Toronto Festival Conclusions: The Oscar race Begins

That sound you hear is the wishful thinking of movie pundits and critics making a tiny pop, like a dud firecracker, instead of the decisive "bang!" of a starter's pistol, signaling the start of the Oscar race that usually happens during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

That's because, while this year's best-picture winner may in fact have played at TIFF 2012, there was no huge critical groundswell around a realistic contender, the way there was last year with The Artist, The Descendants and Moneyball, or the year before with The Social Network and The King's Speech.

Oh, there were movies this year that earned lavish (if undeserved) praise, such as The Master. And others -- such as Anna Karenina and Argo -- which had their champions. Among that trio, I'd bet on the latter two (though I haven't seen Karenina yet) as having legs; no matter what critics say about Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, it's too pointedly challenging to seduce the bulk of Oscar voters, except as a vehicle for its performances.

Indeed, there were several smaller, unheralded films that, for my money, will emerge this fall from Toronto (and New York), including The Sessions (which I saw at Sundance, when it was titled The Surrogate) and Silver Linings Playbook, which I missed at TIFF but which was generating buzz, both for director David O. Russell (The Fighter) and actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

The two bigger films I saw that struck me as Oscar bait were Ben Affleck's funny, gripping Argo and Juan Antonio Bayona's harrowing The Impossible. I wrote about The Impossible earlier, but I was struck by just what a well-made movie Argo was when I saw it Wednesday.

As it happened, Argo was the last full film I saw before leaving Toronto. I walked out after a half hour of Ramin Bahrani's obvious, on-the-nose At Any Price, and didn't last much longer for Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing (though that was more about not being in the mood for modern-dress Shakespeare than the quality of the film itself).

Argo could be a dark horse: an incredibly exciting mainstream thriller (with a lot of humor) that does everything so well that its artistry might be missed by critics, who tend to think of audience-friendly films (which this definitely is) as somehow inferior to movies aimed at the intellect, instead of the heart or gut. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, it's a white-knuckle thriller about the true story of a CIA operative (Affleck) who helps rescue the six American embassy workers who escaped capture when the rest of the staff at the American embassy in Iran were taken as hostages at the end of 1979.

The six are holed up in the Canadian embassy -- and it's up to Affleck to come up with a plan to sneak them out of the locked-down country. His idea: Create a fake movie company production that is scouting locations in Iran, then give them fake identities as part of the scouting party. Affleck finds the comedy in the Hollywood portion of the story (with a superb assist from Alan Arkin), then cranks up the tension for the final act, as the plan itself is carried out. It's terrific movie-making -- smart, compelling and entertaining.

Which is the part of the equation that Oscar pundits who are also critics tend to miss.

This commentary continues on my website.