TORONTO, Ontario (CNN) -- Talk about feast or famine! After a summer of high-tech amusement park rides, for a film fan it can feel like it's been months since there was anything worth seeing at the movies -- which makes arriving at the Toronto International Film Festival all the more disorientating.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a brilliant performance in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah."
Within hours of my arrival last Thursday, I find myself faced with so much choice it's impossible to know where to look.
On the one hand there's Ang Lee's Venice prize-winner "Lust, Caution," recently slapped with the NC-17 by the MPAA ratings board, which values caution above all. I'd be there, except that it clashes with the Coen brothers' eagerly-awaited Cormac McCarthy adaptation "No Country for Old Men" ... and George Clooney in the corporate law drama "Michael Clayton" ... not forgetting Jodie Foster going Travis Bickle on us in Neil Jordan's "The Brave One."
Then there's that new Michael Moore documentary, "Captain Mike Across America" (highly disposable, as it turns out). Or "My Winnipeg," a personal essay by Canada's wittiest avant-gardist, Guy Maddin.
It's true, there will be further opportunities down the road for most if not all of these titles, but that little line-up would probably sustain most festivals for a week. At TIFF, it's a typical evening's work -- and there's an awful lot more where that came from: 275 features screening over 10 days, more than 80 percent of them North American or world premieres, including the first wave of Oscar contenders, plus the cream of the crop from festivals at Sundance, Cannes, Berlin and Venice.
After the first weekend I'll say Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" looks like an Oscar front-runner, not least for Tommy Lee Jones' great performance as a father investigating the disappearance of his son, a soldier just returned from Iraq. (More on this when it opens this Friday.)
Jones faces stiff competition in the acting stakes, not least from a grizzly old Texan by the name of Tommy Lee Jones in the Coens' "No Country for Old Men," a gnarled but riveting thriller that plays like a dusty counterpart to the brothers' "Fargo." It's their best movie in years. Coincidentally, both pictures paint a distressed portrait of a new breed of men, apparently drained of their humanity, devoid of morality and compassion.
The shadow of Iraq falls across many of the American films (and some of the international titles) at this year's festival. Brian De Palma's experimental feature "Redacted" takes multiple angles on an atrocity committed by U.S. soldiers, and ends with a powerful montage of "democratized" Iraqi corpses and casualties. In "Rendition" (a somewhat schematic Hollywood debut by "Tsotsi" director Gavin Hood), Jake Gyllenhaal is a fledgling CIA operative in Tunis who comes to question the sanctioned torture of a suspect there, an Egyptian with a green card and an American wife (Reese Witherspoon).
Even "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," a bombastic follow-up to Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning triumph from 1998 brazenly presses topical buttons with its references to holy wars, torture, and sovereign immunity from prosecution.
A couple of smaller movies are worth looking out for. "Juno," directed by Jason ("Thank You for Smoking") Reitman, is an edgy, insolent comedy with a terrific script by newcomer Diablo Cody. Ellen Page gives a star-making performance as a 16-year-old live wire who decides to go through with her pregnancy and seeks acceptably well-adjusted, wealthy, punk-rock loving parents for the unborn baby.
At the other end of the social and generational spectrum, "The Visitor" is the story of an aging widower ("Six Feet Under's" Richard Jenkins), a college professor who is drawn into an unexpectedly rich friendship with an illegal alien from Syria (Haaz Sleiman). Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, this is a gentle, sympathetic character piece with a surprisingly angry undertow. Fans of McCarthy's "The Station Agent" will not be disappointed.
Finally -- and maybe the best surprise of the festival so far -- Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" is a brave, strongly felt, beautifully realized film of Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book. In 1990, Christopher McCandless donated the remaining $24,000 from his college fund to charity, abandoned family and friends, and set off on a trip across America that would culminate in a long, lonely trek into the Alaskan wilderness.
After three laboriously conflicted efforts, Penn has hit on a simple, resonant idea this time, and a character he obviously admires. Played by Emile Hirsch, McCandless may be young and naïve but his idealism shines through, and much of this lyrical, adventuresome movie is an ode to open spaces and open hearts.
An "Easy Rider" for our times, "Into the Wild" barely makes mention of the first Gulf War, but it's not hard to see Christopher's retreat into nature and philosophy as a flawed but fundamentally heroic withdrawal. E-mail to a friend
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