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Toronto #1: Good films are back in season

The Toronto Film Festival is universally considered the opening of Academy Awards season, and the weary moviegoer, drained after a summer of exhausted superheroes and franchises, plunges in it with joy. I've been attending since 1977, and have watched it grow from a bootstrap operation, with the schedule improvised from day to day, into one of the big four (with Cannes, Venice and Berlin).

There's no doubt a festival is going on in town. The 2012 edition will screen some 400 films to some 280,000 people, and will occupy some 35 venues, from some seating thousands to some seating a few hundred. Again this year, it will utilize the state-of-the-art facilities of its own new Bell Lightbox. Every year I run into people who build their annual vacations around it.

This year's festival opened Thursday, but some titles were shown early to critics in a few other cities, and I can promise you that on Saturday the festival will showcase one of the best films of the year.

Michael Haneke's "Amour" arrives with a rich pedigree. It won the Palme d'Or last May at Cannes 2012, following his 2009 Palme winner "The White Ribbon" and his 2005 winner for best director, "Caché." His new film is as direct as "Caché" was enigmatic. It's the most uncompromisingly honest film I've ever seen about old age, and is built on the performances of two of the great French stars of the last half century, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. You may remember them from two New Wave masterworks. He was the smooth young intellectual in Eric Rohmer "My Night at Maud's" (1969) and she was a mysterious beauty from Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima mon Amour" (1961).

Now they are both old. She is 85. He is 81. They look it, are elegant and stately, and play Georges and Anne, a couple deeply in love after half a century. We see them first in the audience at a piano concert. Haneke frames the shot so somehow they're the two we notice in the middle of hundreds of others--by personal magnetism, perhaps? They return to their apartment, and we hardly leave it for the rest of the film, as she concerns him by slipping briefly into a trance late at the night, and again at breakfast. She has suffered a stroke, she loses control on one side, he appoints himself her care-giver, and when their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) asks what is to be expected, he replies calmly, "Things will go downhill, and then it'll all be over."

Haneke is not afraid of old age, and he isn't afraid of death. His story doesn't contort itself to arrive at a happy ending. We learn of a loving marriage, of Anne's career as a teacher of classical piano, as the determination of both to live on their own terms. She wants to die. At one point, frustrated when she refuses to be fed, he slaps her. This is a degree of honesty that ennobles the film.

As what happens, happens, Haneke uses an unadorned realism to break down the days into painful details. He also evokes romanticism, as Georges tells Anne of stories from his youth--stories she has never heard before--and it'is as if he's still courting her. The film opens in the United States on Dec. 12.

• • • •

perks2.jpg"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" premieres at Toronto on Saturday and Sunday, and offers the unexpected pleasure of an author directing the film of his own novel, and doing it perhaps as well as anyone could have. Stephen Chbosky's best-selling coming of age novel was published in 1999 and has taken on some of the cult status of The Catcher in the Rye. Unlike many movies about high school, this one is full-bodied and deeply knowledgeable about human nature. The actors make plausible teenagers. We care about them.

The movie, set in the early 1990s, is the story of Charlie (Logan Lerman), who tells it as a series of letters to a "friend." He enters high school uncertainly and without confidence, and is rescued from that great and universal freshman crisis: Which table in the lunchroom will they let me sit at? He's welcomed to the table of two smart and sympathetic seniors. These are Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson in a vast departure from the Harry Potter movies, and Ezra Miller, who was so remarkable as an alienated teenager in "We Need to Talk about Kevin." Charlie makes the mistake of assuming they are a couple, and Sam's laughter forgives him; actually, they're half-siblings.

Patrick is tall and gangly; Sam is--well, like Emma Watson but with a flawless American accent. We learn a lot about their high school crowd by finding out they're instrumental in the local midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Their crowd is artsy, outsider, non-conformist. They become the influence that rescues Charlie from his deep insecurity and his depression over the suicide of a friend; essentially, they teach him it's okay to be who he is. In his first year he learns a little, very tentatively, about sex, drinking and drugs, and a lot about friendship. Watching this film was an unalloyed pleasure. The movie opens soon, on Sept. 21.

• • • •

watch.jpg Another major autumn release also premieres at Toronto over the opening weekend. "End of Watch" is a cop buddy movie, but simply naming the genre is unfair to it. It's more about a relationship between two men doing an impossible job. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena give two of their best performances in careers with lots of them, as Taylor and Zavala, Los Angeles street cops in a tough, largely Mexican-American district.

As the movie opens, Taylor is filming some kind of documentary about the job. Whether this is only for himself isn't made clear. He uses a small hand-held camera and even has a video lens that fits in his buttonhole. Possibly that explains some of the shots in the movie, which doesn't concern itself overmuch with his doc, but does use some of his narration.

It must be said the two men find themselves in an implausibly high percentage of dangerous and violent situations, finally finding themselves targeted by a Mexican drug cartel. There are also some good times, especially the friendship between the two women, Zavala's wife (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor's fiancé (Anna Kendrick). Taylor's wedding party is warm and important.

The writer-director, David Ayer, knows this territory. He wrote Denzel Washington's 2001 Oscar-winning "Training Day," and two other superior cop movies, "Dark Blue" (2002) and "S.W.A.T." (2003). As a director he plunges into often chaotic action and is able to make it comprehensible. The special effects never upstage the characters. The movie opens Sept. 21.

• • • •

Published in paperback this week: My memoir, "Life, Itself."

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