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Toronto's annual film fest offers a peek at the season's prestige pictures

Toronto's annual film fest offers a peek at the season's prestige pictures

Trying to be all things to all people isn't usually a recipe for success. But it's worked well for the Toronto International Film Festival. Traditionally the place where heavy-hitters from Cannes receive their North American debut, the festival has become increasingly important to movie lovers, critics and the industry alike as a launching pad for Hollywood prestige pictures, a showcase for Canadian cinema and a marketplace for international fare and indie discoveries.

The staggering number of films puts critics in a position reminiscent of the fable about the blind men and the elephant: Since it's impossible for one person to see more than a small percentage of the festival lineup, what one reporter describes as the festival of a lifetime could easily sound like a week-long torture test in the account of another.

The best films this year covered the full spectrum of festival specialties. The studios' arthouse divisions are always out in force at Toronto, and Alexander Payne's fourth feature, Sideways (from Fox Searchlight, which has usurped Miramax's position as the most aggressive of the mini-majors) was almost universally beloved. The film adds an undercurrent of humanism to the hyper-cynical worldview that Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor honed in Election, allowing Paul Giamatti (as a frustrated writer and wine geek extraordinaire) to deliver a star turn every bit as fine as his American Splendor performance. Sideways is both a romantic comedy and a study of male friendship as incisive as anything in the Neil LaBute canon.

Those two strands provide Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church with killer comeback roles. As a warm-hearted waitress who shares Giamatti's wine obsession, Madsen shows heretofore unseen range, establishing herself as a strong contender for supporting-actress awards from critics' groups (which often like to recognize such pleasant surprises). Church has been in straight-to-video hell since his underrated Fox series Ned and Stacey bit the dust in 1997, and his role as a skirt-chasing Hollywood has-been should (if there's any justice) vault him into the first rank of American comic actors.

Of the Cannes alumni, Olivier Assayas' Clean was perhaps the most dazzling. An unapologetic star vehicle for the director's ex-wife Maggie Cheung, the film deals with a Courtney Love-esque rock singer trying (and forever failing) to pull herself together to a degree that will let her receive custody of her son, after her rock-icon husband's death by OD. Cheung's fearless performance as a flighty, terminally irresponsible addict is unlike anything she's done, and it's hard to imagine how a director lacking Assayas's intimacy with her could ever conceive of the actress having such a character in her.

Her performance isn't the only way Assayas defies expectations. Playfully, perhaps even perversely, he makes grungy Windsor, Ontario, look fantastic, while portraying Paris as stifling. Nick Nolte is superb as the father of Cheung's late husband, and his final scene with Cheung injects a note of dry humor that makes the film's themes all the more resonant. Another strong Cannes holdover was Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows, the tale of four young children trying to survive on their own in Tokyo after their flighty mom abandons them. Tipped as a strong Palme d'Or candidate prior to Cannes, it lost to Fahrenheit 9/11, though 14-year-old Yuya Yagira won a well-deserved Best Actor prize. While the admirers the director earned with After Life and Mabarosi appreciated the nuance added by his deliberate pacing, many felt the film was at least 15 minutes too long.

Despite having such well-known actors as Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle and Brendan Fraser in its ensemble cast, Paul Haggis's Crash was an unknown quantity before the festival, but it quickly earned acclaim as the most distinctive independent American production to premiere in Toronto. Haggis's short-lived 1996-97 CBS series EZ Streets was one of the most sophisticated and multi-faceted crime dramas in TV history, and the moral ambiguity of his feature debut is no less rewarding. Crash uses the overlapping-lives formula of Magnolia and Short Cuts to study everyday racism, and Haggis leaves few sacred cows untipped in what may just be the finest American film on the subject since Do The Right Thing.

Haggis's Los Angeles is an interlocking circle of Persians who hate Latinos, African-Americans who brutally mock Asians and affluent whites with no patience for anyone who doesn't look like they do. Though every character in the film indulges in repugnant bigotry, they're also universally sympathetic and human. The film's use of coincidence is a little tidy and TV-esque, perhaps. But multiple powerhouse performances—by Matt Dillon, Larenz Tate, Ludacris, Ryan Phillippe and Cheadle, with memorably chilling cameos by Keith David and (seriously!) Tony Danza—along with Haggis's willingness to challenge conventional assumptions about race make Crash a significant achievement.

Another big discovery was Pavel Pavlikovsky's eerie teen lesbian drama My Summer of Love, featuring electrifying performances by Nathalie Press (a likely future star who's a sort of British counterpart to France's Sylvie Testud) and Paddy Considine, who makes it increasingly clear with each film that he's one of the most exciting actors alive. The film's pithiness made it the perfect anecdote to Lucile Hadzihalilovic's unbearably arch coming-of-age allegory Innocence.

Summer's nihilistic portrayal of sexual desire also illustrated the tendency for films at big festivals to compliment each other thematically in unexpected ways. Its portrayal of lust as a narcotic had interesting echoes in Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs (a film as notable for its searing concert footage of the Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand and other bands as for its hyper-explicit sex scenes) as well as the otherwise sterile prestige biopics Kinsey (starring Liam Neeson as the famed sex researcher) and Ray (in which Jamie Foxx's engaging and convincing portrayal of Ray Charles is robbed of its power by a hamfisted script). In any festival so large there are bound to be coincidental similarities, certainly. But the strength of the parallels between films—and the many ways they played off each other—suggests this remarkable festival may be a near-perfect illustration of chaos theory in action.

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