The defining moment of the Toronto Film Festival occurred when cinema’s most popular documentarian casually remarked that he was quitting. “I have two or three more docs in my head, and that’s it,” Michael Moore said, before announcing his return to fiction films like Canadian Bacon. As usual, his timing was impeccable: Led (loosely) by Borat, a new breed of topical movies threatened to eclipse traditional political documentaries in Toronto.
Death of a President (Newmarket)
File under: Mockumentary.
THE GIST: Gabriel Range scored the most-talked-about film of the festival by killing off Bush, or a Photoshopped stand-in, anyway. His speculative “doc” dwells too much on the specifics of who might have assassinated him, instead of the event’s larger global impact—but hits its target on several levels.
A Few Days in September (Undistributed)
File under: High-class thriller.
THE GIST: Juliette Binoche stars in a Le Carré–ish movie, set in the “few days” before September 11. Overstuffed with a silly romance—and a poetry-spouting assassin (John Turturro)—this preposterous film uses 9/11 as generic plot device.
Day Night Day Night (Undistributed)
File under: Low-budget thriller.
THE GIST: Inspired by Chechen suicide bombers, Julia Loktev’s startling fiction debut stars a girlish woman (full disclosure: former New York employee Luisa Williams) who makes her way to Times Square with a bomb and a detonator disguised as an MP3 player. The tonal opposite of A Few Days, the film, shot in jittery HD, forces viewers to keep guessing at the woman’s motivations until the end.
Rescue Dawn (MGM)
File under: War movie.
THE GIST: Werner Herzog’s gritty tribute reimagines his old friend and late Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment and escape from a Vietnamese POW camp. Christian Bale, at his lunatic best, plays Dengler with comic American grace, and Herzog achieves a brilliant complexity: His film could be read as a patriotic hymnal, as a reminder of Abu Ghraib–like atrocities, or as a sly parable about Americans’ curiously unflappable optimism abroad.
Shut Up & Sing (Weinstein Co.)
File under: Music documentary.
THE GIST: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck catch a band caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars, after Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines tells a London crowd “we’re ashamed” that the president is from Texas. Thanks to the film, Maines has already made Fox News again for saying of Bush, “What a dumb fuck.”
Fay Grim (Magnolia Pictures)
File under: Art-house comedy.
THE GIST: Hal Hartley sends up the war on terror with a globalization farce that doubles as a sequel to 1997’s utterly apolitical Henry Fool. Parker Posey is back (and fabulous in an Avengers overcoat and garter belts) as a Woodside gal who gets caught up in a global conspiracy involving an avant-garde poet, a “Kandahar garbageman” and an “ultra-right-wing Zionist pressure group out of Brooklyn.” Who knew Hartley and Joseph Heller had so much in common?