10 films flying under the TIFF 2011 radar – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: And we’re off.

Later today, I’ll board a plane en route to Canada, where I’ll cover my seventh consecutive Toronto International Film Festival. As expected, TIFF has programmed a treasure trove of cinematic events, making it nearly impossible to cover every film on one’s wish list. Is the next “King’s Speech” waiting to unspool at TIFF? We’ll know soon enough.

I’ve stayed busy in the weeks running up to this year’s festival stocking our Awards Alley with extensive previews of films we expect to be major players in this year’s Oscar race. You know the titles by now: Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants;” George Clooney’s “The Ides of March;” “The Artist,” by Michel Hazanavicius; Brad Pitt’s “Moneyball;” and “Albert Nobbs,” with a winning performance by Glenn Close.

But every film fest promises programming surprises, and TIFF 2011 should be no different. Certain films could start this year’s festival flying under the radar but emerge with valuable buzz. Is there a sleeper on TIFF’s schedule, or a film that has attracted some attention yet is ready to explode?

Here are 10 films I’m keeping my eye on to see how they play in TIFF. We may be talking about them more as the Oscar season rolls along, or they might fizzle under media scrutiny north of the border. Anything’s possible on the eve of this spectacular film festival. So, what does the future hold for the following?

I’m cheating a little right off the bat because I’ve seen Jonathan Levine’s cancer comedy, and I believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an awards-worthy performance as a young NPR editor who finds out he has cancer. People also will emerge from this talking about Seth Rogen, Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick, all excellent in support. But it’s Levitt’s show. Be sure to catch it.

“Machine Gun Preacher”
A trusted source tells me Marc Forster’s biography of drug-dealer-turned-missionary Sam Childers is more of a commercial hit than an Oscar contender. But Forster has luck coaching actors to nominations (Johnny Depp) and wins (Halle Berry), so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he does the same for Gerard Butler.

Another film I was able to catch at a pre-TIFF screening. By all accounts, director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a stylish and cool genre film that plays like gangbusters with crowds. I’ll have a full review on the site once TIFF gets underway, but I’ll go on record as saying Albert Brooks can get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a malicious L.A. gangster if FilmDistrict plays its cards right.

Leading lady Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her role as a blushing bride. Yet that and a dollar will get you four quarters. While Lars von Trier often plays very well with critics, there’s no telling if his end-of-the-world drama can carry that Cannes goodwill to North America.

Ralph Fiennes directs an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, with an Oscar-worthy performance by Vanessa Redgrave. Or so I’m hearing.

“Take Shelter”
Michael Shannon and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain star in a stirring drama about a conflicted man obsessed with a pending storm. A Cannes and Sundance fave (it was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at the latter), “Shelter” has Internet critics on its side. Can it win more supporters in TIFF?

“Like Crazy”
Another Sundance title (and Grand Jury Winner) with festival heat, Drake Doremus’s romance stars Anton Yelchin and “It” girl Felicity Jones as lovers enduring a transcontinental relationship.

The big question surrounding Steve McQueen’s latest is whether or not the provocative and reportedly steamy drama can secure U.S. distribution. After that, those who’ve seen it wonder how the story of a sex addict will play with older Academy members, no matter how good Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan no doubt are. Even with great reviews, this story will take some time to pan out, but I have a feeling we’ll be talking about “Shame” for a while.

The latest from director Fernando Meirelles, which I’m hoping is closer to “City of God” or “The Constant Gardener” than “Blindness.” A script by Peter Morgan should help.

On the surface, it sounds like a genre thriller about a renegade cop (Woody Harrelson) trying to stay ahead of the corruption in his department. But when you realize it’s Harrelson’s reunion with “The Messenger” director Oren Moverman, and they’re working from a story by James Ellroy, you understand why I’m paying attention.

And this isn’t even making room for Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” (a can’t miss), Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” the ensemble comedy “Butter,” the proven horror film “We Need to Talk About Kevin,”, the Sundance hit “Pariah” or Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which I’m told is a masterpiece. Such is the problem with TIFF … a good one to have, unless you are trying to keep a schedule in order.

Please bookmark the site and check back often. I’ll be writing from TIFF whenever I have a free moment, and we’ll be covering these titles and more all season long.

Canada, here I come.

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