2011 Toronto International Film Festival—My Top Picks + 17 capsule reviews The spectacular 2011 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned home to take stock of my whirlwind week north of the border. This was the third year I used Twitter to write post-screening capsule reviews of all the films I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.

This year's lineup was extraordinary, as usual, so it's always a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites. But, as I do following every film festival (54 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks. First, some statistics. This year I attended a total of 34 screenings. As always, many countries were represented on my schedule. Only 13 films were exclusively American, and they came late in the festival -- five of my final six screenings. It was truly an international event at the outset. 11 of my first 15 films were all from outside the United States. There was also one US/UK/Luxembourg/France co-production (Hysteria).

The 20 films exclusively from outside the US included four from host country Canada, three from France, two from Germany, and one each from Australia, Finland, Spain, UK, and Vietnam. Co-productions included Germany/Ireland, South Africa/France, Sweden/France/Denmark, France/Belgium/Luxembourg, France/Italy/Switzerland, and France/Luxembourg/Russia/Belgium/Switzerland.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year 12 of my 34 movies had subtitles. One (Wetlands) was from Canada (in French) and the other 11 were from overseas. Due to foreign financing arrangements, there were actually two "foreign" films that were in English -- Anonymous (Germany) and The Incident (France). As the festival wound to a close I saw 10 of 11 consecutive English-speaking films, although only three were actually from the US.

One thing that film festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers after screenings. Only seven films did not have Q&As of the 33 public screenings I attended. Most films have at least two showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. But that's beginning to change. Of the 19 first screenings I attended, 18 had Q&As -- only one did not (That Summer, as none of the cast and crew made it over from France). But of my 14 second screenings, eight actually did have Q&As.

Another reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a film. This was another record year at TIFF for me -- I saw a whopping 23 World Premieres. There were nine in a row at one point, 14 out of 16. My list also included two International Premieres (first time shown outside country of origin), eight North American Premieres, and one Canadian Premiere.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a 1-5 rating scale. No films deserved only 1 star (1 = avoid at all costs) but six films did receive 2 stars from me (2 = not recommended). 17 movies were good enough to merit a 3 (I recommend it). But the remaining 11 were the films that I'd not only recommend but also can't wait to see again. They included eight titles with a rating of 4 stars and three that merited 5 stars -- films I'll add to my DVD collection. So those 11 "see again" films make up my Top Picks.

Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles will link to full-length reviews and Q&A photos as they are posted.

(in alphabetical order)

50/50 (USA) -- This Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle stems from the fertile mind of writer Will Reiser and wunderkind director Jonathan Levine, who's shown increasingly rewarding levels of cinematic craftiness and judgment from All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to The Wackness and now 50/50. One of the most talented actors of his generation, Gordon-Levitt is a young man at a crossroads after getting some unexpected news. The always-reliable Seth Rogen plays to type as his smarmy best friend with perfect comedic timing. Nobody portrays vulnerable and fragile innocence like Anna Kendrick and her sweet performance will break your heart. 50/50 is a dark dramatic comedy that will haunt the viewer long after leaving the theater.

Amy George (Canada) -- Rarely does a coming-of-age story do justice to the young people it portrays. In the case of this wondrous little Canadian gem from the team of Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, who wrote, directed, photographed, and edited the film, the line is blurred between truth and fiction largely due to the project's clever cinema verite-style production and unscripted feel. But the movie's success primarily rests on the shoulders of 13-year-old Gabriel del Castillo Mullally in his performance as Jesse, an adolescent who follows the titular Amy George (Emily Henry) like a lost puppy. Ironically, Amy has indeed lost her dog in the film and, while she and Jesse search for her beloved "Prokosh," taboos will be broken and both will begin to travel the bumpy road to sexual discovery. In his very first role (and first audition), Mullally's touching performance is one of the most authentic and affecting portrayals of a young boy on the verge of manhood in any recent film I've seen. See my pictures of co-directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas with star Gabriel del Castillo Mullally at the Q&A.

