Reviews of “The Toronto International Film Festival’s” Best of the Best

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012 had more than 350 films to review this year. Recent festivals have witnessed such brilliant films at “American Beauty,” “The Wrestler,” “Mr. Nobody,” “Antichrist,” “127 Hours,” “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech,” and “Slum Dog Millionaire” to name a few. This year the festival has continued its brilliant legacy as one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Many of the films reviewed here are in a class by themselves. As the TIFF wraps up this Sunday, many of the films that participated at the festival will be coming to a theater near you. Thus, I have managed to put together a number of reviews that I call the best of the best to get you started on your fall movie journey as many of these feature films are headed your way.

“Hyde Park on Hudson.” Bill Murray probably topped no one’s list when it came to casting the part of President Franklin Roosevelt. Fortunately, director Roger Michell took a chance. Murray does not do an impersonation of the late president but rather channels the spirit of Roosevelt in this story of his relationship with his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, played by Laura Linney. This is a fabulously entertaining trip back to 1939, when England’s queen and king (Olivia Colman and Samuel West) were coming for a visit. Due in Cleveland Dec. 7.

Oscar Heat: High. A best-picture nod is likely, as is a nomination for Murray for best actor. Linney could contend for either best actress or best supporting actress (depending on how distributor Focus Features positions her). The rest of the cast is also first-rate, with Elizabeth Marvel as Missy LeHand and Olivia Williams as Eleanor.

“The Master.” Director Paul Thomas Anderson has given us the excellent “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights,” among others. His films feature strong writing and terrific performances. Here we go again. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are mesmerizing in this post-World War II story of a drifter who becomes an assistant to the charismatic leader of a new spiritual movement called “The Cause.” Their one-on-one scenes, battles of power and control, are a master class in movie acting. I want to see this again just for those moments. Opens in Cleveland Friday.

OH: High for the acting. I don’t see it getting a best-picture nod, though Anderson could land in the original-screenplay mix. Look for Phoenix and Hoffman to be nominated.

“Seven Psychopaths.” This would be the result if Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers had a love child. Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) delivers an absurd, ridiculous and funny bloodbath of crazy killers and professional thugs, not to mention a Shih Tzu. He magically paired two of my favorite actors — Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken — and let them loose in a tale of a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) trying to ignite fresh ideas. Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits also shine. In Cleveland Oct. 12.

OH: Zero.

“End of Watch.” Intense and riveting, David Ayer’s cop drama does not let go of you. The gimmick is that much of it was shot with very-seat-of-the-pants video cameras, lending it a cinema verite realism while also heightening its shaky nature. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, both outstanding, are the featured Los Angeles Police Department duo running into all manner of sleaze. A scene of them running and crawling through a burning house is one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time. In Cleveland Friday.

OH: Gyllenhaal and Pena deserve some love.

“Anna Karenina.” Any major literary adaptation carries the weight of high expectations and the knowledge that the filmmakers had to trim oceans of pages from the novel. Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and the great Tom Stoppard do Tolstoy proud, and present their “Anna” as a stagy affair, with moving sets, interchangeable background actors and scenes performed from the catwalks. It is a stunning production, something akin to a grand dance, with Keira Knightley as the woman who looks past her tiresome husband (Jude Law) to the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).In Cleveland Nov. 9.

OH: High. Expect a best-picture nod, along with nominations for costumes, production design and cinematography. Knightley should also land in the best-actress mix (she was nominated previously for Wright’s other big book adaptation, “Pride & Prejudice”).

“The Sessions.” This touching drama is based on the real-life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who spent much of his life in an iron lung. Determined to taste every aspect of the human experience, O’Brien (John Hawkes) connects with a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Their raw, exposed encounters are intensely intimate.

OH: High for Hunt and Hawkes. Both are splendid. Hunt, who won previously for “As Good as It Gets,” will garner bonus points for repeatedly removing her clothing. Hawkes, so menacing as the uncle in “Winter’s Bone” and the cult leader in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” had the added challenge of acting from his back, or rolled over on his side.

