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Chiwetel Ejiofor (right) plays Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave. Benedict Cumberbatch plays one of the slaveowners who claim ownership of him. (Toronto International Film Festival)

Toronto International Film Festival, Days Three And Four: '12 Years' And 'Gravity'

Sep 9, 2013

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Linda Holmes

The weekend brings some higher-profile screenings, and my schedule on Saturday and Sunday reflects that. If some of the Thursday/Friday films were an opportunity to see what you may never hear about again, some of the Saturday/Sunday films are a chance to get a jump on the next four or five months of chatter.

12 Years A Slave (directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by John Ridley): It's not for nothing that everybody is talking about how tremendous this film is and how earth-shaking is the lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man in 19th century New York who's kidnapped, stripped of his identity, and sold into slavery. It really is that good. The rare film about American slavery that manages to be primarily about black people's experiences and not white people's, 12 Years is wrenching, awful, moving, beautifully rendered, and sorely needed.

Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuaron; screenplay by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron): The story of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who encounter serious trouble in space, Gravity is a jaw-dropping display of visual imagination and technical achievement, and it's well worth the attention it's receiving on that basis. The script is somewhat beside the point, but it does unfortunately lapse with some frequency into schlock. Nevertheless, the performances — especially from Bullock — hold up, and it's one of the best and most thoughtful uses of 3D since the technology leaped forward a few years ago.

Can A Song Save Your Life? (directed by John Carney; screenplay by Carney): John Carney's first film, Once, made him a hero to people who like musical films and sweet romances. It's a little jarring to see him making a film with stars as big as Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley — The Hulk and Lizzie Bennet! — not to mention an interesting turn from, of all people, Adam Levine. Nevertheless, while it lacks the delicate touch and the rough surface of Once, Can A Song Save Your Life? still shows off Carney's reverence for music, friendship, happy bands of conspirators, and complicated connections. For a movie that could have come off like a Hollywood version of something beautiful and tiny, it's actually quite successful.

The F Word (directed by Michael Dowse; screenplay by Elan Mastai): The "F" word, you see, is "friends." This romantic comedy from Michael Dowse, who most recently directed the hockey comedy Goon, stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as dear pals who may or may not be destined for some greater, or at least different, bond. While it occasionally tips into indie preciousness, for the most part, The F Word (based on a play by T.J. Dawe) represents a heartfelt and very funny telling of a story that's been told a million times in the movies, usually badly and glibly. It's not perfect, but it's really a lovely piece of work, and it benefits from fine performances, including from Adam Driver, who has maybe the best delivery of a line about nachos you'll see this year.

The Double (directed by Richard Ayoade; screenplay by Ayoade): Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella of the same name, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as a miserable clerical worker adrift in anonymous misery until the arrival of his doppelganger, a more assertive, successful, confident man than he's ever been. Ayoade builds a grim, greenly lit world that seems to exist at no particular moment in time other than what is suggested by the stubbornly analog technology and low-quality video, and Eisenberg is strong as both the cocky guy he usually plays and the quiet, contemplative guy he rarely plays anymore. It's a very odd, genuinely offbeat film (there were a noteworthy number of walkouts, though that can have as much to do with the timing of other screenings as the reaction to the film), but it burbles and crackles with imagination.

Life Of Crime: (directed by Daniel Schechter; screenplay by Schechter): An Elmore Leonard adaptation starring Jennifer Aniston as a wealthy woman kidnapped by two criminals, Life Of Crime is only okay, unfortunately. It always seems like it wants to be more fun than it is, and although there are a few nice moments, the conspicuous playfulness that elevates the best Leonard adaptations never emerges.

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