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Our Critic's Take on Toronto

This year’s movie fest had a banner beginning; Owen Gleiberman gives a rundown of the projects that thrilled and a couple that missed the mark

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12 Years A Slave
A landmark of cruelty and transcendence, Steve McQueen’s magnificent drama is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Ejiofor, in an extraordinary performance, acts with a powerful inner force yet never soft-pedals Northup’s nightmare. The movie lets us look at America’s primal sin with open eyes.

All Is By My Side
This shaggy, authentic look at the year that Jimi Hendrix spent in London before he got famous is a new kind of biopic, one that takes in an entire life through the prism of a moment. André Benjamin (OutKast’s Andre 3000) nails Hendrix’s soft-spoken demon flower-child cool, and the story of how his love affairs with two women both shaped and competed with his onstage wizardry feels rivetingly right.

Gravity
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are sensational as astronauts lost in space in Alfonso Cuarón’s hypnotic head trip. What’s thrilling about the movie is its hallucinatory, free-floating, you-are-there cosmic rootlessness. Cuarón uses special effects (and 3-D) with a poetic simplicity and command, putting us right up there in space along with the people on screen.

The Fifth Estate
Benedict Cumberbatch, in stringy white-blond hair, plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and does a commanding impersonation of Assange’s louche narcissism. Bill Condon’s edgy drama of digital journalism presents Assange as a new breed of information warrior. He bravely exposes corruption, yet he’s not just outside the system — he’s outside the human connection that’s part of what holds the system together.

Fizzles

Labor Day
Jason Reitman’s new film could be his lovingly crafted version of a Lifetime movie, with Kate Winslet as a single mom whose life is interrupted — or completed — when she and her son are held hostage by an escaped prisoner, played by Josh Brolin as a scowling macho in a Stanley Kowalski T-shirt but with a heart of TV-movie gold. The making of a peach pie becomes the potter’s-wheel scene of Ghost as staged by Martha Stewart.

You Are Here
The first movie directed by Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner is a bizarrely misanthropic buddy comedy that pivots on the fight for a family inheritance. It stars Owen Wilson, in charming-weasel mode, as a hostile lush of a weatherman, and Zach Galifianakis as a slovenly basket case suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. There are squirmy laughs, but less human dimension to all this than Weiner thinks.

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