Why does Toronto International Film Festival matter?

Last week, Venice Film Festival rocked the film industry with the opening of Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” which has become an instant favourite to dominate next year’s Oscars. Other movies such as Reese Witherspoon’s starrer “Wild” and Alan Turin’s biopic “The Imitation Game” generated no lesser enthusiasm following their premieres at the Colorado-based Telluride Film Festival.

Today, it’s Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) turn to start unveiling its roster of movies. North America’s biggest and most prestigious festival will open its 39th version with John’s The Judge, which follows a lawyer (Robert Downy Junior) as he returns home to defend his father – a judge – who is accused of committing a murder.

TIFF’s opener last year, the Wikileak’s founder biopic “The Fifth Estate” failed to impress audiences and the industry, and was quickly overshadowed by Venice’s and Telluride’s openers, “12 Years A Slave” and “Gravity.” Hence TIFF is under pressure to deliver headline-grabbing masterpieces in order to survive the competition from other festivals.

The problem is that most the highly-anticipated movies in TIFF have already been screened in other major festivals, such as Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” which tells the true story of an eccentric rich heir (Steve Carell), who lures an Olympic wrestler (Channing Tatum) and his brother (Mark Ruffalo) to move into his estate to train in for the Olympic games, with a tragic outcome. The picture was premiered at Cannes International Film Festival in May to a rapturous reception, sparking Oscar predictions for its cast.

Other Cannes favourites, such as Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a dark biopic of 19th-century British painter J.M.W Turner, and David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” have also found their way to the Canadian city.

Even Al Pacino, who will be honoured in Toronto, will be bringing his two movies “The Humbling” and “Manglehorn” after they opened in Venice earlier this week. In the former, he portrays an aging actor who falls for a young lesbian, and in the latter he plays an eccentric man who struggles to come to terms with the loss his beloved wife.

Other movies arriving in Toronto via Venice include: Abel Ferrara’s “Passonlini,” Rami Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” and David Olehofen’s “Far From Men.”

In addition to “Wild,” which follows a broken woman as she embarks on a rediscovery journey in the wild, and “The Imitation Game,” a biopic of the British WWII code breaker Alan Turing, several of Telluride’s selections will be featured in Toronto such as Andrew Piccolino’s “Good Kill,” in which we see Ethan Hawke playing a drone pilot who begins to question the morality of his work, and Jon Stewart’s directorial debut “Rosewater,” which depicts the ordeal of a journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) who was falsely accused of spying for the United States during the 2009 presidential elections in Iran.

Having not been forgotten since its premiere in January, Sundance Film Festival’s winner the musical drama “Whiplash, ” which depicts J.K. Simmons as a cruel music teacher tormenting an aspiring young drummer, is  also a guest at TIFF.

Having all the aforementioned titles being touted to feature in next year’s Academy awards’ different categories, prompted some to wonder whether TIFF has lost its exclusivity of being the Oscar compass? After all, many of the past Academy best picture winners were introduced to the world in Toronto, such as Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, The King’s Speech.

Unlike other festivals, Toronto remains the gates to the coveted North American market, and thus attracts more stars, filmmakers, sellers and buyers, distributors, publicists and media outlets from all the over the world. So while other festivals discover movies, Toronto acts as their springboard to commercial and awards success. Hence it’s incumbent on any awards-hopeful movie to be seen in Toronto, even if it wins accolades in big European festivals or smaller US ones, if they wish to attain global visibility and avoid sinking into oblivion.

Last year, both Oscar winners “12 Years A Slave” and “Gravity” opened in Telluride and Venice respectively, igniting an industry buzz, but it was TIFF that introduced them to the wider world and propelled them on their journey to the coveted Oscars, thanks to its far reaching media coverage and the massive presence of the global film industry.

Of course, TIFF will unspool its own premieres including: Jason Rietman’s “Men, Women and Children”; “This is Where I Leave You,“ starring Tina Fey and Jane Fonda; “The Theory of Everything,” with Eddie Redmayne portraying physicist Stephen Hawking; Bill Murray’s “St. Vincent“; and “Nightcrawler,” featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a drifter who becomes a freelance videographer.

Within the next 10 days, one or more titles will emerge from the mist of over 300 movies and rise above the fray. And whichever does, will be taking the long tumultuous journey to Oscar’s night next February.

TIFF will close with the British film “Little Chaos” from director Alan Rickman, who will also star in it next to Kate Winslet.

