Let the chaos commence. Like the customers ready to break into a Wal-Mart warehouse the morning of a pre-Christmas sale, a horde of North American film lovers have avidly awaited the opening of the 31st Toronto International Film Festival. Yesterday, the doors finally opened. You have 10 days, cinema shoppers, to see as many of the festival's 349 films as possible. The winner gets nothing but bragging rights for the next year. On your mark, get set, GO!
By now, everyone knows that Toronto TIFF, for short marks the opening of the movie-awards season. Or the serious-film season, which has become the same thing. With blockbusters and buddy comedies filling most of the multiplex screens, movies with a slower pulse and a higher IQ almost have to be marketed as bait for the Academy Awards. Audiences are told that if they don't see this political exposé, or that family-crisis drama, they won't be in the know on Oscar night. It's like homework, but with George Clooney or Brad Pitt as the professor.
George Clooney and Brad Pitt took Ocean's Thirteen to Cannes, but they don't need a film festival to get attention for their caper movies. They do for a dark, corporate-chicanery drama like Michael Clayton. or a murky, elegiac western like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So the big boys are here to exchange their star luster for the ego boost, and maybe the Oscar boost, a good showing at Toronto can bring. That's how American Beauty and Crash, both Academy Award winners for Best Picture, got started.
You take a risk showing Once your picture at TIFF. You may have a high-buzz title instantly interred, as the Sean Penn-starring All the King's Men was last year; or have a festival sensation, like the Bush-assassination fakeumentary Death of a President, that can't duplicate its success when it's released. Or you could be Borat, and ride the Toronto bronco to a $100 million-plus domestic gross and an Oscar nomination.
The way Hollywood figures it, the upside is worth the gamble. Toronto, unlike Cannes or Venice, is really a people's festival; the movie equivalent of those Wal-Mart warriors pay real money to see these pictures. They may boo films but more often cheer them on, stoking a producer's dreams of big revenues and little statuettes. The studios count on Toronto audiences (and the thousand or so critics who come from the lower 48) to ignite the word-of-mouth that can keep a movie hot through February. Heat shouldn't be a problem at TIFF this year. The temperature hit 90 (32C) on opening day.
THE VENICE-TORONTO EXPRESS
I've had a peripatetic week. On Tuesday I saw my last two features at the Venice Film Festival. On Wednesday I flew back to New York, and that evening I caught a screening of Julie Taymor's Beatles movie, Across the Universe. Yesterday I got to Toronto, where my first movie was the Jodie Foster revenge drama The Brave One. Today, wearing my two Toronto press badges along with the one I brought from Venice (just to show off) and my TIME ID, I'm sporting more bling than P. Diddy.
For a moment I had to wonder: Did I set a world record for critics by seeing different films in three countries in three days? The Answer: probably not. Kevin Murphy, best known as a writer-performer on the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000, spent the year 2001 on a world tour seeing a different film every day (and wrote up this punishing experience in a wonderfully funny, thoughtful book, A Year at the Movies). Murphy is bound to have equaled or eclipsed my itinerary. And I couldn't touch him for stamina.
Venice, which was launched by Mussolini 75 years ago, begins a week before TIFF. (It ends tomorrow, with the announcement of its Golden Lion prizes.) The scheduling allows festival director Marco Mueller to present the world premieres of many films that will be hot items in Toronto. That primacy makes Venice an important stop on the prestige-movie express for A-list talent wooing international critical opinion in Europe and Asia. If the festival doesn't register on this continent, it's only because Americans don't much care about, or even notice, what happens first somewhere else.
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