09/10/2012 02:11 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Toronto Diary: From Golden Abs to the Wit of Noah Baumbach

Time was when blonde bombshells meant women. Here at Toronto 2012 the hot blonds are the guys. Consider goldilocksed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, over-the-top-sexy as Count Vronsky in Joe Wright's dazzling Anna Karenina. I'd kill to get the name of his hairdresser -- and, yes, full disclosure, I'm obsessed with Aaron T-J, not only for his pantherine moves in the film's ballroom scene, but because T-J (22) is married to a woman 25 years his senior, has two daughters, and counts himself lucky. Truly, he's today's new man.

The other peroxided actor strutting his stuff is Ryan Gosling in Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines. In an early money shot the camera zooms in on Gosling's golden tattooed abs as he revs up for a motorcycle-cage stunt at a carnival, openly fetishizing the star's famously ripped bod. At this year's TIFF as seldom before sex and desire are front and center stage.

Following on the heels of Blue Valentine -- also starring Gosling -- the eagerly awaited Pines is a slightly unwieldy tangle of three separate-but-linked stories about sins of the fathers, retribution, and honor that ranges across generations and social classes. Stunt rider Gosling gets into crime in order to provide for his newborn child, which puts him on a collision course with cop-turned-politician Bradley Cooper. The story then picks up 15 years later to explore the fallout of past violence on the two men's sons.

Though Pines runs long and the multiple stories blur focus, I'm moved by Cianfrance's portrayal -- through Gosling who essentially reprises his Valentine role -- of damaged, marginalized men who not only can't find, but wouldn't know how to look for the ticket out. In our current under-employed land, Cianfrance has hit on a kind of loser/loner who feels emblematic of the times. Since he's embodied by Ryan Gosling, we root for him even as he makes ruinous choices.

On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of elegance lies Noah Baumbach's delicious Frances Ha. He's our most French director, peppering his latest with homages to Francois Truffaut and Godard. Co-written with Greta Gerwig who also stars as Frances, the plot -- more anecdotal than conventionally linear -- deals with her efforts to find a foothold as a dancer in New York. An all-round screw-up in work and love, she's dubbed "undateable." Frances is joined at the hip to her bf -- "we went to college together and we're the same person" -- who "betrays" her, first by moving to a better apartment in Tribeca, then by getting engaged to a Goldman Sachs type.

I'm sure Baumbach must hate all the comparisons to Girls. Sure, there's overlap -- basically Frances and friends are the same privileged-but-broke whites from good colleges -- but a few years older, so being at loose ends ups the ante. And this film trades in a wit and style all its own. Baumbach amusingly cuts scenes not just abruptly, but several seconds before they have any right to end. The result is a life-like breathlessness and rush.

The sparkling dialogue is often LOL. Sneaking a smoke indoors Frances says, "This makes me feel like a bad mother in 1987." "I was in Paris when Serge Gainsbourg died," says a roommate who's deaf to his own pretentiousness. In a droll sequence Frances blows out her credit card on a weekend in Paris, only to spend the whole time either sleeping off jet lag or trying to hook up with an elusive friend. Frances is imbued with French New Wave charm; Baumbach even resurrects Georges Delerue's bouncy score for The Four Hundred Blows as Frances races about Brooklyn trying to find an ATM. I also detected strains of Jules et Jim.

Typically, the critic's lifestyle during TIFF is not health-enhancing. It reminds me a bit of Louis Malle's film about the Tour de France, where the bikers wolf down sustenance as they pedal up mountains and stop only to irrigate the sides of the road. At one event I consumed a pot au feu which ignited a feu in my pot, anything for protein.

But civilization reined as always at the Sony Pictures Classics dinner where I chatted with Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers, the essential Israeli documentary about the Shin Bet (Israel's FBI), more about that in next post. Dennis Quaid, who plays Zac Efron's dad in Rahmin Bahrani's agri drama At Any Price. Zac Efron, who seems entirely unimpressed with his star status and is taking on meaty indie roles. And from the film No by Chilean Pablo Larrain, Gael Garcia Bernal, who for some reason didn't remember meeting me in Cannes.

Best line so far from the fest is courtesy of Nick Cassavetes on the subject of incest: "Who Gives a damn? Love who you want."