As always, the "O word" is on everybody's lips at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's still a bit early in the festival to start calling favorites, but as far as this critic is concerned, Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" and Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" lead the pack so far. For those with their eyes on awards season, both films have already enjoyed their first round of accolades, with Jones roping best actor honors at Cannes and Lee fresh from wrangling the Golden Lion in Venice.
It should come as no surprise then that the movies feature two of the year's best performances: First, there's "Brokeback Mountain", in which Calgary, Alberta, passes for Wyoming sheep-herding country, and then there's "The Three Burials", in which Texas plays itself. I mention the locations first not because there's anything wrong with Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger (we'll get to them in a minute) or with the craggy, understated power of Jones' performance, but because both films recognize that the scenery is every bit as crucial as the flesh and blood characters who inhabit it.
Another story of strained and semi-requited passion from director Ang Lee, this time between two rough-and-tumble Marlboro men, "Brokeback Mountain" features Gyllenhaal and Ledger (we'll leave it to you to guess who gets top billing) hiding their love against a breathtaking all-American backdrop. Beginning in the summer of '63, Lee allows the relationship to build slowly. Ledger is especially impressive as the inarticulate type who internalizes his feelings, though both actors age quite convincingly as their affair plays out over the next 20 years. It's an epically heartbreaking achievement, grand in the way "Giant" was, in which issues of tolerance echo against the great wide open.
Equally powerful though motivated by a very different agenda, "Three Burials" shows how far a border patrol officer (Barry Pepper) must go to atone for the accidental killing of an illegal immigrant (all the way back to Mexico to bury the body). It's a different kind of male-male love story, with a rancher (Jones) insisting on restoring some dignity to his friend's death. As both director and star, Jones follows Clint Eastwood's lead, foregoing conventional character development, trusting instead that their experiences over the course of the film will define who these men are. That either movie exists is something of a miracle; that such un-Hollywood ideas actually entertain is testament to the considerable talents involved.