Toronto has always been a place for reinvention — in 2008, Anne Hathaway came to the festival marred by her ex-boyfriend’s federal arrest, and left as an Oscar darling for “Rachel Getting Married.” And in 2013, Sandra Bullock launched as an astronaut in “Gravity,” and Jared Leto returned to acting with “Dallas Buyers Club.” But this year, especially, a handful of actors departed Canada with a new career jolt. Here are the biggest Toronto transformations.
1. Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”)
Redmayne delivered impressive supporting work in film like 2012’s “Les Miserables” and 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn.” But his magnificent performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” should land him on Hollywood’s leading man list, and get him his first Oscar nomination. In a physical transformation on par with Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Redmayne embodies Hawking to the point of convincing viewers they are watching a documentary. Even the real-life physicist approved.
2. Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”)
After Witherspoon won an Oscar for 2005’s “Walk the Line,” she stumbled with a series of projects that didn’t deliver on her movie star potential. Thankfully, the old Reese has returned — in her most glorious form since “Election.” In playing the memoirist Cheryl Strayed, a former heroin addict who embarks on a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Witherspoon is at once vulnerable, sarcastic and tough. This drama directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, which Witherspoon produced, is an epic journey that she bravely carries on her own.
3. Al Pacino (“The Humbling,” “Manglehorn”)
Like Robert De Niro, the other leading light of the 1970s film renaissance, Al Pacino threatened to become a parody of himself in recent years. There were too many hammy roles in forgettable films that were presumably taken for the money and not the art. But with a pair of fine performances, Pacino reminded viewers of what they’d been missing. Playing an aging actor in “The Humbling” and and a love-lorn locksmith in “Manglehorn,” Pacino was subtle and effective, leading festivalgoers to say that it was his best work in years. Welcome back.
4. Jennifer Aniston (“Cake”)
In a shocking physical transformation, the star of “Friends” leaves her vanity at the door in this gritty drama. She wears no makeup onscreen, and her face is covered in scars to portray a chronic pain sufferer. Though festgoers had mixed opinions about the film overall, especially the storyline with Anna Kendrick as a ghost, Aniston shows that she’s meant for greater material than “Horrible Bosses 2.” If she gets back into the indie game, it would be wise to work with directors like Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”) and Nicole Holofcener (“Friends with Money”), who can put her to better use.
5. Andrew Garfield (“99 Homes”)
As a cash-strapped contractor forced to work for the real estate tycoon (Michael Shannon) who evicted him from his home, Garfield provided a master class in moral confusion. It was a reminder of what a fine and sensitive actor he is and easily his best performance since “The Social Network.” Like so many of the finest film actors — Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner — Garfield has become a victim of his own success headlining a blockbuster franchise. His role as Spider-Man may pay the bills, but “99 Homes” reminds viewers how valuable it can be to take off the mask.
6. Keira Knightley (“Laggies,” “The Imitation Game”)
With films like “Anna Karenina” and “A Dangerous Method,” Knightley carved out a niche playing dying, distraught and frequently corseted women. With “Laggies,” an actress who often appeared as overly mannered and terribly proper women, learned to lighten up. As a woman in a state of arrested development who befriends a group of high schoolers, Knightley was funny and completely convincing as an aging slacker. Her newfound looseness bled over into her return to period pictures. In “The Imitation Game,” Knightley’s code-breaker was brainy and flirtatious, providing the few moments of levity in an otherwise somber affair.
7. Naomi Watts (“While We’re Young,” “St. Vincent”)
Watts has never been known for her comic timing. But she’s crackles in “When We’re Young” as one half of a dissatisfied middle-aged couple (Ben Stiller plays her husband), who become obsessed with a pair of twentysomethings. We’ve always known Watts could make us cry, but watching her breakdance, take hallucinogens and generally behave like a mad woman, makes us realize she can make us laugh too. And she keeps up the funny act as a pregnant Russian prostitute who mounts Bill Murray in the crowd-pleaser “St. Vincent.”
Note: So much has already been made of Steve Carell’s brilliant turn in “Foxcatcher” when it debuted at Cannes, we didn’t include him on the list. But he’s also an actor who stunned Toronto audiences, with the help of a prosthetic nose, in the Bennett Miller drama.