CHANG: If I recall correctly, the last time I was at Roy Thomson Hall was to review "Silver Linings Playbook," a film whose raucous energy that postage-stamp-sized screen was scarcely able to contain. As you'll recall, David O. Russell's comedy emerged from Toronto last year the winner of the coveted People's Choice award and thus the pre-anointed Oscar frontrunner, although of course "Argo," the runner-up in the TIFF sweepstakes, overtook it in the end.

Given the predictive power of these prizes when it comes to the annual Academy Awards derby, all eyes of course are now on this year's beneficiaries, "12 Years a Slave" and "Prisoners" -- and it's here that I must express a reservation or two regarding the latter. I confess to having been fairly mystified by the acclaim for Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies" (2010), an empty and appallingly manipulative slab of arthouse miserablism that was duly nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, and my skepticism has only grown with "Prisoners," a compulsively watchable but increasingly far-fetched crime drama whose self-serious moral dilemmas feel as cheap and rigged as its jack-in-the-box narrative twists.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to Aaron Guzikowski's script, and Villeneuve's got undeniable filmmaking chops. But given his inclination toward ostentatiously grand themes and his button-pushing sense of tragedy, he strikes me less as the second coming of David Fincher than as an heir to the mantle of Paul Haggis. Speaking of which, Haggis is another Canadian director who had a new film in Toronto this year, although the reviews of "Third Person" were generally so awful as to suggest a pre-emptive attempt to kill its awards chances in the cradle, lest we find ourselves with another "Crash" on our hands.

DEBRUGE: As someone who has seen "Third Person," allow me to offer a defense (its awards chances being entirely beside the point): By now, we all know how Haggis manipulates characters to prove his own prejudices, but this film is far more honest, conflicted even, about how he operates. Had "Crash" ended with the camera swiveling around to face Haggis and find the director admitting, "This is what I think people think about racism" (as opposed to merely implying, "This is what people actually think about racism"), then I might have forgiven it. I appreciate the self-reflexive leap he takes with "Third Person," just as I was stunned that Villeneuve was able to take such a legitimately serious and deliberately paced approach to what could have been an instantly forgettable thriller with "Prisoners."

FOUNDAS: I won't dwell on "Prisoners," except to say that I don't think plausible reality is one of the movie's main objectives. Just as the wonderful "Incendies" invoked Aeschylus, "Prisoners" announces its own mythic intentions from the start, with Hugh Jackman reading the Lord's Prayer on the soundtrack and a father and son engaged in that symbolic American pastime of deer hunting. (Oh, and the family shares a surname with the capital of Delaware, the first state in the Union.) I was happy to learn that it was one of the runners-up for Toronto's audience award, and even happier to learn that the winner was "12 Years a Slave," which came into Toronto with a strong Telluride headwind, and built to gale-force intensity as the days went by.

Like Peter, I think it's an incredible film on a tricky subject, very faithful to its source material (the memoir of Solomon Northup), but with a visceral pull and economy of form that are entirely the contribution of its director, Steve McQueen. McQueen makes films about the human body in extremis. In his brilliant debut, "Hunger," the subject was a man--the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands -- with a fierce, almost super-human control over his own physical impulses. In his follow-up, "Shame," McQueen used the same actor (Michael Fassbender, who also turns up in "12 Years a Slave") to play a man -- a New York City sex addict -- with no control over his. Now, in"12 Years," he gives us a protagonist who forcibly surrenders control of his body to a series of slave masters, becomes a piece of human property in the process, but never loses his essential dignity. With the exception of a handful of movies that have treated slavery as the basis for cheap exploitation or postmodern satire, this "peculiar" institution has been conspicuous by its absence in American movies (including, it should be noted, in Spielberg's otherwise commendable "Lincoln"). But McQueen doesn't back away from anything: he gives us the story of Solomon Northup and the Southern slave economy in all of its ugliness and unshakable power.

CHANG: Speaking of which, guys, I wasn't expecting my own "Choose Your Own TIFF Adventure" narrative to end with me and some 200 other wretched souls in the rush line on Saturday night, almost all of us shut out of the final screening of "12 Years a Slave." Ah, well. There is no other film this year that I anticipate catching up with more, and it will actually be a relief to be see and digest it at a (reasonable) remove from all the hype. My expectations remain sky-high, not only because Steve McQueen already cemented his standing as one of our finest filmmakers with "Hunger" and "Shame," but because of the ecstatic recommendations across the board, your own included.

That said, we are clearly of different minds on "Prisoners." Peter, I'll grant that the film is far from forgettable -- it's got one hell of a final shot, if nothing else. (The same goes for "Enemy," from what I've heard.) And Scott, yes, I was attuned to all that portentous spiritual window-dressing, which of course comes into full flower in the third act when (spoiler alert!) a character suddenly finds himself surrounded by snakes -- a development that is nothing if not an Old Testament signifier, a literal manifestation of the metaphysical evil underlying this dark parable of violence, retribution and salvation. No question that Villeneuve's cinema is one of mythic intentions, although whether he's groping for Greek tragedy in "Incendies" or applying a thick layer of Scriptural shellac to "Prisoners," I'd say "pretensions" may be more the operative word.

While I'm on the subject of snakes, I surely can't have been the only one to notice the curious excess of serpentine imagery on Toronto screens this year. Daniel Radcliffe gets down with his bad self and attracts the company of snakes in "Horns." Nicolas Cage takes a venomous cottonmouth in hand in David Gordon Green's "Joe" (a stunt the actor impressively performed himself). And in the deranged Filipino horror-thriller "Possession," an enormous snake slithers through a TV newsroom and later turns up (spoiler alert!) shooting out of a woman's birth canal; this being a Brillante Mendoza film, we are spared none of the gooey details. I am reminded once again of the capacity of film festivals -- especially a festival as sprawling as this one -- to put different movies into a kooky sort of dialogue with each other. I haven't a clue as to what it all means, but in any event, Toronto, fangs for the memories.

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