Toronto Film Festival Round-Up -- With big-buzz films like ''In the Wild'' and ''Elizabeth" on the bill, the Oscar race kicks into high gear

By Gregory Kirschling and Adam B. Vary
Updated September 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

At the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, director Ang Lee barely had time to walk the red carpet for the Sept. 7 gala of his new Chinese-language film, Lust, Caution, before quietly jetting back to Venice to pick up that festival’s Best Picture prize. So why did Lee show up in Canada again two days later? ”What can I say? It starts here,” Lee laughs. ”Toronto is the kickoff for Oscar season.”

While the first half of this year’s festival saw no Brokeback-level breakouts (and virtually no major acquisitions, as most of the bigger movies already had distributors), it did yield some serious awards buzz for several films. Positively received screenings of the George Clooney legal drama Michael Clayton, director Sean Penn’s wanderlust adventure Into the Wild, and the Coen brothers’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men gave all of the films nice bumps. Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s Russian Mob thriller starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts, stirred interest, as did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which screened the same day Brad Pitt scored a Best Actor award for Jesse at Venice. And then there was Atonement, director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s WWII epic novel, which arrived with solid word of mouth from Venice and quickly drew kudos for Wright and stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. ”I hate all of that Oscar talk,” says Wright (Pride & Prejudice), explaining that ”however firmly my feet are on the ground, my head still kind of goes, ‘Whoa, wouldn’t that be cool?’ And I hate that because it’s a waste of energy.”

Of course, Toronto can also dampen a film’s Oscar hopes. Letdowns this year included Rendition, the war-on-terror drama with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, which underwhelmed critics and audiences, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which festivalgoers panned even as they praised Cate Blanchett’s reprisal of her Oscar-nominated performance as the Virgin Queen. ”That’s the nerve-racking thing,” says Blanchett. ”When there are expectations [from 1998’s Elizabeth], you get worried that a film’s getting built up.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Juno, a whip-smart teen-pregnancy comedy starring X-Men: The Last Stand‘s Ellen Page, Superbad‘s Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman. The Fox Searchlight entry drew Little Miss Sunshine comparisons and emerged as this fest’s top they laughed, they cried audience pleaser. ”There’s a lot of heavy s— going on in the world, and it’s been a movie year of very somber material,” mused director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking). ”Our audiences so far seem excited to be at a movie that makes them feel good.”

As of mid-festival, all was relatively quiet on the acquisitions front. On Sept. 8, THINKFilm picked up the mother-daughter dramedy Then She Found Me right after its premiere, much to the delight of its star and director, Helen Hunt. ”I knew if I had to fly home with nobody interested in the movie, it would’ve been a pretty sad experience,” Hunt says. ”There were people saying, ‘It’ll happen that night, or it won’t!’ So it’s a relief.” And at press time, Warner Independent Pictures and Red Envelope Entertainment were close to finalizing a $1.25 million deal for Alan Ball’s disturbing directorial debut, Nothing Is Private, about a 13-year-old girl who is molested by her Army-reservist neighbor (Aaron Eckhart).

If Toronto had an MVP award, it would probably have gone to Tommy Lee Jones, who had people marveling over his performances in both No Country for Old Men and Paul Haggis’ Iraq-war drama, In the Valley of Elah. (”It’s embarrassing to even talk about it,” the actor grumbles in response to the double-Oscar chatter. ”What the hell do I know?”) His No Country costars Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem, meanwhile, just soaked in the good vibes. ”At our party last night, Javier and I had huge smiles on our faces,” says Brolin. ”We actually walked away from everybody else and [he said], ‘It feels really good to be in a good movie, doesn’t it?’ F—, yeah!” </p