Anyone attending a festival of this magnitude has to make choices, and I lucked out with my selections, except, that is, for the excruciatingly horrid comedy, Mambo Italiano. This is a flat and lifeless, garish and unfunny Canadian waste of time about a Montreal family of Italian-Canadians whose gay twenty-something son falls in love with a closeted cop. If Gallo’s effort is the worst movie ever made, and it isn’t, what was this one? Certainly, one of the worst I’ve ever seen. On more solid ground, and much more interesting, were my one-on-one interviews with actress Mary Steenburgen and director Gus Van Sant. The politically active and very engaging Steenburgen numbers Bill and Hillary Clinton among her personnel friends. Well, Mary might want to begin packing overnight bags for future White House stays. She’s also close to General Wesley Clark, who just might be the next President of the United States. In fact, Steenburgen had dinner with Clark a few days before she arrived at the Toronto Festival to help promote John Sayle’s Casa De Los Babys. Van Sant, a markedly introspective man, was in town to talk about Elephant, his gripping, free-form interpretation of the Columbine High School shootings that won first prize at Cannes. The film follows a few teenagers, two of whom prepare themselves to kill their classmates.

Steenburgen’s movie is another superb work from Sayles. It’s about American women who travel to South American to adopt babies from poor families and the red tape they face as well as the friendships they establish with each other. The film is gloriously acted by Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rita Moreno, Susan Lynch, and others. The movie makes powerful statements about the politics of international adoptions and the glaring differences between cultures. Steenburgen told me Sayles is remarkable for his ability to understand bonds between people of different means and to explore the myriad questions about foreign adoptions. She was enthralled by the “idea of seeing a film where you would have a woman staying in a hotel and then have the woman who cleans her room. And they don’t speak the same language, but they are speaking the language of the heart. That was the theme in the movie that was the most dominant for me, this thing of the haves and have nots of the world. And how do we travel between our places in life? And is it right to take someone from one culture to another, and is it right to leave someone not to be loved and not take someone from their home?” Commenting on the fluid camera and dreamlike feel of the haunting Elephant, Van Sant said: “films are like dreams. I think that when you consider what dreams are supposed to do, or at least what I think they’re supposed to do emotionally; usually if you’re having a really good period of your life and everything is going well, your dreams might be very very dark and very troubling. If you’re going through a very very dark period in your life and things are difficult; people that are going through really horrific things, like prisoners, they’ll very very beautiful dreams. Dreams are seemingly meant to counteract or prepare you for emotional changes. So that if everything is going well, at least emotionally you’re grounded in a world that actually is unsettling, so that when the unsettling things happens, emotionally you can handle it, and you can say it’s like a dream. Which just means it’s not like my life. It’s more like what my dreams do. In films we tend to use them as other realities.”

The chance to see movies like Easy and The Station Agent is a reason festivals are so terrific. That sound you hear in Easy is the sound of silence. Good silence. This is the first feature film from screenwriter-director Jane Weinstock and she knows exactly when to have her characters be quiet for a few seconds. To think, rather than act solely on impulse. This is a very funny romantic comedy that understands adults and adult behavior. Easy features a starmaking performance from Marguerite Moreau as a young woman torn between love and the idea of love. Relationships are not what they’re cracked up to be, and she knows it. For some reason, she attracts oddballs, and she needs to understand why. Does love have a future or is it just going to be sex, or maybe even celibacy? Weinstock has a real understanding of the dynamics of human connection. The nicely acted movie never cloys. In fact, it offers up a few sweet and thoroughly believable surprises. The Station Agent is a fascinating tale about a dwarf who is obsessed with trains. He inherits an abandoned railway station and his life changes in the most amazing ways. Screenwriter-director Tom McCarthy has made a first feature that is sheer bliss.

Of course, festivals are also about gossip. You really can walk through the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel and trip over celebrities. Most of them eschew attitude, but just in case you’re thinking it’s all fun and games, here’s the skinny on one movie star’s behavior. The Toronto Globe And Mail reported about Diva behavior from recent Oscar winner Nicole Kidman. Seems that reporters at the one-hour question-and-answer session with The Human Stain star were advised to maintain a discreet distance from Kidman. “To ensure that no one got too close and infringed on the Australian actress’s personal space, all reporters had to turn on their tape recorders (which were granted a place on the desk in front of her) 15 seconds before she entered the room. They were also advised that they could not shut their tape recorders off - or, God forbid, leave their seats - until the ex-Mrs. Cruise was safely out of the room.”

Kidman co-stars with Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain, which is based on Philip Roth’s novel about a recently widowed Massachusetts college professor with a secret that has everything to do with who he really is. Both play troubled people who come together for sex and companionship. Director Robert Benton’s outstanding, well-acted, wonderfully written movie works well on a number of levels, although I had a little trouble buying Kidman as a gum-cracking, salt-of-the-earth type. Hopkins’performance is flawless. There’s a breakthrough performance from Wentworth Miller as Hopkin’s character as a young man. Anna Deavere Smith, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, and Jacinda Barrett are also onboard. Nudity ruled the roost in a lot of movies at TO, and critics were hard-pressed not to have seen something with sex, sex, and more sex. The good news is that the ones I saw were worth the time.

Director Jane Campion (The Piano) unreeled her In The Cut, a gritty and very engrossing thriller about a serial killer on the lower east of Manhattan. The movie divided fans and critics alike, but this is an atmospheric film that isn’t supposed to make you comfortable. Loneliness and lust, murder and malevolence are not family fare. Meg Ryan is a teacher who falls hard for, and has rough sex with, a NYC detective played by Mark Ruffalo. Both Ryan and Ruffalo bare all, and when I say all, I mean everything. For some, that might be reason alone to see the movie. I liked it for more than that. It’s unsettling, and that’s a good thing. Young Adam features Ewan McGregor, no stranger to nudity. It’s a Scottish film about an unusual subject. A family runs a boat up and down the watery back channels of Scotland, delivering coal and other goods along the way. McGregor starts having sex with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of the boat owner and bad things start to happen. This is a fascinating movie about loyalty and responsibility and lack of guilt. There’s a murder and a mystery and it plays out perfectly. Twentynine Palms is from French director Bruno Dumont (L’Humanite). A Los Angeles couple (the guy’s carefree; the girl’s got serious issues) head for the desert and spend most of their time working on their relationship and sexual technique. At the end of the poetic and alluring movie, something devastating happens. Dumont expertly captures the mellow California lifestyle and then jolts you. He leaves you thinking about punishment and retribution.

All in all a good festival. Next year’s event begins September 9th. Toronto 2003

By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Buffalo’s Vincent Gallo; he sure has a handle on how to draw attention to himself. Gallo’s personal melodrama, The Brown Bunny, was a hot ticket at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (the 28th annual). Already excoriated as one of the worst movies ever made based on its blisteringly negative reception at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Gallo’s self-directed and self-acted road movie created a buzz that was badly needed at Toronto. There may have been nearly 300 movies being shown, but few generated much heat. Granted, there were a lot of good films to see and discuss amongst the tens of thousands of media members, industry personnel, and movie lovers, but not too many features were the talk of the town. Gallo’s effort, with its endless scenes of cross-country driving and the film-ending fellatio (supposedly not simulated) between his character and a woman played by Chloe Sevigny, was all that and more.