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In a tough world, Toronto Film Festival provides a bubble of promise

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Patrons at film festivals often feel as if they’re existing in a cinematic bubble. But at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which got underway Sept. 6, the sense of parallel realities between the festival and the outside world was especially striking.

A few days into TIFF, as it’s called by its partisans, Hollywood announced its worst box-office figures of the year, with no new release grossing more than $10 million its first weekend out — the first time results have been that dismal since 2008, and capped off a summer during which attendance was lower than it has been in two decades.

Then, just hours after many attendees here had recalled the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — which they had watched from a helpless, anguished distance — news came that a Web trailer for an amateur movie might have played a role in leading demonstrators to storm the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, an outburst that coincided with the slayings of four American diplomats in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Such despair-inducing news could not have been at more dramatic odds with what filmgoers were experiencing at TIFF, where film as both an artistic and commercial medium seemed as healthy and vibrant as ever — not to mention a still-relevant vehicle for conveying the enduring humanist values of tolerance and compassion. (The thoughtful, well-made movies at TIFF also made starkly clear the difference between a genuine film and a YouTube video that’s the cinematic equivalent of a Pepsi-and-Mentos stunt, using racism and hate to create the explosion.)

Granted, at times, tolerance and compassion were expressed by way of self-conscious, pretentious meanderings such as “To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick’s new movie starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, which often felt like a parody of the director’s prairie existentialism and Wyethesque images of women flitting through wheat fields (accompanied by gnomic whisperings about love, grace and spiritual longing). As Affleck quipped this week, “To the Wonder” is “for people who like a little Malick with their Malick.”

Compared with the far more rigorous, unsentimental Cannes imports “Amour” and “Rust and Bone,” which also depict stories of romance and sacrifice, “To the Wonder” felt undisciplined and jejune. But it was a rare shrug in a program that, anecdotally at least, struck many attendees as one of the strongest in recent memory. (Still, festival programmers may want to brace themselves for a slew of angry calls from filmmakers, publicists, studios, sales agents and critics, many of whom were driven to distraction by the weekend screening schedule, which stacked must-see films like so many jumbo jets over Dulles, with no place to land.)

The movies on offer at TIFF this week — most of which, thanks to a brisk burst of acquisitions, will be released later this year and into the next — shared an admirable sense of craft, substance and willingness to take risks, whether they’re big-studio genre pictures or small-canvas indies.

Looper,” Rian Johnson’s sleekly inventive futuristic thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, which opened the festival, may be a “sci-fi actioner” in the parlance of the trade. But it evinced a strong visual knack and ear for dialogue on the part of Johnson, who handled the story’s time shifts, intricate story line and subtle points about ethics and moral agency with expert assurance and sensitivity. “The Impossible,” a real-life, post-tsunami drama starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, might have been an exploitative disaster epic were it not for Juan Antonio Bayona’s similarly steady hand. (As it happens, “Looper” and “The Impossible” also feature astonishingly good performances from their young actors, especially “Looper’s” 5-year-old breakout star, Pierce Gagnon.)

Hyde Park on Hudson” bears all the earmarks of being “The King’s Speech’s” genteel American cousin — although director Roger Michell throws a spanner into the works, casting Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in a film that, while relating the reassuring story of America’s budding alliance with Britain just before World War II, also lends a darker, more unsettling edge to FDR’s vaunted charms.

Two of the biggest films at TIFF this year stood boldly athwart mainstream scale and indie eccentricity: “Cloud Atlas,” an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s un-adaptable novel by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, hews in many ways to the same video-game and action genres that the Wachowskis favor. But the filmmakers also manage to untangle the book’s gnarliest narrative knots with a clarity and accessibility that would have been sacrificed in a more “serious” production.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” threw out the rule book entirely, presenting what is essentially a love story between two men (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) in a big, boxy, wide-scale film format. The same could be said of Joe Wright, who instead of embracing the wide-angle style of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” miniaturized it into a lively tableau vivant, a surprisingly effective strategy that threw some of the novel’s often overlooked themes into sharp, gemlike relief.

Even when historical dramas played it straight, they possessed contemporary echoes: Nikolaj Arcel’s sumptuously appointed “A Royal Affair,” starring Mads Mikkelsen and “Anna Karenina’s” Alicia Vikander, takes place in 18th-century Denmark, when a progressive physician tries to manipulate a young King Christian VII into instituting Enlightenment policies — but the film’s arguments between science and rationality on one hand and superstition and reaction on the other sound unsettlingly familiar.

As for the kind of small-budgeted, modestly scaled movies that festivals are known for nurturing, several stood out at TIFF this year, among them “Frances Ha,” Noah Baumbach’s young-adult rom-com starring Greta Gerwig, which shows the actress off at her incandescent best. If the festival had an audience favorite midway through its run, it might have been “Silver Linings Playbook,” a scruffy romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as two misfits that not only found both actors stretching in promising new directions, but featured a direct-180 from David O. Russell’s last movie, the scrappy comeback drama “The Fighter.”

Genre-wise, perhaps the most satisfying films on screens at TIFF this year were documentaries, from Dror Moreh’s shattering film “The Gatekeepers,” a devastatingly candid inside portrait of Israel’s security service Shin Bet, and Dan Setton’s “State 194,” about Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to build a viable state in the occupied West Bank, to “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s brilliantly conceived and executed excavation of a complicated family secret. (In case there’s been doubt, it’s now confirmed: Between “Away From Her” and “Stories We Tell,” Polley has emerged as a filmmaker of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity.)

Although Sundance has garnered a reputation as the proving ground for new talent, Toronto has its share, including Nenad Cicin-Sain — whose feature debut “The Time Being,” starring Frank Langella and Wes Bentley — received a warm welcome at its world premiere on Tuesday. The movie, about a painter contemplating the sacrifices that come with dedication to art, features some wonderful close-ups of paintings by Eric Zener and Stephen Wright. “The Time Being” formed the perfect bookend to Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours,” which takes place in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum and engages in long, lovely takes of paintings by Brueghel, Rembrandt and others. With its picturesque reframing of what we consider art, and its re-contextualizing of time-honored masterpieces, “Museum Hours” accomplished what every film — and film festival — should: Send audiences out of their cinematic bubble with fresh eyes and invigorated ways of seeing the world around them.

The Toronto International Film Festival concludes Sunday.

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