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TIFF: Meet the Monsters

From Toronto, a glimpse of this year's most bracing films

The Ben Affleck–directed Argo, a top-shelf Hollywood historical fiction about a Hollywood solution to a historical crisis, doesn't shy away from the fact that the FUBAR situation at its center—the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–81—was one that U.S. policy helped to create. But in this fantasized version of true events, America is determined to fix what it broke, via an exfiltration scheme produced by a fading mogul (Alan Arkin) and an Oscar-winning makeup artist (John Goodman).

Within the context of Toronto, which has earned a reputation in recent years as the opening event of awards season, catapulting a handful of titles directly into Best Picture contention, Argo is almost certainly The Artist of this year: It embodies the pleasures of Hollywood cinema in order to evangelize them, also re-creating a moment when the industry emerged from flux to thrive. It's enormously entertaining—Goodman and Arkin, in particular, are acidly funny as cynical survivors of the dead old-studio system bridging into the just-dawning era of the blockbuster—but it has no rough edges, and it never feels remotely unsafe. It's such a beautifully mounted Hollywood production that even as it's depicting a historical event in which the players were in real mortal danger, it never does anything to risk losing the viewer's comprehension or sympathy.

The thing Argo doesn't deliver—as these others did—is the sense that the filmmaker wanted to create a monster, a mysterious, unwieldy object that exists to be pulled apart rather than passively watched, that is completed by us, by our reactions to the inkblot. Or, to quote Jem Cohen's introduction to a TIFF screening of Museum Hours, his engaging, melan-comic fiction-doc hybrid set in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, "If I knew exactly what it was, then it wouldn't be the movie I wanted to make."

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