Our correspondent in Toronto sizes up the field of this year's film festival as it gets underway.
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7 Sep 2012 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:06 PM

As TIFF 2012 begins many of us here on the ground in Toronto have been alternately gobbling up and shielding ourselves from the reports lobbing in, like mortar fire, from both the Venice festival to the east and Telluride from the west. Bolts of thunder are being stolen on both sides, as anticipated films from Ben Affleck, Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson and others premiere elsewhere a week before their scheduled unveiling in Toronto.

Anything but immodest, TIFF takes this kind of thing well; let others scramble for the dubious privilege of crying “first!” In its 37 years the Toronto International Film Festival has concentrated, among other things, on being a showcase for the best of the season. Never the intuitive venue for the fledgling director, Toronto is the festival for the serious filmmaker and—equally notable—the serious filmgoer.

This year especially, the lineup speaks for itself, and requires little in the way of world premieres and photo calls to prop it up. Along with harvesting the best of Cannes (including this year's Palme D'Or winner, Michael Haneke's Amour along with Rust and Bone), festival director Cameron Bailey has put together a program as impressive as it is wide-ranging. The most anticipated films of the festival include the Wachowski sibling/Tom Tykwer collaboration Cloud Atlas (the subject of a fascinating making-of piece in this week's New Yorker), Anderson's Scientology psychodrama The Master, The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to Blue Valentine, Malick's To the Wonder (which will arrive in Toronto pre-booed at not one but two festivals), Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, Brian DePalma's Passion, and Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa.

Ben Affleck's third directorial effort, Argo, about the unorthodox rescue of American diplomats during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, is already generating happy talk about awards and the actor's continued strides in his new capacity. Leading an enviable roll call of foreign-language films from Olivier Assayas, Cristian Mungiu, Matteo Garrone, Abbas Kiarostami, Miguel Gomes, Raul Ruiz, and the late Manoel de Oliveira is Michael Haneke with his Amour. A recent, pre-TIFF press screening in New York City was packed full, with two New York Times critics and noted essayist Phillip Lopate in the mix. We'd all heard it was the one to see, and complied despite Haneke's reputation as chief practitioner of what the critic J. Hoberman has called “the cinema of ordeal.”

I wonder what Toronto audiences will make of Amour, now that the first blush of its Cannes premiere has faded. Amour depicts an ordeal, to be sure, though it couldn't be less outlandish or sensational. Set almost entirely in a bourgeois Paris apartment, it traces the deterioration of one half of an elderly couple, as the other struggles to care for her and then to let her go. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are astonishing in roles that demand a more intimate contribution from what can only be called their essential selves than most actors are willing to give. And rumours of Haneke's unsuspected romantic touch were not overstated: if anything Amour suffers from a little too much sentiment, pressing on well-known vulnerabilities—that if we are lucky we will all age and die, and watch our loved ones do so, creating a world of self-contained and sacred intimacy in the process—instead of palpating more mysterious softnesses in our hearts.

Like many of the big films at TIFF this year, Amour has already secured distribution. As has the opening night film, Rian Johnson's Looper, which stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a time travel thriller—and one of a group of films, including Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths and Dredd 3D, balancing out a heady fest with popcorn appeal.

Looper edged out the hometown favorite, Canadian director Deepa Mehta's adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for the opening night honor. Mehta is still seeking distribution, along with Cianfrance, Malick, Baumbach, and Korine. I'll be checking in with updates on all of those films—plus Australia's favorite, Cate Shortland's Lore—and more in the coming days, as critics and buyers and all the pretty people in between converge on Toronto.