12 Years a Slave Wins Toronto Film Festival

12 Years a Slave

British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has won the 38th Toronto Film Festival’s audience prize. Produced by Brad Pitt and Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, the film tells the real-life story of an African-American who was subjected to the cruelty of slavery for 12 years before he was freed by his white friends in 19th century America. This triumph will propel 12 Years a Slave ahead in the Oscar race.

Another British movie, Stephen Frears’ Philomena was the first runner-up, followed by Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners.

Egyption Jehane Noujaim’s The Square won the documentary audience award. The film follows the Egyptian revolution from the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to the deposing the first democratically elected president  Mohamed Mursi.

The last six years, Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) has screened all the Oscar Best Picture winners. Last year’s runner-up, Argo, won the Oscar for the best picture. Other TIFF winners such as Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech ended up taking home the Oscars for best picture.

Toronto Film Festival ignites the race to the Oscars

Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity

In the last few years, The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has increasingly become more of a barometer for Oscar contenders than a platform to discover small movies that often rely on festivals to gain some attention. Films are not measured by creative quality or commercial viability anymore but by their Oscar potential – a fact that was not missed, and even encouraged, by Hollywood Studios, who dispatch every executive and publicist in their armouries to form formidable attack lines with the hope that will eventually win them a trophy on the Oscars night next year. They are ubiquitous, feeding the information-hungry press with tidbits about their movies, leading talent from one interview to another, throwing glitzy parties in Toronto’s glamorous venues, where they urge the tipsy guests to believe that their movie is so good, it merits an Oscar.

Unlike the previous years, when one picture rose above the dizzying foray of over 250 movies and ended up winning the industry’s most coveted trophy,  the 38th edition of TIFF had several potential contenders this year, hence academic conversations often led to a passionate argument among fans of different movies. The awards war has indeed begun and it’s going to be ferocious this year.

One of the movies that produced a lot of buzz and ignited heated debate was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the harrowing story of an African-American who has to endure the hardship of slavery for 12 years before he is freed by his white friends. Some audiences were dismayed by the sadistic violence portrayed in the movie, yet others hailed it as a bold depiction of the true hideous nature of the 18th century slavery in the US.

This was not the first time the British director has commanded such attention. A couple of years ago, his film Shame fired up Venice Film Festival, gaining a best actor award for its lead Michael Fassbender, but that fire dimmed quickly and the film eventually lost steam in its Oscar race. Will 12 Years a Slave do better?

A lighter and less controversial film was Ron Howard’s car-racing thriller Rush, which follows two Formula One legends British James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda as they battle each other to win the world championship. The film was universally embraced and admired for its verisimilitude and the performances of its leads, Chris Hemsworth who plays James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl, who looked and sounded like the real Niki Lauda, who flew himself to Toronto in his own airplane from Austria, arriving two hours before the premiere, and attend the screening and the after party. Amazingly, when I left the party at 2 am, the 70 year-old racer was still entertaining the guests. Yet, when I sat to interview him at 8am, he was bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. After the interview, he flew himself back to Austria.

Daniel Bruhl didn’t excel only in portraying the legendary Niki Lauda, he also delivered a riveting performance in the wikileaks drama, The Fifth Estate, in which

Daniel Bruhl stars in Rush and The Fifth Estate

he plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who co founded the whistleblower website with Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film, which opened the festival didn’t live up to the preceding hype and quickly ceded to other competing high profile movies.

The performance of the year, however, was delivered by Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays a real-life Texas electrician Ron Woodroof, who defies conventional medicine and stays alive for 7 years after being diagnosed with HIV in the early eighties, by relying on a banned alternative treatment. McConaughey, who shed 40 pounds for the role, is virtually unrecognisable as he leads us into the fascinating emotional journey of a man who refuses to die.

Away from the hardship of earth, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi Gravity takes us to the silent loneliness of the heavens, where Sandra Bullock gets stranded in meteor-infested space after her partner George Clooney. Fresh from its dominance at The Venice Film Festival, Gravity continued to awe audiences and critics alike with its stunning visuals.

More high profile movies vying for Oscar attention were star-studded August: Osage County about a dysfunctional family, kidnapping thriller Prisoners, and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs for 11 days, but in reality most stars and industry professionals depart the city after 5 days, because all the big movies are screened in the festival’s early days.  So on my last day,  I went to check out the Palestinian movie, Omar, which had won Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was a breath of fresh air, because the story, not the stars,  was the centre of attention. Following the screening, I attended the modest after-party, which lacked the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood bashes, but it was filled with movie lovers instead of star spotters.

