With summer's blast furnace doors shut and the wolves of autumn baying at the door, along comes the Toronto International Film Festival, regular as clockwork. For many, September means a return to school. (I still can't shake a dislike of the day after Labor Day.) For me, it means taking a few weeks off and heading north. I don't use the word "vacation" to describe a festival immersion. Attending the Toronto International Film Festival is many things, but it is not restful.
This year, the festival turns 30, which means that I have it beat by 8 years. This will be my ninth annual appearance, and the festival has grown since I first ventured into the Uptown in 1997. (One of the changes is that the venerable Uptown no longer exists.) When I first attended Toronto, it was among the premiere North American film festivals. Since then, it has become the premiere North American film festival, leaving New York, Seattle, and meat-market Sundance in the dust. Worldwide, only Cannes is more prestigeous. But Cannes is for insiders, not film lovers. I know someone who went to Cannes and ended up spending most of his holiday on the beaches because he couldn't get into many films.
As usual, I will see about 10% of what Toronto has to offer. This variety makes the festival ideal for those who don't plan in advance. Except during prime time (Friday evening, Saturday, and during the day on Sunday), it's possible to buy a walk-in ticket to all but the most high profile films. 600+ journalists from around the world spend time at Toronto. Movie-lovers of all nationalities flock here, as well, but about 75% of those in attendance are residents of the city. TIFF may be a world-class festival, but it retains its home-town flavor.
From a distance, this year's line-up is weaker than usual. Perhaps that's a reflection of the film industry as a whole. 2005's roster, at least to date, has lacked punch. This is the first time in fourteen years of movie-reviewing that I have not awarded at least one four-star citation by September 1. So I go to Toronto in search of a few.
So what will I be seeing and writing about? Shopgirl, based on the Steve Martin novella, is a strong possibility, provided my plane isn't late. Other titles I will make every effort to see: L'Enfer, based on an idea developed by Krzysztof Kieslowski before his death; Elizabethtown, the latest from Cameron Crowe; Tideland, Terry Gilliam's second 2005 feature (and reputedly the better one); Proof, based on the play (which I saw on Broadway with Mary Louise Parker in the lead role); The Notorious Betty Page, with Gretchen Mol as the pin-up model; Where the Truth Lies, the lastest from Canadian favorite Atom Egoyan; The History of Violence, the latest from another Canadian favorite, David Cronenberg; and Romance & Cigarettes, with James Gandolfini in an offbeat musical.
Other titles that may fit into my schedule: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a parody/homage of film noir starring Robert Downey Jr.; Mrs. Henderson Presents, Stephen Frears' look backstage at a nude revue; Corpse Bride, Tim Burton's animated look at love and undeath; Abel Ferrara's Mary, which has been described as a reaction to The Passion of the Christ; the samurai epic Seven Swords; the latest re-make of Pride and Prejudice, with Kiera Knightley; Liev Schreiber's Everything Is Illuminated, about a young man obsessed with collecting items associated with his family; Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, in which Michael Winterbottom returns from X-rated filmmaking; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, from the director of Old Boy; Bart Freundlich's ensemble comedy, Trust the Man; and Thumbsucker, about a teenager diagnosed with ADHD.
Then there are the conflicts, often between something high profile and a lesser known effort. These are the times when I envy the Roger Eberts of the world, who can devote months of their lives to festivals. Seeing a dozen titles and Cannes and 10 more at Telluride opens up an astonishing 22 slots at Toronto. I don't have that luxury, so I have to choose between Marock and Capote, Beowolf & Grendel and Walk the Line, and Slow Burn and In Her Shoes.
Missed opportunities? There will be some. For example, I won't be able to see the Opening Film, Water, because it conflicts with other things I'm more interested in. Other misses will include Wallace & Grommit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Manderlay, and Dreamer. So many titles, so many opportunities (and missed opportunities)... The dilemmas are endless.
Which of these films will exceed expectations, imparting the kind of experience that only a great movie can? And which ones are stinkers lying in ambush? Finding more of the former than the latter is part of the alchemy that goes into a successful festival experience. Most of the movies I see will be in the three-star range, and that's okay with me. There are worse things than seeing a day's worth of solid motion pictures.
A film festival reminds me of the old proverb: "A rolling stone gathers no moss." Festivals, by their nature, gain momentum with each screening. All's quiet at the beginning, then you start hearing things. Soon, the word is out on every film. Cell phones start ringing. People become frantic. By the middle of the festival, it's pandemonium. Once the ball begins to roll, it can't be stopped. It's a runaway freight train. Join me during the next ten days as I climb aboard.
© 2005 James Berardinelli