Why I Skipped Robert Downey Jr.'s 'The Judge' Toronto

There are 289 feature films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and on its opening night, I skipped the biggest one in town.

At least, on Thursday, it was the biggest film. Riding through the traffic-clogged streets en route to the opening night party at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I listened to a radio announcer dramatically set the scene of the red carpet premiere, where Robert Downey Jr. was expected to materialize at any moment. Meanwhile, the cab driver cussed at the clogged streets. “TIFF brings all the business,” he said, “but it also brings all the traffic.”

Over the next 10 days, TIFF attendees face a different kind of traffic jam: the dense, overwhelming process of determining a schedule in the midst of more movies than any sane person can possibly process. When dealing with logjams on a festival schedule, the safest philosophy is simply to make peace with blind spots, so I decided to get an early start. Fortunately, “The Judge” — a nearly two-and-a-half hour courtroom drama starring Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall — opens theatrically nationwide in a little over a month courtesy of Warner Bros. (Thompson on Hollywood has a review.) The biggest movie in town is the one that needs the festival least of all. 

Ignoring the Obvious

Since it began in 1976, TIFF developed its reputation as a “festival of festivals” by virtue of its sheer scale. According to many accounts, it wasn’t until “American Beauty” landed at the festival in 1999, won the audience award, and eventually the Oscar for Best Picture, that TIFF became a nexus for heavyweight industry agendas. But despite its obvious role in generating awards season fervor, TIFF never scaled back, and the result is that when you ignore the obvious focal points a much richer program becomes clear.

It takes no great insight to compile a list of the other high-profile entries this year: Bill Murray as an alcoholic veteran in “St. Vincent”? Check. Reese Witherspoon as a novice hiker escaping her troubles in “Wild” and Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”? Check, check. Noah Baumbach’s study of an aging documentarian, as portrayed by Ben Stiller in “While We’re Young”? Double-check.

And let’s not forget Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children,” starring Adam Sandler, who also heads up Thomas McCarthy’s “The Cobbler.” Al Pacino surfaces in two movies, Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” and David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn.” Eddie Redmayne portrays physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” from versatile British filmmaker James Marsh. Denzel Washington re-teams with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua for espionage thriller “The Equalizer.”

That’s 10 easy options right there. Some of them might be good. None of them will go ignored. But there’s a lot more.

Searching the Crowd

At the TIFF opening night party at the Bell Lightbox, the program’s diversity came to life. In the midst of a packed crowd even larger than the lineup, I spotted Soon-Mi Yoo, director of the diary film “Songs From the North.” This tender biographical project (a Locarno Film Festival world premiere) certainly hasn’t grabbed headlines like other movies screening on opening weekend. However, Yoo’s sober evaluation of North Korean society in the midst of a identity crisis offers a more sympathetic and personal view of the country than anything else produced this decade.

Not far off stood Ramin Bahrani, a TIFF regular who once directed micro-budget tales of struggling immigrants (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”) but has turned to making unorthodox star vehicles riddled with topicality: Two years ago, he premiered the Dennis Quaid/Zac Efron vehicle “At Any Price” — a thriller set in the Iowa cornfields and focused on corrupt farming schemes — and now brings “99 Homes,” featuring Andrew Garfrield and Michael Shannon in a polemical take on the 2008 housing crisis.

Argentine director Matías Piñeiro stood on the stairs, catching a breath. The inventive New York-based filmmaker has gradually developed his unique sensibilities by directing modern riffs on Shakespeare plays, the latest of which, “The Princess of France,” also screens over the weekend. Focused on the experiences of a young man attempting to turn “Love’s Labour’s Lost” into a radio play, the movie cleverly uses the original text to comment on its doleful protagonist’s inner struggles.

This trio of offerings only hint at the variety in the TIFF lineup. Countless other unknown variables await in sections such as Wavelengths, Discovery, and TIFF Docs. There’s unquestionably a value to tracking the bigger titles, but the program offers a much bigger picture.

The Challenge

Although TIFF showcases all kinds of movies, the innumerable distributors in town have different agendas. They want movies that will find commercial footing beyond the festival grounds. Together with the media, they’re drawn to familiar faces and themes. The fixation on the tentpoles means that even a potentially brilliant movie at TIFF may end up getting buried.

That’s mainly because festival programs films on a massive scale and condenses the global film marketplace into its chaotic opening weekend. If a movie can stand out at TIFF, it just may have a shot elsewhere — but there are so many movies fighting for that exposure. It takes more than quality to bring anything to the surface. A few TIFF discoveries will find audiences beyond the festival, but then again, so will “The Judge.” Which one has the upper hand? The answer may seem obvious, but TIFF at least introduces the possibility of a few alternatives. Whether the rest of the world takes note remains to be seen. 

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