TIFF Notes

What I took away from the Toronto International Film Festival

<i>The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada</i>
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Instead of searching for the themes, commonalities, and distinctions among the 300-plus films screening at this year's Toronto International Film Festival – out of which I've seen about 30 – I'm presenting here a critic's diary from a dozen or so movies that made strong impressions. Generalizations based on seeing approximately one-tenth of the movies on display seem inherently specious, so I offer instead some comments drawn from the notes scribbled in the dark. One thing I feel compelled to report, though, is that three of my favorite films from the fest are Westerns, which perhaps indicates there's new life emerging in this moribund but not forgotten genre.

Winter Passing

Playwright and novelist Anthony Rapp debuts as a film director in this movie he also wrote about the reconciliation of a young actress (Zooey Deschanel) with her famous novelist father (Ed Harris). Strong performances (including a dramatically subdued Will Ferrell) enhance the movie, which turns out to be the first of several festival movies due to be released this fall about children coming to terms with their professionally accomplished but emotionally distant fathers. (See Proof, Bee Season, and The Squid and the Whale for more examples.)

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee (Hulk; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) reaches a cinematic peak with this love story between two cowboys living on the down low in the American West of the Sixties and Seventies. Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from a short story by Annie Proulx published in The New Yorker, the story is simply one we have not seen before on the screen. By combining aspects of the Western and the melodrama, Brokeback Mountain and its stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, find the fissures in the surface of things and offer us the first gay cowpokes since Andy Warhol's camp portraits in Lonesome Cowboys. To be released this fall.


Who would have thought that the brilliant but plumpish actor Philip Seymour Hoffman would make a believable Truman Capote, the preening, diminutive author with the withering wit? That is the conceit of this film directed by Bennett Miller (The Cruise), which is based on the novel by Gerald Clarke (and adapted for the screen by actor Dan Futterman) that explores the intricate relationships Capote developed with murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock (whose crime story is the basis for Capote's culture-rattling book In Cold Blood). Hoffman's performance is so startlingly good that it's likely to overshadow Catherine Keener's equally stunning performance as author Harper Lee, as well as mask some of the film's dramatic inadequacies. Due for fall release, this film is not to be confused with another Truman Capote project that was filmed in Austin this spring and is due out in 2006.

Thank You for Smoking

One of the buzz movies of the festival, Thank You for Smoking is the first feature from Jason Reitman, son of one of Canada's biggest comedy exports to Hollywood, Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Ghostbusters). The film is a funny and sympathetic portrait of a tobacco lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart, who hasn't had a role this good since his breakout film, In the Company of Men. Despite its core of soulless libertarianism, the film (based on the book by Christopher Buckley) can be a hoot, and its early, big-dollar sale at the festival has become the subject of a heated dispute between two distribution companies over the meaning of a handshake agreement.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones racks up a major score as the director and star of this modern Western penned by Amores Perros and 21 Grams scribe Guillermo Arriaga. (Not incidentally, Jones and Arriaga were recognized with best actor and screenplay awards, respectively, at Cannes.) Set in the Rio Grande borderlands, the film is a love note to the area but moreover a saga about morality and the sometime circuitous paths it takes. Not since the glory days of Peckinpah have we seen a Western so filled with compassion for the lone rangers who heed their own call to justice.


Abel Ferrara's answer to The Passion of the Christ may be more devout than we might have expected from the taboo-busting director of Bad Lieutenant and Ms. 45. His new film explores the various realms of belief (devout, agnostic, and disbelief) and is anchored by a soulful performance by Forest Whitaker. Mary often comes across as erratic and excessive, although it's grounded by its urgency and passion that accords a special place in hell for those who wear their religiosity on their sleeves.

The Quiet

If for no reason other than getting accepted into the festival, this first film from UT's innovative professional and academic enterprise Burnt Orange made a strong debut in Toronto. The story is a suburban nightmare that's bathed throughout in an eerie blue light. Although some lines of dialogue fall flat and lead the drama into an unintentionally (I think) campy realm that call to mind director Jamie Babbit's earlier feature But I'm a Cheerleader, The Quiet is a well-performed first effort that should put the new production company on the map.

The Proposition

Nonconformist musician Nick Cave wrote the screenplay for this dark Australian Western directed by John Hillcoat. (In 1988, the pair also collaborated on the graphic prison drama Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead.) Their new film embodies a powerful and disconcerting confrontation between civilization and savagery. Guy Pearce plays a middle brother who's locked into an untenable position by Ray Winstone's Captain Stanley, the area's new lawman. Although dotted with outbursts of hideous violence (as befits a story about the taming of the human beast), the film maintains a cautious ambivalence about joining with either side.

The Notorious Bettie Page

Gretchen Moll hits it out of the park as the provocative fetish pinup model. Her physical resemblance to Page is remarkable and she entices the viewer with a similar frankness and girl-next-door naturalism. Bettie Page, however, remains as much an enigma here as in real life.

Trust the Man

Filmmaker Bart Freundlich's hit-or-miss indie career may finally draw to a close with the sale of this thinking-person's romantic comedy in Toronto. A charming ensemble comprised of Julianne Moore, David Duchovny, Billy Crudup, and Maggie Gyllenhaal bounce off one another in what may be the best thing to happen to the rom-com since Annie Hall.

The President's Last Bang

The blazing torch of the current crop of South Korean films glows brightly in this political action thriller by Im Sang-soo. His story re-imagines the events surrounding the 1979 assassination of President Park Chun-hee. The lead-up to the murder (a bloody massacre) is told from very human dimensions. The players all have their background stories, and the president's self-serving authority is shown to be contemptible, while gorgeous shots and ironic distance provide the icing on this bowl of kimchee.

Romance & Cigarettes

John Turturro is one strange fellow. With this third film he's directed, Turturro goes for broke in a down-and-dirty homage to the musical. Starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Canavale, Christopher Walken, and many others, this movie bursts with working-class characters who break into song and dance staged to pop music tunes. Some sequences work much better than others (an early sequence of Gandolfini and the local garbagemen singing "Lonely Is a Man Without Love" is priceless). Yet, you have to admire the chutzpah it took for all involved to push the cinematic envelope.

Pick Up the Mic

Queer hip-hop. Who knew? This fascinating documentary offers a survey of a subgenre movement that's now spread beyond San Francisco and New York. From Deep Dickollective to Sugartruck to QBoy, Jenno, Miss Money, and Phat Family, there's a hip-hop movement afoot that's free of misogyny and homophobia. Call it homo-hop or whatever you will, but know that it's there and seek it out. end story

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Winter Passing, Brokeback Mountain, Pick Up the Mic, Romance & Cigarettes, Capote, Thank You for Smoking, Trust the Man, The President's Bang, The Notorious Bettie Page, The Quiet, Mary, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Toronto International Film Festival

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