TORONTO — First the long windup. Then the fast pitch. The Toronto International Film Festival, always front-loaded, exploded over the weekend with movies day and night, all over town, every audience movie-savvy, every theater selling bran muffins right next to the popcorn, thousands of volunteers in their blue T-shirts like a jolly welcoming committee. Never a frown, and believe me, we moviegoers test them plenty.
I've seen 12 films I haven't yet written about. You see how it is. One I immensely admire is Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo," the story of a Senegalese-American taxi driver in Winston-Salem, N.C. A man offers him $1,000 to drive him to the top of a mountain in 10 days time and drop him off. This does not sound good. The driver, Solo, is played by Souleymane Sy Savane, a warmhearted and cheerful man who begins to question the much older man about his suspicious destination. The man, William (Red West), advises him to stay the hell out of his business.
That isn't Solo's nature, and he makes this man's life his primary business, shadowing him, always offering his cab, eventually actually moving into the man's motel room. There is much, much more to say, which must await my review. But look at these performances! Savane is a force of nature. Red West, 72, a 6-foot-2-inch redhead, is grizzled and determined, with a low voice that never wavers in its grim determination. He takes a potentially unplayable role and makes it absolutely believable. Who is this man? A onetime friend, driver and bodyguard for Elvis Presley, who appeared in bit parts in 16 Elvis movies and has been in a lot of others, for directors such as Robert Altman, Oliver Stone and Rowdy Herrington. The movie just won the Critic's Prize at Venice, and no wonder. After only three films, Bahrani has established himself as a major director.
Then look at Neil Burger's "The Lucky Ones," about three soldiers home on a month's leave from the war in Iraq. Movies about the war have been weak at the box office, so read my lips: This is not war movie. It is a movie about these three soldiers, and a return home they find an emotional roller-coaster. Rachel McAdams plays a woman who gives (pretty good) advice to everyone else; she intends to return her wartime boyfriend's guitar to his family, which she has never met. Michael Pena is a man afraid to tell his girlfriend that shrapnel has curtailed his erectile function. Tim Robbins hopes to win enough in Vegas to send his son to college. These characters may remind you a little of the three GIs home from WWII in William Wyler's 7-time Oscar winner "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), but this is more a comedy than a drama. The movie's stories become engrossing, as the characters, who end up sharing the same rental car on a cross- country odyssey.
The movie works by taking potentially depressing subject matter, and lightening it with the characters, especially McAdams, who against all the odds is a force of hope. Robbins is a career man, heading for retirement, who supplies a steady center for the three, and Pena reveals a relationship bereft of meaning when he says that he and his "fiancee" have absolutely nothing to talk about except sex. There are the expected encounters with unexpected strangers along the way. Maybe this will be that rarity, an Iraq movie that is actually feel-good. Is that a sacrilege? Not when you meet these three. Like so many of us, they don't brood on the big picture when their own lives occupy their foregrounds.
An actor in the right role can be transforming, and be transformed. Consider Kristin Scott Thomas in "I've Loved You So Long." She is known to us as British, but effortlessly plays a mysterious French woman who returns from prison to her family after an absence that is only slowly revealed. This new French film by Philippe Claudel guards its secrets and focuses on their emotional aftermath. She returns to the household of her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who welcomes her but keeps a certain distance, as does her husband. She is treated like a pariah for reasons that for a long time remain unspeakable; with no expository dialogue to win us over, Scott Thomas does, anyway, but by sheer force of her personality. She's a possibility for an Oscar nomination.
Bulletin from Spike Lee to would-be filmmakers: He withdraws his advice from 20 years ago that if you want to make a movie, first buy, borrow or steal a camera. "No longer necessary," he told me the other day. "Today you can make a good-looking movie with a video camera that costs you less than $1,000. Used to be, people enrolled in film schools to get access to the equipment. Now you can make a movie for less than one year's tuition. One thing hasn't changed: You have to have a story."