While “2016: Obama’s America” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” duke it out on the hustings to become America’s all-time No. 1 political documentary, the cinematic version of a political convention is taking place farther north, in the neutral territory known as Canada.
The Toronto International Film Festival, which got underway Thursday, is known as many things: a comprehensive, carefully curated grab bag of the best films on that year’s festival circuit; a warm, unsnobby venue where everyday cinephiles — not just industry insiders and critics — can see scads of important films; a massive press junket, where stars as diverse as Johnny Depp, Zac Efron and Bill Murray make themselves available for interviews, press conferences and photo ops with professionals and fans alike.
But, like the Republican and Democratic conventions that immediately precede it every four years, Toronto (or TIFF, as it’s affectionately known to locals) has also become an all-important confab during which candidates show their stuff to constituents, kicking off months during which massive amounts of money will be spent. The goal, in this case, isn’t the White House but an all-important Oscar. After crucial trail stops at festivals in Venice and Telluride, it’s in Toronto that the campaign begins in earnest.
The stakes are high: For the mid-range movies that often make their debuts in Toronto, the season of festival, critics’ and industry awards that leads to the Oscars in February present a chance to gain publicity that they otherwise couldn’t afford if they were mounting conventional, and expensive, marketing blitzes.
More than a few films are well-positioned to leave Toronto with the Big Mo. “Argo,” a political thriller starring and directed by Ben Affleck, arrived in town with Best Picture buzz, having premiered in Telluride. The taut, superbly crafted film — about a CIA scheme to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the hostage crisis in 1980 — possesses all the elements of a Best Picture candidate, including a terrific story that, despite an outcome most audiences know already, ratchets into a genuinely nerve-racking nail-biter.
There are plenty of contenders in other Oscar categories as well, including Marion Cotillard for her bravura performance in the affecting drama “Rust & Bone” (which premiered in Cannes in May); David O. Russell for his assured adaptation and direction of the off-kilter romance “The Silver Linings Playbook” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s hotly anticipated period drama “The Master,” which will surely earn nominations for best picture, direction and acting in light of indelible performances by Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the self-made religious leader who tries to heal him.
Like “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s spirited, bracingly inventive science-fiction adventure that opened the festival Thursday night, “The Master” touches on themes of time travel, morality and human perfectibility. The two films also hew to an independent financing model that is now the only way for mid-budget, adult-oriented films — whether dramas, comedies or genre pictures — to get made. “You see it more and more these days,” Johnson said on Friday. “And to me that’s really exciting, especially as a science fiction fan. There are filmmakers out there who, when they’re working in that [mid-budget] range, they have enough money to accomplish something very interesting visually but not so much money to where the interesting ideas start getting squashed. That’s the sweet spot.”
For his part, Anderson has always worked with an independent financing model, but he notes that “I’m not doing it any differently than Warner Bros. is doing it, because they go outside for cash, too. They say they’re a major studio but they’re usually splitting the bill with two or three other people anyway. So I feel like everyone’s kind of doing the same thing.”
With an unconventional structure, its use of wide-screen epic scale to tell an intimate story, and an eerily indeterminate sense of emotional closure, “The Master” is also emblematic of a heartening willingness to take risks on the part of filmmakers here — whether it’s Sarah Polley’s brilliant layering of fact and fiction to excavate her family mystery in “The Stories We Tell”; Joe Wright’s miniaturization of the novel “Anna Karenina” into a light opera staged in a jewel-box theater; or Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s decision to adapt “Cloud Atlas” at all.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s intricately constructed and often confounding novel, “Cloud Atlas” tells six interlocking story lines featuring overlapping characters over the course of several centuries, two of them in the far and even further future. Naysayers may quibble that the filmmakers reduced Mitchell’s breathtaking prose and philosophical inquiry to digestible, genre-driven vignettes; but in doing so they also succeeded in making it a viable piece of mass entertainment that may prove challenging, but not the incomprehensible mess “Cloud Atlas” so easily could have been.
“Cloud Atlas,” by the way, stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, not that you’ll always know who they play. Donning lots of prosthetics and makeup to play the multitudes that Mitchell’s story contains, the “Cloud Atlas” ensemble engages in the kind of startling physical transformations that have wowed audiences here in other productions, including Cotillard, whose character endures the after-effects of a grievous accident; John Hawkes, who plays a polio patient in “The Sessions,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose face bears an eerie resemblance to a young Bruce Willis in “Looper,” and Phoenix in “The Master,” in which he assumes a rail-thin, slant-shouldered stoop, furrowed brow and lopsided grimace that make him virtually unrecognizable in some scenes.
Anderson said that, aside from suggesting that Phoenix shed a few pounds, he had very little to do with the actor’s physical choices. “I just wanted him to keep doing whatever he was doing,” Anderson recalled. “I do remember, though, the last day of shooting. We were on this beautiful beach in Hawaii and someone said, ‘That’s it, okay, we’re done.’ And I saw his face completely change and come back to normal. It was like a special effect or something. He smiled and I said, ‘My God, where have you been?’ It was so neat.”
Of course, such dramatic physical performances are also the stuff of Oscar awards, a fact that surely wasn’t lost on the actors when they took the roles. In the case of “The Master,” such strategizing is already paying off: On Saturday, the Venice Film Festival announced that its jury had given Anderson’s movie three awards, for directing and for Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances. (“The Master” also won a critics award). Given its status as a possible harbinger, Venice might be the loose equivalent to the Iowa or New Hampshire of the Oscar race — the first of several precincts still to be heard from.