“Best of the Fest: Toronto 2013”

Covering a major international film festival for a broadcast show like “Access Hollywood” is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work: every day is like a house of cards that’s filled to the rim with celebrity interviews, red carpet premieres and press conferences. If one event goes wrong or runs late, it can cause a ripple effect that throws the rest of the day into a tailspin. (I know, cry me a river, right?)

And forget about eating a decent meal. The best I can do is grab a hot dog while on the run, which is why it’s a good idea to carry around a few protein bars, just in case hunger strikes when you least expect it (which it almost always does). As for sleep, forget it. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

And then, there are the screenings for brand new movies that, most likely, have not yet been seen by anyone. There’s nothing like discovering something new and exciting for the very first time, especially when it happens at a gala premiere, where the energy and euphoria can have an irresistible effect on the audience. I’ll never forget being at the prestigious Roy Thomson Hall at last year’s Toronto Film Festival (otherwise known as “TIFF”) for the world premiere of “Argo.” Before the ending credits even rolled, there was no question that Ben Affleck’s rousing masterwork would go the distance both at the box office and at the Oscars.

But in all my years covering film festivals, this year’s fest in Toronto – my eighth year in a row north of the border – was the very best yet, thanks to an exceptionally strong slate the effectively kicked off what’s bound to be a very busy awards season. This, in my opinion, was the best of the fest (and, really, it’s just the tip of the iceberg)…

1) “Gravity” – Since jaded moviegoers have gotten used to the computer-generated special effects that have come to define modern Hollywood spectacles, it’s been a long time since people watched a sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action thriller and asked, “How did they do that?” That’s a question they’ll ask themselves over and over again while watching this groundbreaking, game-changing space disaster epic directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”), which can best be described as “Apollo 13” on steroids. Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career in an existential 90-minute thrill ride that’s breathtaking, beautiful and awe-inspiring – and a must-see in IMAX 3D. Brace yourself for the ride of your sweet life.

2) “12 Years a Slave” – Director Steve McQueen follows his disturbing sex addiction drama “Slave” with the most relentless and uncompromising depiction of slavery ever depicted on film. An instant Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a free black man from the north in pre-Civil War United States who is abducted, stripped of his civil rights and sold into slavery. It’s a powerful, unforgettable cinematic masterpiece in every sense of the word.

3) “Rush” – Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) rebounds bigtime from his rare dud “The Dilemma” with this gritty, sexy, thrilling, pulse-pounding drama based on the true story about the competitive rivalry between two very different formula one race car drivers in the 1970’s – the charismatic playboy James Hunt (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth) and the more disciplined Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The racing scenes are visceral, but the screenplay written by Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”) is what really fuels this character-driven story.

4) “Prisoners” – What would you do if your child was abducted? How far would you go to protect your family? And what does that do to a person’s mind? Tough questions to be sure, and moviegoers are bound to find the answers both disturbing and unsettling in this riveting and powerful drama directed by Denis Villeneuve. Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career as a conflicted father who walks a moral tightrope, while Jake Gyllenhaal is equally strong in a more understated turn as the police detective assigned to his case. Villeneuve tightens the screws on the intensity with each passing scene, while ten-time Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins underscores the gloomy atmosphere with his incredibly effective cinematography.

5) “Dallas Buyers Club” – Naturally, everyone’s going to be talking about the dramatic weight loss endured by both Matthew McConaughey (47 pounds) and Jared Leto (40 pounds), especially because the former had months to prepare for his role as a dying AIDS patient in the 1980’s, while the latter had just three weeks. In both cases, their gaunt appearances are upsetting and disturbing, which, for better or worse, serves the film’s subject matter well. McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a small-time loser who’s diagnosed with just 30 days to live, but extends his expiration date by more than seven years with the help of experimental (and illegal) drugs. But if McConaughey is the brain of “Dallas Buyers Club,” then Leto is the heart as his business partner and eventual friend. Place your bets on guaranteed Oscar noms for both.

6) “Enough Said” – The fifth feature film by writer-director Nicole Holofcener is her best yet, by far. Where her previous efforts, like “Lovely and Amazing” and “Friends with Money,” were slice-of-life ensembles, “Enough Said” is her first to focus on just one relationship. It’s a smart, mature romantic comedy for grown-ups that features three-time Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her first lead role in a feature film (she’s in every scene). But the late James Gandolfini is the real revelation, bucking the trend established by a career defined by tough guy roles to play the loveable, vulnerable love interest to Louis-Dreyfus. His first time playing a romantic leading man is, sadly, also his last, but at least Gandolfini went out on a high note. Enough said, indeed.

-Scott Mantz