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Critics’ lasting impressions from TIFF ahead of fall movie releases and award season

Matt Damon

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” was a favorite at the Toronto Film Festival.

(Aidan Monaghan / AP)

The Toronto International Film Festival, which concludes Sunday, sets the stage for the fall movie and awards season. We asked our three reporters who covered the festival for their three take-aways from the influential event.

Steven Zeitchik:

The Director Comeback. Last year at Toronto, Tom McCarthy was hit hard by critics who didn’t appreciate the director’s high-concept fable “The Cobbler,” starring Adam Sandler. What a difference 12 months make. McCarthy had one of the breakouts of the festival with “Spotlight,” a story of how Boston Globe reporters uncovered the Catholic Church scandals of the early 2000s that was both thrilling and important. He wasn’t the only one bouncing back. Ridley Scott had naysayers wondering whether he’d lost a step with the poorly received “Exodus: Gods and Kings” in December. But his new movie, “The Martian,” about a man (Matt Damon) stranded on the Red Planet, found the director back at the top of his pop-entertainment game. “The Martian” garnered glowing reviews for its scope, plot and intriguing puzzles. “Gotta keep ‘em guessing, dude,” the “Alien” and “Prometheus” director told The Times when asked about the shift to a different kind of interstellar tale. “Gotta keep myself guessing.”

Confinement. Speaking of “The Martian” — which followed Damon as he was stuck in a small shelter on Mars dubbed “The Hab” — the film turned out to be one of several fest hits set mainly in a confined space. In the warmly received “Room,” Brie Larson’s Ma character and her young son are held brutally captive in a shed, while Charlie Kaufman’s stunner, “Anomalisa,” had David Thewlis’ stop-motion hero living out his nightmare and his redemption in a cramped hotel room. A coincidence perhaps, but also notable — long a genre convention, the confined space is now being discovered by clever (and in the case of two of them, at least, budget-conscious) prestige directors.

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Real Music. Aretha Franklin’s long-lost concert film, “Amazing Grace,” wasn’t here — producers pulled it from the Toronto slate under the threat of legal action at the eleventh hour. But the absence was eased by a number of striking music documentaries. They included Barbara Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones!” about the dramatic journey of the eponymous R&B and soul singer, “Little Girl Blue,” the prolific Amy Berg’s look at Janis Joplin, and Morgan Neville’s “Keith Richards: Under the Influence,” which vibrated with casual wisdom. As Richards’ friend and collaborator Buddy Guy says in the movie, “The blues are about the highs and the lows. And if you haven’t had lows, just keep living.”

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Glenn Whipp

Charlotte Rampling. The actress delivers a knockout punch in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” which follows a retired, childless couple, Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), a few days before a huge celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary. Haigh unveils the secrets in this ghost story completely from Kate’s point of view, resentments building, confidence crumbling. It leads to the best shot I saw this year at TIFF, a slow zoom-in on Rampling in the movie’s final moments. What she does during these two minutes should earn Rampling her first Oscar nomination. It’s bone-chilling.

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Revenge of the Nerds. What I loved about Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” was the way it celebrated — often with cheeky humor — the pride that Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut takes in the power of knowledge. It’s two hours of Damon facing down problem after problem and, in his character’s words (well ... mostly), looking to science the bleep out of them. In that respect, “The Martian” had much in common with Tom McCarthy’s journalism procedural, “Spotlight,” which followed a team of reporters doggedly investigating a pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church. The movie never glorifies or amps up the tedium of the process — just the opposite. It’s another showcase for nerds using their training and brains to get the job done. Who needs Spandex when you can fill out a spreadsheet?

Strong Men Also Cry. And, yes, I admit to getting a little weepy during the scene in “Spotlight” where the printing press churns out the next morning’s edition. Sue me. But it’s not just a movie for reporters. “Spotlight” earned the biggest ovation of any movie at the festival, and it’s not a stretch to think the applause will continue all the way to the Oscars in February. Think of it as this year’s “Argo,” only less showy and more truthful.

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto, Telluride and more film festivals

Mark Olsen:

High on “High-Rise.” British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has emerged over the last few years as one of the world’s most exciting new genre filmmakers, making movies that are smart, pulpy, stylish, darkly funny, playfully lurid and full of surprises. Wheatley himself has called his new “High-Rise” the culmination of his filmmaking to date, and it’s easy to see why. With a streak of black comedy and a terrifying view on human nature, the film features knockout performances by Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons in its depiction of a world gone very mad. The film will soon play Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and is, as of now, without U.S distribution, a situation that will hopefully be remedied soon enough.

A Second Look. The festival in Toronto allows a look ahead to movies coming out in the months ahead but is also a chance to catch up with movies from earlier in the year. Yorgos Lanthimos’ romantic allegory, “The Lobster,” and Joachim Trier’s drama of family and grief, “Louder Than Bombs,” both English-language debuts from acclaimed international filmmakers, received decidedly mixed responses out of Cannes. I found both films quite emotional and moving, and easily among the best things I saw at TIFF. It was a healthy reminder that reactions out of film festivals are often unreliable and far from definitive. (And I am well aware of the irony there.)

Biggest Bounce. Likely no two films benefited from doing the film festival shuffle of the last few weeks more than Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” and Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa,” moving quickly from unknown quantities to strong, well-praised fest favorites. Both films will now be looking to play off their festival bounce into commercial release and on through awards season.

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