Last night, as I was talking with director Juan Antonio Bayona and producer Ghislain Barrois at a Soho House afterparty, they asked me how the Toronto Film Festival crowd reacted at the end of their tsunami survival tale The Impossible. I had to be honest: Once a picture of the actual family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people was shown onscreen (the parents are played by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) and then the actual Belon family stood up to embrace Bayona, the crowd rushed to their feet for a standing ovation so fast and it lasted so long it was hard to tell if they were rooting for the harrowing film, the family that survived it, or both.
That’s what makes Toronto so great. There are so many surprises and this one reminded me of the way I felt when I attended the 127 Hours premiere, a movie that blew me away even though I didn’t really want to see it. And then hiker Aron Ralston took the stage with Danny Boyle and James Franco to explain how they pulled it off. Last night, Enrique Belon told me that he, his wife Maria and sons Lucas, Tomas and Simon actually enjoyed watching the film, though they admit it helped having watched production and an earlier screening to prepare themselves to relive a nightmare. And no, they don’t relive the nightmare in dreams each night, at least not anymore.
That is why, even though I come here to chronicle the dealmaking, I have never had a bad experience at Toronto — not even that year when the only film that sold here was Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Even though acquisition activity has been slow so far, Toronto has been nothing but fun. Festivals like Sundance and Cannes I mostly spend in a hotel room dogging deal stories. So far, I’ve been able to attend the premieres of three films to beat in the Oscar race: Ben Affleck’s Argo, David O Russell’s The Silver Linings Playbook (Affleck and Russell should hold a master class on how to lighten the mood on serious subjects like hostage-taking and mental illness with the perfect mix of cracklingly good and funny dialogue that doesn’t undermine the sober subject matter), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
The whole cast is fine in Silver Linings Playbook, but to Robert De Niro fans like me, I can say this is his best performance since Heat, and a reminder of what a great actor he can be when he is doing a film with good material, and not just for a good paycheck. Jennifer Lawrence takes another step toward top leading lady and her chemistry with Bradley Cooper is spot on, and Chris Tucker needs to work more often.
In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman is good as ever, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, all edges, is so overwhelming that it reminded me of the chameleonic Daniel Day-Lewis and the way that he changes his posture and body to serve his work. For Phoenix, it is a grand redemption for his ill-advised mockumentary I’m Still Here, a performance that is profound and will be difficult to top in the Supporting Actor category (sorry, Bobby D).
I even caught a Midnight Madness premiere: Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, a raucous and high-energy undertaking that starred Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. They were all fine, but to watch Walken deliver a line, or even a facial twitch, and hear the Midnight Madness crowd react wildly, was something to behold. I thought In Bruges was a near perfectly constructed and scripted movie, and this is much less disciplined by design. But the dialogue is often hilarious as the plot unfolds in a manner reminiscent of True Romance.
Now that the acquisitions market is starting to percolate, I will probably sit in my room until I leave Wednesday, except for a Moguls panel I will moderate today for FilmNation’s Glen Basner. But I got out just long enough to be reminded why so many distributors and agents tell me this is their favorite festival. It is such a stomping ground for auteurs.