“Thanks for Sharing.” ScreenwriterStuart Blumberg, from Shaker Heights and University School, stepped into the director’s chair for this winning comedy-drama (more drama) about sex addiction. Mark Ruffalo is a man doing his best to battle his demons, while also trying to start a relationship with a woman he just met (Gwyneth Paltrow). The strong cast includes Tim Robbins and, in a nifty acting turn, Alecia Moore, aka Pink.

OH: Not yet. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions just acquired the film in Toronto this week and will probably not release it until 2013. Blumberg was previously Oscar-nominated for his screenplay, written with Lisa Cholodenko, for “The Kids Are All Right.”

“Silver Linings Playbook”
It’s a special film, this one, the sort we wait for all year, the kind that reaffirms our belief in talented people working together toward an artistic goal. With great pacing, a great sense of the moment and some of the most entertaining one-liners you’ll find this side of a Coen brothers’ film, there’s much to like about “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“Argo”
“Argo” is big Hollywood film making at its very best, full of bravado, yet smooth, and with a few subtle winks at the larger issues of the day… “Argo” is also Ben Affleck’s third turn as a feature film director, and we see him in complete control of his game here. Though there are slight length issues and definite veracity concerns, “Argo” features impressive narrative tension throughout. Though there is little to no character exposition, you’re immediately drawn into the story, if only because the stakes are life and death.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
Part “Garden State,” part “Wonderboys,” and with a smidgeon of “American Beauty” thrown in for good measure, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a must-see for fans of the coming-of-age drama. At its worse, it leans toward a maudlin overly-dramatic high school mentality, but that’s around 100 seconds of a 102 minute film, nothing too serious. At it’s best, it is indeed very, very good, an artful film in the truest sense of the word, holding a mirror up to your memories, even if they never existed there at all.

“On the Road”
This film ain’t for everyone. My “consumer reports” side is urging me to say, again, nothing really happens in the movie. Even the “adventures” aren’t all that shocking. At one point they get a ticket. In Mexico Sal get’s the sh*ts. To a generation raised on “The Hangover Part 2,” this may be one big snore. I think, however, that this is the only way to make this movie. To spice it up with false conflict would be an affront and to overplay the jazz angle and to go for a dreamlike experimental aesthetic would lead to nothing but rolled eyes. No, this is a plainspoken and restrained filmmaker’s vision, a respectful, tuned-in approach to “On the Road,” and the right way to represent what we see when we, like Sal Paradise, think of Dean Moriarty.

“Spring Breakers”
It would be easy to dismiss “Spring Breakers.” Lord, I’d like to. Anything that exploits women this ruthlessly begs to be dismissed. (And, sorry, Disney Girls Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, you may think this is your ticket to an adult career, but this isn’t “Ruby in Paradise” and none of you are Ashley Judd.) Unfortunately, there are moments, somewhere in the cannabis haze of day-glo bikini buttocks and cocaine-topped nipples where an abstract expressionism starts to seep off the screen. The swirl of horny jocks, skanky girls and inadvisable behavior mixed with booze, bongs, bling and ridiculous signifiers like wiggers and bronys all starts to become… beautiful.

“Cloud Atlas”
Each of the tales has an interesting moral nugget, but diced up and obscured as it is, the film makes it all seem much more heavy and secretive and important than it actually is. I strongly believe I would like this movie a lot more if it had the same script and same performances and just eased up on the editing. Maybe in five years I’ll be retracting this review, but it’s just how I feel. And if “Cloud Atlas” has a point (and it does… somewhere) it’s that standing up in the face of popular opinion will, eventually, reap some reward.

“Looper”
When the movie does eventually slow down it may shift a bit, but it never stops making sense. All the sci-fi works. The paradoxes of time travel are shown rather than, to paraphrase Willis’ character, mapped out with straws on a table. I scribbled a number of questions during the film and, upon reflection, 98% of them were all answered in the text. The few niggling issues feel resolved in a thematic sense. This is, in short, a smart movie.

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