Toronto quick takes on “Descendants,” “The Artist” and more – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell Last night, I fell in love with my first movie at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. This morning, it happened again.

We’ve already reached that tipping point of TIFF, where great movie experiences are stacking up on top of each other, and there’s no time to write at length about the gems I’m unearthing. So I’m resorting to quick takes. These are movies I’ve seen that I know I’m going to go back and cover in detail as the awards season rolls on. But for now, under the gun of TIFF’s spectacularly overstuffed schedule, I simply have to punch in, punch out and run, for fear of missing the latest David Cronenberg film “A Dangerous Method” or sleeping on a joyous treat like “The Artist.”

So, what have I seen?

“The Descendants”
Fox Searchlight brought two of its awards hopefuls to TIFF to test the waters and see where the campaigns should take them. Alexander Payne’s latest wowed crowds in Telluride and prepares to work similar magic on Toronto’s audiences. “Descendants” boasts a tour de force performance by George Clooney as a husband and father confronting tough life decisions as his wife lies in a coma following a boating accident. But this isn’t a dreary slog through a medical melodrama. Payne, who gave us ”Election” and “Sideways,” laces in his trademark absurdist humor in all of the right places, and Shailene Woodley is breathtaking as Clooney’s refreshingly shoot-from-the-hip older daughter. There’s plenty to chew on regarding family connections, heritage, loyalty to one’s location in life, the cycles we go through when confronting death, and the challenge of being a stable force during trying times. But Clooney’s an outstanding guide on this journey, and I’m confident his multi-faceted performance gets his name into the Best Actor race as the marathon continues.

“The Artist”
Sometimes they do make them like they used to. I fell head over heels in love with Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist,” a loving homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age about a silent film star (Jean Dujardin) who sees his cushy lifestyle threatened by the advent of talking pictures. Dujardin positively delights as George Valentin, a silent performer using every other tool in his acting arsenal to convey a wealth of emotions. Just don’t mistake “Artist” for cheap nostalgia. Hazanavicius deftly uses old tricks to tell a fresh and true story that will resonate deeply with lovers of film and the filmmaking process. It’s wonderful. It had me smiling ear to ear from the very first frame. Forget 3D, lets’ see more black-and-white silents in theaters, if they manage to be as entertaining as this. Right now, this is the best film I’ve seen at TIFF.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Sean Durkin’s Sundance hit plays TIFF, and it presents the distinct challenge of not being able to say much without spoiling the film’s oppressive tensions. An atmospheric public-service announcement about the psychological dangers of communal living, “Martha” is a haunting film that probes group think as it explores the impressionable charges living under cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). It boasts powerful performances by virtually everyone involved – with Hawkes standing out, as anticipated – and heralds the arrival of Elizabeth Olsen as a rising star. Durkin shoots the actress as if she were an inviting pool of endless beauty and mystery. She holds the camera’s lens like few others. I can’t wait to see what she chooses to do next.

“The Ides of March”
I ran a longer piece on Clooney’s directorial effort on the site earlier this morning, but wanted to reiterate that this tense and twisty thriller morphs Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North” into a tense political drama blessed with the hand-wringing intrigue of a top-shelf John Grisham novel. Ides” does for behind-the-scenes political campaigning what “Good Night” did for broadcast journalism. It operates in a world most of us recognize but aren’t too familiar with, and it turns that environment on its ear. Clooney’s picture doesn’t crackle with the pitter-patter energies of a “West Wing” episode. The twists are telegraphed, but no less gut wrenching. But the director has the patience to trust his powerful cast to deliver when it matters, from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti to Evan Rachel Wood as the key to the film’s largest twist. Definitely check this one out when it hits theaters on Oct. 7.

And I’m off again. Still need to see Cronenberg’s “Dangerous Method,” and plan to catching “Take Shelter” with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain before heading to a dinner and maybe an afterparty. TIFF 2011 rolls on with a vengeance. I’m doing all that I can to keep up!

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