.B.I. and the Secret Service are brilliantly played by first-rate actors, but the footage of Bush, Cheney & Co. is for real. You can digitally alter a head, but the voices are not simulated.

Everything seems like it is happening at the exact moment you are watching it. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, this is a film without a political agenda that everyone should see. Although less fascinating for what it says than for the ground-breaking technical proficiency with which it is said, D.O.A.P. asks valid questions about issues like America’s rush to judgment in the suspicion and racial profiling of Muslims and the threats posed to everyone’s civil rights by the Patriot Act, without taking any biased political position of its own. D.O.A.P. is the kind of clever agitprop that redefines the genre. I can’t wait to see the reaction this movie will get when (and if) it ever reaches American screens. It better happen fast, because the action takes place on Oct. 19, 2007. After that, its shelf life runs out.

My biggest disappointment here has been the boring, pretentious and almost laughably deluded remake of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel All the King’s Men. Robert Rossen’s brilliant 1949 film on which it is based won Academy Awards for Best Picture and two acting prizes for Broderick Crawford’s unforgettable portrait of a corrupt Southern demagogue named Willie Stark (a colorful and repugnant character based on Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in the state capitol building in Baton Rouge). Sean Penn’s rise from backwoods redneck to powerful political dictator lacks the same guttural force, and Jude Law, struggling with a Southern drawl as phony as a carnival snakebite remedy, is hopelessly miscast as the idealistic reporter who creates a monster only to watch him fall. Patricia Clarkson, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley and scene-chewing Anthony Hopkins are some of the able performers disabled by the unspeakable arty dialogue written by Steven Zaillian, who also directed, ineptly.

Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Reese Witherspoon, Penélope Cruz, Christina Ricci, Russell Crowe, Joan Collins, Emma Thompson, Will Ferrell, Ed Harris and Jason Biggs are here, but they don’t appear to be having much fun, either. The A list is shorter this year than ever, and when the stars do come out at night, they pause for photo ops on the red carpet, then beat it through a side door. Unlike the old days, when Richard Harris peed in the palm trees in the Four Seasons lobby and Colin Farrell dragged in at 4 a.m. with starlets speaking four languages. In keeping with the dour spirit of the proceedings, the mood is muted. Everyone seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Industry faces reflect industry product. When you can no longer pack your own toothpaste, who feels like smiling? The Toasts of Toronto: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett in Babel, Penélope Cruz, Reese, Ricci