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Autumn is rich in 'art films'

TORONTO -- Sometimes it's good to sit down in a quiet corner and take a deep breath and stop running as fast as you can. This year at the Toronto Film Festival, I've averaged three to four films a day and talked about movies in interviews, at lunch, in hotel lobbies, in elevators, corridors, standing next to hot dog stands, waiting in line for coffee, lingering on theater sidewalks and walking down the street. The phone is ringing right now.

Since I came here from a long weekend of the same at Telluride, it's tempting to believe I live in a world where all of the films are festival entries, all of the audiences are curious and receptive, and all of the filmmakers work from their dreams and obsessions. It is not so, but it should be, which is why high prices are paid here for films that the festival loves but few people in the real world will ever see. The shortage is not of good films, but of distributors and exhibitors. Somewhere in my e-mail right now is probably a message complaining, "None of the movies you mentioned will ever play in my state."

And yet, taking the deep breath and sipping the fresh coffee, I realize this has been the best autumn season in years. One new film after another, both small independent titles and high-end commercial titles, have been pleasant surprises, and some of them have been truly great.

From Telluride I wrote about some of the Toronto entries: Sally Potter's "Yes" with Joan Allen, Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane" with Damien Lewis, Michael Radford's "The Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino, Istvan Szabo's "Being Julia" with Annette Bening, and Bill Condon's "Kinsey," with Liam Neeson. They're all here at Toronto, and by themselves would make this a superior festival.

Here there has been one richness after another. On Wednesday night, as the fourth movie of the day, I saw Javier Bardem in Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside." This is the most talked-about male performance at the festival. Bardem plays a man who has been a quadriplegic for 26 years and wants to die. His case has been turned down by the Spanish courts, but he attracts supporters, including a woman lawyer who is suffering from a degenerative disease and a local factory worker who brings her two sons and seems ready to move in. He lives with his loving and patient family, but has decided "a life in this condition has no dignity."

He does not speak for other quadriplegics, he says, but only for himself; in one scene he debates the issue with a quadriplegic priest. What is amazing is how much humanity and humor Bardem brings to a role where he can use only use face, eyes and voice. The movie is not depressing, but inspiring, in the way it causes us to think about the value of our own lives.

Also Wednesday, I saw "Crash," by Paul Haggis, a TV writer who enters film direction with a big cast and a brave and uncompromising look at the way racism infects our society. "This is not a movie about how they're good and we're bad, or vice versa," Haggis told me. "It's about how we all behave well or badly, depending on circumstances." His film includes many paradoxes, including a white cop who physically insults a black woman but later saves her life. That cop's young white partner is so disgusted with this racism that he asks for a transfer; the assault scene results in two actions in which the young cop saves a life and takes a life, and neither event would have happened if not for the original racist incident.

Perhaps this sounds confusing, and certainly Haggis depends on coincidence to bring his characters together in interlocking stories. Sometimes films built on repeated coincidence get on my nerves, but not this time, because it's an efficient story device to show that racism is a virus that affects the innocent as well as the guilty; that the same person can be guilty in one situation and innocent in another.The cast includes strong performances by Don Cheadle (also so good in "Hotel Rwanda" at this festival), Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Dashon Howard, Ryan Phillippe, Jennifer Esposito and many more.

These films will probably play in the state where you live. Whether you will be able to see Paul Cox's "The Human Touch" (which I praised at Cannes), David Gordon Green's "Undertow," Todd Solondz's "Palindromes" or Darrell James Roodt's "Yesterday" may be another question, depending on whether you live in a city where at least one theater operates free of Hollywood's monotonous booking practices. Luckily, many of them are the sorts of films that play on IFC, HBO and other enlightened channels, and DVD has given a new life to so-called "art films."

Why are they called "art films," anyway? Because they are art, which is usually true, or because they are thought to appeal only to select audiences? A movie like "Yesterday" or "Undertow" could play in any multiplex in North America to the first 300 customers through the door, and they would leave saying it was one of the best films they'd ever seen.

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