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Best films stand out at festival

TORONTO

Waiting in the lobby of the Elgin theater Friday night, I talked to a guy who had seen 45 films in this year's Toronto Film Festival: "Yesterday I saw a $60 million movie I can hardly remember, and a $40,000 film I'll never forget."

Festivals impose a Darwinian selection process; the good ones elbow the others out of your memory. Here's a selection, by no means complete, of titles I've especially admired.

"Princess Mononoke" is a wondrous experience by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, an animated epic adventure from the mists of the Iron Age, when men and beasts talked with one another. Using ancient myths and the Japanese fascination with shape-shifting, he tells of strange lands, a forest god and a fearsome tribe of bear-men. This is not a children's film (some images are intense) but a flesh-and-blood movie, which uses animation to create powerful images: a loathsome boar-monster, for example, with flesh of writhing worms. This is one of the year's best films.

Tom Gilroy's "Spring Forward" is like cool water and fresh wind, a film so pure-hearted that cynicism falls before it. It stars Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber as workers for a small town's landscaping department. The older man is near retirement, the younger one is clinging to his first job after prison. They share the cab of a truck and the secrets of their lives, in conversations where they feel free to say what they really think. How hopeful and poetic they both are - how philosophical, once they find themselves free of that gruff reticence that many men use as a barrier.

Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" identifies with Jane Austen's intelligence rather than her atmosphere; among recent adaptations, it's closer to "Persuasion" than "Sense And Sensibility." The story of a poor girl brought by an aunt to live in a great country house, it shows her determined to marry the man of her choice; she tells herself stories that help her see the patterns in her life. Frances O'Connor is the spirited heroine, and Embeth Davidtz has a remarkable scene in which she explains the whole situation in precisely the wrong way. Of the films I saw at Toronto this year, "Mansfield Park" has the best shot at a best picture nomination.

What a specific and quirky performance Sigourney Weaver gives in Scott Elliott's "A Map Of The World." She plays the kind of woman who marches to her own drummer and says exactly what she must say, damn the consequences. She's a farm wife and school nurse with legal difficulties that are not her fault - although she's no help with her stubborn attitude. It's rare for a movie to keep us in genuine, not contrived, suspense, because a character is so real that we sense she's floating free of all the conventions of stories of this type.

"Sunshine," by Hungary's Istvan Szabo, considers the Holocaust like a train bearing down over three generations upon a Jewish family from Budapest. Acted in English by a gifted cast (with Ralph Fiennes in a triple role), it shows the Holocaust not as an aberration, a contagion spread by Hitler, but as the inexorable result of long years of anti-Semitism. The Sonnenschein family thinks of itself as good Hungarians; the father in the middle generation changes his name, converts to Catholicism and wins a gold medal for fencing in the Olympics. But assimilation is not the answer.

The film has a thrilling historical sweep, as its characters are buffeted by political winds. First they live under the "liberal" emperor, then under wartime fascism, finally under the Communist regime. At every moment there is a choice between ethics and expediency; at no moment is the choice clear or easy. This is an awesomely thoughtful film. Its three hours allow Szabo to show the family destiny forming and shifting under pressure. Too long? No good movie is too long, just as no bad movie is short enough.

Chris Smith's "American Movie" is a rich comic treasure, a documentary about the unconquerable compulsion some people have to make a movie. Its hero is Mark Borchardt, a lanky-haired visionary from a blue-collar Milwaukee suburb, who mercilessly drives his family and friends in service to his vision, while draining his Uncle Bill's life savings to make a short horror film named "Coven." Borchardt is no less gifted (or not much) than any other first-time filmmaker with no resources, no money, an incompetent crew, spaced-out actors and a script that depends largely on circumstances. For every first-time filmmaker who gets a film into the Toronto festival, there are 500 who do not. This is the story of one of them.

"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." is the new documentary by Errol Morris, about a man who has success designing killing machines for Death Rows, and then is swept up by neo-Nazis intent on proving that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Pathetic, clueless Fred visits the site of the death camp and collects brick samples like a high school kid working on a project. He finds no gas residue; legitimate scientists in the film patiently explain that his methods could not possibly test for gas or anything else - except for the presence of bricks.

