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Toronto Roundup: Big, Bold and Inconclusive

A roundup of the highlights of TIFF ’11, from George Clooney’s grin to Michael Fassbender’s penis

It's too big.

It didn't provide any answers about the Oscar race.

It was a pretty good year for deals, even though some major players stayed out of it. (Where were Weinstein and Sony Classics, anyway?)

TIFF exteriorAnd it was a festival for body parts: Michael Fassbender's penis (on ample display in "Shame") , Keira Knightley's jaw (perpetually jutting out in "A Dangerous Method"), Jonah Hill's brain (the source of Brad Pitt's success in "Moneyball"), George Clooney's grin (everywhere you looked the first weekend of the festival).

The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, which began on September 8 and essentially ended on Sunday with the announcement that "Where Do We Go Now?" had won the People's Choice Award as the festival's best movie, was big and bold and inconclusive.

A rundown:

BIG

The festival didn't screen substantially more movies than usual, with about 260 films spread out across the 11 days. But particularly in the first several days of the front-loaded event, the sheer number of galas, red-carpet screenings, press conferences, dinners and receptions seemed so overwhelming that it became a running topic of conversation among festivalgoers.

"How can you have five  red-carpet premieres on one night?" asked one exasperated publicist.

Even opening night, which usually features a relatively low-key Canadian film and not much else, saw an embarrassment of riches: the U2 documentary "From the Sky Down" having its gala premiere with Bono and the Edge in attendance, opposite marquee screenings of Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss," Wim Wenders' "Pina," Gus Van Sant's "Restless," Aki Kaurismaki's "Le Havre" and several others.

George ClooneyThe next night, Sony's big guns,  "Moneyball" and "The Ides of March," premiered opposite the Weinstein Company's Best-Picture hopeful "The Artist," Fernando Meirelles' "360," Michael Winterbottom's "Trisha" and Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin."  

The day after that, "The Descendants" (right) debuted opposite "A Dangerous Method" and "Melancholia." All weekend long, extending into the following week, companies wishing to fete their filmmakers – which is to say, just about every company at the fest – hosted so many soirees as to make for an insane amount of party-hopping

In six days I saw 18 movies, did six interviews, moderated two panels, went to eight parties and found that I had to cross at least two dozen other films, receptions and dinners off my wishlist because there simply wasn't enough time.

And everybody I know was in the same boat – which is to say, overwhelmed by the size of the event, and frustrated by the inability to see and do everything we wanted.

This isn't a problem with a real solution: it'd go against the nature of TIFF to make it smaller, and frontloading is inevitable. But this year, the sheer size became a steady topic of conversation, and a constant annoyance.

BOLD

This was a year, and a festival, in which filmmakers and studios did not shy away  from the tough, the dark and the explicit.

A key moment came right at the beginning of the fest, when Fox Searchlight acquired the rights to Steve McQueen's "Shame," a dark drama about a Manhattan man (Michael Fassbender, below) in the throes of sex addiction.

Michael FassbenderWith such extensive, graphic exposure and sexuality that the film is all-but-guaranteed an NC-17 rating, "Shame" was bound to be acquired, said the conventional wisdom, by an indie who would release it unrated, rather than an MPAA-affiliated studio that would have no choice but to go through the ratings process. But Searchlight immediately stepped up and acquired the film, which means that the company will accept (and perhaps try to capitalize on) the NC-17, usually a commercial kiss of death.

The film was clearly one of the festival's must-see entries, and certainly its most talked-about title – partly for McQueen's unflinching, austere storytelling, but also for the full-frontal exposure provided by Fassbender on several occasions. 

Columnist Anne Thompson found her words spread all across Twitter when she was quoted as saying that the actor had the most beautiful penis she'd ever seen. (I think she was misquoted; in my conversation with her, she only said that his had replaced Ewan McGregor's as the most impressive movie-star penis.)

But abundant (and often full-frontal) nudity was on display not only in "Shame," but in "Killer Joe" and "ALPS" and "Melancholia" and "Take This Waltz" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "House of Tolerance" and "Sleeping Beauty" and many others.

Then there was the drama about the relationship between Carl Jung (Fassbender again) and a patient (Keira Knightley) with a penchant for S&M, and the comedy about the invention of the vibrator ("Hysteria").

Even Glenn Close nodded to a prevailing theme in Toronto when I sat down for an interview with her and her "Albert Nobbs" co-star Janet McTeer. "It's going to be really interesting," said Close of that evening's premiere of their film, in which McTeer has a brief but pivotal moment of exposure. "I can't imagine walking in to 2,000 people [who are] waiting to see your breasts."

In other words, the festival's buzz title may have been called "Shame," but this was the shameless TIFF. 

INCONCLUSIVE

The ArtistBecause two of the last three Best Picture winners came out of Toronto with momentum that they would never relinquish, Oscar-watchers turn to TIFF to show them who's on top. But if one thing was clear at this year's festival, it's that 2011 is not a year for another "Slumdog Millionaire" or "The King's Speech."

Certainly, "The Descendants" was well-received. So was "The Artist" (right). So was "Moneyball," which seems to have gone from "it's not really an Oscar kind of movie" to "it's a real contender" in short order.

But while those films – and others, including "The Ides of March" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" – strengthened their hand in Toronto, at this point nothing has the feel of an obvious winner.

The announcement of "Where Did We Go Now?" as the People's Choice Award winner was instructive: although the film is Lebanon's entry into the Oscar Foreign-Language sweepstakes, it is not on anybody's Best-Picture radar. Its selection – and the fact that the Canadian film "Starbuck" and the Iranian Oscar entry "A Separation" were the runners-up – means that "The Artist," "The Descendants" and other presumed and more high-profile crowd-pleasers didn't wow TIFF audiences in the way that "Slumdog" or "King's Speech" had done.

Maybe the eventual Best-Picture winner did screen in Toronto – but it's a long season, with little clarity at the moment. For now, TIFF did little more than give that frustrating Magic 8 Ball response to the Oscar question:

"REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN."