This year's Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 8-18) features an embarrassment of cinematic riches. Here's our guide to the movies that matter most

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 16, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Descendants
Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004) is another beautifully chiseled gem — sharp, funny, moving — that writes its own rules. It stars George Clooney as Matt King, a rumpled Hawaii lawyer whose wife lies in a coma. The more we learn about Matt and his daughters (the terrific Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), the more messed up we can see this family is. The situations keep twisting, and Clooney is pitch-perfect as a man awoken by loss.

The Ides of March
It’s George Clooney’s festival — we just live in it. He directed and costars in this grippingly dark political drama set during the days leading up to an Ohio Democratic primary. Ryan Gosling, flirting with sleaze but still making you like him, is the opportunistic press secretary to Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), an Obama-like change agent. The movie isn’t profound, but it pulses along like an updated version of The Candidate crossed with a political Sweet Smell of Success — it’s got that kind of noirish fizz.

A Dangerous Method
Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s libido-driven, Masterpiece Theatre-style movie, a fascinating play of sensuality and ideas. It was a stroke of inspiration to cast the virile Mortensen as the godfather of neurosis, and Keira Knightley does a daring turn as the tormented Russian Jewish hysteria patient who drives the two legends apart.

A thriller on fire, Oren Moverman’s tense, shocking drama is about a very bad L.A. cop, played with intricate demonic force by Woody Harrelson. It establishes Moverman (The Messenger) as a major filmmaking voice.

From the Sky Down
You may think the last thing we need is another U2 documentary, but Davis Guggenheim’s is fantastic. Keyed to the moment the band reinvented itself on Achtung Baby (1991), it’s one of the most intimate — and stirring — looks I’ve ever seen at the creative process of rock & roll.