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Hugh Grant gets in touch with his inner leopard (grrrrowl!) as a voracious cannibal in the big buzz sci-fi epic "Cloud Atlas," premiering at the 37th Annual Toronto International Film Festival this Saturday evening. "I have six cameo parts in this strange, ambitious film," Grant told the English movie magazine "Empire" last February, "I do a lot of killing and raping." That's certainly playing against type for the handsome Brit best known for his floppy hair, posh stutter and way with a witticism (oh, and cheating on Elizabeth Hurley with hooker Divine Brown back in 1995). Grant's transformation from mild-mannered man-about-town to evil, skirt-wearing flesh-eater 200 years in the future nearly upstages the real-life transformation of transgendered co-director Lana Wachowski, nee Laurence, who wrote and directed the movie with brother, Andy, and Tom Tykwer. It's one of ten must-see movies at the Canadian eleven-day orgy of international film that starts this Thursday and runs through Sunday, September 16th:
"Cloud Atlas": Applying the word "ambitious" to adapting David Mitchell's 2004 best-seller is double edged: will it be brilliant or collapse under its own weight? Toronto attendees will be the first to judge at its world premiere. Multiple narratives set on the sea, in a post-apocalyptic island, and at a contemporary publishing house intertwine as individuals connect, and re-connect over time exploring the themes of slavery and the ways in which the victors rewrite the past., The directors' enthusiasm is contagious and co-star Susan Sarandon's snippet of narration intrigued me: "our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future." So it's about karma, Sarandon explained in a recent Yahoo! Movies interview, as opposed to reincarnation. Given that, I'm a little worried about a movie that pairs Halle Berry and Tom Hanks over centuries, multiple hairpieces and across the barriers of gender and race — but I'm still game. And, of course, who can resist Grant as a cannibal?
And, looking beyond the "Cloud Atlas," here are nine more must-see movies
"The Master": Paul Thomas Anderson's not particularly subtle look at the birth of Scientology with Joaquin Phoenix — still not retired — as a naval officer who returns home from WWII and becomes enmeshed in "The Cause." Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the group's messianic leader, and Amy Adams joins in as his steely wife. Contemplating the first film from Anderson since 2007's double Oscar-winner "There Will Be Blood," we're mesmerized and suspicious at the same time — apparently, like Phoenix's character.
"Hyde Park on Hudson": A bookend to "The King's Speech" finds handicapped American President F.D.R. (Bill Murray) welcoming stuttering King George VI (Samuel West in the part that earned Colin Firth an Oscar) for a visit to his country compound in 1939. In Roger Michell's period drama, the leaders connect, and commiserate, surrounded by the women in their lives, including F.D.R.'s distant cousin and mistress Margaret Stuckley (Laura Linney). Can Murray pull off this uncharacteristically weighty role? Word out of last weekend's Telluride Film Festival: He can, and he must be heading for the Oscar that eluded him for "Lost in Translation."
"Argo": Ben Affleck returns as director and star in a political thriller based on declassified files about the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979 — 81). Affleck plays a CIA extraction specialist who attempts to rescue six American hostages hiding in Tehran's Canadian Embassy by pretending they're a film crew. Already a full-on hit at the Telluride Film Festival, "Argo" adds to "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone" to prove that not only does Affleck have the chops to direct, but he also has tremendously good taste in projects. The Oscar buzz begins.
"The Place Beyond the Pines": "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance and his star Ryan Gosling return with a dramatic thriller that has "Speed" overtones. Gosling plays a professional motorcycle stunt rider who branches out to bank robberies and runs afoul of a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper). I thought Gosling deserved an Oscar nomination for "Blue Valentine" — maybe it's time for him to play catchup.
"Tabu": Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' silent black-and-white movie is hip and strikingly beautiful, with echoes of Isak Dinesen. It begins slowly in contemporary Lisbon and then unexpectedly crosses time and continents to tell the story of a young wife in Colonial Africa who heedlessly follows her heart into the realm of taboo. A potential Best Foreign Language Film contender, "Tabu" shares its silence and black-and-white cinematography with "The Artist," but its soul is wilder, its reach farther. I saw this movie by chance at the Berlin Film Festival last January. Like love, it took me by surprise. Could I have just seen the best movie I would see in 2012? The competition certainly stiffens at Toronto, but I'd hate to see this movie buried under an avalanche of competing films with bigger stars and budgets.
"Ginger & Rosa": Sally "Orlando" Potter returns with a rich period drama about two teen BFFs — Elle Fanning and Alice Englert — coming of age in 1962 London at the dawn of feminism, even as nuclear war threatens their world courtesy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The multigenerational story includes Jodhi May and Christina Hendricks as their mothers, as well as Alessandro Nivola, Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt.
"Berberian Sound Studio": Poised to be the festival's ultimate Midnight Movie, this eerie sonic tale revolves around a modest British sound engineer (Toby Young) who gets his mind blown and his fright on when he travels to Italy to work on a "giallo" film in the 1970s. Peter Strickland's making of a horror film that dissolves into horror itself has been getting cult buzz since it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival last June. At that time, "The Telegraph" called it "the stand-out movie at Edinburgh this year" in a five-star rave review.
"The Iceman": Winona Ryder gets another comeback as the wife of a loving husband who just happens to be contract killer Richard Kuklinski, aka The Iceman (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon). Compared with "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos," this ripped-from-the-headlines mob drama (police arrested Kuklinski for over 100 murders in 1986) has become a must-see movie since the recent Venice Film Festival, when Shannon's performance put him in the lead actor awards race and inspired references to Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in their mobster-playing prime.
"Mea Maxima Culpa": Silence in the House of the Lord": A Catholic church horror story that tops Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" — only this is a documentary, not fiction from HBO Films. Alex Gibney (Oscar-winner for "Taxi to the Dark Side") turns his gaze on a pederast priest who abused over 200 deaf children in his care and a clerical sexual abuse cover-up that leads all the way to the Vatican. It's the kind of documentary that proves truth can be more horrifying than fiction.