Wrapping up the 2012 Toronto Film Festival

September 13, 2012

That sound you hear is the wishful thinking of movie pundits and critics making a tiny pop, like a dud firecracker, instead of the decisive “bang!” of a starter’s pistol, signaling the start of the Oscar race that usually happens during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

That’s because, while this year’s best-picture winner may in fact have played at TIFF 2012, there was no huge critical groundswell around a realistic contender, the way there was last year with “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “Moneyball,” or the year before with “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech.”

Oh, there were movies this year that earned lavish (if undeserved) praise, such as “The Master.” And others – such as “Anna Karenina” and “Argo” – which had their champions. Among that trio, I’d bet on the latter two (though I haven’t seen “Karenina” yet) as having legs; no matter what critics say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” it’s too pointedly challenging to seduce the bulk of Oscar voters, except as a vehicle for its performances.

Indeed, there were several smaller, unheralded films that, for my money, will emerge this fall from Toronto (and New York), including “The Sessions” (which I saw at Sundance, when it was titled “The Surrogate”) and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which I missed at TIFF but which was generating buzz, both for director David O. Russell (“The Fighter”) and actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

The two bigger films I saw that struck me as Oscar bait were Ben Affleck’s funny, gripping “Argo” and Juan Antonio Bayona’s harrowing “The Impossible.” I wrote about “The Impossible” earlier, but I was struck by just what a well-made movie “Argo” was when I saw it Wednesday.

As it happened, “Argo” was the last full film I saw before leaving Toronto. I walked out after a half hour of Ramin Bahrani’s obvious, on-the-nose “At Any Price,” and didn’t last much longer for Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (though that was more about not being in the mood for modern-dress Shakespeare than the quality of the film itself).

“Argo” could be a dark horse: an incredibly exciting mainstream thriller (with a lot of humor) that does everything so well that its artistry might be missed by critics, who tend to think of audience-friendly films (which this definitely is) as somehow inferior to movies aimed at the intellect, instead of the heart or gut. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, it’s a white-knuckle thriller about the true story of a CIA operative (Affleck) who helps rescue the six American embassy workers who escaped capture when the rest of the staff at the American embassy in Iran were taken as hostages at the end of 1979.

The six are holed up in the Canadian embassy – and it’s up to Affleck to come up with a plan to sneak them out of the locked-down country. His idea: Create a fake movie company production that is scouting locations in Iran, then give them fake identities as part of the scouting party. Affleck finds the comedy in the Hollywood portion of the story (with a superb assist from Alan Arkin), then cranks up the tension for the final act, as the plan itself is carried out. It’s terrific movie-making – smart, compelling and entertaining.

Which is the part of the equation that Oscar pundits who are also critics tend to miss. While critics can help focus attention on smaller independent films that Oscar voters might otherwise ignore (Exhibit A: “The Artist”; Exhibit B: “The Hurt Locker”), the Academy Awards is still a populist game. But, much to many pundits’ chagrin, it’s incredibly rare for an arty film that isn’t also audience-friendly to seduce the vast (and distinctly more mainstream) Oscar-voting pool.

Sure, they can be pushed by critics into nominating something like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” for best picture – but they’d much rather give the award to something that’s audience-friendly.

What’s an audience-friendly movie? One that doesn’t force the viewer to do homework to appreciate it. One whose virtues are obvious to the average movie-goer, even if its greater virtues need to be teased out by critics. Audience-friendly movies give you someone to root for or care about, a story to plug into rather than a tone-poem-riddle-puzzle to be figured out.

“The Master” isn’t an audience-friendly movie. “Cloud Atlas” should be – but most movie-goers are too lazy to expend the energy required to track the ideas that stitch its several disparate storylines together. “The Sessions” and “The Impossible”? Now those are quality films that are also audience-friendly.

All this Oscar-race chatter and prognosticating is a little silly here in mid-September, at least to my mind. There are literally a dozen other serious contending films that I know of that no one has seen yet – and even more that no one figures for contenders.

But we’ve developed into such a horse-race-centric punditocracy that this has become the main through-line – what will win? – for the fall festivals, rather than focusing on the more relevant question: What was good?

There was a lot that was good at TIFF 2012. Of the 17 films I either saw or saw part of in my three-and-a-half days in Toronto (and another eight I saw before I went north), I liked close to a dozen. That’s the advantage of picking and choosing in a concentrated burst, rather than going for a week or even the whole festival and simply hoovering them up.

I wrote the other day about how easy it is, via press screenings in the Scotiabank multiplex in Toronto, to hop from one movie to the next, walking out of one screening and into line for the next one. I had two five-movie days, both of which could have been six-movie days under other circumstances.

That kind of schedule engenders a certain feeling of being on a conveyor belt, a cog in an assembly line. It also contains the possibility that, by the end of the day, you’ll be suffering from emotional whiplash. I walked out of “The Impossible” wiping tears away, feeling wrung out – and so I felt a certain gratitude that, instead of getting in line for another movie, I had to go back to my hotel to deal with Internet problems. The possibility of seeing several movies in a row that move you or upset you deeply is always there – and can be a bit discombobulating.

Oh well – another year, another Toronto under the belt. Now begins the real homestretch: the part of the year when the awards-contending movies come roaring into view, muscling each other for space and attention like cars making the turn at Indianapolis. The race has just begun and, as of this moment, there’s still not a favorite. Thankfully.

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