Death of a Superhero (Germany/Ireland) -- Director Ian FitzGibbon crafts a poignant story, based on the novel (and scripted) by Anthony McCarten, of a young man caught in a world that has left him far less options than most his age. This dark tale of a boy faced with life-altering decisions far beyond his years features Thomas Brodie-Sangster in a haunting, heartwrenching performance. See my pictures of director Ian FitzGibbon with stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Aisling Loftus, producers Astrid Kahmke and Philipp Kreuzer, and cinematographer Tom Fährmann at the Q&A.

God Bless America (USA) -- Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwaite's (yes, that one) scorching commentary on American pop culture is as hilarious and perverse as a comedy can be. Joel Murray and 17-year-old Tara Lynn Barr steal the show as a modern-day teen Bonnie and middle-aged Clyde, out to cure the ills of a cynical and jaded country. Definitely not a mainstream film with its raw images of brutality and violence. If you can take it, you'll laugh every step of the way.

The Good Son (Finland) -- A quaint family vacation turns dangerously ugly, threatening to destroy the powerful mother/son bond between Leila and Ilmari that keeps all comers at bay. One of several Oedipal dramas I saw this year, director Zaida Bergroth's film triumphs largely due to its devastatingly authentic performances from Elina Knihtila as B-movie actress on a downward spiral and her protective son Samuli Niittymaki. The violence is hard to watch at times but the film's tender moments make it too powerful to avoid. See my pictures of director Zaida Bergroth, star Samuli Niittymäki, and writer Jan Forsström at the Q&A.

Hysteria (USA/UK/Luxembourg/France) -- Director Tanya Wexler's breathtaking ensemble piece is a gut-busting epic tale of inventiveness and intrigue among doctors in 19th century London. This is another loosely fact-based story whose synopsis could be considered a spoiler in itself, so I'll leave it at that. Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, and the always-charming Maggie Gyllenhaal all turn in pitch-perfect (and, dare I say, hysterical) performances.

The Ides of March (USA) -- This star-studded statement on modern-day political elections is based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willamon. The brilliant cast features Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, and Marisa Tomei in performances worthy of little gold statues. But, most of all, director and star George Clooney is to be commended in his maturity and willingness to allow his own spotlight to be eclipsed by the impressive Ryan Gosling as a cocksure campaign coordinator, who surely will give it a go come awards season.

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (USA) -- The legendary Jane Fonda and always-mindboggling Catherine Keener dominate the screen in this love story couched in a psychedelically charming tribute to Woodstock, New York and its aging hippie population. Australian Bruce Beresford's moving intergenerational character study of a family in disarray fires on all cylinders. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Elizabeth Olsen, Chace Crawford, and Rosanna Arquette are pitch-perfect in support while 16-year-old newcomer Nat Wolff provides effective comic relief. The broad appeal of Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding makes it the most accessible film I saw at TIFF this year. See my pictures of director Bruce Beresford with stars Kyle MacLachlan, Nat Wolff, and Marissa O'Donnell, along with producer Claude Dal Farra at the Q&A.

Take Shelter (USA) -- Mysterious, unseen forces threaten to tear apart a young couple even before their relationship has a chance to blossom. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain's two-person narrative is emotionally challenging in this seemingly odd story about which little can be said without posting spoilers. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has created the one film on my list most worthy of the word "important." See my pictures of star Jessica Chastain and producer Tyler Davidson at the Q&A.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK) -- Based on Lionel Shriver's best-selling novel, this is the long-awaited triumphant third feature for multi-hyphenate director Lynne Ramsay, who also co-wrote the screenplay and serves as Executive Producer. The film stars Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, and Ursula Parker. Topping my must-see list this year, the movie truly lived up to expectations. It's a tremendously satisfying, albeit stupefying cinematic assault on the senses. Although the film is quite dark and deals with some very difficult subject matter, at its heart We Need To Talk About Kevin is ultimately a powerful mother/son love story that may leave you emotionally drained but truly moved. It's a devastatingly heartwrenching portrayal of a family in crisis. The film features tour de force performances from the legendary Tilda Swinton (with Best Actress Oscar buzz in the air) and 18-year-old Ezra Miller, "it boy" of the indie circuit. See my pictures of director Lynne Ramsay and stars Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, and Ursula Parker, along with co-writer Rory Kinnear and editor Joe Bini at the Q&A.

