By BARRY HERTZ
Friday, July 20, 2018
Last year, less was more for the Toronto International Film Festival.
In an effort to "fine-tune" its programming and address industry concerns of bloat, TIFF announced that it would screen 20 per cent fewer films. It was a drastic goal for a festival that's prided itself on growth and whose reputation relies partly on its everything-for-everyone lineup - perhaps too drastic, it turned out, as its actual 2017 numbers saw a drop of only about 13 per per cent (TIFF screened 255 feature-length films last year, compared with 296 films in 2016).
According to TIFF, the festival will likely see a further reduction in selections for this September's edition. But what will make the cut as the organization seeks to slim itself down further - and as it prepares for the last festival under departing TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling?
The festival won't reveal the first portion of its 2018 lineup until July 24. But it's never too early to play a round of Guess Who's Coming to TIFF, a favourite industry game whose eventual answers will fuel the film industry's hype machine for the rest of the year.
The most obvious, frustrating and fun place to start is TIFF's opening-night slot. Scheduled this year for Sept. 6, TIFF will have to balance a spotty history with ever-high expectations, especially as the competing Venice Film Festival will kick off with La La Land director Damien Chazelle's new NASA drama First Man, starring Ryan Gosling. Will organizers choose to go Hollywood, as they did in 2016 with the glitzy (and all-but-forgotten) remake of The Magnificent Seven? Will it aim for a mix of mainstream and arthouse, such as last year's (completely forgotten) Borg vs. McEnroe? Or if TIFF goes back to its Cancon roots, will it be more prestige (The Sweet Hereafter) than, um, not (Score: A Hockey Musical)?
Last year, prognosticators (myself included) placed bets on TIFF landing the world premiere of Québécois director Xavier Dolan's English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.
The film turned out to be not even being close to ready - and has since lost co-star Jessica Chastain in the editing process - but time might be more on TIFF and Dolan's side this fall. That's assuming Dolan would even want the spot, so saddled as it is with expectations and false promise.
Another potential Canadian candidate, though saddled with its own distinct challenges, is Through Black Spruce. Produced by Robert Lantos (no stranger to TIFF's opening night, thanks to Fugitive Pieces, Whale Music, The Sweet Hereafter and In Praise of Older Women, among other titles) and directed by industry veteran Don McKellar, Through Black Spruce is one of the highest-profile Canadian films set to enter the 2018 market. Yet the drama, telling the story of a Cree hunter who looks to escape his life in Moosonee, Ont., is adapted from the novel by Joseph Boyden, who last year was in the centre of a serious cultural-appropriation debate. TIFF has a history of courting controversy, but that may be a headline it wants to avoid.
Away from the opening-night dilemma, though, is the highwattage glitz that drives TIFF's prestige: the awards bait that the festival hopes to boast about come Oscars time. Last year, TIFF did exceptionally well for itself, having screened (although not hosted the world premieres of) eventual Academy Awards champions The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Darkest Hour.
Expect TIFF this year to make plays for Jacques Audiard's adaptation of Patrick deWitt's novel The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly (another opening-night bet, thanks to deWitt's Canadian connection); Steve McQueen's crime thriller Widows, starring Viola Davis; Josie Rourke's historical drama Mary Queen of Scots, starring recent Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie; Joel Edgerton's LGBTQ drama Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman; Bradley Cooper's directorial debut A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga; the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones; Jason Reitman's political drama The Frontrunner, starring Hugh Jackman; and If Beale Street Could Talk, the new work from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.
Unlike Cannes, which has taken a firm stand against Netflix thanks to the company's strategy of releasing its films in theatres the same day they're available to stream, TIFF has no such policy against the media giant. Last year, TIFF welcomed Netflix productions Mudbound and First They Killed My Father, and it is likely the fest will screen the company's big 2018 offerings: Jeremy Saulnier's thriller Hold the Dark, Paul Greengrass's terrorism drama Norway, Noah Baumbach's latest untitled comedy, Alfonso Cuaron's eagerly anticipated family drama Roma, and perhaps Orson Welles's unfinished epic The Other Side of the Wind (completed this year thanks to the streaming giant).
One Netflix title not to count on, though, is Martin Scorsese's massively anticipated film, The Irishman. The epic Jimmy Hoffa drama - starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci - is currently classified as a 2019 release, even though many awards pundits are hoping it will sneak into the last days of this year. Plus, Scorsese typically avoids the festival circuit, and when he doesn't, he chooses his hometown New York Film Festival.
Then, as ever, are the holdovers from Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, although this year's preTIFF festivals offer something of a challenge. At Cannes, there was little love for much of Thierry Frémaux's programming (though expect Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows, Gaspar Noé's Climax and Lars von Trier's loathed and loved The House that Jack Built to resurface in Toronto). Meanwhile, Berlin and Sundance have already seen much of their high-profile offerings hit theatres (Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot from the German festival; Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You from the Utah fest). Still, if Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White, Lee Chang-dong's Burning and the Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters from Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda don't arrive in Toronto, there will be understandably loud grumblings.
Finally, given TIFF's current focus on its Share Her Journey fundraising campaign, it's a certainty that diversity will be top of mind.
If the festival's opening slate next week doesn't at least inch close to gender parity, TIFF 2018 may look far smaller than intended.
The 43rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 6 to 16.
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly star in Jacques Audiard's The Sisters Brothers, one of many plausible picks for what might kick off this year's Toronto International Film Festival.