PETER DEBRUGE: Looking back on 11 days and several hundred movies, it's somewhat disheartening to realize this is the year that Oscar hype all but overwhelmed the Toronto Film Festival. Things have been gradually building up to this, considering that the festival served to launch such best-picture winners as "American Beauty," "Slumdog Millionaire," "The King's Speech" and "Argo," among others, but it's unfortunate that this hollow chatter has taken the place of substantial conversation about the merits of the many films on offer, the vast majority of which were conceived with no designs on earning little gold statues.
There's a silver lining for those who've been following from a distance all the buzz around such heftily financed pictures as "12 Years a Slave," "August: Osage County," "Rush," "Gravity" and "Prisoners," as well as the scrappy, super-indie "Dallas Buyers Club," a movie no one wanted to make but everyone seems to love: The festival has showcased what are sure to be among the best films and performances of the year (not that I ever rely upon the Academy to align with my own assessments).
JUSTIN CHANG: It's worth recalling that when it first launched in 1976, Toronto billed itself as "the Festival of Festivals," promising a selection of standout entries from other fests around the world. By now of course the event has swollen to such a point as to suggest another meaning entirely: Rarely have I been more aware that all of us are essentially carrying on our own parallel mini-festivals as we dart from one screening to the next. That isn't always the case at Sundance and Cannes, neither of which rivals Toronto for sheer bloat, to the point where it would theoretically be possible to see five films a day here for 10 days straight and not overlap even once with someone else following the same regimen.
There are, of course, the movies everyone is eager to see, which include those preordained Oscar magnets you listed, Peter; as of this writing, I have yet to see either "Rush" or "12 Years a Slave." I'm hoping to catch up with the latter here tonight, although the hype around Steve McQueen's film -- much of it Oscar-driven, although some of it hopefully motivated by pure, unadulterated movie love -- has been so deafening that I've been unable to secure a ticket. (Wish me luck in the rush line.)
Although Toronto is of course complicit in its status as a major awards-bait launchpad, the sheer breadth and number of films here remain a testament to the festival's integrity and offer a welcome if harder-to-parse counter-narrative to all the awards hype. I'm always overwhelmed by how many serious cinephile offerings, far-flung genre movies and uncategorizable curios there are on offer, every one of which would benefit from even a fraction of the attention that's been squandered so far on the question of whether Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts should be campaigned as lead actress for "August: Osage County" -- or "August: Oscar County," as it might as well have been titled for all the publicity it's generated in that direction.
And so, in the interest of a principled respite from awards hype, let's hear it for just a few Toronto program highlights that don't have a chance in hell of winning an Oscar. I'm thinking of "Night Moves," an absorbing and eerily plausible thriller in which director Kelly Reichardt retains her micro-observational approach while upping the narrative drive. Or Goetz Spielmann's "October November," a beautifully written and acted family drama that suggests a sober Austrian alternative to "August: Osage County" (they've both even got months in their titles), with more in the way of rumination and less in the way of smashed crockery. And if I'd had a few more three- and four-hour windows to spare, I would have loved to make time not just for Wang Bing's deeply challenging documentary "'Til Madness Do Us Part," but also Frederick Wiseman's "At Berkeley" and Claude Lanzmann's Cannes-premiered "The Last of the Unjust," both of which I'm keen to catch up with in a less frenzied, more thinking-conducive viewing environment.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: You guys remind me that for years I've described Toronto as the film-festival equivalent of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels published in the 1980s. Nor are those parallel festival realities just the ones each attendee creates when mapping out his or her screening schedule; they're embedded in the very fabric of the Toronto program, which contains, just beneath the Oscar hubbub you've both described, several carefully curated mini-festivals whose identities are nearly as distinct as those of the Directors Fortnight and Critics Week in Cannes.
I'm thinking in particular of the Midnight Madness section, overseen by the enthusiastic Colin Geddes, which packs the 1,200-seat Ryerson Theater night after night with a very different crowd than one might find at, say, the red-carpet premiere of "August: Osage County." And also the Wavelengths section devoted to avant-garde cinema, brilliantly programmed by Andrea Picard and featuring several of the best and most adventurous movies you could see in Toronto this year, including Albert Serra's Casanova-meets-Dracula tale "Story of My Death" and the hypnotic documentary "Manakamana," which takes place entirely inside a mountain-climbing cable car in a small Nepalese village. (The Wang Bing film Justin mentioned was also programmed there.)
