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Notes from the Great White North

The good, the bad, the ugly from the Toronto International Film Festival

Cannes is more glamorous, Sundance has better recreational drugs, but Toronto is still home to the best film festival in the world. It may also be the most schizophrenic, at least for anyone foolish enough to attempt a "complete" experience of the ridiculously multifaceted event.

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The Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Sept. 17, is a one-stop shopping destination for movie lovers of all stripes, with a sprawling scale and eclectic scope that becomes both blessing and curse. Esoteric offerings from the most far-flung fringes of world cinema stand shoulder-to-shoulder with high-profile Hollywood fare, and so many films are presented (256 this year, from more than 50 countries) that no one could possibly see them all during the festival's 10-day run. Overambitious cinephiles or those with addictive personalities are likely to wind up feeling like an overstuffed glutton the morning after an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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I saw nearly 50 films at Toronto this year, which is probably a few more than any sane person would want to attempt. I planned my schedule carefully (OK, obsessively), running from one screening to the next, subsisting mainly on coffee and vending cart snacks, and keeping parties, celebrity gazing and all nonessential activities to an absolute minimum so as to maximize the sheer amount of movies I was able to consume. Again, probably not the healthiest way to experience the festival, but we all make our own choices.

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In any event, I'm not going to lie and tell you I've been to the top of the mountain and seen cinema's glorious future. The 30th Toronto International Film Festival offered some intriguing glimpses at what's being produced around the globe, as well as sneak peeks at home-grown offerings that will vie for Oscars a few months from now — but there were no major revelations, few real trends, and fewer masterpieces. It was a good year for the festival, but certainly not a great one, or even a particularly surprising one.

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Oscar hopefuls were everywhere this year at Toronto, which now more than ever resembles a testing ground/launching pad for Hollywood product positioning itself for awards season. The beautifully crafted Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote, and Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's so-called "gay cowboy movie" based on the book by E. Annie Proulx and starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, more than lived up to expectations. You can bet the farm on Best Actor nods for both Hoffman and Ledger.

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The news is less favorable on the much ballyhooed Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix, and Steve Martin's Shopgirl, both entertaining in spurts but with little to stick to the ribs beyond the performances of their female leads (Reese Witherspoon and Claire Danes, respectively). Even more disappointing were two hotly anticipated dramadies that turn up dead on arrival, Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe's romantic comedy starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, and In Her Shoes, featuring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as sisters with very different lifestyles. (Crowe claims "significant" edits are in store for Elizabethtown, but the film's myriad problems seem unfixable.)

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Probably the oddest story to come out of this year's festival was the fiasco surrounding Thank You for Smoking, a clever little black comedy starring Aaron Eckhart as a spokesman for the tobacco industry that both Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics claimed to have bought (Fox was eventually revealed as the winner). Thank You got all the press, but Toronto unveiled lots of other, equally good films on our cinematic horizon, most notably the smart and sassy The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron's biopic about the '50s-era pin-up queen played by Gretchen Mol; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Shane Black's thriller-cum-meta-comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer; and a pair of brutally poetic westerns for the post-Peckinpah crowd, Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the Nick Cave-penned The Proposition. All are well worth seeking out when they begin to trickle into theaters over the coming months.

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Best of all was Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, an irreverent and enormously entertaining romp through the history, politics and pop culture of 1970s Ireland, with a beautiful cross-dressing dreamer as our tour guide. Breakfast on Pluto is a smarter, edgier Forrest Gump, minus all the pandering, and if there's any justice in this world it'll be a huge hit.

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Other films that knocked me out came courtesy of international auteurs from whom I'd expect nothing less: Michael Haneke's Caché, starring Daniel Auteuil as a TV show host who receives strange, anonymous packages in the mail; Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, featuring a trio of star-crossed lovers in three vignettes; The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov's third film in a trilogy about the corruption of power, this one focusing on Emperor Hirohito; and the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant, this year's Palme d'Or winner about a fragile, desperate family in Belgium. But the one that overshadows them all is Philippe Garrel's astonishing Les Amants Réguliers, a three-hour black-and-white homage to 1968 Paris that is one of the most seductive reconstructions of time and place that I've ever seen.

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Festival audiences were somewhat divided on Manderlay, Lars von Trier's second film in a trilogy that started with Dogville, but I found the eloquent film about racism in 1930s Alabama every bit as powerful and provocative as its predecessor. Other established auteurs didn't fare nearly as well in Toronto. Francois Ozon's Le Temps Qui Reste, starring Melvil Poupaud as a fashion photographer diagnosed with cancer, and Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies, about a celebrity journalist investigating the breakup of a popular comedy duo played by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, are both mildly interesting retreads of familiar themes. Abel Ferarra's Mary, about an actress (Juliette Binoche) obsessed with Mary Magdalen, is a braying, sensationalistic joke.

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Some movies aimed high only to crash hard, like Takeshi Kitano's autobiographical abstraction Takeshis' and John Turturro's star-studded (James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet) genre-bending musical Romance and Cigarettes. As for Terry Gilliam's almost universally reviled Tideland, a movie that trips over its own feet in a rush to be as bizarre and offensive as possible, the best thing one might say about it is that it's not The Brothers Grimm. The only movie I saw at Toronto that was more disappointing was Guy Ritchie's Revolver, a convoluted mess that shows Ritchie can be as pretentious as he is stylistically glib.

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The real pleasures to be had at Toronto had nothing to do with auteurs du jour or getting an advance peek at some hotshot movie that will be showing up in theaters in a few months. For me, the best moments of the festival were those rare times when I allowed myself to go "off schedule" and wander into a film I knew nothing about or that I felt no compulsion to review.

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Immersed in the rough Romanian reality of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or the fabulous 1966 Hong Kong of The Wild, Wild Rose, howling at the Thai brain-blaster Bangkok Loco, reveling in Douro, Faina Fluvial, a 1931 silent gem from Portugal — those are the moments that will bring me back to Toronto.

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lance.goldenberg@weeklyplanet.com