Being both far too old and nowhere near hip enough to do things like attending midnight screenings and go to cool parties, I arrived home from Toronto last night in much better physical shape than my hipper, younger (at heart) colleagues. Mentally, though, I'm pretty drained -- clearly I'm soft in more ways than one. I did, however, have a great time at the festival -- despite the daily grind of screenings, the little thrill of WAITING IN LINES to see obscure films from Eastern Europe never wore off. I mean, who are these people? Not only do they get excited about the debut feature from some Romanian guy no one has heard of, but they actually take time off from work, buy passes, and see four and five movies a day, aided by intricate, color-coded schedules that let them know what each friend is seeing at every minute. I can't tell you how many women in their 60s I saw taking sandwiches out of their purses and eating in line, because those were their only free minutes for the next 12 hours -- if I'm doing that when I'm 65, my grandkids damn well better realize how kickass their grandma is.

Despite persistent, jaded mutterings that TIFF 2006 wasn't as good as the festival has been in the past, I was really impressed by the quality of the slate, at least as far as it was reflected in the 20-something films I saw. As the designated viewer of foreign movies no one has ever heard of, I was privileged to see some amazing films -- most of which, sadly, are highly unlikely to ever be released on these shores (What distributor is going to buy the rights to a movie about a talk show in Romania?). In addition, though, I also saw a handful of big(ish)-name releases, only one of which managed to meet and surpass my (obviously too high) expectations. Anyway, what follows is a loose, how-I-feel-today list of my five favorite films of the festival -- for the more obscure ones, just hope the programmers of your local festivals see fit to bring them to town. Otherwise, a region-free DVD player is probably your only hope.
  • The Lives of Others: Probably the highest profile film I saw, this award-winning thriller about an East German Stasi officer surpassed my expectations by roughly 400 miles. As I said in my review, it's awesome (in the old-school sense, which has nothing to do with the word "dude") in every way: The performances are stellar, the direction confident and tight, and the story full of both suspense and unabashed sentiment. The skill behind the film is just as impressive as its story, perhaps even more so -- and, unbelievably, it's the feature debut from writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Happily, Sony Pictures Classics bought the rights to this one last spring; it should hit US theaters this winter.
  • Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: One of the most powerful, moving films I've ever seen. In a completely nontraditional way, it manages to capture the grace and majesty of a sport by simply spending one game with a single, great player. Much, much more than a sports film or simple documentary, it's totally overwhelming. That said, if you don't love soccer, avoid it like the plague.
  • The Way I Spent the End of the World: Just a lovely, passionate film. Set in a small Romanian town during the final year of Ceausescu's regime, it features a core group of wonderful, real characters who are brought to life so vividly, we're drawn into their world from the movie's first frame. Another first feature, directed with incredible confidence and poise.
  • As the Shadow: Apart from Zidane, this was probably the most difficult film I saw in Toronto. The second feature from Italian director Marina Spada, it's slow and visually bland and very vague -- there's little dialogue, and we know almost nothing about the lives of the characters we're watching. But unlike other films that fit that description, it's in no way aggressively Artistic or intentionally Obscure -- and it doesn't have that awful, masturbatory feel that comes from many films that refuse to embrace their audience. (You know, that whole "Look at me, aren't I deep and smart? If you're not getting this, it's your fault, not mine -- I'm a genius!" thing.) Instead, it's studied, determined and, somehow, burrows its way under your skin. The non-story becomes weirdly thrilling, and you're left filled with respect for Spada's steadfast refusal to compromise her vision, non-welcoming though it initially is. My single greatest regret of the festival is that I had to leave for another movie, and missed hearing Spada talk about her film in the post-screening Q&A.
  • DarkBlueAlmostBlack: This one grew on me, and I'm still not sure why I liked it so much. The first feature from long-time screenwriter Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, it's a deceptively small story about a young man struggling to break out of the rut his life has become and, oh yeah, trying to impregnate his brother's jailbird girlfriend in his free time. With tremendous subtlety, Arévalo slowly expands his reach, adding characters and addressing issues of increasing significance. And, by the film is over, we find we're thinking not about sex and growing up, but about things as weighty as human weakness and family and obligations. Deeply impressive.