The fun of watching a week's worth of new movies that almost no one has seen is the unknown -- you're not sure which ones will be great, which ones will move you to tears, or which ones will make you get up and walk out of the theater.
In other words, going into this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I expected the same thing I always do at events like these: to see a few good movies, one-to-two outstanding ones, a couple of hidden gems, and a whole lotta' duds. After returning from Canada last Wednesday, I am happy to admit that I was wrong.
Of the 20 films I saw at TIFF this year, two of them were bad, one was downright weird, two more were so-so, and the other 15 (15!) were spectacular. This is a phenomenal track record for a film festival, even one as distinguished as Toronto's.
As this year's TIFF begins to wrap things up, I've ranked those 20 movies, from best to worst, below. Make sure to keep an eye out for them; you're going to be hearing about each one soon enough.
1. "12 Years a Slave"
If you're an Oscar nut or just enjoy reading about movies, you've probably heard people having near-convulsions over a film called "12 Years a Slave." To wit: When the film screened at TIFF, it sent the entire town into hysterics, with some boldly crowning it a Best Picture winner, six months before the Academy Awards. (Full disclosure: I was part of this chorus. In retrospect, it was a dumb thing to do. At this point we should be focusing on the movie itself, not its awards potential.) As for the film, "12 Years a Slave" stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free man living in pre-Civil War New York, who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. This ended up being my favorite movie at TIFF, but seeing as too high of expectations can often derail a film, I'd like to set a more realistic one. Therefore what I ultimately have to say is: "12 Years a Slave" is good. Go see it.
Leave your childhood astronaut aspirations at the door; Alfonso Cuaron's new thriller is not for the fainthearted. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts who get disconnected from their space shuttle, "Gravity" is as terrifying as it is extraordinary. By the end of the film, you'll be wondering how Cuaron pulled off some of the film's more jaw-dropping sequences. Make no mistake, this is cinema at its best -- a beautiful, breathless experience that will make you rethink what a "space movie" is supposed to be. (And yes, I am being intentionally vague on plot details; its best to know as little as possible about this movie going in.) One more thing: Be sure to see "Gravity" on the biggest screen you can find.
3. "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
This three-hour Palme d'Or-winning French film probably received the biggest pre-TIFF buzz, and deservedly so. Director Abdellatif Kechiche's harrowing portrayal of first love is both painful and intoxicating -- a realistic portrait of a teenage girl named Adele beginning to discover her sexuality. While "Blue" features an explicit 10-minute lesbian sex scene (the movie got an NC-17 rating from the MPAA), that shouldn't be your main takeaway. In fact, one week after watching "Blue Is the Warmest Color," I find myself going back to a scene that sounds mundane compared the one getting all the headlines: Adele, dancing to Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers," with a dumbstruck look of love on her face, one that encapsulates the beauty and pain of falling for someone for the first time.
4. "The Double"
From director Richard Ayoade comes this adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name, about a man (Jesse Eisenberg) who slowly begins to unravel after discovering his doppelganger. The story was originally published in 1846, but the setting here is more steampunk meets "Brave New World." Anchored by two terrific performances by Eisenberg -- which will hopefully quiet the one-note actor critiques of the "Social Network" star -- this film explores two sides of the same coin: a man who wants to be confident like his twin, but instead resorts to timidity. Bonus points go to composer Andrew Hewitt, whose beautiful, operatic score may be the best of the year.
The second doppelganger film of the festival belongs to Denis Villeneuve's "Enemy." Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, who worked with Villeneuve on another headlining TIFF film, "Prisoners," the movie follows a university professor who soon discovers there's a replica of him living a completely different life on the other side of the city. If that doesn't sound sinister enough, there are also giant spiders, alien-like creatures, and secret societies involved. By the end, this film will leave an imprint on your brain. Or, as Gyllenhaal told the Huffington Post," "I wouldn't even necessarily call it a film; I would call it an experience."
6. "August: Osage County"
Think your family's messed up? Go see this and get back to us. Based on the award-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), "August" focuses on the Weston's, a family whose patriarch has just committed suicide. But when the entire clan gets together for the funeral, his now-widowed -- and pain med-addicted -- wife (played with aplomb by Meryl Streep) looks to ruin everyone's time together by reminding them all how terrible she is. Streep is as good as always here, which is why the real medal goes to the rest of the cast -- Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc. -- who manage to keep up with her character's curse-laden insults. Also, keep an eye out for Dermot Mulroney, who steals the show as a Ferarri-riding douchebag fiance to one of the Weston girls.
The first trailer for Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" looked like a fairly generic kidnapping thriller: two children get taken while playing outside, their parents freak out and stop at nothing to get them back. But this film is far from generic. Instead of a run-of-the-mill drama, we get a tense psychological thriller that depicts how far a man will go when pushed to his emotional limits (think "Zodiac" meets "Mystic River"). This is a movie that could've been screwed up in the wrong hands. Thanks to its performances, Villeneuve's direction, and cinematographer Roger Deakins's camerawork, it wasn't.
8."The Armstrong Lie"
Why did Lance Armstrong lie and cheat to millions of fans? Alex Gibney's "The Armstrong Lie" attempts to answer that question. Gibney had originally shot this movie tied to Armstrong's 2009 Tour de France comeback, but ended up holding off after the cyclist admitted to doping, and was forced to change the film's entire narrative. "The Armstrong Lie" is a fascinating portrayal of what a hyper-competitive athlete will do to win, along with a character study on the human condition and the lengths one might go to keep the truth a secret. We were all duped by Armstrong -- Gibney included -- and this film comes as close as we've gotten to explaining why.