But the Toronto adventure the majority of major media outlets have chosen with increasing uniformity is indeed the awards-prognosticating one -- to the point that many "reviews" emanating from the festival are little more than detailed analyses of which categories said film will figure in on Oscar night. Which is really the latest iteration of the same thinking that has allowed weekly box-office reporting to take up more ink in a lot of heretofore respectable publications than anything resembling what the three of us might call "criticism."
It is worth noting, however, that two beneficiaries of a lot of that Oscar "buzz" were French-Canadian filmmakers planting their flag on Hollywood soil. Well, technically speaking, Jean-Marc Vallee has been here before, having directed the little-seen Mario Van Peebles Western "Los Locos" in 1997 (as well as the U.S.-U.K. co-production "The Young Victoria" in 2009), but his "Dallas Buyers Club" made a much bigger splash than either of those, and immediately sparked talk of acting nominations for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Then there was Denis Villeneuve, whose "Prisoners" was a smash in both Telluride and Toronto, and who followed up immediately with another Gyllenhaal vehicle, the smaller and more esoteric, Toronto-set "Enemy," which was acquired for U.S. distribution just as the festival was coming to a close.
I mention this because, with the exception of a few name filmmakers (Cronenberg, Egoyan, Maddin), Canadian cinema has never been very visible in the U.S., and that goes double for French-Canadian cinema. Although each of Villeneuve's first three, highly acclaimed French-language features premiered in Cannes, only one (2000′s "Maelstrom") had even a tiny American release, while Vallee's 2005 Quebec hit "C.R.A.Z.Y." went straight to DVD south of the border. At the same time, the question of Canadian cinema's presence at Toronto has always been a sensitive one. For many years, the festival insisted on opening with some large-scale, local prestige production (like the insufferable WWII epic "Passchendaele" and the infamous hockey musical "Score"). That tradition has thankfully vanished in recent years, along with the Perspectives Canada sidebar/ghetto for Canadian productions that might have been labeled "Do Not Touch!" But this year, all nationalistic considerations aside, there were Canadian films -- and filmmakers -- at Toronto genuinely worth crowing about.
DEBRUGE: Add to that list of not-to-miss Canadian pics "The Grand Seduction," a "Full Monty"-like crowdpleaser about a Newfoundland harbor community that goes to extreme lengths to attract a factory, and "Watermark," in which photographer Edward Burtynsky reteams with "Manufactured Landscapes" helmer Jennifer Baichwal to delve into the backstories behind his latest series of large-scale images, depicting mankind's impact on the world's water supply. Meeting Burtynsky at one of the art galleries showing his work was the highlight of my festival.
And though I didn't have nearly enough time to catch all the Canadian Short Cuts screenings (each year, Toronto screens short films by local directors, many of whom will go on to be major talents, while also making them available online), I was duly impressed by Stephen Dunn's "We Wanted More": "Repulsion" meets "Rosemary's Baby" meets "Black Swan" in this slick psychological snapshot. Dunn's certainly one to watch.
CHANG: All in all, despite the poor reception for Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot," this was arguably the strongest showing for Canadian directors at Toronto since 2007, the year that gave us Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." I'll chime in with two more noteworthy examples: Michael Dowse followed up his delightful 2011 hockey pic "Goon" with the Toronto-set romantic comedy "The F Word," which is no less winsome for being a fairly blatant "When Harry Met Sally" ripoff. Incidentally, this was one of three Daniel Radcliffe movies here (the others being "Horns" and "Kill Your Darlings"), and I daresay it's destined to be the most commercial of the trio, having been acquired by CBS Films in one of the festival's bigger pickup deals.
A far kinkier, less crowdpleasing Canadian entry was "Tom at the Farm," is a strange, unnerving story of queer longing and self-loathing in the stix, although given that writer/director/star/costume designer Dolan is present in almost every frame, the film's true subject may well be its creator's trademark self-absorption. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Venice Film Festival, where David Rooney's less-than-favorable Hollywood Reporter review prompted Dolan to tweet, "You can kiss my narcissistic ass." And yet, as incorrigible as the filmmaker may be and as awful as his dye job looks, the film itself plays like a combustible blend of Hitchcock and Highsmith -- the former signaled by a feverish Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Gabriel Yared, the latter by the weird games of identity and sexual power that the talented Mr. Dolan plays so adroitly.
@THRmovies you can kiss my narcissistic ass.--
Xavier Dolan (@XDolan) September 02, 2013