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Ferdinand

A mostly pleasant surprise in a year that has produced a lack of stellar animated outings.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Toronto #5: Loopers and the looped

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Time travel, as we all know, is (1) impossible in any real-life, non-quantum sense, and (2) irresistible to filmmakers. Rian Johnson's Toronto entry "Looper" asks us to accept it as a premise, and you know what? It's handled more realistically here than anything in the plots of the average superhero movie. One of the strengths of time travel is its demonstration that if we could travel through time and meet our parents or even ourselves at an earlier age, it could be an unbearably emotional experience.

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Toronto #4: And the winner is...

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The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller "Argo." How do I know this? Because it is the audience favorite coming out of the top-loaded opening weekend of the Toronto Film Festival. Success at Toronto has an uncanny way of predicting Academy winners; I point you to the Best Pictures of the last five years in a row: "No Country for Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Hurt Locker," "The King's Speech" and "The Artist."

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Toronto #3: "Cloud Atlas" and a new silent film

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I know I've seen something atonishing, and I know I'm not ready to review it. "Cloud Atlas," by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, is a film of limitless imagination, breathtaking visuals and fearless scope. I have no idea what it's about. It interweaves six principal stories spanning centuries--three for sure, maybe four. It uses the same actors in most of those stories. Assigning multiple roles to actors is described as an inspiration by the filmmakers to help us follow threads through the different stories. But the makeup is so painstaking and effective that much of the time we may not realize we're seeing the same actors. Nor did I sense the threads.

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Toronto #2: Victory at any price?

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Ramin Bahrani, the best new American director of recent years, has until now focused on outsiders in this country: A pushcart operator from Pakistan, a Hispanic street orphan in New York, a cab driver from Senegal working in Winston-Salem. NC. His much-awaited new film, "At Any Price," is set in the Iowa heartland and is about two American icons: A family farmer and a race car driver. It plays Sunday and Monday in the Toronto Film Festival.

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Toronto #1: Good films are back in season

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The Toronto Film Festival is universally considered the opening of Academy Awards season, and the weary moviegoer, drained after a summer of exhausted superheroes and franchises, plunges in it with joy. I've been attending since 1977, and have watched it grow from a bootstrap operation, with the schedule improvised from day to day, into one of the big four (with Cannes, Venice and Berlin).

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The man with his name

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What exactly happened when Clint Eastwood was onstage at the Republican National Convention? The one thing we can agree on was that it was unexpected--by the Republicans, by the audience, perhaps even by Eastwood, who we now know was ad-libbing. It takes brass balls to ad-lib for 12 minutes in front of 30 million people on live TV, just working with yourself and an empty chair.

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Great Movie: "Cleo from 5 to 7"

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In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the hours when lovers meet. On this afternoon, nothing could be further from Cleo's mind than sex. She is counting out the minutes until she learns the results from tests she believes will tell her she is dying from cancer. Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 5 to 7" is 90 minutes long, but its clock seems to tick along with Cleo's.

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Let's have a meeting

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It was Gene Siskel who introduced me to the concept of Lip Flap. By this he meant the practice of speaking without saying anything of use. Its primary purpose, he explained, was to allow people to sneak up on the moment when they would sooner or later have to actually engage their minds. Siskel was an impatient man. In that and other ways we were allies.

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Don't tear down that wall!

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A great many Americans no longer believe in the separation of Church and State, and indeed deny it is a principle found in the Constitution. Yet the wording of the First Amendment is quite clear, and its importance to the founders is underlined by its being first. Certainly it was clear to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

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Judy, Judy, Judy

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I only met Judith Crist once, but her career had an enormous role in shaping the world of the movie critics who followed her. She was the first full-time female movie critic for a big American daily newspaper, but set aside her gender: By her success and fame, she created jobs for movie critics where there were none before.

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