The Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sunday, but the long opening weekend is always the busiest, starriest segment. Oscar contenders 'Moneyball,' 'Drive', 'The Ides of March,' and 'The Descendants' have already had their premieres, and A-listers from Brangelina to Bono have braved the gantlet of paparazzi and gently persistent Canadians angling for a photo, an autograph, or just a friendly nod. There's way too much happening for any one person to absorb it all, but here are five things I learned from my four-day visit.
1. It's cool to laugh and cry at the same time.
Two of the festival's best-received films, Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants' and Jonathan Levine's 50/50,' turn audience members into emotional wrecks, laughing one minute, crying the next, then laughing, then crying, and on and on. In both movies, death casts an early shadow: in 'The Descendants,' George Clooney's wife enters a coma in the first moments of the movie, and in '50/50,' Joseph Gordon Levitt learns that he has late-stage cancer not far into the first act. While the movies proceed along very different paths, they share a general theme: whether the reaper comes for you in 30 days or 30 years, the time to start appreciating life and the people you love is right now. It's that enlightened point of view, in fact, that allows them to steer clear of manipulative plot devices -- there's no head-faking, no surprise twists, just a group of intelligent, witty people doing their best to process some seriously raw emotions. Clooney is a lock for an Oscar nod, and I think Joseph Gordon Levitt could sneak in there too. And don't count out newcomer Shailene Woodley (best known previously for the ABC Family series 'The Secret Life of an American Teenager'), who gives a breakout performance as Clooney's fierce, funny 17-year-old daughter. I was only sorry that Gus Van Sant's 'Restless,' which stars Mia Wasikowska as a quirky cancer victim who spends her last days on Earth bonding with Henry Hopper (Dennis's son), couldn't make this the year when three great movies invited death to the party in the first act. Alas, the film's chief achievement is to induce the titular sensation in audience members.
2. Crazy is the new black.
David Cronenberg -- who, I discovered, has a star on King Street's endearingly modest Canadian Walk of Fame -- is known for bringing the crazy, but rarely has an actress gone for it with quite so much gusto as Keira Knightley in his Carl Jung biopic 'A Dangerous Method.' Playing a kinky Russian hysteric who comes to the famous Swiss psychotherapist (Michael Fassbender) in search of treatment, Knightley explodes onto the screen with a violent bout of shrieking, writhing, and jaw-jutting contorting that makes Regan from 'The Exorcist' look like Maria von Trapp. In Lars Von Trier's profoundly disturbing 'Melancholia,' meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst turns the volume down and the pathos way up as her character descends from blushing bride to helpless wretch -- only to emerge as a freakishly calm Cassandra. There may not be room for both Kikis in the best actress category, so I'm placing my early Oscar bet on Ms. Dunst.
3. The 90s were 20 years ago.
Not one, but two documentaries at this year's festival revisit pivotal albums from 1991. The first, Davis Guggenheim's 'From the Sky Down,' describes how U2 fought off exhaustion and creative stagnation at the end of the 1980s by relocating to the newly reunited Berlin and recording 'Achtung, Baby' -- thereby fulfilling Bono's desire to "grab a f-king chainsaw and cut down the 'Joshua Tree.'" The best sequence in the film uses archival audio to show how the hugely successful ballad "One" spontaneously sprang forth during a jam session on what would become "Mysterious Ways," but I also enjoyed the band's refreshing displays of self-deprecation. There is much talk about how embarrassed they all were by the 1989 documentary 'Rattle & Hum,' which I actually loved -- being 14 at the time and unaware of just how silly and bombastic the whole thing seemed to the band's peers. Oddly, Guggenheim told me that he loved 'Rattle & Hum' too, and tried to bring Bono around to his point of view. "But he kept saying, 'No, it's shit.'" Another big-time filmmaker, Cameron Crowe, brings his extensive talents to 'Pearl Jam Twenty,' which uses the 20th anniversary of the Seattle grunge band's formation to tell the story of its lightning-fast rise and long coming-of-age. I was never a Pearl Jam guy myself -- "frat boy music," my friends called it in those days -- but I left the film with a new respect for Eddie Vedder and the band, even if they never quite did manage to pull a U2 and reinvent themselves for a new era.
4. People are worried that another planet is going to invade our cosmic neighborhood, apparently.
This is such a bizarre trend, I'm not sure what to make of it, but there are three movies this year in which another planet sidles up to Earth, for better or worse (mainly worse). The first was 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' in which -- forgive me if you didn't even notice this amid all the shooting -- the Decepticons beam their ruined home planet to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in hopes of having it cleaned up by the entire enslaved human race. Then there was 'Another Earth,' where a twin copy of our home planet suddenly pops up on the horizon, prompting our ever-creative fellow homo sapiens to christen it "Earth 2." And now there's Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia,' in which a giant blue planet called Melancholia suddenly jumps out from behind the sun and starts speeding toward us at a healthy clip of 60,000 miles per second. Will it pass us by, or swallow us up in a terrifyingly inescapable interplanetary apocalypse? Like I said, it's a Lars Von Trier movie, so what do you think?
5. Alexander Payne wears ear plugs to parties.
I've already said how much I enjoyed 'The Descendants,' and at Saturday night's Vanity Fair/Fox Searchlight party I seized the opportunity to say so to its director -- only to discover that he was wearing airplane-style ear plugs. I'm guessing it's a tinnitus thing? Anyway, he seemed to understand what I said -- though my full-body "I'm not worthy" gesture probably got the gist across anyway.