Toronto Int’l Film Festival Preview

September, 1999. Toronto. I’m sitting at the grand and glorious Uptown Theatre on Yonge Street on a sunny Sunday morning sipping down my java and reading some press clippings before the show. The room is jammed tight and a nervous chatter rolls softly in the air.

The film that’s about to play is “American Beauty,” a freshman release from English stage master Sam Mendes, and while whispers of the film have begun their circuit throughout the city, no one really knows what to expect. I look through the cast list and nod in subtle wonder, thinking how great it is that two A-list stars joined a cast of no-names for this little, DreamWorks release.

The curtains part and the audience fall silent. Yet as soon as Lester Burnham utters his introductory words, we know, simultaneously, something magical is about to happen. And the feeling grows steadily. Throughout the film, as the laughter spreads and the smiles grow more infectious, a special sync happens in the room, an amazing feeling that captivates us all, and I instantly know that another baby is born. Another film has been launched at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and its makers, like us in the room, will never be the same.

Sure enough, “American Beauty” went on to capture the People’s Choice Award at that 24th annual festival before winning five Oscars and numerous other honors. For those of us who regularly attend the Toronto bash every September, it came as no surprise, for the TIFF has always been about finding gems and launching them into the cinematic stratosphere. There have been countless others: “Amelie,” “Life is “Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Shine,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “Roger and Me,” “The Big Chill,” “Chariots of Fire”…

All these films, and many more, came to the city sometimes known as Little New York knowing what could happen here. While Cannes is a glamour show and Sundance a (so-called) champion of the Indies, the TIFF has always sold itself as the happy medium, a festival with quantity AND quality, perfectly positioned at the start of Oscar season. The city is an easy hour flight from New York and home to many Hollywood productions, so familiarity breeds no contempt here. The audiences are fiercely intelligent and unabashedly in love with film, supporting the medium in any incarnation it sees fit to present itself, from experimental African shorts to big, loud American blockbusters. On most nights, you’ll get bigger lineups for a tiny Iranian documentary over the latest Hollywood hit. The programs are diverse and challenging, always pushing the boundary of the art itself and never losing sight of the ultimate goal of such events – exposure.

This year is no different, and with 344 features and shorts being shown, the city is alive once again with tunnel syndrome, the affectionate name around town for that peculiar affliction that comes with living in the dark for two weeks. Eavesdrop on any conversation around the city and the conversation naturally revolves around film – “I hear Todd Haynes’ latest is a departure from Velvet Goldmine”… “I hope City of God doesn’t exploit Brazilian poverty by glamorizing it”… “Joel Schumacher is here againr”

While it would take countless doses of amphetamines for me to go through every cinematic highlight at this year’s fest, I’ve selected the films getting the biggest buzz around town and those sure to stir the pot. I’ll be back later with more updates and a final festival wrap when the curtains finally close. Those who want more info. should check out the official site of the TIFF.

1. “Bowling For Columbine” (Michael Moore)
Documentary renegade Michael Moore returns to the city that launched his career with “Roger and Me” way back in 1989 to show his latest attempt at exposing the accepted practices of Americana. This time, he’s chosen the controversial subject of guns and gun culture in a post-9/11 and Columbine world. Moore has always had this uncanny ability to uncover stories before they become front page news (his 1997 doc “The Big One” took a stab at corporate wrongdoing), but “Bowling” chooses to look backwards in an attempt to explain our present plight. The ultra-right will hate this one, which alone is a great reason to see it.

2. “Spider” (David Cronenberg)
With a nomination in tow at Cannes, Canadian chic-geek David Cronenberg brings Patrick McGrath’s mind-bending thriller to the big screen with all the air of mystery assured any Cronenberg release. Ralph Fiennes plays the institutionalized nut job whose slow decline into realms of illogic is witnessed vicariously by the audience. The won’t-feel-good movie of the festival.

3. “Ken Park” (Larry Clark, Edward Lachman)
The first teaming of Kids makers Larry Clark and Harmony Korine since that debut feature knocked everyone on their heels is sure to sizzle. Probably the most sexually-graphic film at this year’s fest, this story of bored teens engaging in incest, drugs and violence to pass the time will get its share of walkouts and boos. But true to the spirit of the TIFF, Ken Park has not been censored and will be seen in its entirety here, most likely for the last time before meeting the razor-sharp edges of international censors.

4. “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (Phillip Noyce)
Already a hit in its native Australia, this stark and edgy drama about three young aboriginal girls fleeing their slave masters touched nerves both at home and abroad. Noyce, better known for his American work (“Patriot Games,” “The Saint”), doesn’t shy from facing his country’s brutal past head-on, depicting a truth many have tried to sweep under the rug.

