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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.

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I always like meeting up with Fred Schepisi, the Australian director of masterpieces as disparate as “Roxanne” and “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” whenever he has a film in Toronto. His new one, “Words and Pictures,” starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, is a rather sweet and schematic comedy-drama about an inspiring, alcoholic prep school English teacher who bemoans the devaluation of the written word in the social media era, and the school’s new art instructor, who really does believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. I asked Schepisi, who as a teenager was educated in a monastery before dropping out, if he was ever fortunate enough to have a schoolteacher who changed his life. He did – a priest who used to play symphony orchestra recordings for his students and instructed them to listen for only the sounds of the clarinet. “It was a great way to cut through and concentrate. As a filmmaker, I think it gave me my eye and my ear for detail,” he said.

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In “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris tries to do to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld what he once did to Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War.” That is to say, he both humanizes Rumsfeld, by bringing out the regular guy in him, while also encouraging him to offer up, often unchallenged, a blizzard of contradictory statements. (Standout is the 9/11-Iraq connection, which Rumsfeld both denies here and, in press conferences at the time, coyly confirmed.) But Morris, in my view, doesn’t press Rumsfeld nearly hard enough on the choices he made in his career culminating in the Iraq war. Despite his rep as an uncoverer of hard truths, Morris is a bit too much the philosophe for smooth operators like Rumsfeld.

There are plenty of directors I wish would announce their retirement, but the great Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, who recently did, is not one of the them. “The Wind Rises,” which I hope for many reasons is not his last film, is one of his most perplexing – a reverie about a young aeronautical engineer, a dreamer who basks in the beauty of flight and whose inventions lead directly to the fighter planes that bomb Pearl Harbor. Miyazaki grasps the dark irony, but in a way, he’s as much of a fantasist as his boy engineer. Despite its subject, the film is for the most part bizarrely, even negligently apolitical.

A film that is truly in the clouds, actually way above them, is Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as NASA astronauts marooned in outer space. The wisecracky banter between them sometimes brings the film all too thuddingly down to Earth, and I never quite got over the fact that we were watching two movie stars playacting in that vast void, but the film is a technical tour de force unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. An added bonus: Clooney manages to make even bulky spacesuits look cool.

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