Like wild geese in reverse, movie lovers and the press corps head to the Great White North in early September— specifically, to the Toronto International Film Festival, which ended yesterday — for any number of reasons: to catch up with some of the best movies of the previous Sundance and Cannes as the flicks make one last fest-circuit stop; to see stars in their natural habitat, i.e. on a red carpet with microphone shoved in their faces; to stumble across something weird, wild or off-the-world-cinema grid that may not be coming soon, or ever, to a theater near you. Mostly, however, they come for the first-look factor — a chance to not only check out the Fall's big releases before everyone else, but to get a bead on the Oscar race, with TIFF being the inaugural stop of 95-percent of serious awards-season contenders.
Only there was a slight hiccup on the way to officially firing up the Oscar Prognosticator 3000 ™ this year. As numerous publications have reported, the Telluride Film Festival, whose existence predates Toronto's shindig, has made a habit of "sneak previewing" some of the latter's big name films during its Labor Day run, thus stealing a bit of the Canadian event's thunder. So this year, TIFF threw down a gauntlet: Any film that wasn't a World or North American premiere wouldn't be playing the fest the first four days. You want to see The Theory of Everything (biopic of Stephen Hawking), or The Imitation Game (biopic of WWII codebreaker Alan Turing) or Foxcatcher (true story of Olympian Dave Schultz's murder at the hands of John du Pont) or Rosewater (true story of journalist Maziar Bahari's imprisonment in Tehran), all of which played Telluride a week earlier? You have to stick around until after opening weekend.
This bit of inside-baseball bickering between the two organizations had big-picture ramifications, as a number of major award-season hopefuls suddenly found themselves screening when most of the media was getting ready to leave town. But in a way, this is best thing to happen to Toronto's festival. It still gets to be a platform for Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell and Gael Garcîa Bernal — the stars of the aforementioned quartet of heavy hitters —to drum up hype as being the next Great White Best Actor Hope. Or where Reese Witherspoon, whose touchy-feely adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about trekking thousands of miles across the Pacific Crest Trail entitled Wild (alternate name: Hike Pray Love) also played Telluride and Toronto, can still position herself as the frontrunner for Best Actress.
But because these films had to wait to screen, the spotlight was now free to shine on other equally worthy entries, from foreign dramas to other marquee-name-heavy movies that don't have one eye on gold statuettes — and that, more than anything, helped to remind filmgoers that TIFF is not just a staircase to the Dolby Theatre. Maybe Chris Rock's latest (and best) directorial effort, Top Five, might have had the same impact it did even if it was competing for eyeballs with Oscarbait. But his uproarious riff about a funnyman movie star who spends an evening examining his life with the help of a journalist (Rosario Dawson, never better) became, by default, the big ticket item during the festival's prime Saturday night slot— and ended up killing at its screening, leading to a good old-fashioned bidding war and being picked up by Paramount.
Ditto Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, a satirical jab at both fortysomething fuddy-duddies and twentysomething Brooklyn hipsters that didn't skimp on the stars (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) but has a much more cutting, urbane sensibility than your average multiplex fare. While Baumbach's brilliant identity-crisis comedy would be a festival highlight no matter when it screened, the fact that more people were able to see what a gem it was thanks to a lack of jockeying certainly helped raise its profile.
As for critics and journalists, they had more time to go sniffing around for exotic truffles — and three of these "smaller" international films actually seemed to attract deserved praise from a larger number of people than they might have otherwise. The most WTF of these, The Duke of Burgundy, is, like sushi and S&M, an acquired taste, but one that's hard to shake once you've sampled it. British director Peter Strickland's follow-up to 2011's meta-horror movie Berberian Sound Studio follows an aristocrat (Borgen's Sidse Babett Knudsen) embroiled in a love affair with her housemaid (Chiara D'Anna) that's heavy on the submissive/dominant role-playing. What starts off as a fetish-heavy homage to Seventies Euro-sexploitation movies quickly morphs, however, into a beautifully cracked take on what happens when a the thrill of a relationship is gone; unlike some moviemakers, Strickland knows when to stop playing spot-the-reference and when to start mining outré sexual shenanigans for genuine emotional payoff. Do not miss this when it opens in 2015.
There was an even stronger consensus surrounding Force Majeure, a Swedish movie that made a small splash at Cannes and left an even bigger impact here in Toronto. The premise is simple: A family is on a ski trip. One day, while eating at their resort's rooftop restaurant, an avalanche nearly takes them out. Right before disaster almost strikes, however, Dad (Johannes Kuhnke) grabs his phone and runs away, abandoning his wife and kids. The rest of the movie examines the aftermath of his decision to flee the scene, as director Ruben Ostlund rakes masculinity over the coals. Half of the post-screening chatter turned into the sort of what-would-you-do-in-this-situation discussions that will be inevitable among couples who see this when it comes out later this year. The other half of viewers were too busy snickering over the film's merciless wit and chewing over its examination of what happens when a couple sees a crack in their marriage turn into a chasm.
Finally, there was Eden, the story of a Parisian DJ in the early Nineties who turns a fixation with Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage crew into a career. From the moment his grotty looking peers announce that they too are dabbling in music — the name of their duo: Daft Punk — you brace yourself for a history of French EDM as told by the ones who watched their buddies strike it rich. Instead, filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love goes the road less traveled, and turns this tale of a musically fertile era into what hapens when your youthful obsessions dictate your life. (Please, someone release the soundtrack in the States ASAP.) It's a sentiment that many film writers could relate to, for sure. But when you're seeing movies as good as these at a festival that isn't afraid to mix and match the mainstream with the offbeat and that offers a one-stop shopping trip for the cinematically curious, you don't feel like you've exhausted your options. You end thinking that there are still masterpieces lurking around every corner. They just require an audience.