Attending the Toronto International Film Festival is like eating at one of the world’s greatest restaurants, buffet-style. More than 300 movies will screen during the festival’s 11 days, which is more than many professional critics see in a year. That’s not to say anyone will see that many, or even could. Once, when I was on a jury, I got to 50 films, after which I wanted to remove my eyes and place them in a glass of water for a week.
The fall offers more compact and tightly curated festivals: Telluride, which is stretched over the long weekend before TIFF, and the New York Film Festival, which happens over a positively leisurely two and a half weeks. But TIFF’s onslaught of riches feels like the more appropriate kickoff to the season, which invariably produces more “must-see” movies than anyone can actually see.
That doesn’t stop the mounting pressure to see what everyone else is seeing, especially as instantaneous social-media reaction amplifies buzz from a low murmur to a dull roar, and as proliferating filing deadlines cut into critics’ ability to spend time watching movies. When I started going to TIFF, many critics didn’t even bring laptops; we’d gather every night to talk over the day’s viewing and generally shoot the breeze. Now, we breeze past each other on the way from a screening to the press center, or grab a quick chat while standing in line.
Over the festival’s opening weekend, movies like “Snowden” and “A United Kingdom” will have their official unveiling, and the likes of “Arrival” and “Loving,” already feted at Telluride and Cannes, will consolidate their gains. Some are doubtless deserving, some are probably not, but they all feel inevitable, which is the opposite of exciting.
What happens to, say, Sergei Losnitza’s “Austerlitz,” a self-reflexive documentary about concentration-camp tourists that was rapturously reviewed out of Venice, or Onur Tukel’s “Catfight,” a black comedy in which Sandra Oh and Anne Heche go toe-to-toe? Those films debut on the same day as “United Kingdom” and “Snowden,” but will be seen by a fraction of the people and written about even less. The high-profile titles are making a pit stop before opening on a thousand screens at once, but what about the movies no one yet knows to pay attention to, which may never be shown outside of a festival context? Many will inevitably get lost in the shuffle, casualties of a climate in which more and more attention is lavished on fewer and fewer films.
TIFF began in 1976 as The Festival of Festivals, purportedly culling the best from other festivals around the world, and though it’s since acquired the clout to serve as a launching pad for some of the season’s most anticipated releases, it’s also where movies that made a splash at Sundance or Berlin or Cannes enter the ecosystem in earnest. At Sundance, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” was an eagerly awaited question mark; at TIFF, it’s a certified awards contender, arriving with expectations in tow.
Its Sundance contemporary, “The Birth of a Nation,” arrived in Park City a virtual unknown, was hastily proclaimed the film to beat for Best Picture, and now arrives in Toronto alongside renewed concerns about director/star Nate Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin’s alleged 1999 rape of a Penn State freshman. A month ago, “Birth” was a frontrunner; now, critics are debating whether it’s morally defensible to even see the film, let alone give it an award.
One of the primary benefits of going to festivals is getting to see movies before a consensus has formed — which, given the speed with which critics and viewers (myself included) post their reactions to social media, often means being at the very first screening. When “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” debuted at Sundance last year, word out of the world premiere screening was of a thousand-strong audience wracked by sobs. When some colleagues and I caught up with it a few days later, we shared disbelieving glances on our way down the aisles. Crying? Over that? Sometimes a movie like “12 Years a Slave” really is as good as everyone says, and sometimes the movie everyone’s dying to get into is one whose name no one can remember a year later.
More than any other festival, Toronto is defined in relation to the Oscar race. TIFF hasn’t premiered a Best Picture winner since “Crash” in 2004, but Toronto was where the Venice or Telluride enthusiasm for “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Spotlight” began to turn from spark to flame. It’s also where many a would-be awards movie goes to die and vaguely plausible scenarios become implausible realities.
But while you’ll be hearing a lot about which movie’s prospects are up or down in the next couple of weeks, that’s only one TIFF among many. The festival, like the season it unofficially begins, is large, and it contains multitudes. There is not one but many TIFFs, just as you can chart any of a thousand different courses through the year’s thicket of theatrical releases and streaming debuts. Although the shorthand is convenient, it’s increasingly difficult to generalize what movies are or aren’t, what directions filmmakers are or aren’t taking. Critics will call it a great year or a bad year or something in between, but that’s more a result of the choices they’ve made than the totality of the films on offer.
Festivals in general and TIFF in particular are, mathematically speaking, defined more by the movies you don’t see than the ones you do. But when everyone’s chasing after the same small handful of hot screenings, they can seem to shrink dramatically, especially when you’re experiencing them from afar. It is, make no mistake, a thrill to be there the moment a bold new work of cinema enters the world, to be part of a crowd collectively experiencing something no one’s experienced before. It’s one of the few environments left where moviegoing is what we dream of it being, where watching a movie feels like as much of a live experience as a rock concert.
There’s a thrill, too, in being one of the few selected by chance or discernment to find a great movie that no one’s talking about, uncovering buried treasure while in a packed theater nearby some once-promising awards warhorse is landing with a pronounced splat. There’s so much to watch now that our choices can start to feel compulsory, watching this or that only because everyone else is or because we want an edge in next year’s Oscar pool. But the best moments at a festival often when no one — except, of course, the programmers — knows what to expect, and you’re floored out of the blue.
I can still remember walking around in a giddy daze after Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” a decade ago, almost bumping into colleagues sporting the same goofy, blissed-out grin. The experience of going in cold and being blown away isn’t impossible to achieve. Although, with so much virtual ink spilled by the time most movies get anywhere near regular audiences, it takes an act of will and some delicate web-surfing to preserve it. It’s worth it.