Pete Hammond

The Toronto International Film Festival officially kicked off tonight with gala screenings of FilmDistrict’s time-tripping sci-fi action flick Looper starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt, plus two Cannes premieres making their official North American bows. On The Road, the 1950s beat movie about Jack Keroauc, drew stars Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and others, while French helmer Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone arrived with stars Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in tow. Cotillard, as a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in a tragic accident, delivers another show-stopping performance that seems sure to earn her a shot at a second Best Actress Oscar. She looked great after travelling from her Telluride tribute last weekend to Toronto for the big opening tonight. I told her I felt like I have been stalking her, following her from Cannes to Telluride and now Toronto. “Yes, it’s has been quite a trip, hasn’t it?” she said as she entered Michael’s restaurant (also having a Grand Opening) for the pre-screening Moet and Chandon dinner.

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Co-star Schoenaerts, who made a splash last year in Belgium’s surprise Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Bullhead, has everything it takes to be a major star but told me he wants to take it slow. “When all this started happening I did have talks regarding the lead in Robocop but decided it just wasn’t right for me at this time. I want to be a little more careful about what I do next. These two films have gotten great reaction and now I am working on a documentary,” he said while understating the intense Hollywood interest in him. Clearly he could fill the void in the action star arena but seems to want something beyond that. He says his doc is about a childhood friend whose life went into a downward spiral, landing in prison and even losing a leg. He said there are parallels with both Bullhead and Rust & Bone but he’s been working on it for a while — noting it wasn’t inspired by either film. Sony Classics plans to open Rust & Bone in November and it is a top contender to become the French entry for the Academy Awards although it will likely have to fight the worldwide crowd-pleasing hit The Intouchables for that opportunity.

As for the other Toronto premieres opening night, On The Road was showing off a print that was shorter than the version that played in Cannes competition to mixed response from critics (currently stands at 38% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). Director Walter Salles has used the time since its Croisette debut to tighten it considerably in advance of an Oscar-qualifying run that IFC plans for later this year.

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Looper, the “official” debut World Premiere film of the Festival is that rare Toronto opener that doesn’t have Canadian roots. It also doesn’t have Oscar aspirations like tonight’s two other films, or many of the movies that come here in search of a serious launch for the elusive gold statuette. Instead it’s a truly clever and original sci-fi genre movie that ought to have real commercial clout when it opens September 28. Nothing wrong with that but not exactly the kind of fare with which serious film festivals kick things off. But it works and general reaction was thumbs-up.

With nearly 300 films including 17 red carpet galas, 45 special presentations and 35 World Premieres, there will be plenty of time over the next 10 days to discover a ton of major awards contenders. Toronto has debuted six of the last seven Best Picture winners and among those films aiming to continue the trend are The Master, Anna Karenina, The Sessions, Amour, Argo, Hyde Park On Hudson, Silver Linings Playbook, End Of Watch, Cloud Atlas, The Impossible and Quartet — all of them packed into the festival’s first three days.

This is an almost impossible film festival to navigate (although extremely well-planned and organized), with so many films and so little time plus numerous interview opps and lots of stars and a Who’s Who of contemporary directorial talent on hand — and a long, long list of movies up for distribution deals. It’s a perfectly positioned festival that not only has a strong impact on the current awards season but also is setting up some movies for potential Oscar bids a year from now. No rest for the bleary-eyed. We’re off.

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Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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