Lisa Schwarzbaum gives her take on the Toronto Film Festival -- One of our film critics tells us about her faves from the yearly film soiree

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 22, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

There will be time, in coming paragraphs, to describe some of what was interesting, innovative, ambitious, artistic, or Chinese at Toronto this year — a year in which the world’s friendliest jumbo film festival felt more than ever like the world’s biggest promotional launchpad for prestige productions with year-end award potential. But first I need to marvel at what is bound to stand as the most politically influential, most culturally important, most shockingly tasteless, and most gaspingly hilarious movie of the year.

I refer, of course, to Borat Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a specimen of satirical brilliance so fearless and liberatingly offensive that it ought to be included in every high school syllabus pertaining to (a) multicultural sensitivity and (b) the craft of socially relevant comedy. The character of Borat Sagdiyev, the innocently politically incorrect reporter for Kazakhstan’s state-run TV network who has a morbid fear of homosexuals and Jews but a virile Kazakh fondness for kissing men and wrestling with them naked is, of course, the creation of revolutionary British (and Jewish) comedian Sacha Baron Cohen; Borat’s blinkered short-film investigations of the American way of life are already familiar to viewers of Da Ali G Show. But feature-length Borat offers the happy, innocent, idiotic bigot a chance to expand the offenses he causes as he bumbles his way across our country, revealing a little more American absurdity to Americans with every gaffe.

Long after many of the year’s more serious movies have come and gone and been nominated for this and that, Borat will stand, along with South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, as one of the most incisive cultural commentaries of our era. And by then the novelty will have worn off D.O.A.P. — the dopey acronym for Death of a President. This British faux-documentary what-if about the imagined 2007 assassination of George W. Bush arrived in Toronto on gusts of chatter about sensationalism and the abetting of terrorism. The fears were unfounded. D.O.A.P. is jolting; co-writer/director Gabriel Range adeptly employs the tools of legit documentary filmmaking, combining real footage and fake talking-head interviews with well cast, unfamiliar actors playing witnesses to history. But once past the gunshots (a breach-of-security scenario that will ring improbable to most American audiences), Range gets down to his real business, which is suggesting how an innocent Muslim might just end up in jail for the crime, given the state of our Union. D.O.A.P. grabs appalled viewers’ attention, then settles for some vigorous, pointless shaking of the lapels.

As historical fantasias go, I was much more intrigued with the minute-by-minute perils of Black Book, in which Basic Instinct‘s Paul Verhoeven marks his return to his native Netherlands with the story of a plucky (and miraculously lucky) Dutch Jewish woman who survives World War II by becoming the lover of a Nazi officer in the course of working for the Dutch Resistance, members of which turn out to be not an entirely noble bunch. And for understated illumination of all too recent history, nothing beat The Lives of Others, an utterly riveting German drama about some of the terrible abuses of freedom perpetrated on the citizens of the German Democratic Republic by the state’s own secret police, circa 1984. A nail-biter of a thriller about an eavesdropping Stasi agent and his prey, the movie has the potential to become a foreign-language hit here.

And so to the stately, the masterful, and sometimes the subtitled: In Coeurs, grand master Alain Resnais shapes British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears in Public Places into gorgeous tableaux of men and women who can’t connect. Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold) uses Iranian secular soccer madness as a droll male backdrop for female frustration in Offside. As a feisty old theater type with an eye for a teenage home attendant, dapper showman Peter O’Toole rescues Venus from occasional dips into theater mush, biting into the role of horny old geezer; his scenes with Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife are things of wily trouper beauty. Patrice Leconte’s irresistibly winning French comedy My Best Friend, starring the estimable Daniel Auteuil as an arrogant pill and Dany Boon as the taxi driver who eases into the title role, unspools smoothly in the best tradition of Gallic popular farce. Pan’s Labyrinth, from the unique Mexican genre master Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), mixes horror with history in a fabulous ghost story set in Franco’s Spain of 1944. The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s deliriously ambitious, beautifully photographed folie, unfurls three parallel love stories that throb with romanticism in past, present, and future centuries, and stars Hugh Jackman and (Aronofsky’s fiancé) Rachel Weisz.

Malaysian-born, Taiwan-bred Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?) delivers another of his haunting, minimalist, erotic dreamscapes with I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, while Venice Film Festival prizewinner Still Life, a drama set at the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, thrilled eager admirers — like me — of the great filmmaker Jia Zhangke (The World) and his eye for the clash of old China and new.

Of course, Jia and Tsai, Resnais and Leconte all operate in an Oscar-buzz-less vacuum, poor fellows. Which means they’re low priorities at Toronto, the North American breeding ground of early Oscar campaigns. I’d feel more comfortable talking up the award-worthiness of, say, The Lives of Others for a foreign-language Oscar if I hadn’t also seen For Your Consideration, the newest bull’s-eye-hitting pomposity buster from Christopher Guest and the gang from Best in Show. And I’d go on at length about the mercilessly funny premise — divine Catherine O’Hara plays an aging B actress swept up in a wave of manufactured Oscar hype for the ridiculous melodrama Home for Purim — if I didn’t feel that the blurbable praise skewered by Guest is exactly what more and more Toronto film festival entries shop for up north.