Fox Searchlight; Warner Bros.
PEOPLE Movie Critic Alynda Wheat
September 09, 2013 02:30 PM

The heady first few days of the Toronto International Film Festival are wrapping up, so how are the heavy hitters doing so far? Here are some of the biggies:

The best

12 Years A Slave: The most accomplished, astonishing piece of work I’ve seen in years. Director Steve McQueen (Shame) delivers the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The story is excruciating to watch, with the horrors of what used to be known as the “peculiar institution” laid bare in ways never before seen. The poetry of the film making and Solomon’s undaunted spirit carry viewers through. Look for Oscar nominations all around, from the director and film to Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, as psychotic slave master Epps. And if there isn’t one for Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a young woman enslaved on Epps’ plantation, I will be shocked and disappointed. Opens Oct. 17.

Gravity: I’m going to use the word poetic again, because there’s no other way to describe the camera work in this wildly exciting film about astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) trapped in space after a terrible chain of events. Gravity is the reason 3D filmmaking exists – and you really must shell out for IMAX on this one – with glorious shots of space and the “blue marble” of Earth. The stars are both engaging and fantastic in their spare environment, but the cinematography, Alfonso Cuarén’s direction and script really do most of the heavy lifting. One piece of advice when you’re watching it: Remember to breathe. Opens Oct. 4.

Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey may finally get that Oscar nod for his funny, tragic turn as Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and bull rider who discovers in the ’80s that he has HIV. Jared Leto is nearly unrecognizable, and flat out amazing, for his role as Rayon, Woodroof’s flamboyant friend and eventual business partner in a plan to help thousands of Texans live longer and healthier with the virus. Look for award nominations here, too. Opens Nov. 1.

The rest

The Fifth Estate: Think of this one as a biopic on Wikileaks, rather than on its founder, Julian Assange, played with charisma by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film never has much of a grasp on Assange as a man, and can’t escape the tricky quandary of how to tell an interesting story about people staring at computer screens. Daniel Br¨hl is engaging as Assange’s early devotee, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. We learn far more about him than we do about Assange, but then the film is partially based on Domscheit-Berg’s book on his time in the controversial organization. Opens Oct. 18.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: It’s a very long walk, indeed, at two and a half hours. That wouldn’t be an issue if this reverent biopic had more narrative thrust and a bit more spark. As it is, it’s a solid take on the former South African president, played by the sure-footed Idris Elba, with Naomie Harris adding some much needed fire as Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie. Just don’t expect any grand revelations or inventiveness in the storytelling. Opens Nov. 29

TIFF continues through Sept. 15, so check back for more of the fest’s best!

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