Up in Toronto, attendees shed tears over Alison Eastwood's drama ''Rails & Ties'' -- not because the film festival was about to conclude on Saturday. Although that was sad, too

September 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Michael Jackson’s ”Beat It” hadn’t been blasted so loudly since the Reagan Administration. But the bartenders at Focus Features’ Reservation Road bash late Thursday evening were trying to send a message to the last holdouts: The party’s over and it’s time to leave.

The same could be said of the 2007 Toronto Film Festival itself, whose lineup for its final two days, Friday and Saturday, was back-loaded with movies so somber (Richard Attenborough’s WWII drama Closing the Ring) and seemingly skippable (a Lebanese body-hair-removal allegory?), that calling their showings ”Galas” was straight-up ironic.

And while Toronto 2007 may have been short on the flash-bang excitement of Thank You for Smoking-style bidding wars, it did set the stage for an awards season jam-packed with thought-provoking, tear-jerking movies that scream, ”Nominate me!” Many that premiered at the event appeared justified in saying so. ”There’s a lot of good stuff out there,” said Focus honcho James Schamus, holding court at his Reservation Road blowout. ”We couldn’t be happier with how our movies emerged from the festival. But everybody’s got great stuff this year.”

It’s easy to be modest when you’re the front-runner: Focus’ two early-festival entries — David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwen novel Atonement — generated the most unanimously positive word of mouth of anything that screened all week. Conversely, it was bigger studio entries — Rendition and Elizabeth: The Golden Age — that went home under dark clouds of disappointment.

But Toronto’s most thrilling moments always come courtesy of some little, out-of-nowhere picture that leaves audiences surprised and wanting more. While Jason Reitman’s quirky romance, Juno, stole festival hearts early on, buzz later shifted to another auspicious debut from Hollywood spawn, Alison Eastwood’s Rails & Ties. It’s a sob-fest of a poetic story about a childless woman with terminal cancer (Marcia Gay Harden), whose railroad-engineer husband (Kevin Bacon) has a tragic collision with a car carrying a suicidal mother and her teenage boy, who escapes. Somehow, amid all these horrors, Eastwood shines little shafts of light onto these people’s shattered lives, to devastating effect. Yet even while the film moved many festival goers, Eastwood reported that her dad’s response to seeing his little girl’s first foray into the family business was typically stoic: ”Chip off the old block.”

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