’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’ — the masterpieces leading this year’s Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — One of the more delightful rituals at the Toronto International Film Festivals happens at the public screenings, when the gathered audience of local film fans and cine-tourists (“civilians” in the parlance of the film professionals and critics who are usually in their own screenings), deliver a collective rakish “aaargh” when the anti-piracy card appears on screen before every movie.

It never gets old – although it sounded a wry ironic note before “The Fifth Estate,” TIFF’s opening night movie about information pirate extraordinaire Julian Assange.

Director Steve McQueen attends a news conference for the film "12 Years A Slave" at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival.
Director Steve McQueen attends a news conference for the film “12 Years A Slave” at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival. (Reuters/Fred Thornhill)

The movie, a modestly engaging tick-tock of Assange’s early days forming the WikiLeaks organization, was received politely Thursday night, with star Benedict Cumberbatch receiving warm notices for his portrayal of the white-haired Australian. But it was almost immediately blown out of the water by films possessing exponentially more ambition, rigor, scope and virtuosity.

On Friday, filmgoers went wild for British director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” a harrowing, formally elegant adaptation of the real-life story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As producer and co-star Brad Pitt noted after the film received a rapturous standing ovation at the Princess of Wales Theatre, the question animating the enterprise was “Why have there not been more films about the American history of slavery? It took a Brit to ask it.”

No doubt several viewers were still processing “12 Years a Slave,” and its galvanizing performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender, when they watched “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s astounding outer space adventure starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. A popcorn movie of breathtaking technical achievement and surprising emotional warmth, “Gravity,” like “12 Years a Slave,” deserves to be distinguished as a masterpiece. Even if the two are speaking different cinematic dialects, both use image, sound and silence to plunge the audience into an otherwise unattainable world, giving viewers a new visual rhetoric for ideas and experiences that were heretofore abstract and distant.

Director Alfonso Cuaron and actress Sandra Bullock at the "Gravity" premiere in Toronto. (EPA/Warren Toda)
Director Alfonso Cuaron and actress Sandra Bullock at the “Gravity” premiere in Toronto. (EPA/Warren Toda)

As if taking the monumental achievements of “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” weren’t welcome enough, on Sunday night Steven Soderbergh presented the world premiere of “Visitors,” the newest collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio (“Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi,” “Naqoyqatsi”) and composer Philip Glass, with Michael Riesman conducting members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. A mesmerizing black-and-white assemblage of portraits of people, abandoned places and lush natural landscapes, “Visitors” marked the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that make festivals like Toronto not just fun, exhausting and edifying, but sublime.

In fact, the program this year is so strong that films of more modest scale might be in danger of being overlooked. Nicole Holofcener is working with her usual small canvas on “Enough Said,” a fizzy, cerebral romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in one of his last roles. Ron Howard’s Formula One drama “Rush,” which also made its premiere Sunday night, finds the director at the top of his game. And “Dallas Buyers Club,” an affecting drama about an HIV-positive man fighting the FDA in the 1980s, features astonishing performances from a startlingly emaciated Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who undergoes just as radical a physical transformation to play a soulful transvestite in the film.

Both McConaughey and Leto are being mentioned in the inevitable conversations that ensue in Toronto about awards potential: TIFF has come to be seen as a crucial launching pad on the awards circuit, which itself has become a crucial marketing tool for films that otherwise wouldn’t get made in an industry preoccupied with spectacles, sequels and superheroes.

“It’s horrible,” said “The Fifth Estate’s” Condon during an interview on Sunday. “You do have to launch at these festivals, but man it so infects every discussion at the beginning. Take this movie – I don’t see this movie as an [awards] movie. It’s not a consensus movie. Those movies tend to unite people. I’ve always said, everyone can disagree about something in this movie.”

For his part, McQueen seemed unfazed by the Oscar talk that “12 Years a Slave” has garnered. “I’m going to say this honestly. I’m just so happy that we actually made the picture. I cannot tell you how many obstacles were put in our path, [with] people calling it ‘your impossible movie.’ I was going to do it anyway. I’m not here to play. But it was very difficult, and then Brad came on board and that was it.”

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TIFF: Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in ‘The Fifth Estate’ kicks things off

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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Ron Charles · September 9, 2013