Then, just hours after many attendees here had recalled the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — which they had watched from a helpless, anguished distance — news came that a Web trailer for an amateur movie might have played a role in leading demonstrators to storm the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, an outburst that coincided with the slayings of four American diplomats in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Such despair-inducing news could not have been at more dramatic odds with what filmgoers were experiencing at TIFF, where film as both an artistic and commercial medium seemed as healthy and vibrant as ever — not to mention a still-relevant vehicle for conveying the enduring humanist values of tolerance and compassion. (The thoughtful, well-made movies at TIFF also made starkly clear the difference between a genuine film and a YouTube video that’s the cinematic equivalent of a Pepsi-and-Mentos stunt, using racism and hate to create the explosion.)
Granted, at times, tolerance and compassion were expressed by way of self-conscious, pretentious meanderings such as “To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick’s new movie starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, which often felt like a parody of the director’s prairie existentialism and Wyethesque images of women flitting through wheat fields (accompanied by gnomic whisperings about love, grace and spiritual longing). As Affleck quipped this week, “To the Wonder” is “for people who like a little Malick with their Malick.”
Compared with the far more rigorous, unsentimental Cannes imports “Amour” and “Rust and Bone,” which also depict stories of romance and sacrifice, “To the Wonder” felt undisciplined and jejune. But it was a rare shrug in a program that, anecdotally at least, struck many attendees as one of the strongest in recent memory. (Still, festival programmers may want to brace themselves for a slew of angry calls from filmmakers, publicists, studios, sales agents and critics, many of whom were driven to distraction by the weekend screening schedule, which stacked must-see films like so many jumbo jets over Dulles, with no place to land.)
The movies on offer at TIFF this week — most of which, thanks to a brisk burst of acquisitions, will be released later this year and into the next — shared an admirable sense of craft, substance and willingness to take risks, whether they’re big-studio genre pictures or small-canvas indies.