<p>Natalie Portman lit up the Toronto Film Festival, but unfortunately her movie "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" did not.</p>

Natalie Portman lit up the Toronto Film Festival, but unfortunately her movie "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" did not.

Credit: AP Photo/Evan Agostini

Best and Worst of the 2009 Toronto Film Festival

The Great, the Good and the Not-So Good

The 2009 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival will most likely be remembered for five things: the year of the dueling George Clooney pictures ("The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "Up in the Air"), the 24 hours Oprah Winfrey dominated the festival promoting "Precious," three "Man" flicks with confusing titles ("Serious," "Solitary" and "Single"), one of the worst acquisition markets in years (only one major film picked up at press time) and, happily, one of the better midnight madness slates in memory (from those critics who made it a staple at least). 

Having attended the festival now for the fifth time, this writer has come to expect few discoveries at Toronto (the joy of Sundance), but was pleasantly surprised with memorable out of the blue debuts such as Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" and "Tom Ford's "A Single Man."  Little seen Cannes and Sundance premieres such as "Antichrist," "Precious," "An Education," "J'ai tue ma mere (I Killed My Mother)" and "A Prophet" also created a lot of buzz around town. Still, there were just as many disappointments from filmmakers who may have lost their magic touch, but sadly this is becoming more common place at every festival it seems.

Traditionally, I've always given a quick rundown of the the great, the good and the not-so good at every festival I've attended and there's no reason to stop that tradition at HitFix.  So without further ado...

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<p>Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes of 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'</p>

Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes of 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans'

Toronto: Nicolas Cage's hilarious performance fuels 'Bad Lieutenant'

Werner Herzog's entertaining flick is more comedy than thriller, but it works


I'm not sure who is going to acquire Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," but lord I hope someone does.  Surprisingly funny and immensely entertaining, "Bad Lieutenant" is markedly different than it's 1992 predecessor (which is best known for star Harvey Keitel's full frontal nude scene), but beyond the new locale, the film really sets itself apart by Nicolas Cage's fantastic performance.

Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, "Bad Lieutenant" follows a few days in the life of a Terence McDonagh (Cage) , a career officer in the city police force who suffers from chronic back pain that he can only tolerate by over indulging on prescription drugs, cocaine, heroin and, um, you name it.  Things start to go wrong for McDonagh when he's asked to investigate the cold-blooded murder of five Sengalese immigrants.  At the same time, a series of events conspire to bring McDonagh's world into a spiral including his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes in her element) being blackmailed by a mob thug, his bookie coming after him for $10,000 and a dangerous arrangement with the drug dealing murder suspect Big Fate (a surprising Xzibit).  "Bad" man indeed.  As the chips fall into place, however, it's McDonagh's crazy luck and smarts portrayed in a smart, relaxed and almost lighthearted style by Cage that makes the storyline work.  And even though the tension dissipates as the outlandish events increase throughout the story, the audience still finds itself rooting for McDonagh, a man so screwed up he'll pull over a couple on false charges and then screw a man's girlfriend just to get his desperate cocaine hit.  That's not an easy accomplishment for any director, but Herzog really pulls it off.

Val Kilmer, Michael Shannon and Shawn Hatosy are all solid as colleagues in the forece and Fariuza Balk is incredibly sexy  in a brief cameo, but it's Cage who is the real star here.  This writer tried to recall the last time the Oscar-winner came across as sympathetic, unintentionally endearing and someone you really root for.  "Face/Off"? "The Rock"?  Shoot, even his work in "Leaving Las Vegas" wasn't easy to watch.  In any event, it's been quite a long time.  And just as long since Cage has looked like he's been having such a blast on screen.  If "Lieutenant" could find distribution soon to make a 2009 release, Cage would stand an excellent shot at another Oscar nomination.  No matter what the outcome in that respect, his performance should grab the attention of many filmmakers and producers who may have shied away from him for edgier roles because of his recent run of flicks like "National Treasure," "Knowing" and insert lame thriller here.  

"Lieutenant's" thematic point-of-view may not be for everyone, but judging by the audience reaction at the press screening this afternoon it could become a favorite of many.




For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter atTwitter.com/HitFixGregory


<p>Penelope Cruz in Rob Marshall's "Nine."</p>

Penelope Cruz in Rob Marshall's "Nine."

Credit: Weinstein Company

Weinstein Company officially denies Oscar contender 'Nine' is moving to 2010

With rumors flying, Rob Marshall's musical is staying put...for now

Could the unthinkable actually be happening with awards season barely in swing?  Over the past few days, rumors have flown around the Toronto Film Festival and back in good ol' Los Angeles that the financially strapped The Weinstein Company was considering moving expected Oscar contender "Nine" out of this calendar year and into 2010.  Considering "Nine" has been one of the most hyped releases for the company this year, it would be a dramatic event which could mean either the Weinsteins or the picture itself was in serious trouble.

