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Politics and controversy at Toronto Film Festival

Ben Affleck’s Argo was universally hailed as a clear winner at TIFF

There is no other film event that transforms its host city the way Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does. During the 11-days, the sleepy city of Toronto becomes the thriving epicentre of the film industry, hosting thousands of industry professionals and film fans from all over the world, who come to savour the new offerings of world cinema.

Walking down the streets of downtown Toronto, you are bound to see long lines of film goers snaking around the block, waiting patiently in the scorching heat to see one of the 375 movies screened in the festival or hear the deafening screams of lucky star-spotters as they catch a glimpse of one of the hundreds of attending stars.

Thanks to the large number of premieres, TIFF attracts more  stars than any other festival. They parade the red carpet, shake hands, sign autographs and mingle with the swooning fans. Feeling at ease in Toronto, the celebrities are everywhere: in the bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the ubiquitous parties.

But TIFF is not only about stars and parties. Since its inception, 37 years ago, the festival has become one of the best barometers for Oscar contenders. Almost every executive, publicist, critic or reporter in Hollywood descends on Toronto in order to be the first to get a sneak preview the likely champions of the upcoming award season. This year a few contenders have risen above the dizzying foray.

Top of the list is the political thriller Argo, which was universally hailed as the forerunner in next year’s Oscar race.  Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film tells the true story of a CIA operative who contrives an audacious plan to smuggle out of Iran 6 US embassy employees, who managed to flee when the embassy was raided by Iranian demonstrators and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house.

The movie received a rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. Later, Ben Affleck was joined by his wife Jennifer Garner, his best friend Matt Damon and the rest of the cast to celebrate the success of the film at a glamorous restaurant.

Coincidentally, the morning after Argo’s premiere, Canada announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran, and a day later the American consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo were stormed by angry demonstrators, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya.

The main competitor for Argo was another socio-political movie, The Master, which has been creating a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best actor prize.

The Master has reportedly sparked hostility from angry Scientologists, who urged its producer Harvey Weinstein to cancel its release. Based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the film tells the story of a WWII veteran, who gets manipulated by a charismatic sect leader.

Jennifer Laurence captivating performance at Silver Lining Playback made her a frontrunner at the Oscar’s race

Notorious for his uncanny ability to sense award-worthy projects, Harvey Weinstein offered another yet different potential Oscar contender: the light-hearted Silver Lining Playbook, which was applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Directed by David O’Russell and starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the dark comedy centres on a bipolar former teacher (Cooper) who is taken under the wing of a widow (Lawrence) as he struggles to fit back in society. The captivating performances of Cooper and Lawrence make them natural frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

Other movies dealing with disabilities that attracted attention were The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt bares all as a sex surrogate therapist who helps a comatose poet lose his virginity.  And Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard delivers a riveting performance as a whale trainer who finds love after losing her legs in an accident.

Tom Hanks was also in town promoting the highly anticipated Cloud Atlas, six interwoven stories and grand themes of karma and compassion. The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers,  didn’t live up the hype, leaving the audience confused and critics divided.

Keira Knightley failed to impress in Anna Karenina

The Brits were here in force too but, unlike the previous few years, their movies didn’t dominate the festival. Keira Knightley, accompanied by director Joe Wright, attended the premiere of Anna Karenina, which benefited from sumptuous production design but was short on character development and performance, leaving critics and audiences unimpressed.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts hit the parties to promote The Impossible, a harrowing story about a family who reunite after being ruptured by the 2003 Christmas tsunami. While Olivia Williams was accompanying her co-stars in Hyde Park On Hudson, Bill Murray and Laura Linney, while promoting the movie about the love story between the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson also delighted her fans as she marched down the red carpet at the premiere of her new teen movie, Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which she falls in love with an introvert freshman.

But the star who provoked the loudest screams and most attention from fans was Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who endowed Toronto with her first public appearance since the revelation of her love affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. She arrived in Toronto to attend the premiere of her new movie On The Road.

While stars glittered on red carpet and at glitzy parties, studio executives and other buyers were hunting treasures in the darkness of screening rooms. But it seems that

Helen Hunt bares all in The Sessions

treasures were in short supply this year.

Nancy Utley, the head of Marketing at Fox Searchlight, told me that she had watched 20 movies, but nothing had tickled her fancy, leaving the festival empty handed. Her sentiment was echoed by the other studio executives, such as Stacey Snider from DreamWorks who came looking for new talent. “I was impressed by a Danish director, and the director of Impossible, and the David Geffen documentary,” she told me when I bumped into her in the hotel lobby. The lucky directors will most likely be invited to the studio, which is headed by Steven Spielberg, for a chat.

By contrast, however, the co-chairman of Lionsgate, Rob Friedman, told me that he felt good about the movies that his company had acquired during the festival, including Thanks For Sharing, Much Ado About Nothing and Emperor.

By the second week of the festival, many of Hollywood’s big players have left Toronto, which gradually fades back to normality as the festival begins to wind down.

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