On Saturday, filmmaker Lee Daniels sat in the bar at the Four Seasons in Toronto and held a strategy session with his team.
“What do you think? Do we have a shot? Don’t you think our film has heart?” he asked friends about “Precious,” the film he directed about an inner-city teenager and her battle to overcome abuse.
It does. And Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers, was wandering around town to make sure everybody knew it.
When Oprah starts rolling up her sleeves, you know things are getting serious. The race for the year’s movie awards kicked off this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, and judging by the velocity and energy here, it’s going to be one of the most hotly contested battles in years.
From “Precious,” which already won Sundance, to “Up in the Air,” which has a trifecta of pedigree, movie stars and zeitgeist going for it, the movies here are setting off buzz-meters, winning over critics and dragging enthusiasm in their wake. (Read about "Up In the Air's" enthusiastic press conference here.)
How else to put it? This year Toronto has a glut of great, satisfying movies — and that’s not always the case. The entertainment community is going to have an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.
“Precious” is a devastating portrait of America’s failure to solve the entrenched problem of a poor, uneducated underclass condemned to the ghetto.
The only thing braver than young Gabourey Sidibe playing the teenager is Mo’Nique, who delivers a searing, unforgettable portrait of depravity as the girl’s abusive welfare mother.
Another look at our failings as a society comes with “Capitalism,” Michael Moore’s much-anticipated indictment of the American embrace of the rich-get-richer. It’s just short of a call to revolution. (Noted: He runs crime tape scene around J.P. Morgan and declares: “Capitalism is an evil. You have to eliminate it.”)
Steven Soderbergh pulled off a tricky mix of serious and whacky with “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon as the Archer Daniels Midland executive who inexplicably revealed price-fixing in the industry to the FBI. (Inexplicable because the man, Mark Whitaker, had no apparent grievance. It’s a true story based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald.)
Soderbergh’s take could not be more unexpected, a through-the-looking glass comedy shot to look like '70s videotape and set to an inspired score that sounds something like Muzak meets "The Price Is Right" (by Marvin Hamlisch, no less).
After the premiere screening, Soderbergh and Damon fielded congratulatory wishes. Damon, who gained weight for the role, adopted an ego-killing affect of arrogance mixed with cluelessness to play Whitaker, who is still alive. (Whitaker came to an early screening and apparently liked the film, Damon said.)
Meanwhile Oscar veterans Joel and Ethan Coen came to Toronto with their new film, “A Serious Man,” which is so Jewish that the opening scene is entirely in Yiddish and set in the 18th century.
This, too, is a departure. The brothers set the film in their childhood, literally — shooting the film in the Minneapolis neighborhood where they grew up, naming characters after their neighbors and making the lead character a professor, like their father.
Rather than brutal violence, the film is an examination of — well, religion. Morality. Commitment. And the capriciousness of God’s plan in a tradition that embraces questions rather than answers.
In other words — it’s very Jewish. They served gefilte fish and handed out yarmulkes at the afterparty.
Other movies gaining critical support and buzz include “The Road,” a bleak and tension-filled vision of the world post-Apocalypse, based on the Pulitzer-prize winnning novel by Cormac McCarthy. Viggo Mortenson plays a father trying to protect his son and preserve his humanity in a landscape filled with horror, danger and moral dilemmas.
If there’s a recession on, you wouldn’t know it. Most of Hollywood seems to have decamped to Toronto, either promoting films or looking to make deals to acquire them — from Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore to Summit chief Rob Friedman to Overture's Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, on the prowl for a gem.
And the town is packed with A-list stars from the aforementioned Damon and Clooney to Drew Barrymore (with her directorial debut and “Whip It”), Megan Fox with "Jennifer's Body," Colin Farrell in “Triage,” and Edward Norton who is bringing the film he produced and in which he stars, “Leaves of Grass.”
Oh yes, and Oprah.