By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 17, 2012 at 2:04PM
The Toronto International Film Festival tends to be somewhat frontloaded (much to the complaints of many of its attendees), with most of the big films playing on or around the first weekend of the festival. But in fact, the festival wrapped up officially yesterday, and as we speak, The Playlist is packing its bags and departing the city for another year.
As ever, it was an intimidating line-up, but one that featured more than its share of greatness, as well as plenty of disappointments. Some audience members were wowed by "Cloud Atlas" and "The Impossible," which we were left cold by. The usual pack of star-laden semi indies rolled out, some successfully, others less so. Foreign language gems were brought to North America for the first time. A whole lot of poutine was eaten.
So with the festival fading into memory, we've not only picked out below our five favorite films of the festival, but on the next page, you can also find every review and interview from this year's TIFF, as well as reviews of other key films that cropped up that we saw earlier in the year, at Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Telluride. Thanks to all our contributors this year -- Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Schobert, Nikola Grozdanovic, Simon Abrams and Drew Taylor. And check back in a couple of weeks for our extensive coverage of the New York Film Festival.
Given that Derek Cianfrance's last film, "Blue Valentine" earned the only first-run A+ in Playlist history when Kevin saw it in Cannes in 2010, it's safe to say that despite the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the project, it was one of our most anticipated films of the festival. And although the film drew a somewhat mixed response (as did, let's face, most films this year), Cianfrance's follow-up wowed us in Toronto, and was by some distance our favorite film of the festival. An epic, decades-spanning saga of the sins passed from the father to the son, starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as a stunt rider turned bank robber and an ambitious cop, respectively, with fast rising stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen as their children, it's an effort that "feels like it has shades of classic Italian melodrama put through the lens of a distinctly American film," as our review put it. Stunningly shot by Steve McQueen's DoP Sean Bobbitt, with terrific performances from everyone involved, it was "a brilliant, towering picture... a cinematic accomplishment of extraordinary grace and insight" that also sees Cianfrance join "the canon of great, contemporary American filmmakers." The rest of us will be able to catch up when Focus Features releases it in 2013.
The runaway popular hit of the festival, a film with hardly anything bad to be heard about it, and the winner of the Audience Award, it would be easy enough to be a little skeptical about David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" -- we hadn't been particularly wowed by footage in Cannes, or the trailer. But then, David O. Russell hasn't really dropped the ball yet (depending on your feelings on "I Heart Huckabees"...), and "Silver Linings Playbook" might be his finest hour yet. A crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word, featuring "career best, awards-worthy performances" from Bradley Cooper (having a hell of a festival), as the troubled bipolar guy released into the care of his family, and Jennifer Lawrence as the equally troubled widow he falls under the spell of -- with Robert De Niro the most engaged he's been in decades -- it's a warm, generous and very funny picture picture, one that sees Russell "at his most focused... and yet it doesn't come at the loss of his sense of verve and timing." Already looking like a major Oscar player, it's that rare film that looks to be both a critical and commercial smash.
The critical establishment in general weren't quite sure of what to make of "Anna Karenina," it would seem. Joe Wright's bold reinvention of the Tolstoy classic received mostly respectable notices, but few out-and-out raves, but it's a film that more than one member of the Playlist team have taken to their hearts (and one that we've grown more fond of since seeing it). The director's conceit of staging his take in a somewhat dilapidated theater has produced something that nods to Brecht and Powell & Pressburger in equal measure, which feels both inherently theatrical and thrillingly cinematic (the various dance sequences in particular). While much of the hype has been focused on the central performance of Keira Knightley (who's very good indeed), it's in the supporting cast that the real gems are to be found, with lovely turns from Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and many others -- Matthew MacFayden in particular is a delight. Perhaps some have found the approach too distancing, failing to connect with the emotional heart of the story. There's no denying that the film has its flaws. But even if the execution isn't totally flawless, Wright succeeded almost all of the way, and it's a take on the costume drama very different from anything anyone else out there is trying.
An under-the-radar gem from Portugal, Miguel Gomes' "Tabu" had already become a critical darling in Berlin earlier in the year, but even so, it knocked our respective socks off when we caught up with the film. Like a sort of arthouse "The Artist," the gorgeous, swooningly romantic tale, filmed entirely in black and white, and partially without dialogue, is a tribute to classic silent cinema (the title nods to F.W. Murnau's film of the same name), but it's also far more than that. Split between a present day Lisbon -- the more "difficult" section -- and a lengthy, wordless second half of colonial romance in Africa, it's a curious, opaque, accessible shot of "movie magic," as our review put it. It's already the favorite film of the year so far of at least one Playlist writer, and we look forward to more people catching up with at the New York Film Festival next month -- it's "one of those rarities when too many compliments are not enough, and the recommendation to see it as soon as it’s near you cannot be stressed enough." Oh, and the music is amazing, too.
Opening films of festivals -- and TIFF in particular -- don't often have the best reputation. "From The Sky Down," "Score: A Hockey Musical," "Creation," "Passchendale" and "Fugitive Pieces," marked the openers at the last five festivals, and it's more or less the last time that any of them were heard from, at least south of the border. But organizers landed an absolute doozy this year with "Looper," the eagerly awaited latest from director Rian Johnson. Telling a twisty time-travel noir with flair and storytelling nous, it seems to have marked the arrival of the "Brick" director on the A-list -- "Johnson's 'The Prestige' before he makes his 'Inception,'" as our review said. Featuring two sterling performances from leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, it's one of the smartest commercial movies of the year, and should be a big hit when it lands a couple of weeks from now. As our review closed "there is simply nothing like 'Looper' you've seen at the multiplex in quite some time."