5. “Far From Heaven” (Todd Haynes)
Reunited with his “Safe” leading lady Julianne Moore, Haynes once again works best capturing seemingly normal family constructs ready to implode. This time, he pulls the Jenga blocks slowly away from a 1950s Connecticut marriage seeping with adultery and racially-charge undertones. After only three films, Haynes has established himself as one of the riskiest new filmmakers on the American front and audiences here can’t wait.

6. “City of God” (Katia Lund, Fernando Meirelles)
Miramax picked up this shocking street drama after it premiered at Cannes, full of ultra-violent urban macabre and a gritty realism not usually associated with a Brazilian cinema more known for heart-churners like Central Station. Drugs and death are background landscapes in and around Rio’s decrepit ghettos and the filmmakers cast real street kids to depict these harsh surroundings. Look for audiences here to push this into foreign Oscar territory.

7. “Punch-Drunk Love” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
With his dark comedic undertones and eclectic psychological observations, P.T. is the perfect kind of writer/director for the TIFF, a festival known for promoting this kind of periphery kitsch. Here we have yet another example of playing from both ends, casting gag boy Adam Sandler opposite festival favorite Emily Watson in a romantic comedy on drugs. P.T. loves to dismantle genre expectations and build them anew, which “Punch-Drunk Love” is sure to do. A favorite in France, this is my early pick for People’s Choice Award this year.

8. “11’09″01” (Various directors)
The TIFF is no stranger to controversy, so rather then bow its head in silence on 9/11, the festival is premiering three films to commemorate the tragic day. Both “The Guys” and “Reno: Rebel Without A Pause” meet the anniversary head on in content and theme, but neither has met the storm of debate that “11’09″01” has. Already spanked by Variety for what the magazine calls “stridently anti-American” views, the collection of shorts by various international directors like Ken Loach, Claude Lelouch and Sean Penn all deal with reaction to 9/11 from both sides of the fence. Each short is 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame long, and each promises reflection by way of challenge. I expect boos, claps and one hell of a gala that night.

9. “All or Nothing” (Mike Leigh)
The fine art of character drama may be lost on the mainstream crowd but it seems right at home at a festival that honored Mike Leigh’s “Naked” nine years ago. Leigh returns having lost none of the subtle gumption that made “Secrets and Lies” and “Career Girls” real treats, once again exploring desperate, desolate lives full of hope and madness. Set in a South London housing estate, “All or Nothing” watches a group of neighbors mix it up with each other, to the delight of the voyeur in all of us.

10. “Heaven” (Tom Tykwer)
While casting two big English-language names like Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi may seem a slight departure for German new-wave master Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), the story and visuals remain firmly rooted in his usual style. Again exploring ideas of intertwined destines and symbiotic character desires, Heaven is being hailed as his most accomplished work to date, fusing the aesthetic prowess seen in his earlier work with a newfound sense of narrative balance. “Heaven” is loosely inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and was in production by famed French auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski before his untimely death in 1996. Tykwer is certainly the right director to pick up the master’s work and will be welcomed with open arms here again.

11. “Dolls” (Takeshi Kitano)
The visual stylist and narrative absurdist well-known to Toronto audiences returns after his 2000 smash “Brother” kicked serious coochie here. Kitano’s work has always been dazzling, (my favorite, his ’97 flick “Fireworks”), and for this tenth feature, the actor/director frames his story around the style of classic Bunraku puppet theatre. Musings on love, fate and all things between unfold in this latest fairytale. I’ll be in line early for this one.

Other Notables

“Moonlight Mile” (Brad Siberling): Melodrama a la In The Bedroom starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal

“Assassination Tango” (Robert Duvall): Duvall stars and directs in this Argentinean gangster flick

“Ararat” (Atom Egoyan): A movie about a movie about Armenian genocide from Canada’s most complex director

“Femme Fatale” (Brian De Palma): Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos do an homage to film noir

“Morven Collar” (Lynne Ramsay): British director’s follow-up to the celebrated “Ratcatcher” promises to be just as unnerving

“Gerry” (Gus Van Sant): Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walk through desert and time in this Sundance enigma

“L’Idole” (Samantha Lang): Leelee Sobieski goes bad, kinky and French

“Phone Booth” (Joel Schumacher): One scene. One story. One filmmaker who can’t get enough of Toronto

“The Good Thief” (Neil Jordan): Nick Nolte supposedly gives the performance of his life in this heist opera

“Horns and Halos” (Suki Hawley, Michael Galinsky): Doc about Bush admin’s attempt to destroy unauthorized biography “Fortunate Son”

“8 Mile” (Curtis Hanson): Slim Shady lands in Canada for his cinematic debut. This screening will get ugly.