I’m certain there are issues that occur behind the scenes, but hardly scandal-inducing. Oh sure, there have been very minor contretemps as when self-important movie critic Roger Ebert was shut out of a press screening for Far From Heaven in 2002, but that was more laughable than anything else. He huffed and he puffed, but couldn’t blow the house down. He even yelled to some poor festival volunteer: “don’t you know how important my newspaper is?” Which is really funny when you consider that Roger writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, which is hardly a national newspaper of any merit, especially these days with its ownership issues. Anyway, the festival staff scheduled an added screening so Roger and a few other self-important press people could see the film a couple of hours after most of us had already seen it. You see, it goes like this; self-important press people tend to arrive late for press screenings because they believe their very self-importance will grant them admission even if every seat in the theater is taken. But that’s the democratic nature of the Toronto Film Festival. First come, first served.

But that was then, and this is now. The only remotely “scandalous” issue this year was the way actor Jake Gyllenhaal was treated by the vaunted Four Seasons Hotel. Now, I didn’t witness this situation, but I heard repeated stories about it and read about it in the Toronto Globe And Mail. The Four Seasons is a luxury hotel that is the residence of choice for many movie stars, producers, directors, etc. I've stayed at the Toronto Four Seasons and it’s a swank place, but hardly on a par with the greatness of the Los Angeles Four Seasons, which is grandly run and as comfortable as a favorite pair of slippers. I’ve always found the Toronto Four Seasons to be a bit dowdy, sort of like an overstuffed English sitting room.

So Gyllenhaal, who was at the festival (the 30th annual) to promote his superb feature Brokeback Mountain, a perfect film about two male western ranch hands who fall in love with each other in 1960s America, had a deluxe suite at the Four Seasons. He was out in the city doing promotional things, and returned to discover that Reception had given his room to another guest. Some self-important VIP – a name was never mentioned – was handed Jake’s suite after demanding he be given his room ASAP. Hotel staffers actually went into Gyllenhaal’s space and packed up his clothing and toiletries and stored them where the concierge stores guests’ belongings, which is usually a backroom off the lobby. Gyllenhaal was understandably furious. Who wouldn’t be? I would be furious, too. Gyllenhaal was so upset that “others” had touched his stuff, that scheduled interviews with the soon-to-be 25-year old actor were cancelled. But it gets worse. Before the hotel’s front desk would give Jake his suitcases back, he was forced to show an ID proving who he was. Let me tell you something, that crap doesn’t even go on at a Motel 6. Frankly, I think the Four Seasons owes Gyllenhaal a massive apology and probably a week’s free stay. As someone who has stayed in a lot of hotels, I think the Toronto Four Seasons was mightily wrong in this regard and acted like an amateur operation.

Okay, so you’re probably wondering as you read this: “he went to a film festival and he’s writing about an actor’s hotel issues. What gives?”

I’ll tell you what gives. The movies at Toronto were not that terrific this year. There were very few breakout hits, few surefire Oscar nominees, few gotta see its. I saw some worthwhile films, including the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain, but not a lot soared into the stratosphere. It was like the 2005 movie year so far – a few very good films nestled in among the junk.

There were two pictures that I really wanted to see, but due to scheduling issues, couldn’t. The festival screens nearly 300 full-length movies and, do I really need to write this; obviously, choices have to be made. Both features have American distribution, so seeing them later on when they open in Buffalo won’t be a problem, but it’s always fun to see highly anticipated works at festivals. The first is Capote, starring Rochester’s Philip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive literary powerhouse Truman Capote. The second is Shopgirl, written by and starring Steve Martin and based on his magnificent novella of the same name about a woman who works in the anachronistic fine gloves department at the upscale Neiman Marcus store in Beverly Hills. There are many, many actors and directors I’ve wanted to interview, and have: Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bernardo Bertolucci, Woody Allen, e.g. But I haven’t been lucky enough to score a chat with Steve Martin – or my other favorite Martin – Scorsese. Hey, I would like to interview Philip Seymour Hoffman, too. “Shopgirl” is a book of exquisite beauty and concise language. I rarely read a book more than once. But, I’ve revisited “Shopgirl” once a year since it was published in 2000. In fact, I read it again last week after missing the film at the festival. I find it to be a sublime work of literature, wonderfully written.

