Art feeds on tumultuous times. The fabled film renaissance of the 1970s, for example, grew out of the storminess of the era. What moved, inspired, and in a few cases shocked me at the 30th annual Toronto International Film Festival was how the turmoil of our own time has begun to seep into the movies emerging from it.
Take Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a big, sweeping, and rapturous Hollywood love story that could turn out to be the most revolutionary movie of the year. It’s adapted from Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story about a ranch hand and a failed rodeo rider, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who meet in the Wyoming wilderness in 1963 and fall into a love affair that lasts, in secret, through frayed marriages and broken dreams, over the next 20 years. At the festival, Brokeback Mountain was referred to as the ”gay cowboy” movie, yet to see it through those words is to violate its tender, unprecedented spirit. Gyllenhaal and Ledger, in a performance of gnarled taciturn brilliance, are latter-day Marlboro Men who experience their deepening attraction as something inexplicable and wounding, a force they scarcely have words for. Brokeback Mountain is a film in which love feels almost as if it were being invented, yet at a moment when issues of equality in gay and straight relationships have become fuel for a fiery culture war, it is also the rare crowd-pleaser with the potential to change hearts and minds.
A political film just as fearless, not to mention galvanizing in its relevance, is Paradise Now, which dramatizes the lives of two Palestinian suicide bombers assigned to blow themselves up in Tel Aviv. The director, Hany Abu-Assad, immerses us in the queasy logistics of their experience, but he also takes profound inventory of their psyches. The result is a fine-tuned moral thriller, the first film to map the interior landscape of Islamic terrorism. I felt an even more nerve-jangling fusion of excitement and dismay watching 06/05: The Sixth of May, the final film from the Dutch director Theo van Gogh, whose murder last year by a Muslim assassin is creepily echoed in this wildly speculative conspiracy thriller that takes off from the 2002 assassination of the Dutch parliamentary candidate Pim Fortuyn.
Along with Marilyn Monroe, the underground pinup Bettie Page was arguably the erotic pop goddess of the 20th century, and Mary Harron’s insouciant docudrama The Notorious Bettie Page digs deep into the enticing strangeness of Page’s story: how a devout Tennessee country girl came to New York, did girlie-mag cheesecake, then nudity, then hog-tied S&M ”specialty” shots that must have looked freaky as sin in the 1950s, since they still do now — all the while retaining the bizarre naëvetá of a little girl playing dress-up. Gretchen Mol, to a remarkable degree, gets Page’s incandescent spirit of fleshy-fun naughtiness, yet Harron, by design, never gives Bettie an unruly inner life. She’s content instead to contemplate the astral mysteries of erotic projection. Less arresting is Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic that’s positioning itself as this year’s Ray. Despite engaged performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, it never quite explains why Cash took 10 whole tormented years to get June Carter to marry him.
The real world wasn’t always serious in Toronto; it was also the source of fun and games. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is Michael Winterbottom’s delightful faux-literary comedy about the making of a movie. It’s evidence that Steve Coogan should always play Steve Coogan, a one-man engine of charismatic narcissism. Bubble, the latest of Steven Soderbergh’s ”small” palate cleansers, is the first that truly works. Soderbergh got a startling cast of nonprofessionals to enact a deft tale of friendship, drudge factory work, and murder, shot through with a modern American anomie that speaks to the collapsing middle class.
Toronto wasn’t all first-rate. Tideland, Terry Gilliam’s disastrous diddle of a movie, features rotting corpses and the rambling relationship between a young girl and a brain-damaged…um, idiot. It’s two hours of fear and loathing minus Las Vegas. Tsotsi, winner of the audience award, offered the contrived sentimentalization of a South African teen thug.
Two musical films, by contrast, touched the sublime. Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man has moments so gorgeous they brought me to tears, and Kenneth Anger’s Mouse Heaven, the underground legend’s first triumph in 25 years, salutes Mickey Mouse with some of the same cracked hypnotic fever that Scorpio Rising did satanic gay biker fetishism. But truth, in its way, can be beautiful too. Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki’s nimble and brilliant docu-dissection of the military-industrial complex, unearths the deepest roots of our scariest political realities. I defy anyone not to be staggered by it.