New films from directors Todd Haynes, Sidney Lumet, and Werner Herzog were among the standouts from a strong Toronto festival field for EW's critic, all skillfully drawing audiences into their particular fixations
Credit: Doane Gregory

Owen Gleiberman on his Toronto obsessions

The folks who gather at film festivals — publicists, critics, executives — tend to be a cynical lot. The post-screening chatter, even when lubricated (as it so often is) by an abundance of free cocktails, is generally driven by as much grousing as praise. So it was an unusual pleasure to confront the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival. Simply put, it was such an extraordinary year, with such a bumper crop of audacious filmmaking, that for once I found no one complaining about it. People were high on what they saw. What the movies had in common wasn’t just ”quality” but the quality of obsession. Over and over, I got drawn into a director’s itchy desire to make his or her fixation ours.

Nowhere was this dynamic more exhilarating than in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ tricky, deep-vision meditation on the music and mythology of Bob Dylan. Haynes, in his first effort since 2002’s Far From Heaven, creates a reverie of a movie — a biopic deconstructed into a dream — that intercuts half a dozen actors, from Heath Ledger to Richard Gere, as they embody Dylan (or, rather, thinly fictionalized iconic versions of him) at key periods in his life. The movie pivots around the notion that Dylan was as much of a creation, a character, as anything in his songs, and that his mystique of authenticity was the most created thing about him. This is played out most tellingly in the film’s riff on the 1965 Don’t Look Back Dylan — played, under frizzy hair and Wayfarers, by Cate Blanchett, who does a spectacular, wily, soul-on-the-sleeve enactment of Dylan’s quest for incandescence in a media culture that couldn’t contain him. I’m Not There may sound academic, but it plays like the headiest musical ever made.

I savored a different kind of primal movie power in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, directed by the 83-year-old Sidney Lumet with the vigor and cunning and wide-awake electricity of a virtuoso half his age. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, as dissolute, embattled brothers who try to change their destiny by knocking off their parents’ hole-in-the-mall jewelry store, give seismic performances, and the spectacular unraveling of their crime has some of the mad-dog desperation of Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, only rendered with the structural gamesmanship of Quentin Tarantino, as well as a seething family grandeur powerful enough to evoke Eugene O’Neill.

When you hear a movie referred to as a ”crowd-pleaser,” you know that you’re going to be majorly entertained…or mightily pandered to. There were two such comedies in Toronto. Juno, about a pregnant teenager who decides to give up her baby for adoption to a troubled yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), is an original funky charmer, with a remarkable performance by Hard Candy‘s Ellen Page as the knocked-up heroine, who speaks in her own precociously discombobulated Google-generation info-sarcasm. Lars and the Real Girl, on the other hand, lets Ryan Gosling mug with adorable abandon as a troubled dimwit who falls chastely in love with a mannequin sex doll, a relationship his whole town encourages — all, you see, as a ”heartwarming” form of therapy.

It was fascinating to watch noted filmmakers grapple with the morass of Iraq. Battle for Haditha is a searing eye-opener of a docu-style drama — an often brilliant attempt by Nick Broomfield to reveal the war, from both sides, at ground level. We see the nuts and bolts of how desperate insurgents plant and detonate a roadside bomb, and then we see the U.S. retaliation, as Broomfield restages one of the war’s notorious calamities, a slaughter of civilians in Haditha. Brian De Palma tries for something similar in Redacted, filtering the action through a dozen multimedia formats (home video, fake documentary, Internet), but the whole tone of the movie is woefully, almost cringingly inauthentic. The soldiers sound like Off Off Broadway actors, hamming up the badass bluster Broomfield captures with far greater dexterity.

Don’t be fooled by the homespun title of Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter Man From Plains. This portrait of the former president is built almost entirely around the book tour for his controversial Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and the movie is a gripping meditation on the very hot-button-ness of the Israeli-Palestinian question. Carter himself emerges as a furious contradiction: pious, provocative, compassionate, stubborn, moral, unreasonable, and wise. A far less ambiguous profile in courage is Trumbo, a plucky portrait of fabled screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was arguably the most valiant member of the Hollywood Ten. It provides an intimate window into the terror of the blacklist, more so than any previous film.

Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop shows a mastery of a style that might be called neo-neorealism. At times, though, I wished this tale of a boy hustler living over a sleazy Queens auto-repair shop had less observational purity and a bit more drive.

It’s an irony for zombie-film scholars to ponder that George Romero, who defined the genre, is now toiling at its margins like an indie kid with a handheld camera. In George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, the exploding-head kills give you some of that splatterific, no, he didn’t! kick, but the story is Friday the 13th gone the way of all decayed flesh.

I much preferred my extremes with a touch of poetry, and so I gravitated to the Werner Herzog doc Encounters at the End of the World, a spooky and gorgeous trip into the enigma that is Antarctica. It’s the perfect subject for Herzog, and he makes good on it, descending deep into the frozen lunar mysteries of the polar ice cap and the friendly, eccentric science-geek community that toils to understand it. Like all the best films I saw at Toronto this year, this one pulls you inside its obsession and holds you there until you feel cleansed.

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