Toronto Film Festival matches mainstream with the more cerebral

CHALLENGING: Werner Herzog directed the entrancing
CHALLENGING: Werner Herzog directed the entrancing "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." (Tobin Grimshaw For The Washington Post)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

The Toronto International Film Festival celebrated its 35th anniversary when it kicked off on Sept. 9, and in many ways this year's edition epitomized the kind of well-balanced cinematic portfolio for which the festival has become known. While serving as a launching pad for mainstream movies, the festival also unofficially opened the Oscar campaign season, offering viewers glimpses of some likely nominees.

But even the most mainstream fare coexisted happily with more cerebral, challenging movies -- in a reassurance that, despite constrained studio budgets and harsh economic times, some filmmakers remain willing to treat cinema less as a cash cow than an art form.

For Oscar bait, oddsmakers got their sure thing early in the festival's run with "The King's Speech," Tom Hooper's drama about England's King George VI, who as a young man suffered from a debilitating stammer and who reluctantly assumed the throne when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson.

"The King's Speech " -- which stars Colin Firth as George VI, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist the couple enlists to help the would-be monarch -- possesses all the trappings of an awards-worthy film: winning performances from its lead players (especially Firth, who has made a specialty of wringing deep sympathy from otherwise chilly and diffident characters), a sophisticated production and a story that conveys unexpectedly timely observations about the subtleties of political rhetoric and the impact of emergent technologies.

For sheer crowd pleasing, "The King's Speech" was probably the festival's most inarguable home run. But several filmgoers were just as pleased with two highly anticipated titles: "Let Me In," Matt Reeves's American remake of the Swedish teenage vampire thriller "Let the Right One In," and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan."

With "Let Me In," Reeves delivered a spooky, atmospheric remake that managed to honor the original even while adding his own flourishes (a terrific car-crash sequence and an evocatively otherworldly New Mexico setting).

Horror movies like "Let Me In" often get overlooked at Oscar time, but Aronofsky's "Black Swan" -- which invited one-liners like " 'The Red Shoes' meets 'Rosemary's Baby' " after an early screening -- will surely receive its due, not just for lush, imaginative production design and costumes but also for a bravura lead performance from Natalie Portman. Lithe and somber, Portman portrays a ballerina who, on the verge of a breakout performance in "Swan Lake," begins to experience an emotional and psychological breakdown. Ravishing, hallucinatory and unsettling, "Black Swan" earned some of the most excited word of mouth here with its combination of old-fashioned backstage drama and keen observations on art, ambition and desire.

"The King's Speech," "Let Me In" and "Black Swan" are all scheduled to arrive in theaters over the next few months, but a few similarly well-received films came to Toronto hoping to be picked up by distributors. Among the most unconventional was Werner Herzog's entrancing "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," a 3-D journey through the 30,000-year-old Chauvet Cave in France. Like a companion piece to Herzog's "Grizzly Man" and "Encounters at the End of the World," "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" takes viewers on an extraordinary journey to one of the globe's most extreme places -- made all the more trippy by Herzog's somber Bavarian-accented narration and a reliably surreal postscript involving radioactive albino crocodiles.

Happily, IFC Films picked up "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" for theatrical release, ensuring that viewers will have a chance to see the film in all its weird glory. With luck, a few other worthy films will find a home by the time the festival ends, including Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip," a hilarious bagatelle starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which started life as a series of half-hour television comedies.

Two other films, Mike Mills's "Beginners" and John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," possess the makings of art-house hits. Mills's inventive, mordantly amusing drama stars Ewan McGregor as a son coming to terms with the late-in-life homosexuality of his father (Christopher Plummer). "Rabbit Hole," Mitchell's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, stars Nicole Kidman as a grieving mother, in a performance that has already started Oscar chatter.

The festival's most astonishing film also may present the biggest distribution challenge: Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff," a quiet triumph of formal elegance and tough, exacting sensibility. The story of 19th-century Oregon settlers unfolds as a mesmerizing study in environment, behavior and action.

Amid the usual Toronto ballyhoo, "Meek's Cutoff" served as a shot of cinema at its most poetic and pure.

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