Until last week, this year's Oscar frontrunner looked to be a leftover from last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Though a startling number of critics have gotten behind "Crash," I belong to the equally outspoken contingent that can't stand Paul Haggis' hateration ensemble, with its condescendingly simple-minded "racism is bad" message and the manipulative emotional theatrics it uses to hammer it home. But as Toronto 2005 draws to a close, I'm pleased to report that I've seen enough top-notch entries here that "Crash" should be a non-issue come Oscar-time.
For starters, the festival introduced me to at least two Best Picture-worthy candidates, Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" and the new version of "Pride & Prejudice" starring Keira Knightley. Meanwhile, Toronto proved that other movies that looked like Oscar shoo-ins going in won't be competing after all. "Proof," for example, may have been profound enough to win a Pulitzer on stage, but the same story seems almost simple-minded on screen. And as much as "Walk the Line" deserves its comparisons to "Ray," Johnny Cash's life just isn't compelling enough to lift the by-the-numbers musical biopic to Best Picture status. That said, nominations for Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are a no-brainer, especially considering the two actors do their own singing for the film.
Of course, the real pleasure of the Toronto Film Festival is seeing movies that won't reach American audiences until long after Oscar season is over, if they ever do. Consider "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," the most damning satire of the modern medical apparatus since Paddy Chayefsky's "The Hospital." The movie, which Tartan Films plans to release in May 2006, depends entirely on Ion Fiscuteanu's performance as a weary alcoholic who awakens with a headache and spends the day being bused from one overcrowded hospital to another before eventually expiring of inattention. Lazarescu's decline is so naturalistic and unmannered over the course of the 154-minute film that you literally forget you're watching an actor and start to fear for this poor man's life.
The same goes for Jérémie Renier, who reteams with "La Promesse" directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in "L'Enfant," the most poignant of the Belgian brothers' super-realist portraits yet. Renier carries himself with the streetwise machismo of a young Joe Dallesandro in the early Paul Morrissey films, playing a small-time hustler who sells his own baby on the black market, then panics when his girlfriend rats him out to the police (Sony Pictures Classics will release the film next March).
Finally, the best film of the festival hinges on an idiosyncratic performance by Issey Ogata (currently appearing in "Tony Takitani"). In "The Sun," Ogata plays Japanese emperor Hirohito in the hours leading up to his surrender to General MacArthur. Though confined almost entirely to the claustrophobic bunker beneath Hirohito's palace, the film is a rich and deeply philosophical look at the stunningly naïve motivations behind Japan's ambitions in World War II, as imagined by "Russian Ark" director Aleksandr Sokurov. With any luck, the countries responsible for these films will see fit to submit them for consideration in the Academy's Foreign Language category.
[ Peter Debruge is a freelance film critic who writes for The Miami Herald, Premiere and Life magazines. ]