Toronto International Film Fest '12 wrap-up: Big hits (and big misses)

No matter which way your cinematic tastes go, the Toronto International Film Festival likely has you covered. It’s easy at TIFF to program your daily viewing schedule with Oscar hopefuls like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER, mainstream popcorn thrillers like Rian Johnson’s LOOPER, gory Midnight Madness exercises like Barry Levinson’s THE BAY and international sensations like Michael Haneke‘s AMOUR.

I was lucky enough to attend TIFF this year and sampled as many genres as possible. Of course, I only managed to screen a sliver of the more than 300 films from 60-plus countries that play in Toronto. Here are the ones you should be sure to put on your schedule — and the ones that missed the mark.

The Oscar Hopefuls
Toronto has become known as a launchpad for films that dream of standing at the podium at the end of the evening on Oscar night. As one of the video bumpers playing before TIFF press and industry screenings reminded us, Best Picture winners like THE KING’S SPEECH and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE built valuable buzz in Toronto. Which films pulled that off this year? David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK was the big contender in this category. The dark comedy (the director’s first film since THE FIGHTER) caught audience members off guard with its stellar ensemble performances. Jennifer Lawrence received the most raves as the off-kilter widow of a Philadelphia cop. But Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro also turned heads, and Russell’s film went from unknown to Oscar contender after just one screening.

Other films that had played earlier fests —- from Sundance and Cannes to Venice and Telluride —- came to Toronto on a wave of good press. THE MASTER, Ben Affleck’s ARGO, Walter Salles’ ON THE ROAD and Ben Lewin’s Sundance Film Festival prize winner THE SESSIONS (formerly known as THE SURROGATE) all played to acclaim in TIFF.

Two films with little to no buzz kick-started their Oscar campaigns: The sprawling CLOUD ATLAS announced its presence as a technical wonder that needs to be considered by Academy voters. And the same goes for Joe Wright’s ANNA KARENINA, the best film I managed to screen in Toronto, which should contend for multiple technical nods (costume, art design, editing) but also could propel Wright and Keira Knightley into the Oscar race if Focus Features plays its cards right.

The Mainstream Players
Films like ARGO are expected to do very well when they open wide in area theaters. But a few films testing the waters in Toronto were surprisingly marketable and should play to larger-than-expected crowds in the coming weeks.

TIFF capitalized on the excellent relationship it has established with Rian Johnson through films like BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM by opening with the time-travel thriller LOOPER. The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an assassin who eliminates victims sent back to his era through a futuristic wormhole. Audiences grooving on intelligent but explosive sci-fi will be pleased by what they find here.

Same goes for Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own novel THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. Given the whip-smart performances of Ezra Miller, Logan Lerman and HARRY POTTER alum Emma Watson, this one’s being called THE BREAKFAST CLUB of its generation.

Looking for something more, shall we say, mature? Three Hollywood heavyweights have returned to form: In addition to De Niro’s SILVER LININGS turn, audiences and critics were raving about Robert Redford’s tense THE COMPANY YOU KEEP and Dustin Hoffman’s QUARTET (which marks his directorial debut). Look for all three later this year.

Woody Allen didn’t have a film in TIFF this year, but you get bonus points for realizing Noah Baumbach channeled the New York legend in his latest relationship comedy, FRANCES HA. Baumbach casts current girlfriend Greta Gerwig as the title character, a too-old-to-be-unemployed Brooklyn chick who’s trying to maintain a state of arrested development as those around her grow up.

But the commercial film that swept me off my feet was Juan Antonio Bayona’s THE IMPOSSIBLE. Set during the devastating South Pacific tsunami of 2004, the drama follows vacationing parents (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor) and their children as they fight against ridiculous odds to reunite after the tidal wave separates them. Bayona’s digital wave is a remarkable effect, and needs to be seen… particularly on a big screen.

The Disappointments
Thankfully, only two films I saw at TIFF this year were real disappointments. Well, one was a disappointment, and one was an uncontested flop.

The former, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, appeared on the surface to be Oscar worthy. In reality, it’s Oscar bait. Based on the secret letters of Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), the film documents a casual friendship/affair between President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his distant cousin during a pivotal moment in U.S. history. The performances are fine. The story is sweet, but noticeably thin. Comparisons are being made to THE KING’S SPEECH. That’s far too generous.

And then there was Derek Cianfrance‘s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, a followup (of sorts) to the director’s outstanding BLUE VALENTINE that reunites him with leading man Ryan Gosling for a sprawling, unwieldy mess of a drama about fathers and sons. PINES stitches three stories together —- loosely —- yet none of them are very interesting. This is a complete misfire, my only painful experience at TIFF. But hey, one out of 20 isn’t bad.

And Another Thing…
The following films all also earned good marks at TIFF and warrant a mention: The documentary LOVE, MARILYN; Henry Alex Rubin’s DISCONNECT; David Ayer’s cop drama END OF WATCH; Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT; Joss Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING; Pablo Larrain’s NO; and Olivier Assayas’ SOMETHING IN THE AIR.

Photo credits: (From top) the Weinstein Company; Toronto International Film Festival