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Postcard from TIFF: Wish You Were Here

Philomena, The Lunchbox are two diamonds among gems

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In years past, the Toronto International Film Festival would build slowly to a crescendo. However the score of this year's TIFF was more like the opening notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5: Bum, bum, bum, buuuum!

With feel-it-in-your-bones resonance, four films--each a blockbuster--crashed upon the shore of Lake Ontario this past week, one right after the other, not just raising TIFF's curtain but shredding it. The Fifth Estate, Gravity, Prisoners and Rush all garnered raves from audiences parched from 2013's procession (at least thus far) of droll, forgetful movies. A northeast wind blows in a new crop of exciting projects, and, snap: Movies got good again.

The news was steadily positive from TIFF's opening weekend: Gravity was a stunning achievement in 3-D technology that also showcased a fine performance from Sandra Bullock. Prisoners busted wide open the sometimes-hackneyed kidnapping genre and offered a smart, new thriller. Rush was a high-octane performance and story audience-pleaser, and The Fifth Estate dared viewers to consider one of the most controversial figures of our times, Julian Assange.

All four were swell. Yet, it was another film--also about journalism--that I just couldn't seem to shake. And I just can't wait for you to see it. It's called Philomena, and I've already watched it in two screenings (one with critics, another with the general public) just to test myself and see if I would love it as much at second sight. I think I loved it even more.

Philomena examines no less themes than faith, redemption and the basic tenets of journalism, while taking its audience on a journey from an Irish Catholic convent to the Lincoln Memorial. In between, we discover Philomena's deepest secret, spot a mysterious photograph of Jane Russell on the convent's wall, and I dare you to guess the movie's big surprise ending. It's not going to happen.

The always wonderful Dame Judi Dench is Philomena. And if you think you've seen her best work when she plays royalty or 007's boss, well, get back to me after you've seen her in Philomena. Here, she plays a poor Irish lass who 50 years ago was forced to give up her son for adoption. When she decides to find her lost son, she employs the help of a socially awkward and unemployed journalist played by Steve Coogan. I'm a big Coogan fan and this role is head and shoulders his best. He also co-wrote.

The better part of me is keeping from telling too much about Philomena. Suffice to say, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. Prepare for tears and a theater filled with laughter.

Another joyous TIFF detour for me this year was something called The Lunchbox, from India. It too is filled with the surprise of life, and I truly hope that American audiences find this gem as well. It's the story of how a lonely, nearly retired man accidentally receives a lunchbox delivered to his office one day from a frustrated housewife who had intended to send the delicious morsels to her husband. The mistake launches a series of lunchbox notes between the two, evolving into an unexpected friendship. Gradually, their notes become little confessions about their loneliness, memories, regrets, fears and even small joys.

There are dozens more films still to screen at TIFF, including director Steve McQueen's highly anticipated 12 Years a Slave, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman starring in The Railway Man, and the film adaptation of August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.