Directed by "Chicago's" Rob Marshall, "Nine" is the big screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical which features an all-star cast including Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson and, um, Fergie.

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<p>Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in Tom Ford's "A Single Man."</p>

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in Tom Ford's "A Single Man."

Credit: TIFF

Toronto: Colin Firth is superb in Tom Ford's directorial debut 'A Single Man'

With the gay-themed drama be the first big acquisition out of the festival?

First time filmmakers rarely hit a home run with their debut, but fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford has come pretty close with the new drama "A Single Man."  A moving exploration of a day in the life of a 60s college professor (Colin Firth) who can't move on from the death of his lover (Matthew Goode) eight months before, Ford has adapted Christopher Isherwood's novel into one of the true surprises of the fall festival season. 

Firth won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival this past weekend for his portrayal and it's hard to remember the last time he was so superb on screen.  The beloved TV British mini-series for "Pride & Prejudice" almost 15 years ago?  It's hard to say for sure, but when the 49-year-old actor opens up the emotional floodgates towards the end of the film it's heartbreaking and had many in the audience teary-eyed.

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<p>Kristen Wiig, Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore at the world premiere of "Whip It" Sunday night at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.</p>

Kristen Wiig, Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore at the world premiere of "Whip It" Sunday night at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

Credit: AP Photo/Evan Agostini

Toronto: 'Whip It,' 'Capitalism' and 'Precious' make for an eventful evening

Mariah, Oprah, Drew and Moore on the scene

If there is one thing you can count on during the first weekend of a major film festival is an abundance of good parties and Sunday night at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival was no different. The news of the day, however, was Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Mariah Carey descending on the fest to promote their new film "Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire."

The big "O' and Perry came on board as executive producers after the film was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, but were proving their worth by making the picture a media magnet all over town this weekend.  Winfrey already unintentionally caused a scene at Saturday night's "Up in the Air" premiere (she's BFF with director Jason Reitman's mom) and the TIFF press office was so overwhelmed with requests to cover the picture's red carpet on Sunday night they went to a lottery system.  Ironically, TIFF and Lionsgate didn't inform enough of the media that the official press conference, at 9 AM Sunday morning, would include Perry and Winfrey which lead to many seats still being available (a rare occurrence at TIFF press conferences). 

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<p>Anna Kendrick at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "Up in the Air."</p>

Anna Kendrick at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "Up in the Air."

Credit: AP Photo/Evan Agostini

Q&A: Anna Kendrick talks 'New Moon,' 'Scott Pilgrim' and her breakthrough in 'Up in the Air'

Actress will turn heads with her performance in Jason Reitman's acclaimed dramedy

A year ago I spoke with Dev Patel right after "Slumdog Millionaire" had debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.  The Brit's first feature film, like many, Patel still couldn't grasp the amazing road the eventual Best Picture-winning movie was going to take or the part he would play in it.  At the time,  having seen the journey of recent word-of-mouth contenders such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno," I told him to savor as much of it as he could and enjoy the wild ride.  The same scenario is about to engulf up and coming actress Anna Kendrick.

The breakout star of Jason Reitman's new dramedy "Up in the Air," Kendrick will have moviegoers buzzing over her role as Natalie a smart young woman brought in to modernize a company that fires employees for other companies so they don't have to do it themselves. George Clooney plays a longtime manager for the company who is weary of Natalie's new plan to do all the firings via internet video conference call.  Eventually his boss (Jason Bateman), puts the unlikely duo on the road together so Natalie can learn the ropes.  It's a fantastic performance that could (and should) lead to a best supporting actress nomination for the former Tony Award nominee (youngest ever at the age of 12).

Kendrick isn't a stranger to the big screen or the spotlight, however.  She plays the supporting, human role of Bella's schoolmate Jessica in "The Twilight Saga" and will return with the franchise in both "New Moon" this fall and "Eclipse" next June.  She also landed a role in the hype-worthy Edgar Wright flick "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" coming out next year.

Having enjoyed "Air" at the public premiere last night, I sat down for a one on one with Kendrick at a Toronto hotel today to discuss her work in "Air" and her very busy 2009.

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<p>Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in a scene from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air."</p>

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in a scene from Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air."

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Toronto: 'Up in the Air' receives Oscar level sky miles

Plus: Oprah makes an appearance at the premiere

One of the most anticipated public premieres at this year's Toronto International Film Festival had one of the biggest stars in the world in attendance and it wasn't even its leading man.  Surprisingly, George Clooney was upstaged at "Up in the Air's" debut by none other Oprah Winfrey.   Yes, the media mogul was in attendance with galpal Gayle King and Paramount CEO Brad Grey.  What was all the fuss about?  Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman screened his third film, a dramedy that received raves after its "secret" screening during last weekend's Telluride Film Festival.  Did it live up to the hype?  Let's just say Paramount should have a very fun and smooth flight with this one.

