At some indeterminate point certain A-list festivals stop belonging to local audiences and belong instead to the world—often to the annoyance of the former. When Toronto International Film Festival began life as “The Festival of Festivals” in 1976, it wasn’t primarily a showcase for world premieres, but a curated selection of the best from other, then-higher-profile fests around the world. That was a long time ago, though. Since then it has risen to become the prominent launching pad for new films in the Western Hemisphere, its relative proximity to Hollywood—and unofficial status as kickoff for awards season—arguably lending it even more international import than historied Cannes.
This year’s festivities will be practically choked by red carpet events aswarm with TV, online and print media personnel, all agog over the real life presences of such certifiable Big Names as Jennifer Aniston, Pierce Brosnan, Sandra Bullock, Zac Efron, James Franco, Jennifer Garner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew McConaghey, Liam Neeson, Daniel Radcliffe, Keanu Reeves, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Emily Watson, Owen Wilson, Kate Winslet and Reese Witherspoon.
So many major Hollywood names (and the non-professional gawkers they additionally attract) may be bad news if you’re simply trying to enter a relevant venue or get across town fast. But they’re also a blessing of sorts for serious cineastes: These prime paparazzi targets draw so much attention that they leave patrons more interested in smaller films and international talent in comparative peace.
The year 2013 like any other will find TIFF premiering a number of features almost certain to prove leading Oscar bait: Steve McQueen’s historical epic 12 Years a Slave, already anointed from its premiere at Telluride last weekend; August: Osage County, the all-star adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning stage play; Bill Condon’s ultra-topical opening nighter, The Fifth Estate, about WikiLeak-er Julian Assange (who already objects to the film, sight-unseen); Dallas Buyers Club, with McConaughey as a real-life, HIV-positive Texan who fought the pharmaceutical industry for improved access to AIDS treatments; Ralph Fiennes’ directorial and starring vehicle The Invisible Woman, about Charles Dickens; Kevin Klein as another famous artiste, “golden era” movie star Errol Flynn, in The Last of Robin Hood; Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in Jason Reitman’s drama Labor Day; and David Gordon Green’s Larry Brown-derived Joe, a Southern Gothic rumored to provide Nicolas Cage with his most awards-worthy role since Leaving Las Vegas.
On a more purely commercial tip, there’s Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a 3-D space thriller with Bullock and George Clooney that was well received at both Telluride and Venice; plus comedies like You Are Here, with Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis) and Jason Bateman’s directorial bow Bad Words.
Of course most if not all of these movies will be playing at a theater near you before the year’s end, their Toronto premieres offering a chance to drum up early publicity and critical acclaim. While Hollywood invariably waits until December to unleash its climactic onslaught of big “prestige” films (not least because Academy voters tend to favor the movies they’ve seen most recently), there’s no wonder that the popular sport of sizing up Oscar prospects begins in earnest with TIFF.
That’s just the glitziest top layer of Toronto’s annual festivities, however. The majority of wide press coverage may well focus on the biggest galas and celebrity sightings, but despite that high-ticket side, the majority of TIFF’s program remains committed to celebrating the best in established and emerging filmmaking from around the globe. To be sure, there will be some disappointments, bad and indifferent features—and no festival worth its salt should go without at least a couple titles that sharply divide viewers into love/hate camps.
But generally speaking the selection standards are so high that any real cineaste is bound to emerge from these eleven days as from a idealized orgy—exhausted and sated every which way. The list of world-class filmmakers represented this year is, as ever, daunting. To name just a few, there’s new work from Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son); A Separation‘s Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi (The Past); Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson (We Are the Best!); globe-trotting Koyaanisqatsi image-monger Godfrey Reggio (Visitors); leading Polish veterans Andrzej Wajda (Walesa: Man of Hope) and Agnieszka Holland (Burning Bush, originally a TV miniseries); England’s Stephen Frears (Philomena, already attracting raves for Dame Judi Dench‘s turn); eternally hip Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive); American minimalist Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves) and South Korean PIETA director Kim Ki-Duk (Moebius). Not to mention a rollcall of long-running French auteurs including Bertrand Tavernier (Quai D’Orsay), Catherine Breillat (Abuse of Weakness), Claire Denis (Bastards), Francois Ozon (Young & Beautiful) and Patrice Leconte (A Promise).
