Toronto sometimes seems like it's still a work in progress. Every block downtown quakes with drilling, every skyscraper in four sports a tarpaulin anorak. Residents move into apartments on the 10th floor when the 12th is still under construction. If there's a new hotel in town – and there is: Trump, all black bathrooms and diamanté walls – then that's where people head. There, or to the box-fresh branch of Soho House, unwrapped specially for the fest. Toronto is not a town possessed by the past.

Its film festival, too, is a relative youngster (this is its 37th year), respectful to its elders yet impatient to press ahead. Like its artistic director, ambassador extraordinaire Cameron Bailey, he of the sharp suit and the 6am tweet, it's a festival that prides itself on being on the button.

And unlike its old-world counterparts – Cannes, Venice, Berlin – the programme does not sag with retrospectives. When they do unearth a golden oldie, it's to give it a makeover. The opening night of this year's fest offered not just Rian Johnson's futuristic sci-fi Looper, but also a live read of the American Beauty script, overseen by director Jason Reitman, with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in the Kevin Spacey role and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks as his wife.

This sensibility – literate but irreverent, playing with the past rather than doggedly following it – threaded through the 10-day festival. Some of the best-received films were set texts revamped for the HBO generation: Joss Whedon's smartphone-savvy Much Ado About Nothing, shot in his own LA mansion, featuring the cast of Firefly and a fleet of hybrid limos to whisk the returning heroes back to town. What Maisie Knew was transplanted to New York, with Steve Coogan as the father, Julianne Moore as the mother (now a rock star) and Alexander Skarsgård her new lover. Such uprootings deadhead both works, letting them bloom anew.

The straight adaptations, meanwhile, sank politely without making a splash. Mike Newell's Great Expectations is a superfluous version that burst the bubbles of Dickens's best soap, then diligently flattened all its cliffhangers. Midnight's Children adds nothing new to Salman Rushdie's novel other than more Rushdie himself (as well as adapting and executive producing, he provides the extensive voiceover).

Audiences here – and this is the one festival at which they really matter, for the people's choice award is the sole prize bestowed – instead went wild, one way or another, for the Wachowski siblings' time-travelling Cloud Atlas and for Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh's black, snappy follow-up to In Bruges. They were ticked, too, by experimental flights of fancy such as Frances Ha – a mumblecore riff directed by Noah Baumbach that works as a zippy little vehicle for new muse Greta Gerwig – and by Yellow, a surrealist supply teacher saga from Nick Cassavetes.

These last two focus on personal evolution born from disaffection, of folk trying on new hats in the hope of re-routing their destiny. It's a theme echoed in a lot of the films playing, from Looper – in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt must assassinate his future self (played by Bruce Willis) – to Arthur Newman, a much-rubbished erotic drama starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt as a couple who can only cop off with one another when they assume different identities. Other contenders, such as cop drama End of Watch, and The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cinefrance and Ryan Gosling's follow up to Blue Valentine, worried at the legacy left unless you radically changed your behaviour.

Toronto itself is as preoccupied with reinvention as the films it screens. There's a tangible sense here of the necessity of shedding your skin to best adjust to the new climate; an urgency unfamiliar from European festivals. This year Bailey hosted a summit exploring the new wave of co-productions between the US and Asia – the key concern for movies today, he thinks, for it's in China and Korea that cinemas are mushrooming and funding accumulating.

While Cloud Atlas and Looper were bona fide co-productions, which gave a nod to both territories in their stories, Bailey thinks the films screening at the festival in five years' time will feel much more organic. "Maybe what we'll see is a new version of what happened in the 1930s. The sophisticated comedies that came out of the golden age of Hollywood were actually the work of incoming Europeans."

That the west may have had its day was perhaps felt most keenly in the friendly but muted response to Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray as President Roosevelt, welcoming George VI to America for a pre-war summit. Two years ago, The King's Speech premiered at the festival, snagging the audience award, then going on to sweep the board at the Oscars. Hyde Park is a sequel of sorts, which hits many of the same buttons and shares some of the same characters. But the world has moved on, and Toronto, for one, is eager not to get left behind. They look up and east here, not back west.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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