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Toronto Film Festival: High-profile releases and under-the-radar films are both satisfying viewing

At the Toronto Film Festival, Meryl Streep wowed in 'August: Osage County' and 'Gravity' was a technical tour de force, while lesser-known films like 'Tim's Vermeer' were also intriguing.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / September 13, 2013

Tom Berenger arrived with his wife, Laura Moretti, at a screening at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 5.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

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Meryl Streep was supposed to be among the many stars showcased on the red carpet at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival. Then she came down with something and had to cancel. But it’s OK. As one bystander quipped: “She has the flu and I hear she’s amazing in it.”

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The 10-day festival unveiled 288 films, of which I saw about 20, from more than 60 countries. For at least the first long weekend, Hollywood hoopla reigns. It’s the movie equivalent of a fall fashion preview. (Much has been made of the fact that seven of the past 13 Best Picture Oscar winners opened in Toronto.) Glamorous stars, at least those not arriving by private jet, show up at the airport baggage claim kiosk just like ordinary mortals and try to look as inconspicuous as possible – which for most of them means wearing sunglasses and not smiling.

The hoopla is often in stark contrast to the content of the films. Take, for example, “12 Years a Slave,” the new reality-based film from director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 who is kidnapped into slavery. Alternately searing and stilted, with extended sequences featuring whippings and welts, it’s a far cry from the goofball horrifics of “Django Unchained” or “Mandingo.” But because Brad Pitt, who also coproduced, has a small role in the film, the scene outside the Princess of Wales Theatre, where the film premièred, was pure fandemonium.

Speaking onstage to the audience, McQueen talked about the irony of a British director, rather than an American, dealing with the slavery issue in such a central way. “I wanted to see that history on film,” he said.

One of the opening night films was “Tim’s Vermeer,” a terrific documentary about how computer-graphics mogul and obsessive tinkerer Tim Jenison set about to prove, with, I think, high plausibility, that the great 17th-century Dutch artist rendered his paintings aided by a combination of lenses and mirrors. This theory has been around for a while – David Hockney, who appears in the film, is its most famous exponent – but Jenison takes it a step further by actually re-creating, dab by dab, over a grueling 213-day period, one of Vermeer’s masterpieces in his San Antonio studio. “It was torture,” he explained to the audience afterward. “Actually, I guess we don’t use that word anymore. It was enhanced interrogation.”

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