I attended some press conferences and enjoyed the moment when Gwyneth Paltrow answered a long question from a member of the foreign press. The foreign press always asks very long questions. This one was about which era Paltrow would like to have lived in, and why, if she hadn’t been born in contemporary times. Without batting an eye, the actress replied that she wasn’t sure, but “there would have to be indoor plumbing.” The engaging Paltrow was at the festival to talk about her starring role in Proof. The movie is based on the hugely successful play about a mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) whose legacy may be that he left his daughter (Paltrow) two things: his math genius and his insanity. The film is serious and sober. It’s a drama that operates in a good way; it keeps you interested and makes you care about the characters. I’m ready to say that there hasn’t been this much solid talk in a major studio production since On Golden Pond. There are conversations that hold your attention and the acting is top-notch across the board, including turns by Jake Gyllenhaal as a former math student of her father and potential boyfriend for Paltrow and Hope Davis as her bewildered and bewildering sister.

The dullest press conference I attended was the one for Everything Is Illuminated. Liev Schrieber (who wrote the screenplay and directed), prodigiously talented Elijah Wood, and Ukrainian punk rock star (and professional club DJ) Eugene Hutz all managed to make an interesting and imaginative movie seem bland; they were that boring. Hutz, especially, was disappointing. I mean, come on, I kept thinking: is this laconic chap really the same guy who’s the front man for Gogol Bordello, a gypsy punk band that blends over-the-top folk influences with a carnival sideshow cabaret? Everything Is Illuminated is a comic fable, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s much acclaimed novel. In it, Wood plays a young American man who journeys to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather in a small town that was wiped off the map by the Nazis. Wood rarely makes a bad acting choice and he’s excellent here. Hutz, who plays Wood’s guide in the Ukraine, is delightful as a man for whom English is a fragmented semi-occupation. Schrieber keeps an even hand on the material, although there are times when he doesn’t trust his instincts, which seem to indicate that he understands the rich humor in all the pathos, but was concerned about going too far into the absurdist elements of a very quirky novel.

One of the best films I saw is Gabrielle, an emotion-packed French work from director Patrice Chereau about an unfaithful wife whose infidelity devastates her very proper husband. Based on the Joseph Conrad short story, “The Return,” Gabrielle stars an extraordinary Isabelle Huppert as the woman who shatters the expected conventions of 1912 Paris, where the upper middle class simply doesn’t examine the psychological meanings of marriage and its failure. Pascal Greggory superbly plays the cuckolded husband. There is rich detail in the film’s settings and one of the joys of the work is that for most of Gabrielle, Huppert and Greggory talk, sometimes in circles, sometimes getting in touch with their feelings. It was a pleasure to hear meaningful adult conversation in a movie. To call Gabrielle quintessentially French is an understatement. This is a brilliantly acted, beautifully directed work of art.

I’m not a big fan of Frank Gehry’s architecture. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, which manages to be both innovative and in touch with the landscape, Gehry’s buildings seem to me to be angry, not whimsical, as some believe. However, I have an amateur interest in architecture and saw the documentary Sketches Of Frank Gehry. I wanted to learn more about the man, and I did. But not enough. The film is directed by Sidney Pollack (Tootsie, Three Days Of The Condor, Out Of Africa, The Interpreter, The Way We Were), who is a friend of Gehry’s. One problem with the movie is that there’s too much Pollack in it being filmed holding his camera while he’s filming Gehry in conversation or at work. Another problem, a bigger one, is that there aren’t enough detailed images of Gehry’s buildings. We really don’t explore them. I did learn that the architect changed his name to Gehry because he had a very Jewish last name. Needless to say, there was extreme prejudice against Jews in the world as he was starting out in his professional life. He’s 76-years old and has vast talent in his field, to be sure. Although the movie is interesting, it never crosses the barrier into being anything more than workmanlike. It was fun seeing Gehry’s fellow architect Philip Johnson interviewed as well as actor Dennis Hopper, who lives in a Gehry-designed house, but I wanted more Gehry insights into his own creativity, and many, many more images of his buildings.

