With Labor Day gone and summer a quickly fading memory, the city of Toronto braces itself for Canada’s annual invasion by A-list Hollywood star power, tabloid ingénues, ebullient auteurs, and the freewheeling hive of buzz that envelopes them all for 10 white-hot days every September—the Toronto International Film Festival, kicking off Thursday.
Even if the relatively tiny Telluride Film Festival provides a starter’s pistol for awards season, arriving less than a week before Toronto and showcasing the North American premieres of a number of the same movies—early breakouts Argo, Frances Ha, and Hyde Park on Hudson among them—what Toronto indisputably provides is a clearinghouse for the fall’s biggest films. It’s a singular collision of studio-released prestige titles, big-budget genre fare, hot acquisitions entries and, lamentably, more than a few exquisite indie gems that will somehow fail to land distribution deals, never to pop up on the cultural radar again.
Moreover, the festival offers a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning about what will be awards season’s heavyweight contenders. In recent years, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, and Crash bowed in Toronto, picking up film-biz momentum at the festival before going on to Oscar acclaim. And as always, a constellation of Hollywood’s best and brightest arrive in the Canadian metropolis to hype their films, with expected attendees this year to include Ben Affleck, Nicole Kidman, Ewan MacGregor, Ice-T, Noomi Rapace, Tom Hanks, Marion Cotillard, Ryan Gosling, Selena Gomez, Joaquin Phoenix, and Snoop Lion (né Snoop Dogg).
Without further ado, The Daily Beast provides you this rundown of the Toronto International Film Festival’s hottest films:
The festival offers a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning about what will be awards season’s heavyweight contenders.
Cloud Atlas: Based on the 2004 literary novel by David Mitchell and featuring six interweaving storylines (19th-century seafarers, Korean clones in the dystopian future among them, etc.), Cloud Atlas would rank as one of 2012’s most compelling films even without its meta-narrative backstory. It reportedly is the most expensive independent production ever, with a $100 million price tag and an ensemble cast of big stars such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Susan Sarandon, arriving as just the fifth movie helmed by filmmakers the Wachowski siblings of the blockbuster Matrix franchise fame. It’s also the first movie they’ve put out since since Larry Wachowski—who now goes by the name Lana—underwent gender-reassignment surgery in 2008, and promotions for Cloud Atlas mark her first public appearance as a woman. (German auteur Tom Tykwer co-wrote and directed Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis).
The Master: Although writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, The Master, made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month, the highly anticipated spiritual drama makes its North American landfall in Toronto. Inspired by—but not “based on,” as Anderson is quick to point out—Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the film follows the plight of a violent and troubled World War II veteran (played by Joaquin Phoenix in what has been touted as a career-defining performance) who becomes held in thrall to the charismatic founder (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of an upstart religion called the Cause in mid-century California. Their father-son/master-servant relationship provides an elliptical framework for what is essentially a character study, albeit one with Oscar-bait performances and bravura cinematography.
Spring Breakers: In what amounts to a wild career pivot, controversial writer-director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely, Trash Humpers) offers up a first in his eclectic and often deliberately off-putting oeuvre: a genuine exploitation film. The pastel-saturated crime caper follows a quartet of coeds (Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson, and Selena Gomez in her first “grown-up” role), who decide to rob a fast-food joint to raise enough cash to pay for spring break in Florida. The job goes down with no problem. But one drug bust and a short incarceration later, the ladies are bailed out by an extravagantly corn-rowed, be-grilled and gangsta-fied James Franco (portraying Alien, a local drug thug) who takes them under his heavily tattooed wing. And from there, Korine takes the Girls Gone Wild action to an even higher level of bikini-clad mayhem.
