Every year, the arrrival of September represents a turning point in more ways than one. Summer draws to a close with chillier nights that portend frost on the pumpkin patch, students and teachers reluctantly return to school, and Hollywood begins releasing films with "Oscar Potential." For the last 25 years, the unofficial gateway to the fall movie season has been the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Running for ten days beginning the Thursday after Labor Day (September 7 through 16 this year), the TIFF has become not only the most important late year film festival, but arguably the most important period, outranking other giants like Cannes, Telluride, and Sundance. (It has long since surpassed the likes of Venice and New York.)
The TIFF turns 25 this year, making it much younger than many of its chief competitors. Nevertheless, during its short lifetime, this festival has accomplished more than any other to change the way fall movie releases are perceived, marketed, and distributed. And, every year, the Toronto festival's importance grows. Two of 1999's Best Picture Oscar contenders (including the eventual winner), The Cider House Rules and American Beauty, debuted at Toronto. Last year's roster also included such notable premieres as The Hurricane, Sunshine, Sweet and Lowdown, The Limey, and Snow Falling on Cedars. I also saw my #1 film of the year, The War Zone, in Toronto (although it had been kicking around the festival circuit for a while by that time). Distributors aren't stupid (at least some of the time) and they recognize the importance of screening their top fall product at Toronto (especially if it can claim an "artistic" aspect). Thus, it would not be surprising to find that two or three of this year's Galas end up among next year's Oscar nominees.
As film festivals go, the TIFF's dates are perfectly timed. Sundance, set in ski country during the height of winter, is about the most miserable place imaginable for a festival, with fare that often fails to excite. Cannes, arriving along with the first blush of the summer movie season, has been in a steady decline over the past few years. But, like cinematic cavalry arriving in the nick of time, Toronto heralds the end of the August/September blahs. The weather is usually exemplary and the movie schedule is ripe with promise. This year, anticipation runs as high as it has ever been. To date, the 2000 film roster has offered little in the way of quality, and those of us who gorge ourselves on motion pictures need sustenance to avoid wasting away. The TIFF heralds the end of the long winter of our discontent - which has lasted all the way through the spring and into the latter stages of the summer.
This year's schedule doesn't look as imposing as the 1999 one, but there are enough intriguing titles to keep the average festival attendee busy. Offering an astounding 329 films (ten more than in 1999, and 178 of which are World or North American premieres), the 2000 festival gurantees that even the most ambitious scheduler will miss at least 80% of what's playing. 56 countries are represented, and 64 of the films are from first-time directors. The longest entry clocks in at 217 minutes, while the shortest runs 4 minutes. In terms of sheer volume, no other festival comes close to Toronto. Conflicts abound. Everyone going to the festival missing countless "must see" opportunities because so many screenings occur at the same time. Consequently, people returning from the TIFF often have stories to rival fishermen about "the ones that got away."
Batting lead-off as the Opening Night film is Denys Arcand's Stardom, which is enjoying its North American premiere (after officially being unveiled in May at Cannes). Starring Dan Aykroyd, Frank Langella, Thomas Gibson, Robert Lepage, and Montreal newcomer Jessica Paré, Stardom follows the rise of a model to superstardom. 328 films later, the festival will close with How To Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, a comedy from Michael Kalesniko about a cynical playwright who befriends the little girl next door. It stars Kenneth Branagh as the lead, Robin Wright-Penn as his wife, and Suzi Hofrichter as the child. (Since it is generally my policy not to be present for either the Opening or Closing Night festivities, I do not expect to cover either film.)
The highest profile films are indisputably the Galas, of which there are 15 (not counting the Opening and Closing Night features). These include new offerings from Robert Altman (Dr. T and the Women, about the tribulations of a gynecologist, played by Richard Gere), Patrice Leconte (La Veuve de St. Pierre, about crime and punishment), Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love, about infidelity and love between two couples), Marlene Gorris (Luzhin Defence, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and starring Emily Watson and John Turturro), and Katherine Bigalow (Weight of Water, a thriller starring Sean Penn, Catherine McCormack, and Sarah Polley). Also showing are several highly-anticipated major releases - Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (a coming-of-age story set in the world of rock and roll, circa 1973), Christopher Guest's Best In Show (a "mockumentary" satire about dog shows), Rod Lurie's The Contender (about a political scandal involving a would-be Vice President, starring Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen), and George Tillman Jr.'s Men of Honor (a military drama featuring Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr.). In addition, one of the movies with the best word-of-mouth out of Cannes, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (an epic love story set in 19th century China and starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh), makes its North American debut.
