Last September, “Slumdog Millionaire” won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, kicking off a season of acclaim that culminated in an Academy Award. TIFF, a festival so star-studded the red carpets get clogged, is often a debutante ball for films we’re still remembering at the end of the season. Other Toronto award-winners in the past decade have included “Whale Rider,” “Amelie,” and Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
And this year ... what? The festival, running Thursday through Sept. 19, operates in a slightly different awards climate this season: A change in Academy Award rules now allows 10 movies to compete for best picture, rather than five. This might well pave the way for smaller, less star-driven films — many of which will be sparkling at Toronto.
Among those arriving with the most buzz: “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s period drama about the poet John Keats; “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire,” a Sundance favorite about an abused Harlem teen; “An Education,” a coming-of-age-in ‘60s London tale scripted by Nick Hornby and directed by Lone Scherfig; and “The Young Victoria,” with Emily Blunt as the British monarch in the early years of her reign.
But what really gets this polite Canadian city mobilized are the movie stars, who’ll be arriving in force. Throughout TIFF, crowds gather outside the festival hotels in the hopes of a sighting. (It’s a classic TIFF experience to walk out of a hotel lobby and suddenly be scrutinized by dozens of waiting eyes, wondering if you’re somebody famous — and quickly concluding that you’re not.)
George Clooney will be attending this year, with “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s comedy about a corporate downsizing specialist, and “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” Grant Heslov’s tale of a brigade of psychic soldiers. Penelope Cruz will attend with longtime collaborator Pedro’s “Broken Embraces.” Viggo Mortensen will walk the red carpet for “The Road,” the long-delayed drama based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
Also on hand will be the likes of Drew Barrymore (“Whip It,” her directing debut), Michael Caine (“Harry Brown”), Julianne Moore (“Chloe”), and Clive Owen (“The Boys Are Back”).
And much talk will center on someone, sadly, not present: “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam, features the final screen work of the late Heath Ledger. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all stepped in to complete Ledger’s unfinished role. And how will that work? That’s why everyone will be talking.
TIFF is also a bustling film marketplace, with numerous films up for acquisition by potential distributors. Among them: the Oscar Wilde tale “Dorian,” starring Colin Firth and Ben Barnes; Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan’s fairy tale “Ondine,” and opening-night film “Creation,” directed by Amiel and featuring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Darwin.
The next “Slumdog Millionaire” might just be waiting in Toronto, behind a name not familiar — yet.