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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