The Best of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

[caption id="attachment_80265" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Fox Searchlight"]The Descendants[/caption]

Yes, the Toronto International Film Festival does mark the unofficial start to Academy Award season, but it's not all period pieces and prestige dramas.

Peruse the fest's diverse slate and you'll also catch glimpses of Gerard Butler firing machine guns and Brad Pitt firing off pep talks to a baseball squad.

Compiled with our more "mainstream" film admirers in mind, here are the best of the best we saw north of the border this year.

Warning: Lots of George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan ahead. – By Kevin Polowy and Nigel Smith

10. 'Machine Gun Preacher'

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This could have been a disaster in the wrong hands: a true story about a white all-American biker who finds God and becomes a crusader for Sudanese children in Africa. Think "Rambo" with a message. In Marc Forster's hands (he's the guy who helmed "Monster's Ball," which won Halle Berry an Oscar), this potentially cloying sentimental tale is anything but. Starring Gerard Butler in his best performance since "300" as the titular preacher, Forster's film is uplifting when it needs to be, but the tears that eventually flow are hard-earned. -- NS


9. 'Ides of March'

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George Clooney directing and starring in a political thriller about amoral partisans and the people who manage their campaigns? No, it's not the liberal love fest/ assault on conservative values you might expect. In fact, Clooney's amoral politico is of the Democratic stripe. Despite some sizable plot holes that will probably hold this one back when it comes to serious Oscar consideration, "March" is still gripping and taut adult fare bolstered by razor-sharp dialogue and driven by another fine lead performance from Man of the Moment Ryan Gosling. -- KP

8. 'Shame'

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Yes, this is the film where you see all of Michael Fassbender (Magneto in "X-Men: First Class"). It's also much more than that. In this intense character study, Fassbender plays a sex addict living an elite life in Manhattan. His risky lifestyle gets disrupted when his troubled sister (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment with nowhere to go. This buzzed about drama marks the second collaboration between director Steve McQueen and Fassbender (they first worked together on another searing character study "Hunger"). Fassbender goes for broke in "Shame," in a performance that screams Oscar. Mulligan is his match. You've never seen her like this before. -- NS

7. 'Pariah'

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One of this year's biggest breakouts in Sundance was "Pariah," a coming-of-age drama about a lesbian struggling to come out to her strict family. We finally got to see what all the fuss was about in Toronto, and we weren't disappointed. Newcomer Adepero Oduye is a total breakout in the lead, navigating the film's delicate subject matter with total confidence. Same goes for rookie filmmaker Dee Rees. These are two women we're sure you'll be hearing a lot more about once "Pariah" finally opens this December. -- NS


6. 'Moneyball'

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Director Bennett Miller ("Capote") was recently quoted as saying "It's not a baseball movie. Period." We're here to tell you that it damn sure is a baseball movie (sorry Bennett) – and a really good one at that. Brad Pitt is phenomenal as real-life Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, who subscribed to a controversial method of, uh, GMing, in making personnel decisions solely on mathematics and statistics, and Jonah Hill delivers his most serious (but still amusing) performance yet as his wunderkind assistant. Sure, it's also about human relationships, dealing with failure, overcoming odds and thinking outside the box. But it's also a freaking baseball movie. -- KP

5. '50/50'

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The unlikeliest laugh-out-loud movie of the year comes in the form of this comedic drama about a twentysomething Seattle radio producer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) suddenly diagnosed with spinal cancer ("the more consonants in it, the worse it is," he's told). Seth Rogen is JGL's goofy, hard-partying brother from another mother and provides plenty of bellylaughs. Don't get us wrong, "'Superbad' in Chemo" it's not; there's some heavy s**t going on here. But director Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") does a remarkable job balancing the somber and the sublime. -- KP

4. 'Take Shelter'

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Michael Shannon is a master at playing crazy. Just see his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in "Revolutionary Road," where he nearly stole the film from its two stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet). In "Take Shelter," Shannon stars alongside Jessica Chastain ("The Help"), who is such a magnetic presence that she doesn't let Shannon run off with the picture. In the domestic thriller, Chastain plays loyal wife to Shannon, who’s character goes off the deep end when he stars having recurring nightmares that an apocalypse is brewing. Shannon can do unnerved in his sleep, so it's Chastain that really impresses as a wife that will go to the ends of the earth to keep her family and her sanity afloat while everything around her is falling apart. -- NS

3. 'Drive'

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Much like Quentin Tarantino managed to make an arthouse movie that happened to be gruesomely violent with 1992's "Reservoir Dogs," Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" – a popular critical pick for film of the year so far – combines an avante garde aesthetic with a handful moments of bone-shaking brutality. Ryan Gosling is again top-notch as a mechanic/stuntman/getaway driver (you just have to see it) for whom things get sticky when he becomes protector of Carey Mulligan and son. It's a slow sizzle, but by the time this race is over you'll be shaken to the core. -- KP

2. 'The Descendants'

[caption id="attachment_78091" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Fox Searchlight"]The Descendants[/caption]

Can Alexander Payne, the director behind "Sideways" and "Election," do no wrong? Looks like it. In his latest soon-to-be Oscar-nominated dramedy, George Clooney gives his best performance to date as a father to two in Hawaii whose wife goes into a long coma after a boating accident, only to discover that she was cheating on him. We know this doesn’t sound like a minefield for laughs, but Payne manages to wring some big ones out of this awkward premise thanks to his deft writing and winning cast. He also brings a lot of heart to the proceedings. This is that rare flick that leaves you with both a happy, and a sad cry. -- NS

1. 'The Artist'

[caption id="attachment_78078" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Weinstein Company"]The Artist[/caption]

It's an unbelievably funny, charming, romantic, touching and beautifully shot movie, and sure to be one of Hollywood's biggest stories this year, probably even an Oscar frontrunner. And here's the catch: It's a black-and-white silent film. Yep, no color and no dialogue whatsoever, just old-fashioned title cards. (We really hope you haven't stopped reading.) If there's any justice in the world, the story of a silent film mega-star (Jean Dujardin) whose career goes to shambles with the introduction of sound into pictures in the late-'20s, will be the movie everyone's talking about come Nov. 23. And thus one you're just gonna have to see. -- KP

Toronto Film Festival Photos