Hitting highs and lows at Toronto

Fest brings together the good and bad of filmmaking

With more than 250 features, the Toronto Film Festival typically functions as a clearing house for new international cinema.

It brings the best of Cannes to North America (such as Xavier Beauvois’ monastic drama “Of Gods and Men”) alongside premieres of incredibly varied genre and quality (Richard Ayoade’s charming Welsh coming-of-ager “Submarine” screened under the same roof as Mitch Glazer’s surreal stinker “Passion Play”).

If Toronto has taught us anything over the years, it’s to be wary of the Canadian-made feature. The fest often lowers the bar to accommodate local talent (the same could often be said of Italian pics in Venice), but this year gave Canucks reason to be proud, with several strong entries. One of the fest’s genuine breakouts was Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian-French co-production “Incendies,” acquired by Sony Classics. It was one of a raft of pickups in what proved to be a busy buying session.

Other emerging Canadian talents on display include Xavier Dolan, who sustains his unique voice in sophomore feature “Heartbeats,” and Larysa Kondracki, delivering a tough, impressive debut with “The Whistleblower.” Director Richard J. Lewis’ well-acted “Barney’s Version” features cameos from Canadian vets David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand. Once floated as a possible opening-night entry, Lewis’ sprawling comedy would have made a vastly more respectable curtain-raiser than the instantly forgettable “Score: A Hockey Musical,” directed by Michael McGowan.

Still, the highest profile Canadian premiere at the fest, which ends Sunday, was that of the venue: the new Bell Lightbox complex, which shifts the 35-year-old event’s center of gravity farther downtown. The massive highrise, which houses five cinemas (still ironing out the glitches, with malfunctions affecting several screenings) and festival HQ, embodies the fest’s longtime mission, with spaces designed for cinephile schmoozing.

There were some other encouraging trends — along with a few disappointing observations — in this year’s diverse lineup:

The best of youth. Toronto is often seen as a launchpad for awards hopefuls, and this year, some of the strongest performances came from thesps in their 20s and 30s, in movies designed almost as acting showcases. From Natalie Portman’s mesmerizing turn as a hysterical ballet dancer in “Black Swan” (the actress lost 20 pounds and trained for eight months to nail the film’s dance sequences) to James Franco’s veritable one-man (and one-armed) show in “127 Hours,” we’re seeing a generation of younger actors really coming into their own with some of the most extreme, high-wire acting of their careers.

Other emotional endurance tests: the raw marital duet of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine” (making its third major fest stop, after Sundance and Cannes) and the sustained melancholy of Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in “Never Let Me Go.” (And if “Let Me In’s” terrific teen duo of Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz is any indication, there’s hope for even younger actors, too.)

Made in Michigan. Vincent Gallo had two films in the festival, Sally Hawkins had three, but that’s nothing compared with the state of Michigan, which boasted at least five, as a first wave of pics produced under the state’s hefty incentive hit fest screens. None of these could be considered artistic successes: John Curran’s “Stone,” which relocated from North Carolina to outside Detroit, makes disappointing use of its central Ed Norton-Robert De Niro pairing. Michigan plays rural Massachusetts in “Conviction” more convincingly than helmer Tony Goldwyn does the manipulative twists in this fact-based inspirational drama. Both Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street” (a sci-fi groaner slotted in the Midnight Madness section) and David Schwimmer’s clunky stranger-danger Internet parable “Trust” take the dreary, blue-filtered approach to create big-city intrigue. More ambitious but no less conflicted was “Milk” scribe Dustin Lance Black’s return to directing, “What’s Wrong With Virginia,” in which the helmer does a decent job of doubling the Midwest for a Virginia Beach-like small town.

Asian persuasion. Toronto catered to Asia-loving cinephiles and action in a big way, with helpings of gaudy violence and gaudier production design. With titles nearly as convoluted as their stories, Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame” and Andrew Lau’s “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” found the Hong Kong helmers in flashily over-the-top period mode. More classical, and more satisfying, was Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins,” a superbly controlled samurai thriller Kurosawa would have been proud to sign his name to.

Two twisted tales of revenge take violence to more sadistic extremes: the Japanese public-school saga “Confessions” and the controversially gory Korean thriller “I Saw the Devil,” which scored U.S. distribution through Magnet Releasing.

For the fainter of heart, the fest also offered Tran Anh Hung’s visually lush if dramatically inert “Norwegian Wood,” as well as two of the strongest selections from Cannes: Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (the latter proudly advertised by bright-green “Apichatpalme” T-shirts worn by a number of journalists during the festival).

Better connections through introspection. Several directors made creative breakthroughs by getting personal. In the inspirational Estevez family collaboration, “The Way,” director Emilio filmed father Martin Sheen traveling along the Camino de Santiago, reconnecting with the Spanish clan’s Catholic heritage in the process. Mike Mills wrestles with a different set of daddy issues in “Beginners,” inspired by his father’s decision to come out at 75. The introspective result serves up a juicy role to Christopher Plummer, who’s late-December reinvention inspires his artistically inclined son (Ewan McGregor).

Even Sylvain Chomet’s animated “The Illusionist” resonates with meaningful autobiographical touches; transposed to Edinburgh (a city Chomet loves), the film feels less like a story than a long, elegiac poem, in which an old vaudevillian reflects on his dying art as the world modernizes around him — a process the director also faces, having decided to shift his attention to live-action going forward.

Girl power. Toronto loves a socially relevant rabble-rouser, especially one inspired by a true story and centered around a heroic female performance. “Conviction” sends Hilary Swank back to law school to exonerate her wrongly imprisoned brother, fighting the system and her own personal obstacles in pursuit of justice. Striking more overtly feminist notes were “Made in Dagenham,” which finds Sally Hawkins in “Norma Rae” mode, battling gender discrimination at Ford’s auto plant; and “The Whistleblower,” which sics Rachel Weisz on corrupt U.N. officials and sex traffickers in postwar Bosnia.

The play’s the thing. Three very different stage-to-screen adaptations stood out among the fest’s more satisfying offerings. David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his own “Rabbit Hole,” collaborating closely with helmer John Cameron Mitchell to open up the material for top-form thesps Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, who play a grieving couple. Canadian director Villeneuve took a more radical approach with his gut-wrenching “Incendies,” eliminating nearly all the original dialogue of Wajdi Mouawad’s conceptual Mideast-set play in favor of scenes that cinematically depict the same powerful themes. On the lighter side, Francois Ozon whips up a real crowd-pleaser in “Potiche,” finally repaying the faith the fest has shown in programming one lackluster title after another from the once-edgy French director. Seems Ozon’s still got it, dusting off a classic French farce to win back his fans.