Canada's Cannes, from duds to gems Who needs the Riviera? Toronto is a great place to have a film festival.

September 27, 1998|By David Kronke | David Kronke,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TORONTO -- Canadian writer/director/ actor Don McKellar, whose comedy-drama "Last Night" examines the end of the world through the eyes of several Torontans, enjoys recounting an interview with a snarky French-Canadian journalist who told him, "Toronto is a good place to have the end of the world."

It's an even better place to have a film festival. Year after year, the Toronto International Film Festival offers a smoothly run organization (in contrast to the frenzied zoos of Cannes or Sundance); a vibrant, easily negotiated cosmopolitan setting; and, of course, an absolute glut of movies (311 this year).

One measure of a film festival is the number of revelatory new films it premieres to audiences. On that count, this year fell short - there were very few, if any, surprise breakouts.

All the major award winners and films earning plaudits had been seen earlier at other festivals. Robert Benigni's poignant Holocaust comedy "Life Is Beautiful," which won the Audience Award, previously had won prizes at Cannes and Montreal. Todd Solondz's controversial "Happiness," examining the interconnected lives of a disparate bunch of Jersey losers, caused a sensation at Cannes before winning the critics' award here. Brazilian director Walter Salles' sentimental "Central Station," about an elderly woman who befriends a young boy who has lost his mother, was a runner-up for both audience and critics' awards, after having debuted at Sundance.

Still, Toronto's 23rd film festival had a strong combination of audience-pleasing mainstream fare and foreign gems (and, yes, a number of duds). Here, in no particular order, are some of the more notable experiences of 10 days of intense movie-watching (I saw almost 30 films during the festival).

"Elizabeth" - The smartest film of the festival was director Shekhar Kapur's costume drama with attitude, examining the troubled early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, when political back-stabbing was literal and sex and religion carried dire consequences. Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth powerfully transforms from a kindly, free-spirited young woman into a steely, cagey ruler, and Geoffrey Rush oozes sinister elan as an elusive spymaster in her inner circle. Gorgeously photographed, designed and edited, "Elizabeth" (opening in November) features ferocious style and energy rarely seen in the genre.

"Rushmore" - From the Texas team that gave us the underappreciated "Bottle Rocket" - director/co-writer Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson - comes this wonderfully eccentric comedy about Max (Jason Schwartzman), a budding playwright of '70s-era docudramas, who allows his copious extracurricular activities at a prep school to destroy his academic record. Further complications ensue when both he and his mentor (Bill Murray) fall for the same teacher (Olivia Williams). Like "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" (opening next February) is silly, poignant and inspired.

Millennium - A half-dozen films unspooled here were part of France's "2000 Seen by ..." collection, a series of movies from around the world riffing on the millennium. The two I saw were among the festival's best. McKellar's "Last Night" won an award for best first-time filmmaker, while Long Island auteur Hal Hartley ("Henry Fool") weighed in with the absolutely hilarious "The Book of Life," an hour-long epic finding a power-suited Jesus (Martin Donovan) visiting New York to finish off the prophecies enumerated in the Book of Revelations, which are maintained in an Apple PowerBook. A scene where Jesus and Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) discuss theology and man's plight over vodka shots may have been the single funniest of the whole festival.

Sibling revelry - Two top-notch biopics featured guys who sleep with two sisters who are OK with it. John Boorman's "The General" examined the life of Martin Cahill, one of Ireland's cagiest and most colorful gangsters, who had children by both his wife and her sister. (Boorman reports that he personally was a victim of one of Cahill's crime sprees - his gold record for the "Deliverance" sound track album was stolen; the incident is incorporated into his film.) In "Hilary and Jackie," flamboyant cellist Jacqueline du Pre persuades her sister - who had watched her own childhood talent as a flutist get eclipsed by her younger sibling - to let her sleep with Hilary's husband when Jackie's marriage falters.

The longest day - I began Thursday, Sept. 17, with the controversial "Happiness," an NC-17-rated provocation which, most notoriously, includes a character who is a pederast - the very idea upset even some veteran industry attendees - and ended it with writer-director Gary Ross' Capraesque "Pleasantville," widely considered the best studio film on display at the festival. Interestingly, sweet as it is, "Pleasantville" points to how we got to "Happiness."

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