The Toronto International Film Festival is the kind of epic, pulse-racing cinematic event that causes joy, stress and exhaustion in equal measure. It is the so-big-it-hangs-off-the-plate, Buffalo-style fish fry of film festivals, a tourist-friendly, critic-crazed and celeb-mad 11-day orgy of cinema. Consider the numbers for #TIFF14: nearly 300 features and more than 100 short films from 79 countries.
Among the major fests – Cannes, Sundance, Telluride, New York, Venice – TIFF is both the most audience friendly and the easiest to criticize. Happily, for film fans in Toronto, Buffalo and beyond, the festival is remarkably accessible. The large number of films means there always is a ticket available for something, and many of the screenings feature question-and-answer sessions and appearances from stars like Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
TIFF has drawn criticism for its anything-and-everything philosophy – this is the only major fest in the world that would screen both Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer” and the director’s cut of Neil Young’s infamously awful “Human Highway.” This year has a surplus of Oscar wannabes (though not Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” or David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” both set to debut at the New York Film Festival), questionable big-studio fare (Robert Downey Jr. in “The Judge”), and, of course, a 338-minute Filipino epic (Lav Diaz’s “From What is Before”).
And 2014 is of particular interest because of TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey’s widely debated declaration of festival war. After the increasingly popular Telluride Film Festival beat Toronto to the punch last year with premieres of eventual Oscar winners “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” among others, Bailey decided enough was enough. In news that has drawn the ire of studios and journalists, it was announced that the first four days of the festival would feature only world and North American premieres. Essentially, that means films set to debut at Telluride will not screen until after TIFF’s first weekend. This is pretty major, as the first Thursday through Sunday of the festival sees more media attendance than the remainder of the fest.
TIFF, however, had an ace up its sleeve: Bill Murray. If ever a celeb deserved a national holiday, it is Mr. Murray, that rare actor who pleases both critics and audiences. He also is harder to track down than a game-worn Dave Snuggerud jersey. But TIFF snagged the star, who will participate in a Q-and-A after the premiere of his new film, “St. Vincent,” on Sept. 5. The day also will feature screenings of “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.” Top that, Telluride.
It all adds up to a typically enticing artistic Bolognese that is thrilling, ambitious, stressful and, for cinephiles, unmissable. Let’s take a closer look at TIFF14.
5 Most Buzzed-About Films:
“The Imitation Game” Perhaps only “The Theory of Everything” could rival this biopic of mathematician Alan Turing in the Oscar Bait Sweepstakes. Much-loved “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch leads a starry cast (Keira Knightley, Charles Dance) in a story that focuses on Turing’s World War II code-breaking and eventual persecution for homosexuality.
“Maps to the Stars” David Cronenberg is TIFF, a Canadian filmmaker who has premiered many of his greatest efforts (“Dead Ringers,” “Eastern Promises”) at the festival. His latest, a Hollywood-skewering satire, thrust star Julianne Moore into early awards talk after premiering in Cannes. It may prove too acidic for mainstream audiences, but at TIFF it should go down like your fifth cocktail.
“Rosewater” Jon Stewart, award-winning filmmaker? That’s jumping the gun a bit, but on paper, at least, the “Daily Show” host’s directorial debut reads like a moving, important drama. It stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a real-life journalist imprisoned for five years in Iran.
“The Theory of Everything” “Les Misérables” star Eddie Redmayne as young Stephen Hawking, with the talented Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) as the renowned physicist’s first wife? Yes. This is a must.
“Wild” Reese Witherspoon’s movies veer from the “wow” (“Walk the Line,” “Mud”), to the “what was she thinking?” (“This Means War,” “Four Christmases”). But this adaptation of Cheryl Strayad’s memoir about her 1,000-mile hike is scripted by Nick Hornby and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”). That’s an intriguing combination of talent.
5 Under-the-Radar Picks:
“The Humbling” Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Diner”) has not directed a relevant feature since Bill Clinton was in office, but he did successfully bring Jack Kevorkian to the small screen in 2010’s HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.” Al Pacino starred in the latter, and he takes the lead in this Philip Roth adaptation. The fine Greta Gerwig co-stars.
“A Little Chaos” Severus Snape directs. Alan Rickman could not have found two more enticing stars for his historical drama: Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”).
“Love and Mercy” Paul Dano and John Cusack play young and old Brian Wilson, respectively, in a biopic of the Beach Boys genius. Brilliant casting, or Mike Love-esque sabotage? We’ll find out soon enough.
“Pawn Sacrifice” Tobey Maguire may have been miscast in “The Great Gatsby,” but he seems ideal to play American chess phenomenon Bobby Fischer opposite Liev Schreiber’s Boris Spassky in this Edward Zwick-helmed docudrama.
“The Riot Club” If you love nasty, class- conscious British dramas (or if you love the classic “If …”), “Riot” could be your “Hunger Games.” Like that dystopian, zeitgeist-capturing favorite, “Riot” features young people forced to do awful things to survive in a fearsome place – in this case, Oxford.
Handsomest director: No, it’s not Michael Moore, who will present an anniversary screening of “Roger & Me.” It’s Captain America himself, Chris Evans, who screens his first outing as a director, “Before We Go.”
Star seeking atonement for past cinematic sins: Adam Sandler, above, who stars in two films at the festival, Jason Reitman’s ensemble effort “Men, Women and Children” and Tom “The Station Agent” McCarthy’s “The Cobbler.”
Nicole Kidman Award for achievement in prosthetic nose-wearing: Steve Carell, a probable Oscar nominee as murderous John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.”
Most likely to win over her haters: Kristen Stewart, above, in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” an acclaimed smash at May’s Cannes Film festival co-starring Juliette Binoche and Chloë Grace Moretz.
Worst title: “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2.” All it’s missing is “Electric Boogaloo” as a subtitle. (Speaking of the “Boogaloo,” the documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films” looks at the offbeat studio that managed to bring efforts from both Jean-Luc Godard and Chuck Norris to the masses in the ’80s.)
Godard? He’s here, too: The New Wave auteur’s latest is, yes, in 3-D. His “Goodbye to Language” was one of the most acclaimed films at Cannes. Will this befuddle audiences as much as his last, “Film Socialism”? Probably.
“Law & Order,” Italy-style: In “The Face of An Angel,” Michael Winterbottom explores the Amanda Knox case.
Most egregious example of onscreen facial hair: John Travolta, left, in “The Forger,” who looks like a cross between a character in the board game “Guess Who?” and Ming the Merciless.
Hey, it’s Scotty Bowman: The former Sabres’ coach and GM appears in “Red Army,” a documentary about the Soviet hockey juggernaut of the 1980s.
Coolest cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried and Charles Grodin lead Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” follow-up, “While We’re Young.”
Music fan can’t-miss: Perhaps the most acclaimed film at winter’s Sundance Film Festival, “Whiplash” is about a young drummer (Miles Teller) and his relentless instructor (J.K. Simmons).
Most tear-inducing onscreen appearance: James Gandolfini, left, whose final film, “The Drop,” co-starring Tom Hardy and Noomie Rapace, screens at TIFF.
Please, someone stop James Franco: The actor-author-director-dreamboat-embarrassment directs and stars in (as the developmentally challenged Benjy) an adaptation of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”
TV favorites, unite: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, left, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) and Adam Driver (“Girls”) in the same movie? That’s “This Is Where I Leave You.”