Is that all there is? That’s an odd thing to say, maybe, after watching more than 30 films in seven days. But the Toronto International Film Festival, which closed Saturday, has become a barometer of the winter film season. The biggest festival on the continent, it’s not just the place where awards-bait films like American Beauty and Ray got their launch. It also introduced North America to arthouse marvels such as In the Mood for Love, as well as cult sensations like Ong-Bak. Rightly or wrongly, you go to Toronto these days expecting to see the best of what’s available, from the megaplex to the microcinema.
To be fair, maybe it was there this year and I missed it. Out of more than 200 screenings, I got shut out of nearly a dozen movies I wanted to see, either because of sellouts or schedule conflicts: these included the eerie French drama Through the Forest, the premiere of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and the latest from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, The Wayward Cloud. I also managed to miss the festival’s award winners, including the South African film that won the top prize, Tsotsi. But I did catch most of Toronto’s top tickets, and what I saw was a mixed bag.
The best movies at the festival obliterated the line between art and mainstream entertainment—none more nimbly than A History of Violence, the sharpest movie in years from Canadian master David Cronenberg. Taut as razor wire at 96 unwasted minutes, Cronenberg’s devious pulp thriller lays into our national obsessions with the outlaw and blood justice, as a small-town family man (Viggo Mortensen, excellent) becomes a hero after thwarting a fatal holdup. As in Taxi Driver, the difference between being a hero and a murderer is killing the right person.
To his credit, Cronenberg doesn’t stand back and finger-point: the movie can’t be easily reduced to an anti-violence polemic, and its bloodletting is as cathartic as it is horrific. The opposite is true of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the wrenching finale to Park Chan-wook’s delirious “revenge trilogy,” which withholds catharsis from its heroine’s elaborate Kill Bill-like payback. “You can tell there’s a war going on,” a friend said of the festival’s bumper crop of casually violent movies. He didn’t say whether that included Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black’s semi-send-up of the wisecracking buddy-thriller genre he defined in the Lethal Weapon movies, where a finger amputation is laughed off like a skinned knee.
A much more solemn exploration of male bonding, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is a tender, haunting Western about the lifelong love affair between two cowboys played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from an Annie Proulx novella, it turns the homoerotic subtext of a movie like Red River into the text: the effect is of having a layer of varnish stripped off a sturdy and well-worn piece of furniture. Many a Kleenex was harmed in the watching of this movie, but somehow I was more affected by Stanley Kwan’s Everlasting Regret, a litany of vanishing lives in changing 20th century Shanghai; by Noah Baumbach’s keenly observed family-breakup study The Squid and the Whale; and by the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant, a white-knuckled thriller of ethical crisis.
Regrettably, established talents weighed in with middling films (Terry Gilliam’s accomplished but exceedingly ugly fantasy Tideland), strained experiments (the stylistic hyperactivity of Neil Jordan’s otherwise buoyant Breakfast on Pluto), or strong entries that nevertheless seemed like refinements of their earlier work (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s tripartite romantic drama Three Times). Even the risks felt a little safe. I responded more to the messy exuberance of John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes, a maddeningly uneven musical drama with James Gandolfini as an adulterous bridge worker, than to the muted no-budget lo-fi of Steven Soderbergh’s DV gamble Bubble, which retreats to the safety of an unneeded murder-mystery plot.
More than all others, one movie I saw at Toronto seemed to stake out fresh terrain. In Michael Haneke’s deeply unsettling Cache, a bourgeois couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, both terrific) begin receiving anonymous surveillance tapes of their home and conversations. With the Austrian director leaving us to wonder which shots are “real” or taped, his glacial thriller blurs watching into stalking: he imbues even innocuous exterior shots of quiet streets and pleasant homes with insistent menace, as we wait uneasily for scan lines to appear. Even beyond providing a venue for hot tickets and uncertain discoveries, that’s the best a film festival can do—to make you question what you’re seeing, and why you want to see it.