This is the ultimate popcorn movie -- a film about two Formula One racecar rivals, one a brainy socially inept mechanic, the other a hard-partying, womanizing playboy -- that manages to nail both the high-speed race scenes and emotional tension between its leads. Based on the true-life rivalry of drivers Nikki Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl, who's the best part of this movie) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), Ron Howard's "Rush" is entertaining as hell, whether you're a Formula One fan or not.
10. "Dallas Buyers Club"
Matthew McConaughey's critical-acclaim period continues with this true story about Ron Woodward, a heterosexual (and homophobic) Texas man who gets diagnosed with HIV. McConaughey was clearly committed to the role from the start, famously losing more than 40 pounds to play Woodward. But despite the "Magic Mike" star's performance -- which, no doubt about it, is absolutely fantastic -- its musician/actor Jared Leto who steals the show as the quick-talking transexual Rayon. His performance was exceptional and turned out to be the most pleasantly surprising ones of the festival.
11. "Labor Day"
Josh Brolin bakes a pie in this film from "Juno" director Jason Reitman. Based on the Joyce Maynard novel of the same name, the film stars Kate Winslet as Adele Wheeler, a depressed single mom who gets an unexpected visitor to her home on Labor Day weekend: an ex-con who has just escaped prison (Brolin). Although the plot of this film sounds a bit Lifetime-y, the terrific performances and deft camerawork turn this potentially sappy romance flick into an exploration of human emotions, told through the eyes of a young boy.
12. "Man of Tai Chi"
Keanu Reeves's directorial debut has all the elements of a great martial arts movie: beautifully choreographed fight scenes, an underground culture filled with shady characters, and a cartoonish villain, played by Reeves himself. A big thank you should also go out to the "Matrix" star for deciding to shoot the fight scenes the way fight scenes should be seen: with a full-body point of view instead of the zoom-in, quick-cut camerawork today's mainstream action flicks are known for.
Based on a true story, this quiet, meditative look at one woman's quest to cross the Australian desert features a strong performance by Mia Wasikowska. Mia's Robyn might first come off as someone who will go to unnecessary and dangerous extremes just to get away from civilization, but there's more to her story. As the film unfolds, you begin to see the dedication she has for this particular quest, and why she's taking it in the first place. Also, a heads up for "Girls" fans: You should check out "Tracks" just to get a glimpse of star Adam Driver as a short-shorts-wearing National Geographic photographer.
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in this heartwarming tale about an older woman looking to find a son that was taken away from her 50 years earlier. Though the movie takes a few plot liberties here and there to get its point across, its worth watching the dynamic between Dench's Philomena Lee and Coogan's Martin Sixsmith, as they look to solve a decades-old mystery.
15. "All Is By My Side"
This film about pre-fame Jimi Hendrix -- the filmmakers were unable to secure the rights to his music, so don't go in expecting to hear "Purple Haze" -- belongs to Andre 3000 (aka Andre Benjamin, of Outkast fame), whose portrayal of the late guitarist is eerily accurate, down to the high voice, flamboyant look, and guitar skills. As for the movie itself, it's entertaining enough. It's just difficult to make a good film about a famous musician that doesn't discuss his most famous work.
Nic Cage plays the bearded gun-totin' lead in this David Gordon Green-directed drama that focuses on small-town life in rural Mississippi. This is a different type of role for Cage, who plays the titular character with a quiet intensity we rarely see from the star. Quick, intense bursts of violence help keep the story moving, but "Joe" shines the most when Cage's Joe interacts with 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), who he decides to bring under his wing.
17. "Made in America"
Ron Howard never directed a concert film before "Made in America, "a documentary about the Jay Z-curated music festival in Philadelphia. The result? Well, there are some entertaining moments -- like the interview between Howard and rapper Tyler, the Creator -- but the film bites off more than it can chew, touching on everything from economic inequality to the difficulties of putting on a festival to Jay Z's upbringing. In the end, "Made in America" skips out on the one thing fans probably want to see it for the most: the performances.
The first half of comedian Mike Myers's directorial debut -- a documentary on legendary music manager Shep Gordon -- is a fun, behind-the-scenes ride through classic rock history. Shep, who Myers met on the set of "Wayne's World" in 1992, has plenty of fun stories featuring Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. But once we get into Gordon's later years, the film starts to peter out and is unable to find the momentum that it built up in the the first half. Still, if you're a music fan, it's worth your time.
19. "Child of God"
This movie, based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, was directed by art-film aficionado James Franco, so I knew going in that it would be, well, weird. Boy, was that an understatement. "Child of God" shows everything from a man defecating on screen, to him having sex with a dead woman, to a stuffed-animal execution. That's not to say "Child of God" is bad; it isn't. It's just totally twisted and bizarre, which, I assume, was what Franco was going for.
20. "The Fifth Estate"
A movie that feels more '90s hacker film than an exploration of digital journalism, "The Fifth Estate" is too on-the-nose and one-dimensional to ask the big questions it wants to. However, Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely terrific as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. I just wish he was given more to work with here.
21. "Blood Ties"
From director Guillame Canet comes this gritty 1970s drama set in New York City, about two brothers on opposite sides of the law. This Scorsese imitation is overstuffed with musical cues, includes poorly shot fight scenes, and features a very uneven narrative. All of the actors try New York accents to varying degrees of failure (except for Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who plays a greasy tattooed criminal).
UPDATE: I somehow left "Gravity" off the original list and have since rectified the mistake. Sorry, "Gravity"!