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10 Key Moments From the Toronto Film Festival

“The King’s Speech” is up, but a non-TIFF film may steal its thunder … and other lessons from the fall’s biggest festival

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival didn’t give birth to an unstoppable film like “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008, or see a flame-out like “All the King’s Men” in 2006, or prompt a bidding war for a Oscar contender like “A Single Man” last year.

But this year’s TIFF had its share of triumphs and disappointments, and enough deals to give hope to struggling indie filmmakers. In no particular order, here are 10 key moments and lessons from TIFF ‘10:

“The King’s Speech” shows that it’s for real.  Even before it won the People’s Choice Award, Tom Hooper’s drama about King George VI’s reluctant ascension to the British throne had proven its point at Toronto. With an opening-Friday gala whose rapturous reception matched the one it had reportedly received in Telluride, the dramatic, surprisingly funny and intensely emotional film clearly proved that it has what it takes to win over audiences and remain a major player throughout awards season.

Tom Hooper and Colin Firth and Geoffrey RushEven beyond getting a towering lead performance from Colin Firth and a wry supporting turn by Geoffrey Rush, Hooper shows a light, deft touch, and keeps his film distinctive and quirky enough that it never seems old-fashioned despite a subject matter that could seem a bit dusty. “The King’s Speech” came into Toronto in the top echelon of Oscar contenders, and leaves in the same spot.

Fox Searchlight dominates the chatter with “Black Swan” and “127 Hours.”If “The King’s Speech” got the most admiration, Darren Aronofsky’s grandiose, wonderfully overheated “Black Swan” and Danny Boyle’s imaginative but graphic “127 Hours” were the films that got people talking. Whether it’s the grand guignol  fever dream of Aronofsky’s spectacular ballet-set extravaganza or the “Can you sit through it?” questions raised by Boyle’s scene in which James Franco cuts his own arm off, these are the films that kept people buzzing all festival long.

TIFF Bell Lightbox threatens to relocate the festival’s center of gravity. In past years, TIFF headquarters was in the Yorkville section of town – which, conveniently enough, was also where most of the press & industry screenings were held and where the stars all stayed. This year, though, the festival’s sparking new headquarters opened downtown, just two blocks from the multiplex that was used as the new center for P&I screenings.

The result was a fest with a split personality: the stars, studios and PR firms still mostly stayed in Yorkville, which is where the bulk of the interviews and parties took place, but the screenings were downtown. That meant lots of cab rides, or lots of trips on Toronto’s wonderfully efficient subway system; it also led to lots of discussions about whether in future years the studios will relocate themselves and their talent downtown, to make things easier for everybody. 

Old-fashioned directors strike back. Aronofsky and Boyle were only the most prominent of many directors whose new films are adventurous and unconventional. But TIFF proved that there’s also plenty of room for traditional filmmaking: Robert Redford won a distribution deal for “The Conspirator,” his straightforward (stodgy?) look at the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, while Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” David Schwimmer’s “Trust” and Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction” were among the other high-profile projects that took an old-fashioned approach to their subjects. The films all drew admirers … but for the most part, passion was reserved for the more daring entries.

Bruce SpringsteenBrooooooce comes to town. He’s a rock star, not a moviemaker, but Bruce Springsteen made Roy Thomson Hall and the TIFF Bell Lightbox sound like Madison Square Garden when he appeared at a couple of festival events on Tuesday night. Face it: nobody waited in line overnight for Robert Redford or Natalie Portman, but they did for Bruce. The hottest ticket in town, and the most enthusiastic audiences.

Deals pick up. It’s not a good time for independent film production or distribution, but almost 25 percent of the 80-odd films that came to Toronto looking for distribution came away with good news. And while there weren’t any big-money deals – the $3 million reportedly paid for “Everything Must Go” and “Dirty Girl” were the highest prices that anybody talked about, though “The Conspirator” could have gone for more – the acquisitions came frequently enough that the festival press office issued a release trumpeting the resurgence of the business.

In ensuing weeks, look for more TIFF films to receive deals as well.

Roger Ebert’s Twitter competition says something about the migration of film criticism and entertainment journalism. Ebert, the most beloved critic at the festival, hosted “Roger Ebert’s Great TIFF Tweet-Off,” a competition in which a panel of contestants — mostly journalists covering Toronto – responded, via their Twitter accounts, to questions or comments from Ebert. Actor Rainn Wilson “won” with the jokiest entries, but the Saturday-afternoon event neatly showcased how film criticism, and coverage of the entertainment industry in general, has migrated to the point where it’s now centered on the web rather than in print.

Now, if only the TIFF press office would recognize as much.

Screenwriters-turned-directors ought to stick to their day jobs. That, at least, might be a lesson that Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and Mitch Glazer (“Scrooged,” “Great Expectations”) learned at TIFF, where the directorial debuts of the two scribes were met with widespread derision.

Black and Glazer both assembled stellar casts for their films: Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Roberts for Black’s “What’s Wrong with Virginia,” and Bill Murray, Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox in Glazer’s “Passion Play.” But both were savaged by critics, and drew grades of “D“ from indieWIRE’s criticWIRE poll.

Sometimes, Toronto doesn’t resolve anything at all.“Never Let Me Go” went into the fest with its reception split down the middle: some called it a masterpiece and were profoundly moved, while others simply could not get past the fact that the characters don’t resist their fate. “Biutiful,” meanwhile, had another strong core of devotees … and a hefty batch of viewers who just thought it was too dark and too depressing. And now that both films have screened in Toronto, their pictures have changed not at all.

And sometimes, you don’t have to be at Toronto to make a splash during Toronto. While the festival was taking place, Sony began screening David Fincher’s “The Social Network” for critics and bloggers – and suddenly the awards conversation stopped focusing north of the border and looked to Fincher’s take on the creation of Facebook.

The consensus (with which I’m not sure I agree): despite all the talk about “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” and the other TIFF movies, the frontrunner may well be the film that didn’t  go to Toronto.