The Place Beyond the Pines: Reteaming Canadian favorite son (and last year’s Toronto Film Festival darling) Ryan Gosling with his Blue Valentine director, Derek Cianfrance, this multigenerational crime drama follows a motorcycle stunt driver (Gosling) who turns to crime to support his family, putting him in dynamic confrontation with an ambitious cop portrayed by Bradley Cooper. But to a certain kind of film buff—namely Gosling aficionados with lust in their hearts and topless photos of the star in their gym lockers—The Place Beyond the Pines holds a more dubious renown. It’s the movie that introduced RyGos to his current girlfriend, costar Eva Mendes.
Reincarnated: Rapper Snoop Dogg has long insisted that he is the reincarnation of Bob Marley—not least for the copious amounts of industrial-grade marijuana beloved by both performers. But after traveling to Jamaica in search of a “new path,” Snoop encountered a Rastafarian priest who rechristened him “Snoop Lion.” And now, the documentary Reincarnated lays bare how the gangsta stalwart came to repudiate the “G’s up, hoes down,” double-barreled worldview that has propelled his superstardom for the past two decades to become a peace-loving reggae performer. One Love indeed.
The Company You Keep: It’s telling that Sundance Film Festival supremo Robert Redford would want to debut his upcoming thriller in Toronto rather than during the post–awards season qualifying denouement of his own fest in January. Company stars Redford as a former Weather Underground activist—and potential murderer on the lam since the 1960s—who goes on the run when his identity is discovered by a down-at-heel journalist portrayed by Shia LaBeouf.
Stories We Tell: Canadian actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley’s documentary tackles a deeply personal story to reveal a long-held family secret: Polley was born of an extramarital affair that her mother, actress Diane Polley, had in the 1970s. The younger Polley was nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar for her directorial debut, Away From Her, but Stories marks her initial public offering as a documentarian. According to a blog post she wrote for NFB.ca, the film comprises writings about the affair by both her “father” (as she refers to the man who raised her) and her biological father, whom she did not meet until 2006.
Passion: Is director Brian DePalma’s latest erotic thriller a high-brow exploitation flick or art-house esoterica shot through with mainstream populism à la 2010’s Black Swan? One way or the other, this remake of the French film Love Crime, set the Internet aflame with a steamy—yet implied—make-out sequence between Rachel McAdams (who plays a Machiavellian executive with a fondness for masked B&D) and her corporate protégé, Prometheus star Noomi Rapace.
Looper: Toronto’s centerpiece opening-night film isn’t some exercise in Method acting or a Dogma 95 lark. It’s director Rian Johnson’s frenetic sci-fi thriller, Looper, which stars a heavily made-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a time-warp hit man. In the movie’s dystopian near future, time travel has been invented and implemented but outlawed. Still, future mob dons send those marked for death back in time to be disposed of by assassins known as Loopers, who must also eventually be counted on to whack their older future selves. Got all that? Inevitably, Gordon-Levitt comes up against the future him (played by 57-year-old Bruce Willis) but doesn’t pull the trigger, setting in motion a string of eye-popping set pieces, chase sequences, and shootouts that must necessarily culminate in a dramatic face-off between two versions of the same guy.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God: Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest deep-dive exposé wrestles with no-less-explosive topics than pedophilia and the Catholic Church’s systematic abuse of power. Based on New York Times journalist Laurie Goldstein’s 2010 investigative report, the film recounts how Catholic priest Lawrence C. Murphy was allowed to function as a prolific sexual predator at a deaf-boys school in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Mea Maxima Culpa exposes the coordinated cover-up that reached the Vatican’s highest echelons in a damning indictment of the church's attempts to brush the scandal under the rug.
Argo: Directed by actor-filmmaker Ben Affleck (who also debuted his last movie, The Town, in Toronto), this ripped-from-the-headlines action-thriller chronicles “the Canadian Caper,” a joint covert mission by the Canadian government and the CIA to rescue American diplomats during 1979’s Iran hostage crisis. Daily Beast correspondent Marlow Stern saw Argo at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this week, where it received “unanimous praise” with “many awards pundits considering it a lock for at least a Best Picture Oscar nomination.”