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Lessons Learned at the Toronto Film Festival (So Far)

George Clooney is overexposed, docs are hot, the Oscar race is confusing …

Clooney rules, the deals are slow and the Oscar race is still wide open.

The Toronto International Film Festival is only a little more than a third of the way into an 11-day run that ends on Sunday — but the fest's opening weekend is when everybody's in town, when many of the marquee films screen and when the lessons that can be learned at one of the movie business' most important festivals emerge.

So while we don’t yet know what TIFF will think of Madonna's "W.E." or the closing night film, David Hare's "Page Eight," we have learned a few things. For instance:

It's George Clooney's World, and We Only Live In It …
Was there ever any doubt that the ever-charming Mr. Clooney, who dominated the Telluride Film Festival even though he only had one film screening there, would do the same in Toronto with a double-header of  "The Ides of March," which he directed and starred in, and "The Descendants," in which he played the lead role?

If there was any doubt, there's none now. Clooney's movies drew the longest lines for press and industry screenings, the biggest crowds and tightest security for public screenings, and the most eager (and fawning) journalists for press conferences. And when he showed up at TIFF parties,  he turned the rest of the rooms into gawkers.

As Alexander Payne, the director of "The Descendants," said when he introduced his film at its premiere on Saturday night, "Welcome to the George Clooney Film Festival."

… But Sometimes It'd Be Nice To Live Somewhere Else
In only two days, though, it's safe to say that Clooney might have proved to be too much of a good thing. The havoc he caused with traffic and street closings did not go unnoticed, and his gift for the glib, self-deprecating one-liner made his press conferences and Q&As highly entertaining but noticeably uninformative.

Also, George, it might be time to find some new material: continuing to joke about "Batman and Robin" is a little stale 14 years after that movie came out, while even the newish joke about now being AARP's Sexiest Man of the Year is feeling a bit played out.

Into the AbyssA Doc Attack Is a Good Thing
Many of the best-received films of the festival so far have proven to be documentaries, testament to the strong, deep and crowd-pleasing lineup assembled by doc programmer Thom Powers and his team.

Wim Wenders' "Pina" drew raves, plus a shout-out from Bono onstage at the fest's opening night gala (which was a doc). Werner Herzog flew in one day and out the next, leaving audiences in tears with his wrenching "Into the Abyss" (photo).

Nick Broomfield, meanwhile, stirred things up with "Sarah Palin – You Betcha!" and Jessica Yu won plaudits for "Last Call at the Oasis," while Jon Shenk's "The Island President" drew crowds that treated the president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, like a rock star.

Music Fills the Chairs
And speaking of rock stars, TIFF has had those too. U2 showed up for opening night (and Bono stayed for the parties), while Pearl Jam, the subject of a new Cameron Crowe documentary, appearance at a Saturday press conference that I moderated. The normally press-shy band was relaxed and chatty – and, reported Crowe later, "did more talking than in the last 15 years combined."

Paul McCartney also appeared, though only in a pre-recorded message introducing a doc, while veteran singer-songwriter Paul Williams is set to perform on Sunday night and Neil Young will follow on Monday.

ShameSo Far, TIFF Is No Big Deal(s)
This may be changing at this very moment – but in the first four days, Toronto was not the site for many of the major acquisition deals that often happen at the fest.

In early action, the most significant deal was Fox Searchlight's acquisition of Steve McQueen's "Shame," a highly-lauded but sexually explicit drama about sex addiction that will to all reports almost certainly be rated NC-17 by the MPAA.  Sundance Selects, meanwhile, picked up the Catherine Deneuve vehicle "Beloved," from director Christophe Honore.

But the biggest deal of the festival appeared imminent on Sunday night, with CBS Films closing in on director Lasse Hellstrom's comedy "Salmon Fishing in Yemen," with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Summit and the Weinstein Company had also been pursuing the film, which TheWrap reported would sell for more than $5 million.

And the acquisition picture could heat up very quickly: usual TIFF buyers like Sony Classics and Weinstein haven't opened their checkbooks yet, while screenings have taken place with a hefty slate of acquisition titles, including Oren Moverman's dark, ambitious and erratic "Rampart" and the Christopher Plummer tour de force "Barrymore."

Nobody's Got That "Slumdog Millionare" Oscar Momentum …
I ran into the Academy's CEO, Dawn Hudson, in the lobby of a Toronto hotel this morning, but she was running fast in one direction and I was doing the same in the other, so I didn’t have a chance to ask her if she'd run across any sure-fire Best-Picture nominees.

But if I had, I suspect her answer would be noncommittal – and I think that'd be the right answer.

"The Artist," "The Ides of March," "The Descendants" and "Moneyball" all screened during the festival's first few days, and all came into Toronto figuring heavily in pre-TIFF Oscar predictions.

But none of them did what "Slumdog Millionaire" did in 2008, or what "The King's Speech" did last year – which is to say, none came out of  nowhere and out of Toronto with unstoppable Best-Picture momentum (as did "Slumdog"), and none reinforced a strong earlier festival debut to become one of the clear favorites (the "TKS" route). 

"The Artist" has been a known quantity since Cannes in May, "The Ides of March" debuted in Venice and "The Descendants" screened last week in Telluride. All were well-received in Toronto, but none were significantly propelled any further than those earlier showings had suggested.

And while "Moneyball" was received with enthusiasm, the comment I've been hearing over and over is this: "I liked it a lot, but it's definitely not an Academy movie."

In DarknessIn fact, of all the films I've seen (or heard about) at Toronto, the closest thing to a slam-dunk Oscar nominee is the Polish Foreign-Language Film entry, Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" (right). Not only does it have perennial category heavyweight Sony Pictures Classics in its corner, but the film is a tremendously moving true story of a small group of Jews who hid from the Nazis for 14 months in the sewers of Lvov.

If the Foreign-Language committee could have been in the audience at the Elgin Theatre on Sunday, when at the end of the film Holland brought onstage the last surviving member of that group, who was a seven-year-old girl at the time, it'd be all over but the voting.

Petula Clark Was Right: Things'll Be Great When You're Downtown
In past years, TIFF was centered north of downtown, in the Yorkville section of the city. Last year, with the opening of festival headquarters at the TIFF Lightbox downtown and the relocation of press and industry screenings to a nearby multiplex, the fest became geographically schizophrenic: the screenings were downtown, but much of the talent, the interviews and the parties were still centered in Yorkville.

This year, that's changed. Now just about everybody is downtown: the screenings are downtown, the interviews are downtown, the parties are downtown … When I had to pick up a gala ticket at the InterContinental Hotel, out of force of habit I hopped on the subway and headed for the Yorkville hotel – only to realize when I got there that the ticket, of course, was being held for me at the downtown  InterContinental, not the Yorkville one.

Everybody Experiences a Different Toronto
Waiting in line for "Rampart" on Sunday morning, I listened to the guy behind me telling a friend that he'd seen Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" the night before, and found it almost unwatchably bad. When I took my seat in the theater, I overheard a woman enthusiastically recommending to a friend a film she'd seen and loved: "Take This Waltz."

But not only do opinions differ, but the Toronto lineup is so vast and sprawling – 260-or-so films – that every person has a wildly different version of TIFF.

For me, the festival so far has been about "Ides of March" and "Moneyball," about Pearl Jam, about "The Descendants," about "In Darkness." (And about sore feet and no sleep.) But I've heard raves about plenty of films that are on my wishlist but that I may or may not be able to get to: Fernando Meirelles' "360," Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights," Gerardo Naranja's "Miss Bala," Julian Farino's "The Oranges" …

More lessons, no doubt, will be coming. There's still a long way to go.