The best part of covering a film festival like the Toronto International Film Festival is watching the movies themselves, and watching as many as you can.
That’s because there’s nothing like the sense of discovery when a great movie screens for the very first time.
But in all my years covering film festivals, this year’s fest in Toronto – my eighth year in a row north of the border – was the very best yet, thanks to an exceptionally strong slate that effectively kicked off what’s bound to be a very busy awards season.
This, in my opinion, was the best of the fest, in order (and, really, it’s just the tip of the iceberg)…
1) “Gravity” – With the advent of computer-generated special effects, moviegoers have become pretty jaded in recent years – so jaded, in fact, that it’s probably been a while since they sat on the edge of their seat during a big-budget Hollywood spectacle and asked themselves, “How’d they do that?” That’s a question they will likely think about over and over again while marveling at “Gravity,” the groundbreaking, game-changing space disaster epic directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”). Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career in an existential 90-minute thrill ride that’s beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring and incredibly intense – and an absolute must-see in IMAX 3D. Think “Apollo 13” on steroids, and brace yourself for the ride of your sweet life.
2) “12 Years a Slave” – Director Steve McQueen follows his disturbing sex addiction drama “Shame” with the most relentless and uncompromising depiction of slavery ever depicted on film. An instant Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a free black man from the north in pre-Civil War United States who is abducted, sold into slavery and stripped of his human rights – but not his soul or his spirit. It’s a powerful, astounding and unforgettable cinematic masterpiece in every sense of the word.
3) “Rush” – Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) rebounds bigtime from his rare dud “The Dilemma” with this gritty, sexy, thrilling, pulse-pounding drama based on the true story about the competitive rivalry between two very different formula one race car drivers in the 1970s – the charismatic playboy James Hunt (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth) and the more disciplined Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The racing scenes are visceral, but the screenplay written by Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”) is what really fuels this character-driven story about two rivals who ultimately respected the hell out of each other.
4) “Prisoners” – What would you do if your child was abducted? How far would you go to protect your family? And what would that do to your mind? Tough questions to be sure, and moviegoers are bound to find the answers both disturbing and unsettling in this riveting and powerful drama directed by Denis Villeneuve. Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career as a conflicted father who walks a moral tightrope, while Jake Gyllenhaal is equally strong in a more understated turn as the police detective assigned to his case. Villeneuve tightens the screws on the intensity with each passing scene, while 10-time Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins underscores the gloomy atmosphere with his incredibly effective cinematography.
5) “Dallas Buyers Club” – Naturally, everyone’s going to be talking about the dramatic weight loss endured by both Matthew McConaughey (47 pounds) and Jared Leto (40 pounds), especially because the former had months to prepare for his role as a dying AIDS patient in the 1980s, while the latter had just three weeks. In both cases, their gaunt appearances are upsetting and disturbing, which, for better or worse, serves the film’s subject matter well. McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a small-time loser who’s diagnosed with just 30 days to live, but extends his expiration date by more than seven years with the help of experimental (and illegal) drugs. McConaughey and Leto are outstanding, so place your bets on guaranteed Oscar noms for both.
6) “The F Word” – Shame on your dirty little mind for thinking that the “F” word had a “U” in it and ended with a “K.” (OK, I confess, I thought that too when I first saw the title.) But not so, “The F Word” in this case stands for “friends,” as in the “friend zone” that two would-be lovers fall into when circumstances prevent them from sealing the deal. That friend is former “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe, who pines for his soul mate Zoe Kazan, despite the fact that she’s already in a committed relationship. That doesn’t stop them from developing a romantic friendship that leads to an inevitable conclusion, but at least getting there will bring a smile to your face, thanks to the witty screenplay and the delightful chemistry between the leads. As far as rom-coms go, “The F Word” gets an “A.”
7) “Enough Said” – The fifth feature film by writer-director Nicole Holofcener is her best yet, by far. Where her previous efforts, like “Lovely and Amazing” and “Friends with Money,” were slice-of-life ensembles, “Enough Said” is her first to focus on just one relationship. It’s a smart, mature romantic comedy for grown-ups that features three-time Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her first lead role in a feature film (she’s in every scene). But the late James Gandolfini is the real revelation, bucking the trend established by a career defined by tough guy roles to play the sweet, gnetle, vulnerable love interest. His first time playing a romantic leading man is, sadly, also his last, but at least Gandolfini went out on a high note. Enough said, indeed.
-- Scott Mantz