Toronto: Twilight Portrait and other surprises

Toronto serves up an under-the-radar surprise

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

TIFF never fails to surprise, and not always in the nicest of ways. Could a well-heeled festival favorite, Canada's Guy Maddin, create a manic psychodrama in his patented retro-silent style—Keyhole—and still deaden viewer interest? (I'd hate to think his shtick has worn off; rather, this feels like a failure of too much randomness. Loved the electric chair in the basement, though.) Could Ryan Gosling, the man of the hour with this week's extraordinary Drive, play a clichd conflicted political aide in George Clooney's earnest campaign drama, The Ides of March, and still make it riveting? Wonders never cease. And could morbid filmmakers continue to make postapocalyptic fare like The Day and still have no problem keeping Shannyn Sossamon looking gorgeous after the end of the world?

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Of course, the surprises most sought after for were movies that impressed with little or no fanfare. It's wonderful—and something of a relief—when a hotly buzzed title like Steve McQueen's Shame turns out to be exactly the powerhouse experience critics expect. But there's more exhilaration in finding a sneaky little fun machine like You're Next, a confident rechanneling of John Carpenter's best horror moments with an added layer of Scream-like humor. (How the wheel turns.)

Leading the pack of unexpected successes for me was a challenging but extremely worthy Russian film called Twilight Portrait, about an attractive, well-to-do Muscovite named Marina (the extraordinary Olga Dykhovichnaya), who, early in the film, finds her day plunging into a nightmare. Her heel breaks, her purse gets swiped and, as light dims, she finds herself on the side of the road, barefoot and a target for three unlikely predators: policemen. From this Ms. 45 of a set-up arises a most unusual development, beginning with Marina's cynical rejection of her meek husband and supercilious friends. Then she starts returning to the scene of the crime and a certain bar in the hopes of—meeting someone special? The film's psychology is cracked, explosive and too good to spoil. I hope a distributor steps up.

Coming up: TONY's top films of the festival, as we say goodybe to TIFF 2011.

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