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Crowds waiting to enter a screening on the second floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

A delayed flight from Venice meant that Lisbon-based filmmaker Miguel Gomes answered questions from 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 12) audiences breathlessly at the opening night premiere of his stunning movie Tabu. He also admitted to the capacity crowd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s postmodern headquarters, that his time spent waiting on the Venice airport tarmac paid off with extra insight into his beautiful, black-and-white, nearly silent, and subtly avant-garde drama about female neighbors in a Lisbon apartment building and an elderly woman’s dramatic history in early 1960s colonial Africa.

Director Miguel Gomes

“I was in Venice and the Air Canada jet did not take off,” Gomes told the crowd. “It’s the food and then a water leak and then just a leak. But I’m here, and I finally understand that the film is about time and memory.”

TIFF this year continued to slip completely away from its former venues in the city’s tony Yorkville neighborhood for the busier theater district downtown, but what remained unchanged was its importance as a publicity launching pad for Oscar-favorite movies, as well as its opening-weekend emphasis on red carpet celebrities in support of big studio movies.

TIFF also continued to evolve into a significant festival marketplace, with a steady stream of acquisitions including IFC Films acquiring US rights to the Olivier Assayas film Something in the Air and Focus Features acquiring The Place Beyond the Pines, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to Blue Valentine.

Of all the opening-weekend red carpet premieres, filmmaker Joe Wright earned the most Oscar buzz with his dazzling adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, breaking down the wall between cinema screen and movie audience with artistic gusto. Keira Knightley, working with Wright for the third time, looked stunning as Anna in her period costumes including a pearl white corset, but the best performance belonged to Jude Law as her unforgiving husband, Alexei Karenin.

The newest TIFF venue, the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (click to enlarge)

If Wright’s Anna Karenina proved to be an audience-friendly spectacle, Paul Thomas Anderson challenged TIFF viewers with his epic drama The Master, the story of a troubled World War II seaman (Joaquin Phoenix) and his friendship with charismatic self-help leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a character inspired by L. Ron Hubbard.

With dazzling camerawork from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. and a sprawling story that favors ambiguity and unanswered questions, The Master turned out be a rare American release, a philosophical drama with complex adult characters and rich adult themes. Even more than in his previous movie, There Will Be Blood, Anderson continued to move away from common entertainment and emphasize mind-bending stories. Phoenix and Hoffman breathed life into the at times lulling period drama with standout performances.

While filmmakers like Wright and Anderson came to TIFF with long reputations and high expectations, new faces continued to make the festival pop with artistic verve and storytelling bravery.

Director and co-writer Nenad Cicin-Sain made a strong debut with his feature The Time Being, a thoughtful and deliberately paced drama about a struggling painter (Wes Bentley) whose life changes after he accepts work from a mysterious client (Frank Langella). Working with cameraman Malaimare, Jr., Cicin-Sain delivered one of the festival’s most beautiful entries and a smart drama about the high price an artist pays to make the best art possible.

Nenad Cicin-Sain, “The Time Being,” film still (image courtesy TIFF)

Equally stunning was Mumbai-based filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia’s first dramatic feature, Miss Lovely, a lush film about two brothers (Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Anil George) struggling to succeed as producers of C-movies in 1980s Mumbai. Although he originally planned a documentary about Mumbai’s grindhouse community, Ahluwalia converted his interviews and research into a thrilling drama of gangster producers, aspiring actresses who should know better, and two brothers struggling to make their mark in a corrupt industry.

TIFF audiences lucky enough to watch Miss Lovely experienced a pulp treat and an artful homage to a film community squelched by the arrival of video. And for a relative newcomer like Ahluwalia, the positive response proved that his decision to make his dramatic feature debut with Miss Lovely was a good one.

Ashim Ahluwalia, “Miss Lovely,” film still (image courtesy TIFF)

The festival enthusiasm also convinced Ahluwalia that his trip to TIFF was worth the energy, the expense, and the risks that come with debuting a somewhat experimental and edgy movie to a festival community more excited by Kristen Stewart walking the red carpet in support of mainstream entertainments like the Jack Kerouac adaptation On the Road.

From the balcony of his publicist’s high-rise condo, Ahluwalia stared across the Lightbox and the many other venues that make up the TIFF festival village. During a conversation that discussed our transmedia era and how fan communities grow digitally, 24/7, without any need for the filmmaker to meet his or her fans, Ahluwalia agreed that TIFF remains a place-based, somewhat quaint launching pad where filmmakers, actors, and film companies can generate on-the-ground excitement for movies that leads to worldwide acquisition deals, bigger audiences, and hopefully, the acclaim of major awards.

Ahluwalia also understood the essential ingredients needed to debut successfully at TIFF: a pretty female actress to walk the red carpet, a mob of fans to turn the premiere into a viral web sensation, and a piece of entertainment likely to land an audience prize — oh, and the good luck of all those elements coming together perfectly on the day of your big premiere.

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday, Sept. 16, with the announcement of audience awards including the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award for Silver Linings Playbook and the Midnight Madness Award to Seven Psychopaths.

The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival ran September 6 through 16.

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Steve Ramos

Steve Ramos writes about art and art cinema; contributing to New York, indieWire, and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel among others. He programmed a monthly film series for...