Two thousand and five will go down in Toronto International Film Festival history as the year when the movies got a little crappier and the celebrities got a little crabbier. With Ed Harris flinging drinking glasses at the wall, Cameron Diaz snapping at photogs, and Keanu Reeves seeming like he’d rather be anywhere else, the mood at this year’s fest was often less than festive. But their lack of patience can be partially understood, what with the barrage of ridiculous questions being thrown at them daily, and the poorer quality of the movies this year. Debacles like Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (already being edited down after tremendously bad buzz) and Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (which nobody liked except for the types who only see one or two movies there while they prowl for celebs) left many scratching their heads. Is this the type of stuff necessary to a prestigious North American festival? It left many wondering if some of these people should be pulled out from under the red carpet.
But the great thing about this particular festival is that it is what you make of it. With over 300 movies screening, you can finagle pretty much anything into an itinerary, and contrary to the festival’s insistence that everything is sold out, there were empty seats at every single movie I attended. Even Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which was one of the most buzzed-about movies at the festival, especially after its Venice Golden Lion victory (which led director Lee to board a plane back to Venice after arriving in Toronto, only to return again for its second public screening). And the win was well-deserved. Easily the best non-documentary film I saw at the festival, Lee beautifully adapts Annie Proulx’s short story about two men (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) who meet as ranch hands in Wyoming and carry on a decades-long love affair that remains a secret to the world at large, even after they have married and had children. Lee can switch genres with modulated ease and Brokeback Mountain is so tastefully appointed I can’t imagine anyone objecting to it. And the movie has undeniable staying power, with its haunting lament for the repressed and lovesick, embodied especially in Ledger’s revelatory portrayal of the more withdrawn of the duo. His performance is so lived-in and sorrowful, you’ll swear you’ve never seen this actor before in your life.
From the vistas of Wyoming to the mimed plantations of Alabama, Lars von Trier continues his American trilogy with Manderlay, the unfairly dismissed follow-up to his blazingly original Dogville. It does not have his previous film’s boldness or sense of event, but it is a very worthy extension of the ideas he presented in Dogville. Taking its heroine Grace, played this round by the game and intriguing Bryce Dallas Howard (still no match for Nicole Kidman), to a post-slavery house in the South, where she begins to impose her value system on the locals, it is too brimming with thought to easily brush aside. It’s impossible to say it isn’t made by one of the world’s most continually fascinating auteurs, someone you never have to worry about selling out.
Another cinema bad boy, Abel Ferrara, has less success tackling a big theme, religious faith in our apocalyptic times, in Mary, a thoroughly ambitious but seriously muddled passion play. There’s a wealth of dynamic story threads here, and that’s just the problem. For an 83-minute movie, it’s simply too scattered, and doesn’t properly utilize a lot of its good cast, save for Matthew Modine, who remarkably continues to land choice parts even though he is among the most obvious of living film actors.
Political fervor also fueled some other entries, including the deliriously strange, pretty wretched, but unmissable Sorry, Haters, a first film from director Jeff Stanzler. A paranoid New York version of Michael Mann’s Collateral, Robin Wright Penn (terrific here) plays a batty fare who takes an unassuming Arab cabbie (director Abdellatif Kechiche) on the nightmare of his life. The movie keeps raising the stakes of credibility before culminating in the most hilarious denouement this side of a Farrelly Brothers comedy. Except it’s meant to be serious…I think. Even so, it’s a sunny picnic next to Thom Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed 3 Needles, an elegy for Africa’s HIV-ravaged masses, who are cared for by three well-meaning nuns (Chloë Sevigny, Olympia Dukakis, Sandra Oh). Into this already unnecessary narrative, the film splices in the story of a Canadian porn star (Shawn Ashmore) hiding his positive status from his co-stars and family (including mom Stockard Channing, who sounds Quebec-ese by way of Zsa Zsa Gabor). It never breaks out of tract, and goes on for an eternity. And Dukakis’s lilting narration sounds more attuned to Desperate Housewives than a dead-serious and often unremittingly ugly drama.
Juvenile delinquency also got a workout in Alberto Rodriguez’s taut 7 Virgins, a tale of a wayward teen on a 48-hour pass from juvie who spends his downtime reconnecting with old friends and creating havoc on the working-class town of Seville. It is a cautionary tale, but not terribly preachy, though so many buildings and items are vandalized in the picture, you’re amazed anything is left standing by the end of it. Imagine a sensation-less Larry Clark movie, and you’d pretty much have it. Speaking of Clark, he was here too, with his newest Wassup Rockers, a minor return to form after credibility-stretching exercises in excess. Chronicling the layabout days of a motley group of barrio Los Angelenos heavily into skateboarding and punk rock, it has shards of sensitivity and humor that feels authentic, not prefabricated. But not to worry, there is Clarkish glee in certain scenes (a drunken Beverly Hills socialite’s freakish, watery demise is a howler), but shockingly, no visible sex or rampant nudity.
But not to worry, you can see plenty of skin in The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron’s playful examination of the 1950s pin-up who sent crotches soaring even in a relatively puritanical time. There isn’t much of a reason for this movie’s existence, and Page is as opaque a woman after the film as before it, but Harron is a genuine filmmaker. The film is terrifically assembled, colorful, and often refreshingly to the point, and Gretchen Mol is an inspired choice for the lead. Page’s desire to break free from the fringes into something more mainstream seems ideal for Mol, who is as fetching as anyone could hope for, and seems truly liberated being nude, which is essential for this movie to work at all. And there’s more breasts and even male genitals in Clement Virgo’s Lie With Me, the Canadian filmmaker’s bid to redo Last Tango in Paris, even though it is closer to Emmanuelle in Rio. While confidently directed and containing fragments of interesting sexual exploration, the movie is never that frankly erotic; when you boil it down, it’s really Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs without the songs.