Wetlands (Canada) -- Writer/director Guy Édoin selected his own parents' farm to tell the story of 17-year-old Simon and his mother Marie. Told from the boy's point of view, Gabriel Maille (actually 14 at the time) is front and center in almost every scene, with a shy awkwardness and quiet fortitude that threatens to erupt whenever his mother's (Pascale Bussières) safety is in jeopardy. Fans of Gus Van Sant will delight at this French Canadian coming-of-age piece set in rural Quebec. Wetlands is a true audience-pleaser and one of the few movies I saw for which every filmgoer came out with the same warm and fuzzy feeling.

I would also like to acknowledge the following films, whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which deserve recognition nonetheless. My "qualification" is indicated after each title.

Anonymous (Germany) -- Roland Emmerich's epic fictional tale of the true origin of William Shakespeare's writings is packed with marvelous performances. Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, and Jamie Campbell Bower are particularly impressive. But the film gets lost in the translation, so to speak, with its reliance on jumps between time periods and disparate storylines. It felt like I was switching channels back and forth among three soap operas set in different decades. It has great potential but perhaps could have benefited from variations in film stock or more refined editing. It demands another look if only to fill in the blanks.

Damsels in Distress (USA) -- Heathers meets Smiley Face in this offbeat comedy from writer/director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona). No "normal" young woman would be noticed outside of the homogeneous mass of students at the newly-coeducated college where this story takes place. But several misfit girls -- the titular damsels in distress -- each has qualities that, together, produce a surreal synergy to which men are drawn, often for no apparent reason other than that the women seem to be able to conjure up spells when in each other's presence. The plot is incredulous but there's no denying the film's dreamy landscape. Cinematographer Doug Emmett's use of diffusion filters makes everything appear as if shot through gauze. The use of pastel colors with non-era-specific costume and set design enhances the film's timeless look, giving each character an aura that matches their personalities. It was one of the most effective uses of light and tone that I've seen in a long time. The film amused much of the audience but also left some baffled. It's just quirky enough to put it out of reach of many filmgoers. During the Q&A, one of the audience members remarked to the director, "Your film is a bit removed from reality." Stillman quickly replied, "A bit??? I hope it's far more removed from reality than that." I don't do nor recommend the use of mind-altering substances but this film may best be appreciated by those who do. See my pictures of writer/director Whit Stillman along with stars Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton, and Adam Brody at the Q&A.

Pearl Jam Twenty (USA) -- Documentarian Cameron Crowe's excellent film about the legendary Seattle band is, as with all rock docs, recommended more to those familiar with the artists and their music. While the story may have broad appeal, there are certainly those for whom such a film would not hold much interest. For Pearl Jam fans, though, it's a must-see.

Play (Sweden/France/Denmark) -- Based on true events, this cinema verite-style reenactment of non-violent crimes between black and white teens (ages 12-14) in Sweden contains some disturbing subject matter. I won't describe it here but there are nauseating images that may be too taboo for some. Worth a look for true cinemaphiles.

Sleepless Night (France/Belgium/Luxembourg) -- This is a fast-paced crime thriller set in France that barrels nonstop from one ultraviolent scene to another. Frederic Jardin's film features terrific performances from Tomer Sisley and Samy Seghir as a father and son separated by a drug deal gone bad. An orgy of fighting and killing.

Snowtown (Australia) -- Perhaps the most disturbing of all the films I saw at TIFF this year, also based on a true case, this mystery involves crimes too gruesome for many to tolerate. It's an important story in its documentation of the events but is not for the faint of heart. A strong stomach is a prerequisite.


NOTE: God Bless America was a runner-up for the Midnight Madness Cadillac People's Choice Award. Pearl Jam Twenty was a runner-up for Best Documentary Feature.


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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