09/15/2010 10:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Toronto Film Festival: The Essential and the Trivial

This year's Toronto Film Festival offers fewer must-see high profile films or auteurist masterworks than in the past. I'd say that in this 35th edition it's the ensemble of films -- their variety, range, and sheer cojones -- that's rewarding. So how among upwards of 300 films, you might ask, do I choose which to see? Well, as soon as I unpack, I pore over the 448 page, door-stopper TIFF encyclopedia, which gives glowing rundowns - often misleadingly - of what's on tap. I gravitate towards auteurs - French, American, German, Chinese, Russian; exotic venues; favorite actors (Mads Mikkelsen, Helen Mirren); provocative, original-sounding stories; films that treat social injustice; carry buzz from Venice and Cannes - oh, and serve up sex and nudity. That still leaves upward of 100 films to view in seven days ...

Among the best received here - and touted in Telluride - is Incendies (pronounced An-sahn-dee) by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, just picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. It's based on Wajdi Mouawad's play about Canadian twins who discover, after their mother dies, that they have a father they thought was dead and a brother they didn't know existed. The film takes the form of a quest, following the twins on a journey to the Middle East as they attempt to piece together the story of their mother.

Some will find it slow to line up its ducks. I embraced it from Go, partly since it arrived here with laurels. And in today's world of Insta-Everything, I like Villeneuve's confidence in a story that insists on a stately pace, modulating from present to the mysteries of the past as if floating in its own medium. And the operative word here is mystery. "Incendies" is a politically charged detective story that uncovers a violation in a denouement so shocking you won't soon forget it. Though it delves into the background stories of immigrants -- often treated like furniture by the West's well-off - the fthese digestionilm never hectors or goes politically correct. The canvas of Incendies is wider, drawing on ancient myth to explore crime and expiation.

A second film focusing on social justice: Life, Above All by Oliver Schmitz, also distributed by SPC. Just try and remain dry-eyed as a 12 year old girl in a South African village at the start of the AIDs epidemic defies her local community, consumed with fear and superstition, in order to care for her dying mother. 12 year old newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as the girl who must maintain the facade of a normal life amidst utter instability imbues the role with emotional gravitas.

A little aside on repeating themes, or let's call them nasty tics, running through this year's fest. Would you believe ... barfing? I've counted at least six films where the digestively challenged lose their lunch in an assortment of hues - can you imagine some poor special effects guy toiling over that assignment? Then there's the bit, I'm sure you know it, when the distraught hero smashes all the furniture and wall hangings, etc. Hey, I know film needs to convey inner disturbia through an action, but please come up with something new, folks.

No festival would be complete without the theme of grown up boys behaving badly. Welcome to Little White Lies by Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), a frivolous, meandering exercise in arrested male development. The setup: a passel of friends descend on their rich buddy's home in some idyllic part of France for their annual vacation. This year, though, the trip is abbreviated because one of their crowd has been totaled in a motorcycle accident and lies in hospital near death.

In no way can this group's shenanigans justify the film's more than two and l/2 hour running time. The main drama involves male hissy fits when a screwed-over girlfriend walks. Plus the friends seem to have clearly forgotten about their battered buddy who resembles chopped chuck. Only Francois Cluzet as the obsessive-compulsive host injects humor, while luscious Marion Cotillard, whose real life bf helmed the film ... well, you want to say, I'll have what she's having. The film's most intriguing theme concerns hunky Benoit Magimel, who confesses to Cluzet he's in love with him. Cluzet reacts with such hysteria you question his own orientation, but Canet just leaves that grenade to sputter out in the road.

Barney's Version by Richard Lewis, a saga about a charming scapegrace, is far meatier. And why does Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) act out? Well, it's the boy thing again, his irrepressible nature - though he ends by driving away the love of his life. I haven't read the novel by homegrown Canadian author Mordecai Richler, but find the film stands on its own as a free-wheeling adaptation, following its hero from his success as a TV producer, to his marriage to the nouveau riche Minnie Driver - the word "vulgar" would be redundant -- to his years with the divine Rosamund Pike as his final wife - whom he meets at his own wedding to Driver, no less.

The jokes about coarse Jews yukking it up in Montreal verge on caricature; it's clear Miriam's goyische poise is part of her appeal for Barney -- but what's the appeal of this schlubby specimen for Miriam? (And you have to admire the courage of Giamatti, clearly a stranger to the gym, for shedding his clothes.) Overall, though, the screenwriter keeps things moving with deft elisions - like when Miriam says, 'We won't do that number,' putting the kibosh on Barney's windy self-justifications. While director Lewis has done a bang up job of compressing an unruly life into a picaresque romp that seldom lags.