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Toronto Film Festival overview

What our critics thought of ”Religulous,” Anne Hathaway in ”Rachel Getting Married,” and more

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OWEN GLEIBERMAN’S HIGHLIGHTS

1. New, Low-Key Oscar Vibe
In 1999, the premiere of American Beauty in Toronto rocketed that movie into Oscar orbit. From then on, the festival became the official launchpad of the awards season, with films like Almost Famous, Ray, Brokeback Mountain, and Michael Clayton all vying for the spotlight. Not this year, though. The studios held back on showcasing their awards bait, perhaps fearing that the association with a festival — i.e., 10 days of art films — would marginalize the high-profile movies they were dying to publicize. To me, this was a good thing. Yet there’s nothing like living in a buzz-free zone to make you miss the decadence of awards chatter.

2. A Trio of Great Docs
Documentaries may be suffering at the box office these days, but in Toronto they were alive and well — and fun. In Religulous, his winkingly blasphemous detonation of all things holy and scriptural, Bill Maher is like Lenny Bruce with an inquiring mind and a video camera. The movie is funny as…well, hell. Food, Inc. is an essential, disturbing portrait of the industrialization of what we eat, and American Swing takes a droll look at the rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat. The infamous Manhattan sex club was a buffet of bodies, and the film catches the moment when our culture thought that tasted good.

3. The Wrestler
The transcendent highlight of the festival was The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s fierce, tender, altogether remarkable new movie, which gives Mickey Rourke the role of his life. As Randy ”The Ram” Robinson, a professional-wrestling star of the heavy metal ’80s who has become a broken-down relic, Rourke, in long platinum-blond hair, looks like some bloated, freakazoid Sammy Hagar, and he makes you feel every crunched bone. (Just because the wrestling is fake doesn’t mean all the pain is.) Randy is no brute: He’s a quietly sad and stunted middle-aged man who lives in a New Jersey trailer park and has almost no life apart from the twinges of faded glory he still feels in the ring. The Wrestler mines a gritty excitement — at times, it’s like a neorealist Rocky. Where the movie finds a kind of greatness is in beholding the beast that Mickey Rourke has become, and in letting the audience touch his scarred inner beauty.

4. Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme’s best film since The Silence of the Lambs is a family drama done in a loose, handheld, bobbing-camera style as jumpy and brash as anything shot by a home-video camcorder. But it’s not just the images that are blistering and off balance and intimately charged. So is everything that happens when Kym (Anne Hathaway), a frayed-nerves drug casualty, is let out of rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Hathaway makes toxic narcissism magnetic, and the whole movie tingles with life.

5. Me and Orson Welles
Richard Linklater’s new film is an affectionate period-piece showbiz comedy set in 1937, when Orson Welles first shot to fame with his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. There’s one great reason to see the movie, and that’s Christian McKay’s uncanny, butter-voiced impersonation of Welles. But Linklater frames the story around a young actor who talks his way into Welles’ stock company, and Zac Efron, as this bushy-tailed rube, is such a genial blank that we seem to have landed in one of Woody Allen’s blandest nostalgia pieces.

LISA SCHWARZBAUM HIGHLIGHTS

1. Movies About Men…
With his ability to convey the watchful repose of a man far more complicated than his placid features first suggest, Jeremy Renner is an inspired choice to play the complicated cowboy of an Army bomb disposal expert at the pounding heart of The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting battle study — set in a booby-trapped Iraq where every step may be the last — blasts away bull and philosophizing blah blah blah. Her muscular filmmaking beautifully echoes the boredom-and-terror hell of imperfect men at war. Ah, but imperfect men in some other movies weren’t served nearly as well. The emotionally detached professor played by John Malkovich in Disgrace, for one, seems more of a fussbudget than the semi-monster he’s meant to be in Steve Jacobs’ lank adaptation of Nobelist J.M. Coetzee’s novel set in postapartheid South Africa. And poor Liam Neeson and Antonio Banderas flail around as the husband and lover, respectively, of an equally floundering Laura Linney in the gussied-up middlebrow howler The Other Man, directed with a glazed eye by Richard Eyre.

2….And Families in Chaos…
Anton Chekhov, master chronicler of unhappy families, might have gotten a giggle out of The Brothers Bloom, a picaresque sophomore project from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick). Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody star as the siblings in question — con men with an outré taste in wardrobes — and Rachel Weisz plays an oddball heiress who intrudes on their game when she wins one bro’s heart. Johnson has clearly studied his Wes Anderson and Edward Gorey, but somewhere in the fey tumult, the filmmaker’s own sweet voice can be heard, gaining confidence. Other clashing clans: the articulate adult siblings (played by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jérémie Renier) in Olivier Assayas’ insightful drama of family heritage, L’Heure d’Été (Summer Hours); the plucky Korean sisters abandoned by their mother in So Yong Kim’s lovely Treeless Mountain; and the rather pill-ish brood in Michael Winterbottom’s Genova, a book-club novel of a drama starring Colin Firth as a widower, Catherine Keener as his friend who wishes she were more, and The O.C.‘s Willa Holland as his pouting teen daughter.

3….And Restless Kids
Two erupting Mexican 15-year-olds — he’s the son of a corrupt politician, she’s a sullen middle-class daughter — do their own breathless Godard trip in Voy a Explotar (I’m Gonna Explode), Gerardo Naranjo’s energized, free-wheeling, utterly winning love story. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, a tough-skinned preteen girl and a neighbor boy from a mean housing project on the outskirts of Dublin escape their respective family miseries, at least for a while, when they run away to the big city in Lance Daly’s photogenic Kisses.

4. $9.99
The utterly beguiling art project $9.99 is a crowd-pleaser: Tatia Rosenthal dramatizes droll stories by the great Israeli yarn-spinner Etgar Keret with soulful stop-motion animation artistry of her own invention. Then she adds lively voice work by Aussie wizards including Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia.

5. Pontypool
Zombies are the secret of any great film festival. And they’re the uninvited guests in Canadian hipster auteur Bruce McDonald’s cool, funny, low-budget diversion Pontypool.