Three tracks of movies screen in Toronto: high-brow innovative cinema to intrigue critics and cinephiles, movies with news content for the hungry media, and pics that wow the film fans in theaters. The most fortunate--breakouts like Jason Reitman's Juno, Joe Wright's Atonement, Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl, and Sean Penn's Into the Wild--do it all.
While I've mostly parked myself at the Varsity press screenings, it's more fun to check out the Toronto crowd reaction, even though you have to account for a litte Toronto inflation: audiences here are notoriously friendly.
The mainstream fest crowd-pleasers were Neil Jordan's The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster as a vigilante; Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, starring the perfectly cast George Clooney as a conflicted corporate clean-up lawyer; Robin Swicord's chick lit flick The Jane Austen Book Club; Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro's passionate Iraq protest doc Body of War; and David Schwimmer's directing debut Run, Fat Boy Run, a hit UK slapstick comedy starring the inimitable Simon Pegg, which critics couldn't have been less interested in. (Schwimmer found himself returning to the fest on the second anniversary of his last visit here on September 11, 2001, to accompany Mike Figgis's Hotel. Schwimmer watched the World Trade Center disaster unfold on CNN; the film never screened.)
Reviewers, on the other hand, salivated over movies like Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the Coens' No Country for Old Men, the Rumanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Visitor, Tom McCarthy's follow-up to The Station Agent, and Boy A, John Crowley's follow-up to Intermission. The latter two films both found buyers here this week (Overture and Weinstein Co., respectively.)
An enormous batch of modestly good movies were embraced by some and not others, but yielded few passionate supporters. In that category were Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah, Ira Sachs' Married Life, Brian De Palma's Redacted, Alan Ball's Nothing is Private, Woody Allen's Cassandra and Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying Acts, a period romance starring Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta Jones as a flirtatious con woman. Her daughter and partner in crime was played by Atonement's breakout star, Saoirse Ronan (who also stars in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones).
Several movies were admired in part but not in full, because, many argued, they could have been edited with more discipline. That list includes Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James, Penn's Into the Wild, Julie Taymor's Across the Universe and Todd Haynes' I'm Not There.
Taymor and Haynes would have been wise to cut some of the weaker parts out of their musical extravaganzas. But it was impossible for them; too much heavy lifting and expense went into creating these ambitious undertakings crammed with visually rich invention. I was captivated by both.
Across the Universe and I'm Not There each hang their structures on the music of rock icons. And they each showcase the color and flavor and style and dissent and politics of the period. But Taymor uses Beatle songs to reveal character and tell a simple story in the form of a movie musical. Haynes uses Bob Dylan's music and six different actors to reveal different aspects of Dylan: the man, his art and his time. The sequences with Cate Blanchett (who won best actress at Venice), Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Marcus Carl Franklin integrate well; on the other hand, Ben Wishaw and Richard Gere are stuck in the film's two least successful sections.
Haynes is working deep inside the arcania of Dylan. His complex structure is designed to work reflexively, intellectually, to spark recognition among the cogniscenti. The movie will be tough to parse for anyone not very familiar with Dylan's life and work. (There's one hilarious bit when Blanchett's Dylan romps, Richard Lester-style, with the four moptops.)
Taymor on the other hand is more accessible as she spins a universal love story that has nothing to do with the life of the Beatles. She makes their songs specific to her tale. Where her approach and technique are transparent, Haynes' is opaque. It will be fascinating to watch how critics and audiences diverge on these two pictures. I celebrate their artistry. But would it have killed Taymor and Haynes to consider their potential viewers? Their boxoffice will certainly be curtailed because they both protected their vision.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]