In Toronto, few ants at a world-class picnic

An encouraging number of high-quality films are screened at North America's top festival

For North America, this is the big film event.

Movie festivals have multiplied at an enormous rate in recent years, but the sweeping Toronto International Film Festival is the only such event no conscientious American critic would dream of missing. Movies come here from all over the globe, and for an early clue to the new direction of world cinema, it can't be beat.

There's a downside to this, however. The program's all-embracing nature means a certain number of celluloid mosquitoes - i.e., bad movies - will inevitably make their way into what's supposed to be a picnic of world-class cinema.

It's different at a highly selective event like the New York Film Festival, where a committee of critics has given every offering its personal stamp of approval.

Toronto has movies for every taste, and some people's tastes are very different from mine or yours. So viewers tread carefully here, skimming program descriptions, comparing notes with colleagues, and lounging around lobbies in search of the un-mosquito-like buzz that signals a must-see discovery. All of which makes moviegoing even more fun and adventurous than usual.

Given the generally weak quality of theatrical releases so far this year, it's a pleasure to report that the Toronto programmers have done themselves proud. Although festivalgoers were stung by a low-grade disappointment or two - that's the nature of this game - the overall quality level is high, indicating an upturn in the general intelligence, workmanship, and entertainment value of the movies we'll be seeing in American multiplexes before long.

Tried-and-true elements

A good place to start is Heist, the new thriller by David Mamet, who's honed his suspense skills in pictures like "The Spanish Prisoner" and "Homicide," two of his best.

The story centers on an aging thief (Gene Hackman) who assembles his accomplices (Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay) and wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, aka Mrs. Mamet) for an unusually ambitious crime. Complicating the job is the cantankerous crook they work for (Danny DeVito) and the sleazy thug (Sam Rockwell) he forces them to team up with.

"Heist" has plenty of tried-and-true elements, from its "one last job" scenario to the untried youngster (played by actors like Elisha Cook Jr. in bygone eras) who messes up the scam. What's amusing about Mamet's movie is that much of the precisely planned criminality goes wildly wrong, starting in the first scene, when Hackman gets caught by a surveillance camera that blows his cover for good. But he's a clever crook - "I wouldn't tie my shoes without a backup plan," he says - and what appear to be his worst mistakes may open the door to crafty comebacks and bigger takings than ever. I can't remember a thriller with more unpredictable turns and reverse-twist surprises. The cast is picture-perfect, too.

The breakaway success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" started on the festival circuit, where enraptured critics sang its praises long before its commercial debut.

This year, France hopes to pick up where Taiwan left off. Brotherhood of the Wolf tries for a similar blend of myth, mysticism, history, and action with its fast-moving story of an 18th-century naturalist and his Iroquois friend battling a supernatural beast that's been ravaging the countryside and gobbling up peasants.

Directed by Christophe Gans, the movie takes way over two hours to spin its complicated yarn, and its violence leaps far beyond the "Couching Tiger" level of high-flying swordplay. These factors may limit its audience, but historical-adventure fans will love it if they can stomach its outbursts of explicit mayhem.

The American film "In the Company of Men" is another movie that got a head start at major festivals, and Patrick Stettner's drama The Business of Strangers is the wannabe in this department.

Telling a similar story, but with a feminist twist, it stars Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles as an executive and an assistant stranded at a hotel because of a flight delay. There, they run into a young businessman they both have reason to dislike, and after some tentative sparring, they decide to take their revenge on insensitive men by tormenting this obnoxious creep.

Inventive camera work

Parts of the picture are as slick and sleazy as its male villain, but Channing and Stiles make an excellent team, and writer-director Stettner is a newcomer to watch.

Rape is a troubling social issue and an increasingly prevalent movie subject, playing a part in both "The Business of Strangers" and the more eccentric Tape, directed by Richard Linklater, of "Slackers" and "Dazed and Confused" fame.

Limited to three characters and a single setting - a rundown motel room - this claustrophobic drama brings together a young drug dealer (Robert Seann Leonard) and a friend who's fared much better since their high-school days (Ethan Hawke) for an encounter with an up-and-coming attorney (Uma Thurman), whom one of them may have sexually abused several years ago.

Linklater keeps their confrontation visually alive with inventive camera work, and the acting is first-rate even when the screenplay runs short of ideas. Technique aside, it's worth seeing for its serious-minded exploration of disturbing events a bigger-budget production might have found commercially risky.

No filmmaker takes more risks than David Lynch, the most prominent surrealist in American movies today.

Lynch is at his most dreamlike in Mulholland Drive, the Los Angeles-based tale of a would-be actress and her new friend with amnesia so severe she can't remember her own identity.

The action is so ominous and intricate that you might feel you're trapped in someone else's nightmare, and beware of some weirded-out violence and graphic sex. Don't expect this one to be a major hit. But if you do check it out, it'll have you puzzling out its plot - and avoiding shadowy corners - for days.

On a milder note, the French comedy-drama Amélie could be Miramax's major bid for the Oscar it won with "Shakespeare in Love" not long ago.

The heroine is a young woman from Montmartre - shades of "Moulin Rouge," last spring's big filmfest attraction - who scoots all over Paris to solve a personal mystery she's stumbled upon. I won't reveal the plot's surprises, but I will praise the filmmaking of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who finally manages to combine the cleverness of "Delicatessen" with a genuine emotional punch.

While it's not a great movie, it could be the year's most endearing European export.

Like some other top-rank festivals, Toronto also includes avant-garde films that explore evocative themes instead of telling stories in the usual sense.

One was Engram Sepals, by Lewis Klahr, who conjures up poetic reveries through collage-like assemblages of animated cutouts. As haunting and moving as anything I've seen in years, it extended the program in unique directions and reminded spectators that narrative entertainment isn't the only way that cinema can touch our hearts and minds.

Tentative openings of movies mentioned in this article in US theaters: 'Heist,' Oct. 19; 'Brotherhood of the Wolf,' December; 'The Business of Strangers,' Dec. 7; 'Tape,' Nov. 2; 'Mulholland Drive,' Dec. 12; 'Amélie,' Nov. 2.

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