If ever a night at a film festival warranted the phrase an embarrassment of riches, Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival did.
Just in the six o'clock hour, for instance, the festival showed premieres of Ben Affleck's taut and crowd-pleasing Iran-hostage drama "Argo," Derek Cianfrance's well-received "The Place Beyond the Pines," Joe Wright's daring take on "Anna Karenina," Harmony Korine's teens-in-bikinis project "Spring Breakers," Sarah Polley's startling personal documentary "Stories We Tell," Andy Capper's story of Snoop Dogg's transformation into Snoop Lion, "Reincarnated," Marina Zenovich's documentary "Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director Michel Gondry's "The We and I."
And that doesn't even include later screenings of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," which drew an all-star crowd to the Princess of Wales Theater for a screening that didn't let out until after midnight, or Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," one of the hits of Telluride.
I opted for a Friday-night double-bill of "Argo" and "The Master," having already seen "Anna Karenina." On the topic of that last film, I was one of the audience members (a majority, I'd say) who felt invigorated rather than dismayed by Wright's decision to set much of the action inside an old Russian theater, emphasizing the staginess and artifice and at least initially distancing the audience from the torrid emotions on display, even as he encouraged his actors to play those emotions big and bold.
It's Joe Wright's version of the extravagance and artifice of a Baz Luhrmann movie, in a way, bold and occasionally silly but more often thrilling. When star Keira Knightley (right, with co-star Jude Law before the screening) did an interview with TheWrap earlier on Friday, she said the whole point was to mix things up rather than to go down the road that she and Wright had already trod with their previous literary adaptations "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement."
"When you're doing a version of 'Anna Karenina,' which has been done so many times before, and not only that but you're doing it with a group of people who've worked together a number of times before, I think there was a sense that we have to try to do something different, we have to shake it up, we can't be safe with this," she said.
"And you know, the worst that can happen is that you fail. But if you fail, you're failing together, which is always quite nice. We all thought, OK, let's just jump off this cliff."
"Anna" premiered at the Elgin Theatre, a lavish theater northeast of the festival's center. Back at ground zero, Ben Affleck's "Argo" took over TIFF's showcase venue, Roy Thomson Hall, for a screening that in certain ways recalled the triumphant screening of Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" two years ago.
Back then, the Thomson audience broke into huge cheers at the climactic moment in the film – and on Friday night, another capacity crowd in the same building responded similarly at a key spot near the end of Affleck's film.
As reports out of Telluride suggested, "Argo" is a sharp and seamless work of expert mainstream filmmaking. The acting is uniformly solid but rarely showy (except in the case of John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a Hollywood makeup artist and producer, when it's supposed to be showy), and Affleck ratchets up the tension mercilessly even though most audience members already know the fate of the six American embassy workers who escaped from the U.S. embassy in Tehran before their co-workers were taken hostage by Iranian students in 1979.
It's a good yarn and a hell of a ride, and the TIFF audience loved it. (It didn't hurt that the film showcases a story in which Canada played a key role in getting the trapped embassy workers out of Iran.)
Comparisons with the Best Picture-winning "King's Speech" are probably setting the bar too high, but Affleck will likely be proven to have been exercising at least some false modesty with his pre-film comment that he wanted to publicly thank the people who helped on the movie "in case I never get to thank anybody after this."
"The Master," of course, is another film with huge Oscar buzz, and its 70mm Princess of Wales gala (which was the film's North American premiere if you don't count the four sneak previews in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and San Francisco) was certainly the hot ticket of the night.
(At left, Joaquin Phoenix with producer Megan Ellison)
Director Jason Reitman was on hand for the film, as were Academy CEO and COO Dawn Hudson and Ric Robertson, Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker, Sundance's John Cooper and Trevor Groth, Cinedigm's Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, Endgame Entertainment's James Stern and producer Bruce Cohen.
In contrast to Affleck, "The Master" director Paul Thomas Anderson kept his remarks brief and didn't bring any of his actors up onstage before the film.
As for the film … well, there's a reason why one phrase kept popping up in early review after early review: I need to see it again.
"The Master" is undeniably impressive, and undeniably confounding; where Anderson's previous film, Best Picture nominee "There Will Be Blood," was was big and bold and expansive and hysterical, "The Master" is more inward-looking, a tightly-wound character study (or characters study) that is creepy and disturbing, albeit with its own big moments and a fair amount of a different kind of hysteria.
It is a film that will no doubt be in the thick of the Oscar race – Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are inescapable, Amy Adams strong – but it does not, on first glance, look like an Oscar winner. The films that win tend to make a big first impression – nobody walked out of "The Artist" or "The King's Speech" or "The Hurt Locker" or "Slumdog Millionaire" thinking they needed a second viewing to come to terms with those films.
But Anderson certainly didn't make "The Master" with his eyes on awards, and that's not how the film should be judged. This is tough, weird filmmaking – it's Anderson and his cast and crew jumping off a cliff just as much as Joe Wright and Keira Knightley did, only Anderson's cliff is bigger and leads into rocky, shark-infested waters.
More power to them … and did I mention that I need to see it again?
Back on the subject of awards for a brief note: Friday afternoon, the usual etiquette at TIFF's industry screenings was upset by Fox Searchlight's small drama "The Sessions."
Formerly titled "The Surrogate," the film is based on a true story and stars John Hawkes as a writer whose body has been rendered almost useless by childhood polio, and Helen Hunt as the sex surrogate who helps him in his quest to lose his virginity.
Typically, the crowds at Toronto's Press & Industry screenings react to the end of films by heading for the exits as quickly as possible; applause is as rare at P&I screenings as shouts of "arrrrrgh!" when the anti-piracy warning appears onscreen.
In other words, it's one of those things that public audiences always do, and industry audiences almost never do.
But when "The Surrogate" ended, the P&I audience responded with a healthy round of applause. The movie itself is more a performance piece than an across-the-board awards movie – but Hawkes and Hunt are believable, funny, tender and heartbreaking, and they look like legitimate, strong acting contenders.