TORONTO — While “2016: Obama’s America” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” duke it out on the hustings to become America’s all-time No. 1 political documentary, the cinematic version of a political convention is taking place farther north, in the neutral territory known as Canada.
The Toronto International Film Festival, which got underway Thursday, is known as many things: a comprehensive, carefully curated grab bag of the best films on that year’s festival circuit; a warm, unsnobby venue where everyday cinephiles — not just industry insiders and critics — can see scads of important films; a massive press junket, where stars as diverse as Johnny Depp, Zac Efron and Bill Murray make themselves available for interviews, press conferences and photo ops with professionals and fans alike.
(Claire Folger) - Bryan Cranston, left, and Ben Affleck (who also directed) in ”Argo,” a superbly crafted story about CIA plans to intervene in the Tehran hostage crisis in 1980.
(Reuters) - Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are among the familiar faces transformed in “Cloud Atlas,” an adaptation of David Mitchell’s intricately constructed novel.
But, like the Republican and Democratic conventions that immediately precede it every four years, Toronto (or TIFF, as it’s affectionately known to locals) has also become an all-important confab during which candidates show their stuff to constituents, kicking off months during which massive amounts of money will be spent. The goal, in this case, isn’t the White House but an all-important Oscar. After crucial trail stops at festivals in Venice and Telluride, it’s in Toronto that the campaign begins in earnest.
The stakes are high: For the mid-range movies that often make their debuts in Toronto, the season of festival, critics’ and industry awards that leads to the Oscars in February present a chance to gain publicity that they otherwise couldn’t afford if they were mounting conventional, and expensive, marketing blitzes.
More than a few films are well-positioned to leave Toronto with the Big Mo. “Argo,” a political thriller starring and directed by Ben Affleck, arrived in town with Best Picture buzz, having premiered in Telluride. The taut, superbly crafted film — about a CIA scheme to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the hostage crisis in 1980 — possesses all the elements of a Best Picture candidate, including a terrific story that, despite an outcome most audiences know already, ratchets into a genuinely nerve-racking nail-biter.
There are plenty of contenders in other Oscar categories as well, including Marion Cotillard for her bravura performance in the affecting drama “Rust & Bone” (which premiered in Cannes in May); David O. Russell for his assured adaptation and direction of the off-kilter romance “The Silver Linings Playbook” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated period drama “The Master,” which will surely earn nominations for best picture, direction and acting in light of indelible performances by Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the self-made religious leader who tries to heal him.
Like “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s spirited, bracingly inventive science-fiction adventure that opened the festival Thursday night, “The Master” touches on themes of time travel, morality and human perfectibility. The two films also hew to an independent financing model that is now the only way for mid-budget, adult-oriented films — whether dramas, comedies or genre pictures — to get made. “You see it more and more these days,” Johnson said on Friday. “And to me that’s really exciting, especially as a science fiction fan. There are filmmakers out there who, when they’re working in that [mid-budget] range, they have enough money to accomplish something very interesting visually but not so much money to where the interesting ideas start getting squashed. That’s the sweet spot.”