Then there’s Elizabethtown, which may get better after writer-director Cameron Crowe tinkers with it some more. The overly long version we saw at the press screening was announced as a work-in-progress. Well, it definitely needs work. Orlando Bloom stars as a very successful young businessman whose latest project, a super-duper running shoe, is a retail flop. At the same time, his father dies and the west coast-based Bloom has to go to Louisville, Kentucky to take care of cremation matters. His family (a mother and sister also survive the man) is mildly dysfunctional. While on the plane, Bloom meets a flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who seems to have psychic powers and with whom he will most assuredly fall in love. In Louisville, he meets all manner of colorful characters, including a motherly type, who’s all hearth and no head. She’s played by TV Food Network cook Paula Deen, and her miscasting is what I call stunt casting. Deen has one of the worst female voices imaginable (after MSNBC’s Rita Cosby and Elisabeth Hasselbeck from The View). Also, Deen can’t act to save her life and her appearance as a central Earth Mother figure derails the movie’s momentum. As it reaches its expected conclusion, Elizabethtown isn’t over by a long shot. Crowe sends Bloom on a road trip mapped out by Dunst. The poor guy has to travel by car back to the west coast listening to what seems like every rock song Crowe loves and zooming by every weird roadside attraction Crowe adores. It takes forever. Bloom is good, but not spectacular. Susan Sarandon as his mother is called upon to do a tap dance at the memorial service and it’s embarrassing to watch. The movie is a screwball comedy that needs a screwball-style actress, which Dunst isn’t. It needs Tea Leoni, Amanda Peet, or Brittany Murphy to make it work and to make us care if Bloom gets together with the off-beat flight attendant.

Breakfast On Pluto is from director Neil Jordan, who made the record-breaking, mind-shattering The Crying Game. Cillian Murphy plays an Irishman who loves to wear women’s clothes and wants to live his life as a woman. It’s a gentle comedy with sweet laughs, but no real surprises, except a few odd moments when drag meets the Irish Republican Army. Now there’s a stretch. Overall, I found it pleasant, if unassuming.

If any movie came out of this year’s film festival as the most talked about, it has to be Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee from a story by E. Annie Proulx. Gyllenhaal plays Jack Twist the ranch hand who is the driving force in the sexual relationship between himself and Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, who is flawless in this film. Brokeback Mountain’s homosexual intensity, from a purely physical point-of-view, peaks after about 30 minutes, but it’s emotional magnificence runs throughout the movie. The two men are compelled by societal dictates to marry, even have children. They occasionally take fishing trips together, and share a bond that won’t be undone. Twist is the more passionate of the two, the man less conflicted by his gay identity. There are moments when he seems like an eager puppy dog, which are moments the masterful Gyllenhaal hits out of the park. Del Mar is torn by the secret life he has to live. Ledger emotes inner turmoil with subtlety and style. Twist wants the two to live together as lovers, which in Wyoming is tantamount to running in front of a firing squad. How it all plays out is breathtaking in its simplicity, but never for a moment unsure or unsteady. The movie creates an atmosphere of love and fear and it draws the audience in and never lets it down.

What you realize after watching a groundbreaking feature like Brokeback Mountain is that movies really can be extraordinary, not unlike the Toronto Film Festival, which is as extraordinary as it gets. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

One of the things that’s interesting about the Toronto International Film Festival is that there are rarely, if ever, any scandals. Maybe it has something to do with the natural politeness of Canadians.

I’ve never heard of anyone causing a major stir because a certain movie won the People’s Choice Award or because a film was so outrageous it offended even the most open-minded. For example, if any movie were going to roil the waters it would have been Priest from some years back. Not at Toronto. The film’s public screenings were greeted with standing ovations, and the press was equally joyous.