Toronto - North America's premier film festival kicks off today with an impressive slate of debuts, gala presentations, and red carpet appearances by the movie world's best and brightest. The 38th Toronto International Film Festival has teed up a staggering 288 features in its 2013 lineup, including the directorial debuts of "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, and actors Jason Bateman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keanu Reeves and Mike Meyers.
While there's a full spectrum of entertainment on display, some of this year's most anticipated films are heavy, challenging dramas about well-intentioned characters enduring unbearably difficult struggles.
English filmmaker Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" follows the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in 1840s New York who was kidnapped and sold into brutal slavery in the south. Audiences who saw the film early at last week's Telluride Film Festival have hailed lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance as a sure shot for an Oscar nomination, and heaped acclaim on Michael Fassbender's supporting work as a vile slave owner.
"Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is a 3D space survival movie about astronauts in left drifting in earth orbit after a catastrophe destroys their space shuttle. Director Alfonso Cuaron's spectacular visual effects, stark realism and scientifically accurate depiction of space have drawn comparisons to classics such as "2001" and "Apollo 13."
The kidnapping suspense thriller "Prisoners" boasts an impressive ensemble cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis) and a daunting 160-minute running time. The film splits its focus between a Pennsylvania police detective trying to solve the disappearance of two young girls and their fathers' increasingly desperate efforts to break down the person they think is the abductor. Aaron Guzikowski's riveting screenplay was one of the industry's most sought-after properties, and by all accounts French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve maintain its tension to the final frame. The Coen brothers' longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the mystery a dank, shadowy chill.
Even Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Up In the Air") turns from serio-comedy to rueful drama in the escaped-convict tale "Labor Day," starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.
Recent history provides the basis for a number of dramatic thrillers. "Kill Your Darlings" starring Daniel Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg, recreates the true story of a 1944 murder that brought together the leading lights of the Beat Revolution. Ron Howard's "Rush" explores the cutthroat rivalry between 1970s Formula One racing stars James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), who pushed each other to dangerous extremes. "The Fifth Estate" examines the price of keeping secrets in a free society. Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose Internet platform allows whistleblowers to anonymously disclose classified information, raising life-or-death questions about transparency in the information age. The film is tonight's opener, a suitably dramatic curtain raiser for a serious-minded awards season launching pad.
The festival runs until Sept. 15. Check back for daily updates.