It isn't until you've been granted full press access at the Toronto Film Festival that you realize this really is a people's festival. I joined the press and industry cattle herd for the first time this year, but bouncing from screening to screening was just as fun and energizing as before; if only some of the journos, and the like, realized this. At the press screenings (well, some of them) you're often subjected to anxious, unctuous stiffies who see the festival as more of a nuisance than a pleasure, nabbing aisle seats so they can bolt at the 20-minute point no matter what movie it is, and a sea of BlackBerry lights if you sit near the back of a theater. But even the grumpiest of the lot would have to admit this was a particularly strong edition of the festival—and, weirdly, it was much of the major pictures, already acquired, that showed some of the boldest risk-taking.
There's no real getting around it: The Coens' No Country for Old Men is probably the film of the year. That rare movie that captures the essence of its source novel and evinces the distinct style of its filmmakers, this is not only a splendid return to form for the siblings personally, but a cheer-worthy reminder that two distinctive points of view can be presented in the same narrative. Telling a chilling, poetic, ultimately profound tale of dubious honor, good vs. evil, and the battles of aging in an insane society, the Coens backpedal some of their snark, yet the film is as funny as any of their early work, and their perfect cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt) wrings every single moment for its maximum worth. This is one worth savoring, and impossible to stop thinking about, even when you're watching other things in the same day.
Lust, Caution gives you plenty of time to think of other things, namely why a movie with such a noir-styled, simple story has to be a punishing two hours and 37 minutes. Stagnant, insipid, and a career-worst for the usually sharp Ang Lee, even if you took the pretentious air out of the thing, you still have Paul Verhoeven's Black Book with none of that film's teasing delights. Paul Schrader's The Walker is an ill-advised attempt at Algonquin Round Table wit—a ridiculous, Cinemax-level thriller about a supposedly charming gay rogue (a disastrously miscast Woody Harrelson, so deliciously wry in the Coens' movie) embroiled in a dull murder mystery.
But only these two stalwarts seemed to falter, while others expanded on their impressive oeuvres, namely Gus Van Sant, whose Paranoid Park may please those who've tired of his back-of-the-head shot, Béla Tarr-inspired tone poems. Van Sant gets playful with this one (cheeky music cues, a freely fractured but easy-to-follow story), depicting a would-be skateboarder dude caught up in an unsolved local murder. It doesn't quite get under your skin, but it proves this is a director who simply will never sell out ever again. And if Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding seems a tad familiar, it's in that old-school Woody Allen style of making terrific movie after terrific movie with such ease that nobody seemed to care that the stories had many likenesses. Baumbach is clearly our generation's Woodster, as sharp a scripter as one could hope for, with an unparalleled knack for how families communicate with each other, and as interpreted by Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and remarkable newcomer Zane Pais (as Kidman's sensitive adolescent son), it proves that conversation can be all the proper action you need.
Alan Ball has always been a bogus interpreter of family dynamics (excepting Six Feet Under, which he thankfully did not work on in full), and his directorial debut, Nothing Is Private, is the kind of thoroughly smug, wrongheaded drivel that people inevitably fall for each year. Tracking a 13-year-old Arab-American girl's sexual journeys, including ongoing sessions with her neighbor, an Army Reserves dad, the movie is risible from its opening scenes and full of that bullshit American Beauty-style self-satisfaction that's never convincing in the slightest. Ball has no handle on teenage desire, and his characters change personalities like people change underwear, and when pedophilia is a movie's least objectionable thing, you're in trouble.
Teen desire was much more palatable in the Dardennes-style Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani's terrific follow-up to his Man Push Cart, which centers around a young teen boy wheeling and dealing on his own in Queens, New York's auto-shop district near Shea Stadium. Well-modulated and blissfully free of exposition when unnecessary, it's a healthy reminder that the New York indie isn't dead. Tom McCarthy's The Visitor is another New York-set tale, with fantastic character actor Richard Jenkins in his very first starring role as a lonely professor who befriends an illegal immigrant pair. Sweet to a fault and lacking the bitter edge of the denizens of his previous gem The Station Agent, it nonetheless pleases, simply because nobody adores their creations more than McCarthy, and Jenkins, at the ripe age of 60, finally has the role of his career.
Indies in other countries elicited mixed results, from Alexander Voulgaris's Greek geek-in-sorta-love trifle Pink, in which the director tiresomely casts himself as a sad-sack who pines for love in a movie that plays like Once without the melancholic songs or marvelous leads. Bernard Emond's Summit Circle, a well-meaning but silly French-Canadian drama about a middle-class woman's slow economic and mental breakdown, is a Paul Haggis movie sans hyperbole, but it's still as unnecessary. Ken Loach carves out a more compelling workers' tale in It's a Free World..., a small-scale drama about a sassy entrepreneur (the fiery, sensational Kierston Wareing) juggling single motherhood and a questionable business as a work placement liaison for struggling immigrants in the U.K. It contains some of Loach's dramatic lapses, but it's surprisingly pungent, especially when its dynamite leading lady tears up the screen.