Auds get taste of quality

Toronto fest provides shelter from H'wood summer pix

Every film festival has its share of bad movies and Toronto 2005 was no exception. But there’s arguably no other festival in the world where the good movies serve such a vital need. In Toronto, they offer an antidote to the toxins of the American summer.

Let’s forget the more exclusive Telluride, an annual pilgrimage for its loyal club of devotees, which still has the air of a well-kept secret. The Toronto Intl. Film Festival is the first major North American film event to follow the summer quality drought, and for people who love movies for grown-ups, its discoveries represent a cool drink of water after crawling across the desert.

Specialty divisions like Focus have shrewdly tapped into this thirst with late-summer releases like “Lost in Translation” or this year’s “The Constant Gardener,” but Toronto’s handpicked selection of the best of the fall movies (peppered among the broader crop of international productions) takes that principle to the next level.

Especially after this summer’s disappointing output (with resultant tumbling box office and dwindling audience attention), it’s not just refreshing: It’s almost startling to encounter movies like “Capote,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Thank You for Smoking” or “North Country.”

While these films are by no means flawless, they tell provocative stories about real people in ways that rarely pander. They credit audiences with intelligence, they embrace subtlety, they explore character rather than just chart action.

Try sitting through “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Stealth” and “The Island” back to back, and it’s easy to forget that America can still produce smart movies that someone over 25 might actually be able to endure without squirming.

But sitting through Ang Lee’s achingly delicate cowboy love story, “Brokeback Mountain,” is a restorative experience capable of erasing months of bad movies in a single two-hour swoop.

What in other hands could have become an agenda movie about same-sex love in a hostile environment instead has been sculpted by Lee into such an uncommonly lyrical, poignant account of romantic yearning and deprivation that it seems to have come from a far less cynical age. He has given Annie Proulx’s story of the American West both cultural specificity and an acutely felt, melancholy universality.

Lee certainly is not an unknown quantity. But far less-experienced directors also unveiled work of remarkable assurance and maturity in Toronto.

Biopics so often go wrong, but “Capote” does everything right. Even in what is already emerging as a strong field for male performances this year, alongside Ralph Fiennes in “The Constant Gardener” and Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain,” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mesmerizing inhabitation of the flamboyant author registers as something audacious: a masterful balancing act between self-serving manipulation and emotional isolation.

First-time dramatic feature director Bennett Miller and tyro screenwriter Dan Futterman have scratched beneath the surface of an indelible American tale, “In Cold Blood,” and crafted an equally striking story of the unorthodox bonds and uneasy exchanges that fed the creation of that landmark work of narrative journalism.

Jason Reitman’s breezily confident debut, “Thank You for Smoking” is a witty satire on spin as the supreme tool in American corporate and political culture. What distinguishes it from similar efforts is a genuine interest not just in smugly shooting darts at its comic target but in examining the morally ambivalent terrain from which it springs.

Next to the self-congratulatory hipsterism and contrived quirk-quirk-quirk cuteness of Cameron Crowe’s excruciating “Elizabethtown,” “Smoking” is a breath of fresh air.

In her first American feature, Warner’s “North Country,” Kiwi director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) reveals such exquisite insights into her characters and the texture of their working-class community in a Minnesota mining town that the script’s tendency toward Hollywood courtroom theatrics cannot muddy the drama’s emotional integrity.

As a struggling single mother who takes on the mining company in a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit, Charlize Theron is already being tipped as a strong contender in the Oscar race, as are Hoffman and Ledger.

What all four of these Toronto films share is a trust in their material and in the audience’s eagerness to explore complex characters and situations, each within the context of a uniquely American story. And that was just over the opening weekend of a ten-day event far less frontloaded with big titles than in recent years.

It makes a welcome change from so many movies cut fast and cranked up loud in the hope no one will notice there’s nothing interesting going on.

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