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We Don’t Mean To ‘Judge,’ But The Toronto Film Festival Needs an Opening Night Makeover

We Don't Mean To 'Judge,' But The Toronto Film Festival Needs an Opening Night Makeover

Awards-buzz hopes for David Dobkin’s “The Judge” came to a halt last night. The Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall drama found the underwhelming reaction that we’ve largely come to expect from films that open the Toronto International Film Festival.

“You go out there and you imagine
where you’re going to debut you your movie and who’s going to see it
first,” Dobkin said when he took the stage at Roy Thompson Hall to introduce his film last night. “And we really wanted to be in Toronto. People love movies here.
And this was the the right place for this movie. Thank you having us and
giving us this honor. It’s a world-class festival.”

He’s right: There’s no doubt that Toronto is a world-class festival. The festival continues to make big moves to build its future, including its very successful geographic shift downtown (which this year includes the fantastic idea of closing the area around the TIFF Bell Lightbox to traffic) and its much-discussed new premiere rules directed at films wanting to double dip Telluride and Toronto. (Dobkin acknowledged the controversy on stage before “The Judge:” “I think what you
guys did was right. When it’s a world premiere, it’s a world premiere.”)

However, one major issue remains: Toronto has failed to make opening night an anticipated event. It’s a problem that plagues many of the world’s big film festivals, since it’s hard to convince a movie to take on the pressure of opening night. Berlin, Cannes, and Venice have proved exceptions to the rule lately with the likes of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Gravity” and “Birdman.”

But it continues to be an ongoing battle, one that Sundance recently (and wisely) dodged by programming a selection of films on opening night instead of putting all the pressure on one. It’s a smart tactic that’s received few complaints and has yielded multiple quality options — like this year’s “Whiplash,” which went on to win the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

A similar restructuring might be a good idea for TIFF. Did last night’s screening really serve “The Judge” or the festival? Downey and Duvall are as fine as you’d expect, but the film’s middlebrow storytelling is beneath them. It’s also beneath the Toronto Film Festival, and its audiences. Hundreds of Torontonians paid upwards of $46 (Canadian, but still) to see “The Judge.” They laughed and clapped when appropriate — Toronto audiences are nothing if not polite — but surely it was not without underlying passive aggression (another Torontonian trademark).

Now, like “The Fifth Estate,” or “Creation” a few years before, “The Judge” has the distinction of continuing the festival’s tradition of disappointing opening night films. It goes into its theatrical run October 10 with little hope for awards and mixed to bad reviews. (“Like the soggiest Oscar nominee for best picture of 1982,” wrote the BBC,” but though few would confuse it with art, the film is deftly acted, and it holds you.”)

So for the sake of future films that might be the next “Judge,” and for the festival and its audiences, maybe it’s time for a new plan. For years, the festival opened with a Canadian film. Then in 2009 they tried for more star power by programming the Charles Darwin biopic “Creation,” starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. That film was poorly received, as has almost every opening night film since. (Major exception: “Looper,” in 2012.) 

Perhaps TIFF could hew to its current motto (“This Is Your Festival”) and could go back to the future with the Canadian plan, which was much more successful than it seemed at the time. For one, the expectations were entirely different. No one thought Paul Gross’s “Passchendaele” (which opened the 2008 fest) or Jeremy Podeswa’s “Fugitive Pieces” (2007) would jump into the Oscar race. But they were both good films, which got a lot of exposure from opening their country’s biggest film event — something that can be hard to impossible for Canadian films when up against a program packed with higher-profile American counterparts.

Frankly, the best bet this year might have been making “Bill Murray Day” (which is today, with three retrospective screenings of “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Groundhog Day,” leading into the world premiere of “St. Vincent”) opening day. Clearly, there was a whole lot of interest, and no one’s going to complain about “Bill Murray Day” even if the world premiere involved wasn’t up to par (not to say that’s the case — we haven’t seen “St. Vincent” yet).  

Or they could go the Sundance route; quite a few films screened last night besides “The Judge,” including “The Humbling,” “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Mary Kom.” Why not package them as one, big, opening-night celebration? That might encourage higher-quality films to take on that first Thursday night in September — and redistribute the insanity that is the first few nights of the festival besides.

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