It was not all doom and gloom for independent movies. In fact, it has been very bright this year with distributors competing over titles and paying handsome fees for their finds. Film mogul, Harvey Weinstein coughed up $7 million for Can a Song Save Your Life? 12 hours after its well-received world premiere. A similar sum was paid by Focus Features for Jason Bateman’s black comedy Bad Words. These deals are double last year’s top Toronto transaction of $3.5 million for The Place Beyond the Pines.

As The Toronto International Film Festival draws its curtains, Hollywood gets ready to march into a new battlefield that will eventually lead the victors to the that golden prize, the Oscar.

Silver Linings Playbook wins Toronto Film Festival

The team of Silver Linings Playbook at the premiere

Today, David O’Russell’s comedy Silver Linings Playbook has been named the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award winner at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the crowd-pleasing film centres on a bipolar former teacher who meets a troubled widow as he tries to reconcile with his wife, after his release from a mental hospital.

This is the second win this month for the producers of the film, The Weinstein brothers. Their other buzz-generating movie, The Master, won best director and best actors at Venice Film Festival last week.

Some TIFF winners, such as Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech, went on to dominate the coveted Oscars, so most likely we will be hearing more about Silver Linings Playbook in the upcoming awards season.

The BlackBerry People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award went to Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. This award is reserved for films that were screened at the Festival’s Midnight screenings sidebar, such as horror movies.

Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Abbie Cornish, the dark comedy follows a screenwriter who inadvertently gets entangled in a Los Angeles underworld crime.

Politics and controversy at Toronto Film Festival

Ben Affleck’s Argo was universally hailed as a clear winner at TIFF

There is no other film event that transforms its host city the way Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does. During the 11-days, the sleepy city of Toronto becomes the thriving epicentre of the film industry, hosting thousands of industry professionals and film fans from all over the world, who come to savour the new offerings of world cinema.

Walking down the streets of downtown Toronto, you are bound to see long lines of film goers snaking around the block, waiting patiently in the scorching heat to see one of the 375 movies screened in the festival or hear the deafening screams of lucky star-spotters as they catch a glimpse of one of the hundreds of attending stars.

Thanks to the large number of premieres, TIFF attracts more  stars than any other festival. They parade the red carpet, shake hands, sign autographs and mingle with the swooning fans. Feeling at ease in Toronto, the celebrities are everywhere: in the bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the ubiquitous parties.

But TIFF is not only about stars and parties. Since its inception, 37 years ago, the festival has become one of the best barometers for Oscar contenders. Almost every executive, publicist, critic or reporter in Hollywood descends on Toronto in order to be the first to get a sneak preview the likely champions of the upcoming award season. This year a few contenders have risen above the dizzying foray.

Top of the list is the political thriller Argo, which was universally hailed as the forerunner in next year’s Oscar race.  Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film tells the true story of a CIA operative who contrives an audacious plan to smuggle out of Iran 6 US embassy employees, who managed to flee when the embassy was raided by Iranian demonstrators and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house.

The movie received a rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. Later, Ben Affleck was joined by his wife Jennifer Garner, his best friend Matt Damon and the rest of the cast to celebrate the success of the film at a glamorous restaurant.

Coincidentally, the morning after Argo’s premiere, Canada announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran, and a day later the American consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo were stormed by angry demonstrators, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya.

The main competitor for Argo was another socio-political movie, The Master, which has been creating a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best actor prize.

The Master has reportedly sparked hostility from angry Scientologists, who urged its producer Harvey Weinstein to cancel its release. Based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the film tells the story of a WWII veteran, who gets manipulated by a charismatic sect leader.

Jennifer Laurence captivating performance at Silver Lining Playback made her a frontrunner at the Oscar’s race

Notorious for his uncanny ability to sense award-worthy projects, Harvey Weinstein offered another yet different potential Oscar contender: the light-hearted Silver Lining Playbook, which was applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Directed by David O’Russell and starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the dark comedy centres on a bipolar former teacher (Cooper) who is taken under the wing of a widow (Lawrence) as he struggles to fit back in society. The captivating performances of Cooper and Lawrence make them natural frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

Other movies dealing with disabilities that attracted attention were The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt bares all as a sex surrogate therapist who helps a comatose poet lose his virginity.  And Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard delivers a riveting performance as a whale trainer who finds love after losing her legs in an accident.

Tom Hanks was also in town promoting the highly anticipated Cloud Atlas, six interwoven stories and grand themes of karma and compassion. The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers,  didn’t live up the hype, leaving the audience confused and critics divided.

