09/07/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2014

Toronto 2014 Is the Year of the Actor

By Day 3 it's become clear that the Toronto film fest 2014 is above all about the year of the actor, male and female. As I toggle between one theater and the next, I discover yet another film that raises the bar on the art of screen performance. And I haven't even seen yet the touted turns of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything;" Benedict Cumberland as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game;" Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duval in fest opener, "The Judge." They're all Oscar fodder, from what I could pick up last night emerging from the premiere of "The Drop," as a thunder and lightning show demo'd global warming in action and drenched cinephiles on their way to after-parties or yet another movie.

Directed by Belgian Michael Roskam, "The Drop" must be seen by anybody who thrills to great acting for the revelation that is Tom Hardy. The Brit thesp goes deep Brooklyn as Bob Saginowski, a bartender caught between the cops and a pod of Chechen gangsters. He works at Cousin Marv's, a neighborhood watering hole that doubles as a drop bar - a place for its Chechen owners to deposit and launder money. When the drop is stolen in a holdup, Marv (the late great James Gandolfini in his final role) and Bob are threatened not only by the Chechens, but also a canny cop with a nose for fishy business. Bob's life gets further complicated when he rescues an abused puppy from the trash can of a local woman (Noomi Rapace) and becomes drawn into her troubled life.

Both Bob and Marv sit on secrets that screenwriter Dennis Lehane dishes up in Act 3 with devilish timing, pulling the rug out from everything we've been led to believe.

At the premiere of "The Drop" at the Princess of Wales theater, its screenwriter Dennis Lehane came onstage to talk about the art of creating characters we can fall in love with. Really, it's a mystery, half the time, even to the writer himself. We fall hard for Bob, partly because - well, who doesn't love a man who awkwardly lavishes tenderness on an abused pit bull puppy, claiming the breed has gotten a bad rap?

Hardy has mastered the Noo Yawk inflection, pulling out a slow-roll delayed reaction thing that echoes Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront." He nails the character of Bob even down to the deliberate way he moves, sweet and dangerous, under his flannel checked shirt. To watch Hardy and Gandolfini play off each other is cinephile heaven.

For another stellar performance check out German actress Nina Hoss in "Phoenix" from Christian Petzold, the director who brought us the amazing "Barbara." (Hoss was recently featured in Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer, "A Most Wanted Man.") "Phoenix" offers a new angle on the Holocaust, an unending source of stories.

The premise: it's post-war Berlin in the 40's and Nelly, a woman who was mutilated in the camps, is given a new face by doctors that makes her quasi unrecognizable. Now she's in line to claim her family's money and make a new home in Israel with her friend Lene, a Jewish aid worker. Instead, she trolls Berlin's underbelly in search of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the Gentile husband who hid her from the Nazis for a time, but may have ultimately caved.

Nelly does indeed find him in a seedy nightclub called, you guessed it, Phoenix. What ensues is a strange dance between her and Johnny, who doesn't recognize her but, inspired by her unnerving resemblance to his wife, hatches a plan to use her to claim the family's cash. Nelly agrees and becomes her own impostor - the better to learn whether he loved or and whether he betrayed her.

Yes, the premise may sound hokey, but once "Phoenix" wraps you in its spell you're caught. Partly because Petzold uses the setup to talk about German guilt over the past and Johnny's way of circumventing it. The director's use of close-ups is mesmerizing, as when the faces of these two fine actors fill the screen and their eyes lock as if trying to scan a truth they can't reach. What American actress can deliver the bare-bones intensity of Nina Hoss? Her starkness matches Petzold's vision of National Socialism, which, in his words, "created an abyss into which you're thrown again and again."