While perpetually undervalued internationally, Canadian cinema gets its prime annual showcase at TIFF. 2013’s selection looks particularly stellar: There’s the latest by Atom Egoyan (Devil’s Knot), Incendies‘ Denis Villaneueve (Enemy), Goon‘s Michael Dowse (The F Word), Hard Core Logo‘s Bruce McDonald (The Husband) and fast-rising Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm). Rather than offering a new film, the nation’s most famous and successful director David Cronenberg will be celebrated with the launch of a major exhibit at year-round festival HQ Bell Lighthouse, plus archival screenings of his 1975 commercial debut feature, the terrific swingers’-culture horror Shivers (released in the U.S. as They Came from Within).
A few TIFF features will serve as memorials: Nicole Holofcener’s latest seriocomedy Enough Said showcases the final performance by The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini, while closing nighter Life of Crime arrives just weeks after the demise of source novelist Elmore Leonard, one of the most-adapted popular fiction writers in recent decades. Animation fans are mourning the recent announcement that his much-awaited new The Wind Rises will be anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature before retirement.
Current events are well-represented by many of the festival’s sections, among both narrative and non-fiction titles. Much attention will doubtless focus on Mohamad Malas’ secretly made Syrian drama Ladder to Damascus. Another notable title from the Middle East is White Meadows director Mohammad Rasoulof‘s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, about censorship in Iran (albeit centering on a case from two decades ago). U.S. foreign policy will be on the hot seat with Errol Morris’ latest The Unknown Known, an extended sit-down with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Among other documentary portraits of controversial real-life individuals, a comparatively fun one should be Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story, about the Penthouse adult-entertainment mogul. Analyzing a very different media landscape from his heyday is Beeban Kidron’s InRealLife, a look at how recent developments in personal technology have radically changed our lives. And given the rocky state of American public education at present, there should be considerable fascination to doc legend Frederick Wiseman’s latest verité study At Berkeley, which observes the administrative machinery that keeps the University of California’s most famous campus running.
Movies about movies are particularly plentiful in TIFF’s nonfiction category, encompassing the features Jodorowsky’s Dune (chronicling the epic sci-fi adaptation that famed Latin American surrealist almost made), A Story of Children and Film (tracing the portrayal of kids throughout cinematic history), Chuck Workman’s Cinema 101 clip marathon What is Cinema?, and The Dog—the latter a look at the actual hapless bank robber whose exploits inspired 1975’s Lumet/Pacino classic Dog Day Afternoon.
If you’re not overwhelmed already, consider that we haven’t even tapped yet the emerging talent of the “Discovery” section, the experimentally angled “Wavelengths,” multi-media “Future Projections,” family-friendly “Kids,” international exchange “City to City” (this year importing films from/about Athens), archival showcase “TIFF Cinematheque,” or the myriad panels, onstage interviews and other special events. Nor have we entered the guilty-pleasure terrain of “Vanguard” and “Midnight Madness,” whose lines blur more than ever as the former takes on any edgy genre fare not relevant to the latter’s more narrow focus on horror, sci-fi and black comedy.
They might not be Oscar bait, but you can bet a whole lot of festival patrons and guests will be chomping at the bit to see such hopefully gory ‘n’ gleeful exercises in not-so-good taste as Eli Roth’s Green Inferno (his homage to seventies cult pics like Cannibal Holocaust), action/sex comedy R100 (from director Hitoshi Matsumoto of cult faves Big Man Japan and Funky Forest), the reliably outré Alex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching, queercore veteran Bruce LaBruce’s FILF saga Gerontophilia, Filipino controversy magnet Brilliante Mendoza’s new SAPI, and erstwhile Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as a guy who wakes up with some unwonted devilish headgear in Alejandro Aja’s Horns.