When the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) announced its People's Choice awards on Sunday there was little chance a small foreign film like last year's winner, Nadine Labacki's Where Do We Go Now?, was going to win the top prize as many of the star-studded films have been surprisingly good. Silver Linings Playbook from director David O'Russell (The Fighter) had been one of the prime contenders and the film's win positions O'Russell and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (pictured) for nominations in the upcoming awards season.
Interestingly, TIFF's 34 previous audience award winners have accounted for 105 Oscar nominations, including 10 for best picture and nine for best foreign language film. Past winners Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award, while the best foreign language film winners, The Official Story, Antonia, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Tsotsi had likewise won the audience award in Toronto first.
This year, Ben Affleck's Argo had been widely considered the favourite though took out second prize, as did the Australian film Storm Surfers 3D in the documentary awards. The winner there was Bartholomew Cubbins' Artifact, which tells harsh truths about the modern music business via singer/actor Jared Leto and his band Thirty Seconds to Mars as they battle their label in a brutal lawsuit and record their album, This Is War.
The People's Choice Midnight Madness Award went to Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh's follow-up to In Bruges tells of a struggling screenwriter (Colin Farrell) who inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell) kidnap a gangster's (Woody Harrelson's) beloved Shih Tzu. McDonagh has amassed a large cast, set his story in Hollywood and thrown in hilarious cinematic references, most prominently from Pulp Fiction, with Christopher Walken as the film's prime scene-stealer. While there's quite a bit of blood letting in this brightly lit, colourful yarn, there's not one moment when you feel like doing anything other than laugh. According to both The Guardian and Variety, the film was the most crowd-pleasing film at the festival, and indeed possibly the best.
The Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Special Presentations was awarded to Francois Ozon's Dans la Maison (In the House), which Ozon freely adapted from Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's The Boy in the Last Row. A delicious, teasing reflection on mentoring, it stars Fabrice Luchini as a high school literature teacher distressed by his students' unwillingness to engage.
The FIPRESCI prize in the Discovery program went to Mikael Marcimain's Swedish film Call Girl. The jury remarked: “With an intense sense of cinema reminiscent of the American thrillers of the 1970s, Mikael Marcimain's debut feature achieves a portrait of an obscure world involving women's rights and political corruption.”
Also impressive at the festival was the Australian film, Catriona McKenzie's debut feature Satellite Boy. Its story of a cute young Kimberly boy (Cameron Wallaby) learning the traditional ways of his grandfather, the magnificent David Gulpilil, simply left a lump in my throat—particularly when Wallaby and his best friend (Joseph Pedley) get lost in the fiery red Bungle Bungles. The film's colour palate and Geoffrey Simpson's widescreen cinematography make this one of the more commercial arthouse offerings from the region.
Christopher Walken also featured in Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet at the festival.
Although none of the four quartet members—Walken, Catherine Keener, Mark Avanir and Philip Seymour Hoffman—had played string instruments beforehand, they all took extensive lessons as they were constantly being filmed in close-up. It's perhaps no surprise that fastidious Venice best actor prizewinner Hoffman (so convincing as a cult leader in The Master, which also played at TIFF) flourished at playing the violin and is now, well, quite the master at the instrument. The convoluted sexual shenanigans amongst the group though grow wearisome even if the movie is worth seeing for the music alone.
Like Walken, Gemma Arterton did double duty at the festival, as a sexy vampire in Neil Jordan's surprisingly understated vampire pic, Byzantium, and then as the perky leader of an oldies' choir in Paul Andrew Williams' feelgood flick, A Song for Marion. The incomparable Vanessa Redgrave is the terminally ill Marion of the title and the story follows her curmudgeonly husband's inability to deal with her oncoming death. The film's more upbeat than it sounds and Terence Stamp as Marion's husband shows he too is one of the greatest.
Notting Hill director Roger Michell cleverly cast Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in his movie, Hyde Park on Hudson, which Richard Nelson adapted from his 2009 BBC radio play. The unknown story of the love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley (a dowdy Laura Linney) centres around the weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of England, Bertie and Elizabeth, the paid an historic visit to the Roosevelt home in upstate New York.
As the festival was winding down, exotic European beauties Monica Bellucci and Penelope Cruz lent their considerable talents to two foreign language films, with varying results. I have to admit that although feeling exhausted after enduring two festivals and numerous films, I was just going to take a quick look at Rhino Season. Yet this stunning Turkey-Kurdistan co-production by accomplished exiled Iranian director and consummate visual stylist, Bahman Ghobadi (Turtles Can Fly, A Time for Drunken Horses, No One Knows About Persian Cats), was completely mesmerising and drew me in. A love story told largely in images and in close-ups of the characters' faces, Ghobadi's story follows the release from prison of a Kurdish poet who was imprisoned for 30 years for crimes against the Iranian regime. Ghobadi pays tribute to Kurdish poet Sadegh Karmangar, who suffered a similar fate, and it's certainly poignant that the poet is played by US-based veteran Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi, who fled the regime himself more than 30 years ago.
Bellucci acquits herself admirably though speaks minimal Farsi as the poet's wife, who in the film was imprisoned for 10 years and went to live in Turkey, believing her husband to be dead. The Italian actress's presence greatly helped with financing the film, which screened under the auspices of 'Martin Scorsese presents'. Bahrani, who left Iran four years ago, is about to relocate to New York and will make his next film with Scorsese's assistance.
Twice Born, on the other hand, reunites Cruz with her Don't Move director Sergio Castellito for something akin to a soap opera set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War. Yet again the Spanish star sounds and looks convincingly Italian and here has to play a broad sweep of ages. As with Don't Move, Castellito co-wrote the film with his wife, Margaret Mazzantini, on whose book the film was based. Castellito only plays a supporting role in the film as Cruz's husband, while a younger American (Emile Hirsch) is the love of her life, so that a good deal of the film is in English.
Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have come up with one of TIFF's most pleasant surprises with What Maisie Knew, an affecting portrait of a family coming apart, as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl. Julianne Moore is sassy as the self-obsessed neglectful rockstar mum, Steve Coogan is creepy as her equally neglectful ex-husband while Alexander Skarsgård (another man of the moment after his impressive turn in Disconnect in Venice) is endearing as Moore's sidelined new young husband who bonds with the kid in a way her parents cannot.