George Clooney and U2 kick off Toronto International Film Festival

George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, "Ides of March"

Is Anonymous this year’s The King Speech? Is George Clooney a show-off? Are documentaries back?

These questions and many more are likely to be answered over the next ten days, as the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday night with a gala screening of Davis Guggenheim’s Bono-worshiping U2 doc, From the Sky Down, shifts into hyperdrive.

North America’s biggest film fest, a launching pad for Oscar contenders and awards season wannabes, boasts 268 features, 68 shorts and Clooney times-two. The impressive and impeccably cool resident of Lake Como, Italy, comes to this bustling Ontario town (no recession here, it seems) with a pair of serious contenders: He stars in The Descendants, Alexander (Sideways) Payne’s Hawaii-set portrait of an absentee dad reconnecting with his daughters, and co-stars in The Ides of March, as a liberal-leaning Pennsylvania governor (ha!) running for the presidency. Clooney directed this one, and gives Ryan Gosling, playing a key campaign strategist, a shot at the best actor sweepstakes. (In fact, if The Descendants is as strong as its early buzz – I see it tomorrow – Clooney and Gosling could be competing for the same Oscar.)

As for Anonymous, the Elizabethan intriguer stars Rhys Ifans as Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, a British noble who, Roland Emmerich’s film suggests, actually wrote many of Shakespeare's plays. The film is set against the political upheaval of Queen Elizabeth I’s succession, and Vanessa Redgrave plays the queen, and right there is reason enough to see this.

In addition to Guggenheim’s U2 homage, the documentary field at TIFF 36 includes Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, the profile of a Texas Death Row killer; Alex Gibney’s Last Gladiators, about hockey players (a hockey doc in Canada? -- no one’s going to want to see that); Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the latest chapter on the fates of the three men just-released from prison after serving 18 years for the killing of three boys (charges that DNA tests finally proved false); a Morgan Spurlock survey of the annual fanboy fete, Comic-Con, and a Neil Young concert film from director Jonatham Demme.