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Brand new film heavies

TORONTO You hurry between theaters, barely enough time between curtains, and one gift after another comes from the screen. Your only regret is that for every good film you see, the people next to you are describing three you missed. This is the payoff after a slow summer at the movies, when it sometimes seemed directors were no longer swinging for the fences, but just happy to get on base.

Over the opening weekend of the 24th Toronto Film Festival, these have been some of the high-profile treasures: "American Beauty," "Felicia's Journey," "Mumford," "Snow Falling On Cedars," "Gregory's Two Girls" and "Dogma." The weekend, of course, is top-loaded with bigger films, and the week to come will see more indie and imported titles, but the mood here is kind of euphoric. Here are some musings:

"American Beauty" is expected to win Oscar nominations, and Kevin Spacey is walking on eggshells, aware he's given a strong performance as a white-collar drudge whose wife and teen daughter hate him and whose daughter's classmate inspires his lust. He quits his job, blackmails his boss and starts pumping iron.

This is an actor's film. Look at Annette Bening as his wife, a real-estate agent who makes shabby properties look like dream homes and tries the same thing with her marriage. Thora Birch, as their daughter, is contemptuous of parents she can see right through. A newcomer named Wes Bentley, the boy next door, understands that his father, a retired colonel, is pathologically sick, but tries to keep his head low and deal with it. And Chris Cooper is his father, who beats his son "for your own good."

Will the academy find this material too dark for nominations? Oscar likes to put on a happy face, but there should be acting nominations, and a mention for first-time director Sam Mendes, a Royal Shakespeare veteran.

"Mumford," by Lawrence Kasdan, is a real charmer. It's a comedy set in the bucolic town of Mumford, where private lives are seething with lust, disappointment and disappointed lust. To this town comes a mysterious young psychologist (Loren Dean), whose name is coincidentally also Mumford - if that is a coincidence, or, for that matter, if that is his name. Patients seek him out because he has a healing gift. Hope Davis plays a woman who seems to be dying of hopelessness; Jason Lee plays a Bill Gates-style zillionaire who has no one to share with, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, the dirty phone caller from "Happiness," is still inflamed by those trashy magazines.

Some doubt the new doctor's goodness. Martin Short is a busybody spoilsport; he churns up the local shrinks, who seem to wonder how anyone this good could be on the level. "Mumford" is like the other side of the "American Beauty" coin; the characters are just as messed up, but with light at the end of the tunnel.

Kevin Smith's "Dogma" has stirred up Toronto, as it did at Cannes. It's a comedy about Catholicism, denounced by some church groups, although I've talked to Catholics who've seen it and like it, maybe because they understand the references. No comedy has ever been more drenched in theology; Smith, who says he goes to mass every Sunday, seems to have downloaded his catechism into his script. Since I wrote about the movie from Cannes, it's been sold by controversy-shy Miramax to Lion's Gate, which plans a fall release.

Strange how a film like this, which takes religion seriously (even if as a comic premise) attracts more heat than junk like "Stigmata." As I reflected when conservative Catholic groups attacked Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," at least they have taste; they only target the good pictures. Dozens of films open every month that mock ethical behavior and are ignored; but make a smart movie with a point, and it's in trouble. I guess the theory is that people dumb enough to see slasher movies don't know they're about values.

It's rare to see a film as visually inventive as Scott Hicks' "Snow Falling On Cedars." Previous films by the same cinematographer, Robert Richardson, like the Oliver Stone movies "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers," exercised the same freedom to move between color and black and white, to use different kinds of exposures, to use not only 35mm but also 16mm and Super 8. In those films, he was showing degrees of reality, however, and in "Snow Falling On Cedars," his craft is at the service of a story made of impressions and fragmented memories.

Hicks, whose previous film was "Shine," worked with Ron Bass on a screenplay of David Guterson's best-selling novel. Along with editor Hank Corwin, they construct a many-layered story in which the past and present are brought together in a murder trial. Ethan Hawke and Youki Kudoh ("Picture Bride") star as teenagers in the Pacific Northwest - he white, she Japanese-American, who are friends as children and then fall in love, keeping the romance a secret from her disapproving parents. When the Japanese-American population is shipped out to concentration camps, she breaks with him - and all the strands of the story come together five years later, when her husband is charged with murder.

The movie could have been a straightforward crime story - setup, crime, courtroom scenes. Hicks and his collaborators are more ambitious. They evoke the feeling of the time and place, the sadness, the unfairness and racism that lie beneath the trial. This is an impressionistic film; it doesn't tell, it leads us to feelings.

"Felicia's Journey," which opened the festival, is Atom Egoyan's first film since the great "The Sweet Hereafter." It's a meticulous character study, with one of Bob Hoskins' best performances, as Hilditch, a lonely man who takes pride in running the lunchroom at a factory. At home, he cooks gourmet meals and follows a strict regime. We also meet Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), a runaway from Ireland, looking for a boyfriend who has abandoned her. Hilditch offers Felicia a ride, befriends her and gradually we understand the horror beneath the banal surface.

The movie is based on a novel by William Trevor, one of the greatest living writers, good at building up emotional effects out of the precise observation of detail. Egoyan's wife, Arsinee Khanjian, plays a French chef whose videotape cooking instructions give Hilditch inspiration; as the connection between the chef and the man grows clear, the plight of the girl becomes doubly tragic.

It's been nearly 20 years since a Scotsman named Bill Forsyth made a goofy, lovable film named "Gregory's Girl." It starred the gawky, almost birdlike John Gordon Sinclair as an adolescent schoolboy hopelessly confused by girls. Forsyth's sweet comedies ("Local Hero," "Comfort and Joy") won him large audiences, but after the disappointment of "Being Human" (1993), he disappeared for a few years. Now he's back with "Gregory's Two Girls," not a sequel but a fresh visit to the same character, still played by Sinclair, now a teacher in the school where he was once a pupil.

The two girls of the title are a dancing-eyed student (new discovery Carly McKinnon) and the older music teacher (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who is his friend and therefore not his lover. He harbors strong feelings for the student - indeed, he seems about the same emotional age - in a story that dances on the edge of scandal, but stays on this side with good humor and silliness. The story unexpectedly evokes the radical philosopher Noam Chomsky in its plot about a local factory that may be making instruments of torture.

These are a few of the films I have seen. More are coming. If a movie critic's life were always like this, I would go mad with delight, or perhaps just with exhaustion.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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