The 2000 TIFF boasts a pair of special programs. The first is a salute to director Stephen Frears. In addition to a 2 1/2 hour love fest (for which tickets cost $75 each) on the night of Saturday 9/9, Frears' body of work will be highlighted throughout the festival (including a screening of his newest work, Liam). The second is a tribute to playwright Samuel Beckett, featuring two new feature films based on his work (Patricia Rozema's Happy Days and Conor McPherson's Endgame) and eight shorts by acclaimed directors (including Atom Egoyan, Neil Jordan, and David Mamet). Mamet's "Catastophe" has the distinction of featuring the final performance of the late, great Sir John Geilgud.
Given the momentous nature of the festival's silver anniversary, a celebratory program called Year One has been developed to highlight some of the memorable films from the festival's 1976 inaugural year (when it was a small, struggling startup endeavor). As part of this retrospective, eight offerings will be available: Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin, Cousine (the Opening Night film in 1976), Francesco Rosi's The Context, Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground, Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road, André Forcier's L'eau Chaude, L'eau Frette, Barbara Kopple's Harlan County U.S.A., and Grey Gardens, directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer.
The Special Presentation program, the second-highest profile segment of the festival, offers 22 features this year. These include Joel Schumacher's Tigerland (a Vietnam-era story), François Ozon's Sous Le Sable (about the uncertainty of whether someone has died or not), Liv Ullman's Faithless (screenplay by Ingmar Bergman based on incidents from his life), Michael Radford's Dancing at the Blue Iguana (about the lives of three performers at a strip club), and James Gray's The Yards (a thriller set in New York City subway yards, starring Mark Walhberg and James Caan). Several actors-turned-directors will be presenting films: Sally Field's Beautiful (starring Minnie Driver), Al Pacino's Chinese Coffee (in which he appears opposite Jerry Orbach), and Ed Harris' Pollock. David Mamet's highly-anticipated State and Main will be shown, as will Tom Tykwer's follow-up to Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior.
Culled from the combined categories of The Masters, Contemporary Word Cinema, Perspective Canada, and Discovery, some intriguing titles include Stephen Daldry's coming of age story, Billy Elliot (which has tremendous word-of-mouth); Karyn Kusama's Sundance standout, Girlfight; Olivier Assayas' long (180 minutes) WWI drama, Les Destinées Sentimentales; Fridrik Thór Fridriksson's look at the life of a schizophrenic, Angels of the Universe; Jon Shear's Sundance competition entry, the dark Urbania; Hong Sangsoo's oddly-titled Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors; Benoit Jacquot's historically influenced Sade (with Daniel Auteuil as the Marquis de Sade); Darren Aranofsky's bizarre Requiem for a Dream; Denis Villeneuve's Maelström, the Perspective Canada Opening Night feature; Ken Loach's latest, Bread and Roses; and Claude Chabrol's Merci Pour Le Chocolate. For those who aren't afraid of risqué subject matter, the festival is also presenting Baise-Moi, the controversial French film that mixes hardcore sex with a Thelma & Louise-like story of female empowerment, and Catherine Breillat's (Romance) Une Vraie Jeune Fille, a tale of a young girl confronting her sexuality that has sat on the shelves for 25 years because it was deemed to controversial to be exhibited.
Obviously, with so many movies showing on so many theater screens (19 screens will be employed), these titles represent only a tip of the iceberg. Over the next 10 days, I will cover as many as I can, as well as offer a flavor of the festival. And maybe, when it's all over, I'll get a chance to sleep...
© 2000 James Berardinelli