The film fest is wrapping up, and PEOPLE's critic says Kate Winslet and Sean Penn wowed audiences


Every year, partway through the Toronto Film Festival, I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking, “Whew, we can have an Oscars race this year after all.”

After a winter, spring and summer of mostly lousy, forgettable, pea-brained movies (Little Miss Sunshine, Superman Returns, Thank You for Smoking and a few others excepted), the festival serves as the launching pad for Hollywood’s quality offerings due in theaters this fall.

However, two non-Hollywood films took the top prizes at the festival. Bella, about a Mexican soccer star turned chef directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, won the top audience prize. A panel of critics gave their top award to the controversial British TV movie Death of a President, which centers on a fictionalized assassination of George W. Bush, from British director Gabriel Range.

Meanwhile, the noisiest Oscar buzz at this year’s festival was focused more on performances than films. Kate Winslet‘s passionate turn as an adulterous suburbanite in Little Children has a strong shot for a Best Actress nomination, as does Penelope Cruz‘s merry widow in the Spanish film Volver.

And I’d personally love to see Catherine O’Hara recognized for reaching comic perfection in For Your Consideration. She plays a hopelessly deluded, veteran Hollywood actress caught up in Oscar hype in the latest hilarious satire – this one about show-biz – from director Christopher Guest.

For men, the candidates coming out of Toronto include Derek Luke for a strong performance as a South African anti-apartheid activist in Catch a Fire. Forest Whitaker is mesmerizing as Ugandan despot Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Sean Penn wowed critics in All the King’s Men, though the film did not. Acting legend Peter O’Toole is masterful in Venus, a touching comedy drama in which he plays an aging English actor who forms an unlikely friendship with a crass young woman.

Toby Jones, a less well-known English actor, gives an amazing performance as novelist Truman Capote in Infamous and may well get nominated. (Though it’s unlikely Oscar magic will strike twice; Phillip Seymour Hoffman already nabbed a statue last year for portraying the fey author in Capote, which has the same story line as Infamous.) Finally, it’s not going to happen, but there was even talk of Sacha Baron Cohen (HBO’s Ali G) deserving a nomination for playing the title role of a bumbling, Eastern European news reporter in the single funniest film to screen during the entire festival, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

As for supporting performances, plenty of possible nominees surfaced in Toronto. Bobby, the sprawling, ensemble film (shown as a work-in-progress) by writer-director Emilio Estevez about the day in Robert F. Kennedy was shot, is stuffed with the kind of showy turns that Oscar loves. Expect to hear Demi Moore and Sharon Stone’s names bandied about as possible contenders from the film; Moore plays a booze-swilling nightclub singer while Stone, who’s actually good, appears as a hair stylist.

Sandra Bullock, portraying writer Harper Lee, and Sigourney Weaver, as socialite Babe Paley, both offer impressive performances in Infamous. And Emma Thompson scores as a depressed novelist in Stranger than Fiction, a very funny conceptual comedy starring Will Ferrell.

For supporting men, Jackie Earle Haley is a likely shoo-in for a nomination for Little Children. Playing a man just out of jail after serving time for exposing himself to kids, he is alternately scary and heartbreakingly sympathetic. (Haley first came to fame 30 years ago as the lead in the original The Bad News Bears; he’s only now returning to the screen after a 13-year break.)

Previous Oscar winners Tim Robbins and Dustin Hoffman both drew strong notices. Robbins gives a chilling performance as a cruelly manipulative cop in Catch a Fire and Hoffman is hilarious as a coffee-slurping literature professor in Stranger than Fiction. And Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, nearly steals Infamous as murderer Perry Smith. In one scene, already much chattered about in the press and on the Internet, his character smooches with Truman Capote.

Other notes from the festival:

• This year’s It Boy at Toronto, in the same way that Parker Posey routinely used to be the It Girl at the Sundance Film Festival, was dashing James McAvoy. The soulful Scottish actor, best known for playing the Faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,”] starred in three well-received films: The Last King of Scotland, Penelope and Starter for Ten.

• With the fifth anniversary of 9/11 hitting during the festival, it was fitting that political conflict and global unease were the themes of many of the festival’s most talked about films. The one causing the most chatter was, of course, Death of a President, a mock documentary which includes a scene of George W. Bush being assassinated. But even in a film as politically innocuous as Away from Her, a moving drama in which Julie Christie gives a virtuoso performance as a woman disappearing into Alzheimer’s, there were sudden jarring reminders of the disquieting times in which we live. In Away, Christie’s semi-senescent character sits in a nursing home watching a TV report on the start of the Iraq war and wonders aloud, “Don’t they remember Vietnam?”

• I didn’t see it myself, so don’t quote me on this, but by far the festival’s biggest stink bomb buzz-wise was The Fountain. This highly anticipated (well, not anymore) romantic drama stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as lovers spanning multiple centuries; it was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), with whom Weisz recently had a child. Those who saw it, both in Toronto and at the just earlier Venice Film Festival, universally dismissed it as pretentious hogwash.

• Finally, my single favorite moment of the whole festival came while walking past the Four Seasons Hotel, where many of the festival’s visiting celebrities stay. A scrum of paparazzi and eager fans gathered at the exit from the hotel’s parking garage late one sunny afternoon. Squealing teenage girls raced to join the group, cell phone cameras at the ready. I figured a heartthrob like Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom was about to come into view. But no, it was Emma Thompson. The English actress, looking glamorous with tousled blond hair and poured into a form-fitting black dress, was having a grand time doing an amused, ironic impersonation of a superstar. From the open sunroof of a hulking SUV transporting her to the downtown premiere of Stranger than Fiction, she was manically waving and blowing.

All the movies mentioned above open in theaters soon: All the King’s Men begins next Friday (Sept. 22); The Last King of Scotland on Sept. 27; Little Children on Oct. 6; Infamous on Oct. 13; Catch a Fire on Oct. 27; Borat and Volver on Nov. 3; Stranger than Fiction on Nov. 10; Bobby and For Your Consideration on Nov. 17; The Fountain on Nov. 22; and Venus on Dec. 15. The exception: Away from Her opens in March 2007.