Keira Knightley failed to impress in Anna Karenina

The Brits were here in force too but, unlike the previous few years, their movies didn’t dominate the festival. Keira Knightley, accompanied by director Joe Wright, attended the premiere of Anna Karenina, which benefited from sumptuous production design but was short on character development and performance, leaving critics and audiences unimpressed.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts hit the parties to promote The Impossible, a harrowing story about a family who reunite after being ruptured by the 2003 Christmas tsunami. While Olivia Williams was accompanying her co-stars in Hyde Park On Hudson, Bill Murray and Laura Linney, while promoting the movie about the love story between the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson also delighted her fans as she marched down the red carpet at the premiere of her new teen movie, Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which she falls in love with an introvert freshman.

But the star who provoked the loudest screams and most attention from fans was Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who endowed Toronto with her first public appearance since the revelation of her love affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. She arrived in Toronto to attend the premiere of her new movie On The Road.

While stars glittered on red carpet and at glitzy parties, studio executives and other buyers were hunting treasures in the darkness of screening rooms. But it seems that

Helen Hunt bares all in The Sessions

treasures were in short supply this year.

Nancy Utley, the head of Marketing at Fox Searchlight, told me that she had watched 20 movies, but nothing had tickled her fancy, leaving the festival empty handed. Her sentiment was echoed by the other studio executives, such as Stacey Snider from DreamWorks who came looking for new talent. “I was impressed by a Danish director, and the director of Impossible, and the David Geffen documentary,” she told me when I bumped into her in the hotel lobby. The lucky directors will most likely be invited to the studio, which is headed by Steven Spielberg, for a chat.

By contrast, however, the co-chairman of Lionsgate, Rob Friedman, told me that he felt good about the movies that his company had acquired during the festival, including Thanks For Sharing, Much Ado About Nothing and Emperor.

By the second week of the festival, many of Hollywood’s big players have left Toronto, which gradually fades back to normality as the festival begins to wind down.

Ben Affleck’s Argo fires up Canadians at TIFF

Argo, one of the most talked about movies at Toronto International Film Festival was premiered last night at the Roy Thompson Hall.

Ben Affleck in Argo

The political thriller is based on the true story of the 6 Americans who succeeded in fleeing the US embassy in Tehran when it was stormed by Iranian demonstrators, following the toppling of the Shah in 1979. The escapees took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home, until they were smuggled out of Iran by CIA operative Tony Mendes (played by Ben Affleck).

Ending with a thank you note to Canada for assisting in saving the 6 Americans, the film received a rapturous applause by the Canadian audience. The nail-biting, suspenseful film was also praised by critics and is predicted by many to dominate the upcoming awards season.

Before the screening, director Ben Affleck, accompanied by his wife, actress Jennifer Garner, walked down the red carpet followed by the rest of the cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Alan Arkin and Taylor Schilling.

Just as the Argo premiere after-party began in earnest a few blocks away in Terroni, another movie that created a lot of buzz, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, was having its own premiere. It centres on an unsettled naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who is manipulated by a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Later at midnight, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths received its world premiere, which was attended by the director and his cast, including Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Sam Rockwell.

Lebanese movie wins Toronto Film Festival

Lebanese movie wins Toronto Film Festival

Lebanese movie wins Toronto Film Festival

Lebanese movie, Where Do We Go Now, has won the People Choice award at the 36th Toronto Film Festival. Directed by Nadine Lataki, who had previously made the award-winning movie Caramel, the film tells the story of a group of women in a Lebanese village who decide to act in order to prevent the inter- religious fighting among the men.
Where Do We Go Now, which was debuted last May at Cannes Film Festival and won an award at Sebastian Film Festival, is Lebanon’s submission to next year’s academy awards.
Last year, the trophy’s winner was The King Speech, which went on to dominate the Oscar awards. Other previous winners, such as Slumdog millionaire, American Beauty, Crash have also triumphed at the Oscars.
The Golden Bear winner of Berlin Film Festival, Iranian movie A Separation, was the runner-up for the Audience award.
Films that had enjoyed the festival’s buzz and won the critics praise such as George Clooney’s Ides of March, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Brad Pitt’s MoneyBall were not featured among the winners. Nonetheless, it’s widely believed that these movies will be recognized in the upcoming awards season.
Founded in 1976, Toronto Film Festival has become one of the most important film festivals in the world. It serves as a launching point for films and performances that end up winning Academy awards and a market place where distributors sell their movies.