We are now on the third full day of the Toronto International Film Festival. And, yes, the "big guns" of the festival are starting to roll out. In this batch alone, I saw all three of my most anticipated movies of the festival: Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave. Anyway, enough with the chit chat (though I do miss you, America), let's talk about these movies.
12 Years a Slave
This is your early frontrunner for Best Picture and, yes, it's the real deal. Based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a 19th century free man named Solomon Northup who is kidnapped and sold into slavery - eventually winding up on the plantation of a sadistic owner, played by Michael Fassbender. This film is absolutely brutal. It's legitimately hard to watch. It's the Saving Private Ryan of slavery movies, in that it goes "all in" on the horrors of its subject. Also: You're not hearing about her yet, but keep an eye out for Lupita Nyong'o, who is absolutely terrific.
(Note: If you're seeing this movie because you love watching Brad Pitt act, you should probably know that he's in this movie for about six more minutes than I am.)
Gravity is a wonderful movie and it's a wonderful experience. I honestly don't want to say too much about Alfonso Cuaron's work here because you should know as little about this film as possible before watching it. But let's just say that (A) you actually feel like you're in space (and it's terrifying) and (B) I was wrong about my perceived notion that this was 90 minutes of Sandra Bullock hurtling aimlessly through space.
Dallas Buyers Club
Boy, what a couple of years Matthew McConaughey is having. Coming off Mud, Killer Joe and Magic Mike, the McConaissance rolls on with Dallas Buyers Club.
Based on a true story, McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof. Set in 1986, Woodroof is diagnosed as HIV positive and is given 30 days to live. Not accepting this diagnosis, Woodroof seeks out medication that had not been approved by the FDA - medication that extended Woodroof's life. Eventually, he sets up a network for other AIDS patients so they too can receive medication.
McConaughey famously lost a lot of weight for this role. He's borderline unrecognizable, but I hope that doesn't become the story here. McConaughey truly gives a wonderful performance that would be recognized with or without the weight loss. Honestly, I didn't think it was possible, but McConaughey's been so, so good these last two years that the horrible memories of Fool's Gold has been forever vanquished. Begone, you!
Also, Jared Leto is outstanding. (I have no real opinion of Jared Leto one way or another, but I promise you that's the first time I've ever written that previous sentence.) Leto plays Rayon, a "drag queen" (the term used in the official TIFF press notes) who becomes Woodroof's unlikely partner. (Woodroof is straight and when we first meet him, he's not the most open-minded of people.) I do hope Leto winds up getting more juicy roles like this one.
Jason Reitman makes good films. It's like that knock against running backs that don't put up flashy statistics, but can always find the end zone, "All he does is score touchdowns." That's Jason Reitman. All he does is make good movies.
I didn't know much about the plot of Labor Day other than the fact Josh Brolin plays an escaped prisoner who finds shelter at the home of a single mother and her young son (Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith), circa 1987. What starts out as something quite horrifying transforms seamlessly into something that's remarkably sweet. Again, Jason Reitman makes good films.
Honestly, I never thought a documentary about a man painting would be this fascinating. Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) has a friend, Tim, who has an obsession with the 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer. Tim's obsession is with Vermeer's technique that creates photo-like images, which Tim does not feel is possible without the help of some sort of technology. So, using 17th century equipment, Tim builds a device and attempts to paint his own Vermeer. Also: Tim is not an artist.
Directed by Teller (again, yes, of Penn & Teller), Tim's Vermeer is absolutely fascinating. And this is coming from someone who has little interest in Dutch artists.
Parkland is the name of the Dallas hospital that both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were brought to after each of them were, respectively, shot and killed. There's very little here in the way of conspiracies (even though a man before my screening was marching up and down the aisle muttering something about "bullshit conspiracies") and, for the most part, sticks to the facts.
There's an interesting movie in here, somewhere, about the lives of the people involved with the events of those days who weren't Kennedy or Oswald, but this isn't it. I mean, it's fine, but it plays out so ... dull. With an event like the Kennedy assassination, it would seem to me there would be more people making a fuss. Though, James Badge Dale (who plays Oswald's brother, of all people) and Ron Livingston give performances that do stand out.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.