TORONTO, Ontario (CNN) -- After a slow start, the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival kicked into life about 6:20 p.m. Sunday when a little Indian boy took a deep breath and plunged into an outdoor cesspit to secure the autograph of his favorite movie star.
This was on-screen of course, some 10 minutes into Danny Boyle's movie "Slumdog Millionaire," a hot ticket after rave reviews from last week's Telluride Festival.
Introducing the movie, the irrepressible director of "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" was already trying to dampen down expectations -- word travels that fast these days.
The audience did seem to be unsettled when the film's young orphan protagonist is tortured by a Mumbai policeman in the opening minutes. Then the flashback to his childhood brush with glamour, and the relief was palpable, a wave of laughter, empathy and mock-shock.
Swimming through crap to get an autograph -- this the movie-mad Toronto crowd could understand, the slumdog was one of them -- and TIFF '08 had its first publicly approved hit on its hands.
Scripted by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty"), this is an exhilarating blend of social realism, romanticism and comedy.
A young call-center tea boy comes within one question of winning 20 million rupees in India's version of the TV show game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Is he a cheat, a genius or just plain lucky? None of the above.
Boyle's brash movie -- his best since "Trainspotting" -- bursts with the dynamism and extremes of modern-day India. It's a trip, though not one that noted English author E.M. Forster would have recognized.
Four weeks ago it looked like "Slumdog Millionaire" might not get a U.S. release. Happily a deal with Fox Searchlight has secured a release date on Thanksgiving. Mark the date: This movie will open your eyes to another world.
Hit No. 2: Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler."
Another Fox Searchlight pickup, this arrived in Toronto a couple of days after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and two years after Aronofsky's "The Fountain" was laughed off the screen at both events.
This is a very clean, simple, humble movie, but it packs an emotional wallop. It's a portrait of a smalltime wrestling star -- Randy "The Ram" Robinson -- still putting on the moves and dreaming of the big time 20 years after his prime. Now he's selling photos with the fans for $8 a pop and spending most of the money he earns on steroids and strippers.
"The Wrestler" is a poignant slice of barroom blues transported to a whole other level by Mickey Rourke, the right actor at the right time.
Anyone who remembers his electric presence in "Diner" and other films from the '80s will be dismayed by his waxy, bloated and bruised appearance here. But Rourke hasn't lost his charm and grace. Randy may be, in his own words, "a broken-down piece of meat," but he's a genuinely nice guy, and we care what happens to him.
The truth is, though, his options are severely limited. He's bought into a dream, and he gets his wake-up call much too late in the game.
It's surely no accident that in the end The Ram makes a potentially suicidal return to the ring to reclaim his glory days in a bout with his old foe "The Ayatollah," whose shtick involves waving an Iranian flag in the faces of an irate crowd. They're two old dudes trying to prove they're still somebody.
Suffering and perseverance
The war in Iraq got play in Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," an intense, drama about bomb disposal starring Jeremy Renner as a sergeant who does the job for kicks and to escape the crushing emptiness of life on the home front.
This was hit No. 3, a movie just dying to be described as "incendiary," though Bigelow must be praying this is one Iraq movie that won't fail. (With distributors cautious, it finally sold to Summit late Tuesday.)
Toronto isn't all about the big movies of course. These days it encompasses installation art, free open-air concerts and films from every corner of the globe.
For me, two very personal Asian films were as moving as anything I saw here.
From Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Still Walking" is a beautifully observed film about a family getting together to commemorate a lost son and brother many years after he died rescuing a stranger from drowning.
Sounding echoes of the Ozu classic "Tokyo Story," this touching, funny character piece was conceived by the director as a fond remembrance to his own parents, who passed away a few years ago (but not before he had spent many hours reminiscing with his elderly mother).
And from South Korea, So Yong Kim's "Treeless Mountain" is a heartbreaking story about two pre-teen daughters dumped on their aunt when their mother can no longer cope.
She gives them a piggy bank and says that every time they please their aunt, she will put a penny in -- and by the time the piggy is full, mom will be back. They take her at her word, quickly moving into the fast-food business selling fried grasshoppers, and eventually figure out adults will give them many small coins for one large one. Disillusionment and more hardship lie in store.
Kim has explained that she was abandoned when her mother left Korea for the United States when she was still too young to understand what was happening.
Naturalistic, almost documentary-like, "Treeless Mountain" takes a radically different approach to the deprivations of childhood than "Slumdog Millionaire," yet these films from the other side of the world will connect with audiences wherever they are shown.
They acknowledge suffering and honor perseverance. You will find the same virtues written all over Mickey Rourke's face.