No matter how closely you follow the buzz from the Toronto International Film Festival each year, chances are strong that you only get one piece of a very long equation. With nearly 300 features in its program, the festival is overwhelmingly dense, particularly during its first weekend. Even the most enterprising festival audiences can't possibly consume every highlight from each program, which makes it virtually impossible for a single person to deduce the overall quality of the lineup. To a certain degree, TIFF is like the proverbial tree falling in an abandoned forest: An argument could be made there's no such thing as one festival because nobody has the capacity to perceive it.
Instead, TIFF takes the form of several mini-festivals rolled into one. Each program — from the gala premieres to the Discovery section — contains plenty of new work worthy of scrutiny. Among the most diverse cities in the world, Toronto offers various types of cinema to appeal to the widespread mentalities of its local audiences. At the same time, it attracts a healthy marketplace and provides an ideal launchpad for Oscar season hopefuls. The high demand justifies such a sprawling lineup, but the resulting pileup of possibilities — for the movie lover who wants to have it all — turns each day's schedule into a frustrating pancake of overlapping films.
With so many movies scheduled against each other, a number of titles will always slip through the cracks. But since TIFF has not only too many movies but too many sections for anyone to recap them all, the onus is on individual TIFF attendees to break down the movies they see into their own subjective categories. Here are a few of mine.
Documentary Discoveries. Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell" is a remarkable achievement of non-fiction storytelling that weaves together family reminiscences and candid home movies to recount the search for the identity of her mysterious father. The movie engages with the inscrutable nature of past events by contrasting the memories of its several colorful participants, whose testimonies underscore the way experience can transform into legend. In a far more harrowing sense, Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" conveys a similar concept by allowing middle aged Indonesian gangsters to reenact their murderous treatment of accused communists in the 1960s. Over the course of the festival, many people who saw the movie said they had never seen anything like it, which makes Oppenheimer's achievement both profound and acutely dreadful.
Oscar Locks. Each year, Harvey Weinstein brings a slew of major Oscar season contenders to the fall festival circuit with such calculated finesse that one can get the sense of being played no matter how good the product. But this year's Weinstein Special differed from the last two years, when eventual Best Picture winners "The King's Speech" and "The Artist" came to TIFF: Instead of these slick crowdpleasers, the Weinstein slate offered up two outstanding character studies from great American auteurs. To the surprise of no one, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" delivers a fascinatingly cryptic look at the origins of Scientology that stages its essential issues through the tensions between a fictionalized L. Ron Hubbard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the latest target of his brainwashing antics (Joaquin Phoenix). "The Silver Linings Playbook" found director David O. Russell delivering his funniest soul-searching narrative since "Flirting With Disaster," the heartfelt tale of a mental case (Bradley Cooper) finding catharsis in an equally unsettled young woman (Jennifer Laurence). As it turns out, maybe because the Weinstein slate is decidedly more eccentric than previous years, the company may face serious competition from another contender that fits a more classical mold for awards season acclaim: Ben Affleck's "Argo," an entertaining real life espionage tale that goes through familiar motions thanks to Affleck's slick direction, suggesting he has finally made a transition from an actor who directs to a filmmaker who actors. Were it not for current events that have already claimed the term, this would be known as "Eastwooding."
Arty With Purpose. Derek Cianfrance's followup to the relationship drama "Blue Valentine" is a more structurally complex look at two generations and intertwining stories involving a bank robber (Ryan Gosling), a guilt-ridden cop (Bradley Cooper) and their respective offspring. To explain the links between them would spoil some key plot details, but the real star of "The Place Beyond the Pines" is the engrossing atmosphere that Cianfrance uses to string the various strands together. Similar credit goes to the elusive Terrence Malick, whose "To the Wonder" rebounded in the wake of its mixed reception at Venice. At TIFF, a number of audiences found that the director's typically swooning lyricism benefited from a small scale approach that wandered through the memories of a fractured relationship.
God Bless the Crazy. Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" was exactly the batty subversion of young American hedonism that hype suggested, exploding stereotypes about grotesque teen fantasies by toying with their extremes. Less thematically twisted but similarly imbued with dark comedic inspiration, Martin McDonagh's Midnight Madness entry "Seven Psychopaths" featured a number of the filmmaker-playwright's most reliable stable of actors (Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken) in the hugely enjoyable and zany tale of a writer envisioning his ridiculously gory plot coming to life. A very different sort of fantasy arose in Nick Cassavetes' surprisingly effective "Yellow," which centered on a mentally unstable substitute teacher whose catharsis manifests in the bizarre musical sequences and other imaginary events that surround her at every turn.