To understand the sprawling and messy entity known as the Toronto International Film Festival in its 36th year, look no further than Francis Ford Coppola.
The legend behind "The Godfather" premiered his widely (and somewhat unfairly) reviled meta-spooky Val Kilmer vehicle "Twixt" at the festival. Kilmer portrays Hall Baltimore, a struggling mystery writer who scurries around a ghost town in the hopes of coming up with his next big idea. He's not a particularly talented writer and he's stuck in an underwhelming movie made especially painful because of the potential its director once held.
In that sense, TIFF 2011 was the year of "Twixt," a chaotic place littered with its own absurdly high expectations and a program that couldn't possibly live up to them. "I have to break the spell of this downward spiral," Hal says, voicing a concern of festivalgoers forced to cram multiple movies into a single day.
During recent years, TIFF has grown nicely into a dual showcase for international cinema and awards-oriented studio fare. However, that balancing act courts danger every time. Premiering a large portion of its lineup during the frenzied opening weekend, the schedule presents an either-or conundrum: See high-profile, and possibly mediocre, bids at mainstream hits; or, dig for the discoveries.
This year, with a handful of exceptions, the movies tipped for commercial potential were a mixed bag. For every well-received "Friends with Kids," Jennifer Westfeldt's conventional but amusing rom-com, there was a "Rampart," Oren Moverman's gritty follow-up to "The Messenger," which featured a committed Woody Harrelson surrounded by restless camerawork and an equally unfocused screenplay.
Each year, TIFF needs a hit or two to justify its place on the world stage. Buzz from the Venice premiere of Steve McQueen's "Shame" guaranteed its strong TIFF reception; ditto Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," which screened a week earlier at Telluride.
I reviewed 50 films from the festival and saw a few more than that. The sheer size of TIFF's program almost guarantees a few masterpieces or at least generally agreeable work. Cannes mainstays like "Melancholia" and "The Artist" ensure a sufficient amount of movies bound to please. Lower-key offerings with international premieres ahead of the festival, like "The Loneliest Planet," found larger audiences on the massive platform that TIFF provides.
Because the TIFF program is both dense and fragmented, it's virtually impossible (and certainly unreasonable) to analyze it as a single package. Still, any attempt to sum up the last two weeks requires a confrontation with the paradox behind it all: In terms of content, this was the edgiest festival in years, with daring and subversive works like "Shame," "Killer Joe" and "God Bless America." But each of those movies had their detractors, and many TIFF regulars expressed the sense that this may have been the weakest year overall. It's an impossible assertion to prove, but TIFF's programmers will have to take it into account as they construct the next edition.
The most curious development arrived at the end of the festival, when Nadine Labaki's Cannes entry from Lebanon, the disarming female empowerment comedy "Where Do We Go Now?," won the audience prize. If the festival had its own mind, the award for "Where Do We Go Now?" might signify a plea for help.
Of course, the only place any festival can go is back where it began, careening into the next year with another set of uncertain expectations. And the odds are this year, like "Twixt," will quickly recede from memory. Both Coppola and TIFF face a sympathetic audience with a tendency to look the other way and remember better times.