By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 07, 2012 at 01:01 PM EDT
Credit: Claire Folger
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At this year’s Toronto Film Festival — branded acronymously as TIFF — it’s possible to devour a big chunk of the upcoming movie season in the course of eight crazy days and nights. I’m talking about the prestige stuff, the awards bait, the grown-up menu. Jammed and overlapping, the schedule allows a caffeinated venue-hopper to gulp down The Master, Argo, Cloud Atlas, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, Hyde Park on the Hudson, To the Wonder, Great Expectations… and I’m sure I’m missing a jumble of other titles.

Trouble is, following this PR-campaign-oriented track leaves little room for seeing new world-cinema work by Roman Polanski, Thomas Vinterberg, Pablo Trapero, Michel Gondry, Olivier Assayas, Susanna Bier, Laurent Cantet, Takeshi Kitano, Carlos Reygadas, Bernardo Bertolucci, and a whole lot more. Not to mention Joss Whedon’s riff on Much Ado About Nothing, if that’s your cup of fest tea.

Every year I fret that TIFF is weighted more and more precariously towards Oscar jockeying, counting on critics and entertainment journalists to blog and tweet our parts in the marketing game. At least, though, I’m efficient about my fretting, confining it to the night before the screenings begin, when I’ve picked up my credentials and the annual thick program book but haven’t actually seen anything.

The good news at the end of Day 1: Among my selections today, I’ve seen one prestige pic and one festival-circuit specimen of world cinema — and they’re both terrific.

Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, sustains Affleck’s impressive streak as a filmmaker of real and deepening talent. The premise is a corker, all the more so because it’s true: During the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980, six U.S. citizens who escaped during the takeover of the American Embassy and found temporary refuge as “houseguests” in the Canadian Embassy were smuggled out of the country posing as a Canadian production team scouting locations for a (fictional) sci-fi movie, a fantastic ruse masterminded by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck). Working with a sharp and sometimes sharply funny (especially when it comes to Hollywood commentary) screenplay by Chris Terrio, Affleck uses the gift of this great story — previously a classified state secret — wisely. Argo toggles deftly between scenes of almost unbearable, honestly earned tension and controlled movie-world chaos with sensitivity and a sure touch, building to a thrilling climax. I’ll have much more to say about this exciting movie when it opens later this fall.

The Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, by Dror Moreh, is a feat — first of access, and second of passionate and appropriately unsettling political commentary. I don’t know how he did it, but Moreh, a seasoned Israeli cinematographer, managed to interview six former heads of Shin Bet, Israeli’s secretive secret service agency — tough men who have never spoken publicly about their work before. What they have to say about terrorism, torture, war, compromise, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and, most depressingly, about the relationship between Israelis and Israelis in a country being torn apart as much from within as from enemies without is alternately unnerving, surprising, depressing, and vital. The historical footage illustrating the testimony of these serious and at times tormented men is a revelation. Together, The Gatekeepers and Argo exemplifies contemporary TIFF at its most alluring.

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