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...
"A Single Man"
Tom Ford's directorial debut features a fantastic performance by Colin Firth as a man distraught over the death of his longtime lover. Read more.
Matt Damon is stellar in Steven Soderbergh's whimsical take on the real life story of the most naive con man ever.
"Up in the Air"
George Clooney picture No. 1. Jason Reitman's third film is on the verge of being a tad overhyped, but a strong dramedy featuring great turns by Clooney and star in the making Anna Kendrick. Read more.
"Men Who Stare at Goats"
George Clooney picture No. 2. Funnier than many thought with great work from a veteran core of actors including Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Read more.
"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"
Nicolas Cage plays a corrupt cop in this immensely entertaining comedic thriller from Werner Herzog. Read more.
"A Serious Man"
A man's professional and personal life seem on the brink in this very funny and personal film from the Coen bros.
An absorbing drama from French director Jacques Audiard that features a star making performance by Tahar Rahim.
A pretty good Pedro Almodovar star vehicle for BFF Penelope Cruz that unfortunately doesn't have enough Penelope Cruz in it. Read more.
Drew Barrymore's sweet and charming roller derby comedy with some great skating sequences. You only wish it had a few more laughs.
"I Killed My Mother"
20-year-old filmmaker and star Xavier Dolan shows a tremendous amount of talent in his funny and touching semi-autobiographical story of a young man who can't relate to his single mother in modern day Montreal.
Not the disaster it was made out to be after its Cannes Film Festival premiere, the latest drama from Lars Von Trier is an intriguing and, at times, beautiful art film, but any point he's trying to make gets lost in an overbearing third act.
"Life During Wartime"
Todd Solondz's semi-sequel to the more groundbreaking "Happiness." this film is disappointingly more modest and less daring than its predecessor.
Critics are unfairly making this funny horror film a victim of Diablo Cody backlash, but it's got great characters and proves Ms. Megan Fox can actually act.
"Capitalism: A Love Story"
Michael Moore's latest has some fantastic material about the economic meltdown of the past year, but he also has more holes in his argument than any of his other documentaries in recent memory.
Jane Campion's comeback brings out impressive turns by Abbie Cornish and Ben Winshaw.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty"
A worthwhile documentary chronicling the rebirth of Disney animation between 1984-1994, but too close to its subject matter to give a true perspective of the events in question. Read more.
"Mother and Child"
This drama features strong performances by Annette Bening, Kerry Washington and Naomi Watts, but not as satisfying as writer/director Rodrigo Garcia's previous work, "Nine Lives."
"The Boys Are Back"
Clive Owen gives it his all, but this drama about a widower raising his two songs is pretty much just a well-shot TV movie. You'd hardly realize that its director, Scott Hicks, was the Oscar-nominated director behind the "Shine."
Seemingly severely edited, Viggo Mortensen gives it his all in this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's beloved novel, but the casting of the very limited Kodi Smit-McPhee as his son hampers the film's impact severely.
Stars (and real life husband and wife) Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly should have known noted hack director Jon Amiel would deliver a biopic on the groundbreaking researcher that would be more appropriate or the Hallmark Channel than as the opening night premiere of a major film festival.
"Leslie, My Name Is Evil"
Inspired by the trial of the women who followed Charles Manson, this drama tries to bite off more than it can chew with a limited budget and an uncharismatic lead.
This adaptation of the classic tale isn't so bad it's good, it's so bad it's boring. Quite an accomplishment. Read more.
Canadian filmmaking icon Atom Egoyan goes off the rails in this 'Fatal Attraction' wannabe starring Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson.
"Love and Other Impossible Pursuits"
Natalie Portman is miscast in a major misfire from the talented writer/director Don Roos. Read more.
To see out how many of the films I caught at the festival stacked up with a letter grade as well as other commentators thoughts on this year's line up, check out IndieWire's annual critics poll.
Now it's time to start counting the days to Sundance. And to be quite honest, considering how weak the rest of the fall movie season looks, nothing is more exciting.
Which films from this year's Toronto Film Festival are you most interested in seeing? Share your thoughts below.
For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory