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As Toronto fest winds down, fall film season is wide open

September 18, 2011 |  6:00 pm

Toronto film festival

 From “Juno” to “Slumdog Millionaire” to “The King’s Speech,” the Toronto International Film Festival in recent years has tended to yield a slam-bang hit, the kind of movie that seems predestined for box-office and Oscar greatness.

But as the 11-day gathering wound down Sunday, no single film had attracted the lion’s share of attention. The result is a fall movie season that’s still wide open, with few surefire critical or commercial successes.

“While it’s always nice when there’s one movie everyone rallies around, it’s more fun in a way when we have what we did this year, with everyone having their favorite and making a case for it,” festival co-director Cameron Bailey said on Sunday.

That’s not to say the festival lacked for buzz. But each title seemed to come with a question mark — be it about its box-office prospects or appeal to awards voters.

Will “Moneyball,” the crowd-pleasing baseball drama starring Brad Pitt, be considered a serious enough film to merit Oscar attention?

Will “Shame,” director Steve McQueen’s provocative sex drama starring Michael Fassbender, be embraced by more than a niche group of critics and cineastes?

Will the George Clooney-Alexander Payne collaboration “The Descendants,” a low-key Hawaii-set story about a father faced with several crises, draw enough critical support to be an Oscar contender? (In an otherwise favorable piece in Salon, critic Andrew O’Hehir said, “I expect to see a critical backlash on ‘The Descendants’ in the not-too-distant future, simply because it’s an audience-friendly film that doesn’t have tremendous cinematic ambition and tells a predictable story of crisis and redemption.”)

Will Clooney’s other fall movie, the cynical political drama “The Ides of March,” find an audience at a time when filmgoers might feel like they see similar maneuvering on the nightly news?

And will “The Artist,” the uplifting black-and-white silent film that created a stir at Cannes before playing Toronto, be able to overcome perceptions of twee-ness?

Adding to these questions is the fact that, in a rare confluence, several iconic filmmakers have studio pictures coming out this fall that did not premiere at Toronto (or anywhere else).

They include Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” about a young man and his equine friend during World War I; Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” the director’s take on the polarizing FBI chief as embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio; and “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 3-D adaptation of the children’s literary phenomenon “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”

As a result, 2011 may look a lot like 2006, when no single film captivated audiences in Toronto. “The Departed,” Scorsese’s studio-financed crime drama starring DiCaprio, premiered later in the year and went on to Oscar and box-office glory.

Reinforcing the feeling about the lack of a breakout Sunday was the naming of Nadine Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?” as the festival’s audience award winner. The Lebanese drama, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was not often discussed by pundits at Toronto and does not even have distribution in the United States. (It has already been selected, however, as Lebanon’s Academy Award entry for foreign-language film.)

Although the festival didn’t elevate one film above the others, some industry veterans point out that the fall movie season is often filled with wild cards.

“Everyone focuses on a ‘Slumdog’ or a ‘King’s Speech,’ but there are many years when the big movies in December or February are the movies no one’s talking about in September,” said Fox Searchlight Co-President Steve Gilula. “It’s not like sports. Every year is new — there are no returning players.”

While there was no shortage of serious subjects on screen, audiences seemed particularly in the mood to have their drama leavened with a bit of humor. Among the roster of well-received films were many that navigated the tricky space between comedy and drama: “50/50,” a buddy film about cancer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen; the Emily Blunt sibling tale “Your Sister’s Sister”; the awkward intergenerational romance of “The Oranges”; and “Friends With Kids,” which reunites a number of cast members from this summer’s sensation “Bridesmaids.”

“A lot of people said to me, ‘After several dark films, your movie was a relief,’” said Lynn Shelton, director of “Your Sister’s Sister.”

But mixing in drama with comedy, she said, also enhances the humor. “In a movie with serious or dark themes, the jokes can be funnier,” she said. “The laughter just seems more earned.”

RELATED:

Toronto 2011: 'Where Do We Go Now,' 'Island President' win awards

Toronto 2011: George Clooney's 'Descendants' is fall's big wild card

Toronto 2011: Woody Harrelson and Oren Moverman build a rampart

 

-- Steve Zeitchik in Toronto

Photo: Filmgoers attend one of the final screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday. Credit: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images 


 
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