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Lisa Schwarzbaum on the best of Toronto

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Ken Regan/Camera 5

Lisa Schwarzbaum on the best of Toronto

At first I didn’t recognize Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding, and not just because of what appear to be alterations in the planes of her chiseled face. No, the Kidman who plays the title role in Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale — another pleasurable/painful thumb-press on the bruises of family dynamics, in what’s fast becoming identifiable as the Baumbach Maneuver — gives herself fully to playing a woman of weirdly thrilling neuroses. This Kidman doesn’t flutter or erect a protective screen between herself and her role as an admired, high-maintenance writer who reenacts ancient battles with Jennifer Jason Leigh as her estranged sister. Rather, this Kidman locates the monster that resides, with special privileges, in successful, cultured, ”upscale” people. Hers is a great performance in an astute movie that searches for psychological truth at the expense of comfort.

Which, come to think of it, is a good definition for the best of what I saw this year at the Toronto Film Festival: original, accomplished, adult movies about very imperfect people behaving very imperfectly. Take The Counterfeiters, a bracingly unsweetened drama by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky pulled from the inexhaustible Holocaust archives — a survival tale that turns Schindler’s List on its head. The ”hero” is a genius Jewish con artist who, thrown into Mauthausen concentration camp, is put to work by the Nazis counterfeiting British and American money for the benefit of the Third Reich. Except he’s not a hero, just a compromised guy with quick wits, an urge to live, and a bit of luck.

Atonement, a respectful literary adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed 2002 novel, features a young girl who tells a lie and ruins many people’s lives for years to come — not least her own. The story’s cinematic grip is likely to be strongest on those who don’t compare the movie’s blandly pretty scenery (and Keira Knightley’s distractingly hollow cheekbones, her clotheshorse postures) with the precision of the author’s commanding language. The moral quandary, at least, has not been softened a whit, and the last section, with Vanessa Redgrave pitching in, is still a satisfying shocker.

Men behave exceedingly badly, to a moviegoer’s great delight, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Sidney Lumet’s sly demonstration of the cesspool effect of accumulating misdeeds features Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two weasel brothers (Hoffman’s characteristically generous embrace of weaselability inspires Hawke to do his best work since Training Day). And the uglier and more desperate the consequences, the more invigorating and juiced up the storytelling. That same inversion of personal goodness and movie payoff goes for Michael Clayton, with George Clooney biting into the title role of a disheartened, dead-eyed legal fixer in Tony Gilroy’s superior, cynical thriller. And, sheesh, although I know my colleague Owen Gleiberman disagrees, nothing at Toronto matched the oomph and excitement of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with its head-butting collision of genre pic and moral study. (See for yourself; it’s now in a theater near you.)

To be sure, not every movie built on moral dilemma hit the mark. Rendition employs Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Streep, among pedigreed others, to explore justice, injustice, and the slippery boundary between each in the name of American national security, but loses its energy before an audience can muster the desired outrage and concern. Disengagement, Amos Gitai’s provocative drama set during the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, almost cancels out the power of its disengagement scenes with a whole lot of piffling craziness from an unlikely eyewitness played by Juliette Binoche. Lust, Caution, Ang Lee’s inert period piece set during pre-Revolution Shanghai, manages to make betrayal, deception, and violent graphic sex barely more exciting than the exertions of society ladies snapping mah-jongg tiles.

But then, at Toronto, the unpublicized side streets of programming are often more rewarding than the big stuff. I was seduced by Ira Sachs’ Married Life, a little beauty set in well-mannered 1949, which has fun with bad behavior among attractive cheaters. (Starring Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Rachel McAdams, the road to mischief is deliciously acted.) And in Baltasar Kormákur’s singularly eccentric Icelandic thriller Jar City, questions of murder and rape vie for attention with the ethics of genetic testing.

Against such moral weightiness and in a festival destined by the calendar to be linked forever in memory with the fall of innocence that took place six years ago on September 11, a global charmer like The Band’s Visit arrives light and welcome as a bouquet of balloons. The musicians in question are an Egyptian police band, spiffy in their formal blue uniforms and ready to perform at a booking — but completely lost at the wrong address in an Israeli desert town. Writer-director Eran Kolirin pairs a marvelous Sasson Gabai as the group’s dignified, sad-faced conductor with the indispensable Ronit Elkabetz (Late Marriage) as the sexy, no-nonsense Israeli café owner who becomes his tour guide. The filmmaker maneuvers a path of surprising freshness — sweet but never syrupy, funny but never condescending, hopeful but never unrealistic, even in a world where truth also can feel lost at the wrong address.

Want another view of the 2007 Toronto Film Festival? See which films made the biggest impression on EW critic Owen Gleiberman