Setting the scene for the film year

 

In the global, ever-mobile area of international film production, some of the most acutely observed pictures of different societies and cultures have been achieved through the outsider's eye, by film-makers working outside their countries of origin. The downside of this experience has been the relatively recent spate of Europuddings, co-productions dictated by a need to placate the often conflicting demands of different funding countries.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, after its world premiere at the Venice festival a week earlier, the surreally titled How Harry Became a Tree was billed as a UK/Ireland/France/Italy co-production. It is based on a story in a book of Chinese fables, and transposed to post-Civil War Ireland in a screenplay by the Irish writer Stephen Walsh, and the film's director, Goran Paskaljevic, the Serbian film-maker best known for the corrosive drama The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan), set in Belgrade on the night in 1995 when the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed.

In the visually striking How Harry Became a Tree, Paskaljevic taps into the universal nature of the Chinese story at its source to explore the individual roots of conflict - in a man who opts for misery over happiness, hate over love. He is Harry Maloney (played by Colm Meaney), a gruff widower living off the cabbage patch he tends on a remote farm in the fictional rural area of Skillet in 1924. His bitterness is fuelled by the demise of his older son during the Civil War and the subsequent death of his wife from a broken heart, and expressed in the way he treats his other son: the shy, sexually frustrated Gus (Cillian Murphy), whom he dismisses as "not exactly the brightest candle on the Christmas tree".

However, the principal target of Harry's irrational antagonism is the smooth-talking local businessman, George (Adrian Dunbar), whom he has chosen in the misguided belief that "a man is measured by his enemies" - even though Harry himself proves to be his own worst enemy. In this artful blend of mythic parable and absurdist comedy, Colm Meaney builds on the dark, dangerous side he revealed in Claire Dolan to give a rich, tempestuous performance as the bellowing Harry, a kindred spirit to the raging Bull McCabe created by John B. Keane in The Field.

Regrets and a deep sense of loss also serve to fuel the drama of Last Orders, the most accomplished film made outside his native Australia by Fred Schepisi, the director of The Devil's Playground, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and A Cry in the Dark. Astutely adapted by Schepisi himself from the Booker-winning novel by Graham Swift, Last Orders is set in the aftermath of the death of a south London butcher (Michael Caine), as his three closest friends (Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings) and his son (Ray Winstone) respect his wishes by driving to Margate to scatter his ashes into the sea.

Moving back and forward in time with precision and elucidation, the movie celebrates the warmth and banter between friends whose closeness dates back half a century, as the memories come flooding back and tears come flooding down without ever sinking the picture in sloppy sentiment.

The flashbacks to the earlier lives of the men are rendered all the more convincing by the casting of some uncannily similar younger actors, notably JJ Feild as the younger Caine character. Among an exemplary ensemble cast, a wholly deglamourised Helen Mirren is outstanding in her dignified and honest portrayal of the butcher's wife. Schepisi's quietly endearing film closes on an unforgettable image of the four men huddled together in driving rain on the Margate pier.

Schepisi's fellow Australian Scott Hicks, who made his international breakthrough with Shine, appears much less comfortable away from his home turf, to judge by his first two US pictures, Snow Falling on Cedars and, now, Hearts in Atlantis, which had its world premiΦre in Toronto. Both films are reverent literary adaptations in which Hicks appears altogether more concerned with form at the expense of content. Based on two stories in the recent Stephen King collection, Hearts in Atlantis is handsomely photographed by the late Piotr Sobocinski and solidly acted by Anthony Hopkins and a few impressive child actors, but its coming-of-age story set in 1960 Connecticut lacks the mysterious atmosphere it crucially needs, and proves far less incisive and arresting than the previous King adaptation scripted by the same writer, William Goldman.

The Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro made an auspicious debut in 1992 with the imaginative and intriguing Gothic horror movie Cronos, and followed it with an all-too-conventional US production in Mimic. Moving to Spain for El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone), del Toro has produced his best work to date, a haunting and unsettling picture set in a remote boarding school near the end of the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the innocent eyes of a young orphaned boy (Fernando Tileve). Part supernatural melodrama, part ghost story, del Toro's assured and riveting movie is steeped in unsettling, unrelenting tension.

Del Toro's contemporary and countryman, Alfonso Cuar≤n, who made the arresting Love in the Time of Hysteria in Mexico before making the charming A Little Princess and the misfired, modern-day Great Expectations in the US, returns home in triumph with Y Tu Mamβ TambiΘn (And Your Mother Too).

This deliriously paced road movie bristles with energy and eroticism as it follows two sexually obsessed 17-year-old boys (Gael Garc∅a Bernal from Amores Perros and Diego Luna) on an eventful journey of self-discovery with the young Spanish wife (Maribel Verdu) of one of their cousins. "Mexico breathes life," she observes, and so does this exuberant and surprisingly touching entertainment which eschews the cliched images of Mexico as it vividly catches the social, cultural and political life of the country.

Mira Nair, the Indian director of Salaam Bombay! and the US-set Mississippi Masala, makes her first film set in the upper-middle-class New Delhi milieu where she grew up in the colourful Monsoon Wedding, a multi-charactered serious comedy set during the build-up to a lavish Punjabi wedding and skilfully integrating the families, friends and staff involved in the hectic preparations.

Monsoon Wedding, as its title suggests, features several romantic rainswept clinches and is shot in vibrant colours by the Irish-American cinematographer Declan Quinn, and accompanied by a gorgeous score from the Canadian composer Mychael Danna, which gloriously blends eastern and western influences. It arrived in Toronto fresh from winning the Golden Lion for best film at Venice and proved a firmly popular feel-good movie with a 900-strong audience on the morning when the festival resumed screenings last week, having been halted for a day out of respect to the victims of the terrorist attacks in the US.

Michael Dwyer's final Toronoto Film Festival report is in The Ticket on Wednesday