The Hottest Movies – and Stars – at the Toronto International Film Festival

The Hottest Movies – and Stars – at the Toronto International Film Festival
Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy at TIFF
Getty/AP Photo

09/08/2014 AT 02:25 PM EDT

"What have you seen?" It's the first question you get asked everywhere in Toronto – from the screening lines to the coffee bars, which I'm now hitting about eight times a day – and with the film festival hitting the halfway point, it's time to check in on the movie buzz.

Here's a taste of what I've seen – and what the movie world will be talking about for months to come.

Geniuses at Work

Eddie Redmayne leaps to the front of the Oscar race with an extraordinary performance as Dr. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, showing the physicist's charm, courage and personal turmoil as he is gradually paralyzed by a motor neuron disease. But it's no one-man show: Felicity Jones, as his devoted wife Jane, shines as the movie sensitively portrays a marriage tested to the utmost.

A few decades earlier, another man ahead of his time, mathematician Alan Turing, experienced even greater triumph and tragedy. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in The Imitation Game as the man who helped win World War II by outsmarting Germany's unbreakable code machine – only later to be prosecuted by Britain for being gay. Conventionally but briskly told, it's a riveting chapter of history – and the tragic final scenes will leave you outraged.



Noir Night

What better to see on Toronto's stormy Friday evening than two ultra-dark thrillers? In The Drop, scripted by crime god Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River), Tom Hardy is magnetic as a Brooklyn bartender who runs afoul of some very bad guys after rescuing a pit bull puppy. Man and dog are both sweet fellas – but watch out for their bite.

And in Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a creep-tastic role his sensational all, playing a videographer who races around L.A. for footage of grisly crime scenes. It's sick fun watching Gyllenhaal push the boundaries of skeeviness – and you may never watch your local TV news the same way again.



Real-life Inspiration

And then it was time for a shower and some movies about what human beings do right. Pride tells the true story of how gay activists teamed with striking blue-collar miners in 1980s Britain, showing (with plenty of humor) how the two groups overcame their differences to fight for fair treatment.

The Good Lie shows the horrors that Sudanese "Lost Boys" refugees survived in their war-torn homeland and how they struggle to adjust to life in the U.S. after winning asylum. Simply told, it viscerally shows humanity at its worst – and at its most selfless.

Star Turns

Bill Murray is at his very best in the sweet but never hokey St. Vincent, playing a boozy misanthrope who befriends a little boy who moves next door.

Other vehicles didn't quite match up to their stars' talents, but satisfied with great performances: Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as an estranged father and son in The Judge; Denzel Washington as a benevolent vigilante in the gory middle-aged-star-kicks-bad-guy-butt thriller The Equalizer; the likeable Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll as squabbling siblings in ensemble comedy This Is Where I Leave You.



Breakout Stars

Redmayne is the biggest talk of the town, but I'm also impressed with Matthias Schoenaerts, who pivots from playing an unstable thug in The Drop to a 17th-century landscape architect romancing Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos. (Could he be the Belgian Ryan Gosling?)

And keep an eye on the children (well, teens) of Men, Women and Children, a comedy-drama about relationships in the Internet age. Led by Kaitlyn Dever and The Fault in Our Stars' Ansel Elgort, they bring emotional immediacy to sometimes contrived story lines.

Many of the heavyweight movies are still to come – including Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. Stay tuned!



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