All of Morris' films are labyrinthine in their strategies. This one is not really about Holocaust deniers, but about the dynamic that draws them together - a need to belong and find friendship, bathed in the comforting poison of a shared hatred. By the end of the film, we realize Leuchter is not an anti-Semite so much as a pathetic creature who has found acceptance from neo-Nazis and enjoys their picnics and get-togethers.

Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune" comes wrapped in the flag of the Dogma movement, that Danish declaration of rigorous filmmaking principles, but the film itself is a goofy romantic comedy about a man who returns home to care for the shabby family farm and his retarded brother, and falls in love with the housekeeper. What it proves is that a good film's ideology emerges from the material, and cannot be imposed; this film might have been essentially the same if the Dogma statement had never been written.

Meryl Streep must be weary of talk about her mastery of accents, but listen to her closely in Wes Craven's "Music Of The Heart." She plays a divorced Navy wife who wants to resurrect a career as a music teacher, and starts a violin program at a grammar school in East Harlem. The story is constructed out of conventional pleasures (no less pleasurable for being conventional), and there is a warm glow at the end. But Streep's technique is extraordinary.

Because she talks here like an "average American," it is easy to think she has no accent at all. But she has never before in any film talked remotely like the way she speaks as the violin teacher Roberta Guaspari. There is a subtle kind of artlessness in her voice, a lack of final polish, a working without a net - the sound of a woman who grew up near a shrill, uneducated grandmother. The look and the body language are also new and specific. It is easier for an actress to play a completely different sort of character, I think, than to make an ordinary one new.

Godard said the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. I was not among the fans of "Sliding Doors," the film about a woman moving between alternative lifelines, and now Pip Karmel has made "Me Myself I" to demonstrate a better approach to the device. This is one of the most charming films of the year, with a wonderful performance by Rachel Griffiths as a 30ish journalist named Pamela who wonders what might have happened if she'd married that guy she was really in love with and had kids.

A flash of movie magic, and it happens. With all of her memories intact, she finds herself inside an alternative Pamela who is married and has three kids. She has to fake the skills of motherhood, and (speaking of faking) have sex for the first time with a man who has been sleeping with her for 12 years. "Sliding Doors" was about the paradoxes of the time-line gimmick, but "Me Myself I" is about the character - about what she feels and discovers.

Coky Giedroyc's "Women Talking Dirty" is a daffy, little comedy about two best friends in Edinburgh, played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Gina McKee, who are betrayed in a particularly hurtful way by a man in their lives. McKee was the woman in the wheelchair in "Notting Hill's" boozy dinner party, and this film also has a menagerie of colorful friends who gather for wine and truth. Its appeal grows from the specific qualities of McKee and Bonham-Carter, who are infectious; there is a second when Bonham-Carter wants her friend to let her in the house, is refused, then accepted, and vibrates with intense joy and relief. Such moments may only last for a blink, but they are what characters are made of.

The last film I saw on the festival's 10th day was Michael Apted's documentary "Me and Isaac Newton," which circles through the stories of several great scientists, who meditate on how they got started, what inspired them, and what they're looking for. Among the remarkable subjects: theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who asked his mother if he could build a particle accellerator in the garage ("sure!") and Patricia Wright, who walked out of a rock concert, bought a monkey in a pet store and ended up as a famous primatologist who has created a rain forest preserve in Madagascar.

Apted is a successful feature filmmaker ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist," the new James Bond film) who alone among his colleagues regularly returns to the documentary form. His "42 Up," continuing a long-running series of docs revisiting the same people every seven years, opens in November; this project is one of the most interesting uses of film I have ever encountered.

There were many other good films at the festival. Some of them, like "The Limey," "Ghost Dog," "Happy, Texas," "Black and White" and "L'Humanite" I wrote about from Sundance, Cannes or Telluride. The best single film I saw this year? How can you choose between a heartbreaking drama like Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry," which I wrote about last week, and an animated fantasy like Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke"? You can't. You don't.

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