'Are you looking forward to this year's film festival?" people like to ask me at this time of year, which is like asking a school kid if he's looking forward to getting back to class. Well, yes - apart from the traffic gridlock, screaming publicists, interrupted interviews, petulant movie actors, inane press conferences - I am looking forward to the films that will be shown at the festival.
The Toronto International Film Festival's co-director Noah Cowan calls this year's event a "watershed" year because so many films deal with important political issues such as the Iraq war and the abuse of authority. But then Rush Hour 3 and Live Free or Die Hard riff on those same topical themes.
My optimism isn't because of the relevance of this year's American films but because there are a lot of strong filmmakers from many places showing new work. The hopeful feeling about movies began with the bounce from this year's 60th Cannes film festival, which provided TIFF programmers with some choice selections. That includes the Cannes compilation film, To Each His Own Cinema, with three-minute shorts from leading directors around the world. Leading the pack of Cannes prize-winners is the Palme d'Or recipient, a Romanian film, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, a film that, for a change, was worthy of the award. Christu Mungiu's spare drama of a woman helping her friend seek an illegal abortion under the late years of the Communist regime was a blend of formal rigour and a humane theme.
There are many strong non-English films from Cannes such as Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light from Mexico; Naomi Kawase's study in grief, The Mourning Forest from Japan; Alexander Sokurov's Aleksandra; and Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine, a portrait of a woman driven to madness.
One of the sensations of the Cannes festival was Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, which combined philosophical contemplation and heart-in-throat suspense. Good movie violence is so immediate it shocks your senses awake to the gravity of what you're witnessing. Similarly, David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises, about a Russian mobster who's an instinctive killer, is all the more hair-raising for sticking to what's plausible.
Not that visceral realism is the only measuring-stick of quality. Almost everyone I know is buoyant about the previews for Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, featuring the music of the Beatles, in a late-sixties drama set against the background of the Vietnam war protests. Another sixties' cultural force field, Bob Dylan, gets the full Brechtian treatment from Todd Haynes in I'm Not There, with seven actors, including Cate Blanchett, playing the singer.
Blanchett, who emerged as an international star with her performance in the elegantly theatrical Elizabeth back in 1998 returns with Indian director Shekhar Kapur's sequel, Elizabeth: the Golden Age. I'm also keen to see Margot at the Wedding from Noah Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale was one of the best films of 2005. There are a lot of directors on hand this year who have made milestone films: John Sayles, Ang Lee, Ken Loach, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma and François Ozon. Going to see a new film by any one of them feels like having good odds on a lottery ticket.
There's even a promising development in Canadian film, where producers frequently despair at the quality of homegrown scripts while, paradoxically, the reputation of Canadian literature has never been stronger. This year, a trio of lauded Canadian novels (The Stone Angel, Fugitive Pieces and Emotional Arithmetic) will be screened at the festival.
In the documentary field, Michael Moore, a couple of months after the release of Sicko, is back with a new documentary, Captain Mike Across America, following the 2004 presidential elections. Another famed documentary muckraker, Nick Broomfield, also returns with an unusual fictional drama, Battle for Haditha, which re-enacts, using Iraqi civilians and former American military men, the 2005 event where 24 civilians were reportedly murdered by marines.
After a summer that saw the deaths of two giants of international art cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, there's an unavoidable sense that a curtain has fallen over an era in cinema. The film festival is a reminder of the past - actor Max von Sydow will introduce Bergman's The Virgin Spring at this year's event - and that seeing the right film at the right time can be a life-changing event. The festival is the time of year we see filmmakers who want to change our usual experience of the movie screen as a wall of distraction.