The first thing you notice are all the moose statues. They're everywhere. The moose stampede lines the sidewalks of Toronto, adopting all sorts of poses and costumes that befit their surroundings and corporate sponsorship -- the Tiffany moose glitters while the Nike moose is outfitted for hockey. Moose R Us, the Torontonians seem to be saying with this community gesture of civic pride. As for me, I spent the next nine days wondering about the plural construction of the word moose.
One thing was easily obtainable in multiples, however: movies. The Toronto International Film Festival boasted more than 300 films in its lineup. Even if one were to average five movies a day (generally conceded to be most enthusiasts' point of no return), you would still come away from the festival having seen a mere fraction of the offerings. Since it is held Sept. 7-16, the festival has become the North American launch pad for major fall releases. Studio pictures like Almost Famous and Duets premiered in Toronto just days before their official American opening dates. Almost Famous, a DreamWorks picture, follows practically the same release pattern that the company successfully employed while steering last year's American Beauty to multiple year-end wins.
Films like Duets, of course, bring with them glamorous stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and her retinue (including supportive pal Ben Affleck, who swapped his original seat for one next to Gwyneth once the theatre's house lights went down). Other high-profile fall releases that premiered in Toronto include Men of Honor, a true-life Navy tale starring Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr.; Best in Show, a Christopher Guest-directed mockumentary (Waiting for Guffman) starring Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy; and DreamWorks' other main fall release, The Contender, a true-to-life political thriller starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman.
Also showing were many of the season's greatly anticipated arthouse releases. Wong Kar-wai's stunningly beautiful In the Mood for Love, which won top prizes at Cannes, made its North American bow in Toronto. Also making a splash was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Taiwanese-made film in the heroic-warrior mold directed by The Ice Storm's Ang Lee. This magnificent crowd-pleaser won Toronto's People's Choice Award. Some other films creating stirs were Shadow of the Vampire, starring Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich in a fervid reimagining of the making of Nosferatu; actor Ed Harris' directing debut Pollack, a biopic of the turbulent painter; Before Night Falls, artist Julian Schnabel's movie based on the novel by exiled Cuban Reinaldo Arenas; Robert Altman's Dallas-lensed Dr. T and the Women; and the newest film by Run Lola Run's director Tom Twyker, The Princess and the Warrior.
One of the aspects of the festival that always manages to charm me is the opportunity to see, up close, many of the filmmakers who attend their public screenings. In past years, I felt privileged to see and hear Jean-Luc Godard at the North American premiere of his movie For Ever Mozart and Bernardo Bertolucci at the premiere of Besieged. Maybe it's just my francophile tendencies coming to the fore, but this year my treat came in the form of seeing one of my longtime culture heroes, Agnès Varda (dressed in all red), at the screening of her new documentary The Gleaners, a perceptive study of waste, hunger, and human resources -- and perhaps the best film I saw in the entire festival.
Other treats included the festival's engaging manner of celebrating its 25th anniversary. Instead of shoving the occasion into the forefront with constant hoopla and noisemaking, the festival chose a truly appropriate way to celebrate: with more movies. Commissioned were 10 opening films called "Preludes" by 10 Canadian filmmakers. One prelude would be randomly shown before each feature screening. Short films about filmmaking were contributed by such directors as Atom Egoyan, Michael Snow, Patricia Rozema, David Cronenberg, and Guy Maddin (whose four-minute short, "The Heart of the World," was another of the festival's revelations).
For the 25th anniversary, the festival programmers also acknowledged the past by showing some of the first year's bounty. Included in this panorama from 1976 were Harlan County U.S.A. by Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (who also showed her newest film, My Generation, about the various Woodstock festivals), Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, the French romantic comedy Cousin, Cousine, the Maysles brothers Grey Gardens, and Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road. On the last day of the festival, as I settled into my seat for Wenders' three-hour road movie about cinema, morality, and time, I felt as though I were reuniting for a visit with a dear old friend. It was the perfect note on which to end my Canadian sojourn.
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