Photo: The Weinstein Company / Warner BrosThe three major fall film festivals -- Telluride, Venice, and Toronto -- tumble the early Oscar contenders, separating the gold from the pyrite. Three films that premiered over the last month have emerged as undisputed best-picture contenders: "Argo," "Silver Linings Playbook," and "The Master."
"Argo": The Ben Affleck-directed fact-based thriller about a daring scheme to rescue American hostages in Iran by having them pose as a film crew came out of Telluride, Colorado, a winner, and left Toronto an awards-season front-runner. Following "The Town" and "Gone, Baby, Gone," Affleck, who also stars as a CIA exfiltration expert, has proved himself to be an engaging director with a good storytelling sense and an instinct for movies that play on the narrow border of Hollywood and indie where Awards seasons hits are made. His movies are intelligent but, unlike, say, "The Tree of Life," also accessible. "'Argo' is a crackerjack political thriller told with intelligence, great period detail, and a surprising amount of nutty humor, for a serious look at the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81. Proving yet again that he's a behind-the-camera force to be reckoned with, Ben Affleck tells a dense, multilayered yarn "'based on a declassified true story' with confidence and finesse," wrote "The Hollywood Reporter"'s Todd McCarthy.
"Silver Linings Playbook": The winner of the Toronto audience award -- past victors have included "Slumdog Millionaire," "American Beauty," and "The King's Speech" -- is about two misfits who find a second chance through their burgeoning friendship. It doesn't hurt that the actors playing those characters are the immensely popular Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Based on the popular novel, and directed by "The Fighter"'s David O' Russell, the quirky star-driven comedy is the kind of movie that pleases both audiences and critics. "While David O' Russell's foray into conventional drama with 'The Fighter' was a richly satisfying knockout, it's a joy to see him back in the off-kilter comedy realm with the wonderful 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Cheerfully yet poignantly exposing the struggles, anxieties, disorders and obsessions of ordinary people, this is a film as odd as it is charming," wrote "The Hollywood Reporter"'s David Rooney.
"The Master": Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to "There Will Be Blood" (2007) sucked up a lot of the oxygen as it made its festival rounds. But, for every passionate supporter who cries "masterpiece," there are equally as many asking, "Did I miss something?" It's the broad canvas drama of an obsessive WWII vet (Joaquin Phoenix) who returns home from the war, warped and broken. After a series of failed jobs, he gets sucked into the orbit of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who bears some resemblance to Scientology's L. Ron Hubbard. The movie's wins at Venice for best director and a combined acting prize for stars Phoenix and Hoffman put this critics' darling at the head of the early Oscar pack despite some misgivings. "For me, it remained a film to admire and puzzle over rather than to enter into and love -- but, to its credit, 'The Master' isn't a work that much cares if you love it or not," wrote "Slate"'s Dana Stevens.
Among the once-promising best picture contenders that stumbled at Toronto, put the ambitious "Cloud Atlas," starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, at the top of the list. Thud.