When it opens in December, "Up in the Air" will win a lot of passionate converts.  I'll let HitFix's Drew McWeeny review the movie in more detail, but it's a very, very good movie with memorable characters, dialogue and a contemporary story line with thematic nods to the difficult economy that will speak to moviegoers across the country.  If Searchlight can get "Juno" to $143 million there is no reason Paramount can't do at least half that or more with a similarly inexpensive comedy.  What should drive a lot of the attention won't just be good reviews, but awards season buzz.  And as this pundit had heard, "Air" will get that love in spades.

First off, nothing is a "lock" really for the Oscars, anything can happen over the next four months.  The new system makes many consultants overly nervous, but this prognosticator will be shocked if "Air" doesn't get one of the ten nominations.  Now, it's not the frontrunner, it's too early to put that heavy crown on any picture, but it's in -- that simple.  More intriguing isn't George Clooney in the best actor race (likely) or Reitman in the adapted screenplay and director categories (probable), but newcomer Anna Kendrick in the best supporting actress race. 

Actually, any "Twilight" fan already knows Kendrick as Jessica from Forks High, but the 24-year-old didn't arrive in Hollywood out of nowhere.  She turned heads with her work in the indie "Rocket Science" a few years ago and also happens to be the youngest Tony Award nominee on record having been recognized for her work at only 12-years-old.  Kendrick also has a prominent role in the upcoming "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" as the title hero's sister Stacy. So, to the creative community, she's not an unknown quantity.  In "Air," however, Kendrick shines as Natalie, an eager type-A manager whose miniscule real life experiences haven't prepared her for her company's primary profit center of laying off other people's employees.  To be completely honest, Kendrick could have phoned this role in and still gotten positive notices on the strength of the script alone, but like Carey Mulligan in "An Education," she brings something more to her character that will have audiences talking about her as they exit the theater.  Along with "Precious'" Mo'Nique, she's one of the two supporting actress candidates to really watch out for this year (although if Penelope Cruz's character in "Nine" goes in this category she's likely in too, but I digress...).

Recently, a lot of friends and colleagues have complained about the dearth of good movies coming out over the next few months.  Well, if "Up in the Air" is any example, they just haven't heard of it yet.  After "Air's" splash at Toronto, that's really gonna change.

For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory

<p>Colin Firth and Ben Barnes are probably hoping most moviegoers have forgotten about "Dorian Gray" already.</p>

Colin Firth and Ben Barnes are probably hoping most moviegoers have forgotten about "Dorian Gray" already.

Credit: TIFF

Toronto: 'Dorian Gray' with Ben Barnes a train wreck, 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' solid

Plus: 'A Prophet' features a star-making performance

A TIFF sponsor has made Jennifer Connelly cry, Oprah is already in town, very few flicks look to be acquired and it's become the George Clooney show (for a number of good reasons).  Those are just some of the storylines dominating the first few days of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, but let's talk about the movie themselves shall we?

As always, Toronto is a mix of awards contenders (or pretenders) and new films looking for distribution.  Here's a quick review of a few titles this writer has caught over the past day or so.

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<p>Natalie Portman in "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits."</p>

Natalie Portman in "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits."

Credit: TIFF

Toronto: Natalie Portman's 'Impossible Pursuits' becomes Friday's festival misfire

Don Roos' latest can't overcome unlikeable characters and not enough laughs

Writer/Director Don Roos is a really funny guy.  And he's pretty talented too.  His breakout flick "The Opposite of Sex" has grown in stature as one of the quintessential indie movies of the late 1990s.  Unfortunately, he's never really duplicated the magic of the dark comedy that helped convince Hollywood Christina Ricci had real sex appeal.  His latest film, "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," debuted today at the Toronto International Film Festival for press and industry and to say it's a disappointment is an understatement. 

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<p>Penelope Cruz makes "Broken Embraces" work.</p>

Penelope Cruz makes "Broken Embraces" work.

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Toronto: Penelope Cruz keeps 'Broken Embraces' in one piece

But whether it provides another Oscar nod for the beauty is unclear

"Broken Embraces" didn't get the usual Pedro Almodovar love from critics out of this year's Cannes Film Festival.  Yet another film with his favorite leading lady and best buddy  Penelope Cruz, the picture was an afterthought to the more serious contenders at the French festival such as "The White Ribbon" and "A Prophet."  With awards season and a whole other continent of critics some thought the picture's buzz could turnaround at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

And then again...

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