ST. LOUIS — If you’re a follower of film, Christmas comes in September. That’s when the world’s largest and arguably most important film festival unspools in Canada’s biggest city. And unlike Cannes, which is the only event that can rival its star power and prestige, the Toronto International Film Festival is open to the public. So it’s a great excuse to visit the movie-mad metropolis 100 miles north of the U.S. border.
Because the annual fest is scheduled for the second week of September in a major media market, Toronto has become a base camp for filmmakers hoping to climb the mountain of movie acclaim. Many of the year-end Oscar contenders debut there. Last year, “The King’s Speech” cleared its throat in Toronto before stepping onto the world stage. Three years ago, when festival attendees voted for their favorite entry, the final answer was an unheralded film called “Slumdog Millionaire.” In previous years, the festival prizewinners included “Hotel Rwanda,” “Whale Rider,” “Amelie” and “American Beauty.”
Ticket packages for this year’s event, which runs Sept. 8-18, are now available by phone or online at tiff.net. The complete list of 300 films will be finalized in late August, but we already know it will include: the world premiere of “Moneyball,” a baseball drama starring Brad Pitt; “Butter,” a state-fair comedy starring Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackman; Francis Ford Coppola’s murder-mystery “Twixt”; a high-octane thriller called “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks; Madonna’s royal romance “W.E.”; George Clooney’s political drama “The Ides of March”; and Cameron Crowe’s documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty.”
Reporters like me receive a pass to special screenings, and inevitably we have to place our bets on the better of several overlapping presentations. Will it be Woody Allen or Wes Anderson? Minnesota’s Coen brothers or Belgium’s Dardenne brothers? A kung-fu comedy or an anti-war documentary?
The public can buy tickets to individual screenings, wait in “rush” lines for last-minute tickets or choose from several kinds of multiticket passes.
When bought in packages, individual tickets average about $10 apiece (in the roughly equivalent Canadian and U.S. currencies). If you buy now, you can reserve your right to pick the movies after the schedule is announced, or you can save a few bucks by letting the organizers select your movies at random. With some festivals, random movies would be a crapshoot, but Toronto gets the best of the best, so if you’re not averse to the possibility of reading subtitles, you’re virtually guaranteed to preview a film that you can brag about afterward.
—See the stars
You might also get to brag about the celebrities you see.
During the festival, cosmopolitan Toronto is besieged by beautiful people. As chronicled on the front pages of the city’s four daily newspapers, the stars come out for movie premieres, parties and press conferences, and they’re easier for fans to access than in Hollywood or New York. Much of the mingling happens in the fashionable Yorkville district, about two miles north of the Lake Ontario waterfront and the iconic CN tower (the tallest structure in North America). You can spot the famous faces in the tree-shaded cafes, or see them entering and exiting their limousines in front of the Yorkville hotels.
If you’ve got sufficient nerve (and maybe a fake lanyard) to breeze through the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the elevators are a great place for star-gazing. That’s where I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Keanu Reeves, Johnny Knoxville, Salma Hayek and Heath Ledger. (No, not all at the same time.)
Yorkville used to be the focus for the film screenings as well, but last year the center of activity moved to the downtown entertainment district. That’s where the festival opened its new administrative headquarters, in a facility called the Bell Lightbox. It’s a condo tower, film museum and theater complex built on a block that was donated by the Reitman family (as in “Ghostbusters” director Ivan and his son Jason, who filmed “Up In the Air” in St. Louis). From now through the end of the festival, the museum at the Bell Lightbox has an exhibit on the life and legacy of Italian director Federico Fellini.
Most of the movies that I attend are at the Scotiabank Theatre, a futuristic 14-plex with themed concessions stands and full bar service. Other festival venues range from the 24-screen AMC Yonge-Dundas complex to the stately old Winter Garden playhouse to an outdoor plaza adjacent to the gigantic Eaton Centre mall where there are free outdoor movies, music and activities for kids.
—Where to stay
The shift southward has worked to my advantage, because I always stay at a hotel in Toronto’s large Chinatown neighborhood, which is a 15-minute walk or five-minute trolley ride to the entertainment district. When I first visited the festival in 2001, the converted dormitory called the Grange Hotel (grangehotel.com) was a great bargain — 60 bucks a night for a room with two twin beds and a kitchenette. But since then, the Canadian dollar has surged in value, and the same room now costs about $100. It’s still a relatively good value, in a part of town where it’s easy to get cheap meals and maple-leaf souvenirs (and bootleg DVDs of summer blockbusters). If you’d prefer to pay extra for a chain hotel that’s classier and closer to the action, there are dozens that you can compare and book online, but be aware that they fill up fast.
Wherever you stay in Toronto, you’ll find that it’s easy to get around. In downtown, there’s a U-shaped subway line that runs on University Avenue, past colleges and museums, and on to Yonge Street, Toronto’s equivalent of Broadway. That north-south U is bisected by a line on fashionable Bloor Street through Yorkville and west to an endless succession of student bars around the University of Toronto.
A ride on the clean, reliable subways is a reminder that Toronto has been called the most ethnically diverse city in the world, with dozens of distinct neighborhoods. Yet it’s also a harmonious place that’s gracious to strangers.
Even if you aren’t attending the festival, Toronto is a fun place to visit, especially during the mild, sunny month of September. Sports fans can catch a baseball game at the indoor-outdoor Rogers Centre, visit the International Hockey Hall of Fame or see Canada’s version of pro football. Those who enjoy the outdoors can bike along the lakefront or take a ferry to the beaches at the car-free harbor islands (which you can see from the observation deck in the CN tower). And the shopping and dining in Toronto are as good as what you’ll find in New York, at prices that are closer to Chicago’s (albeit with a value-added tax that tourists can get refunded by filling out a form at the airport or border crossing).
American citizens now need a passport to enter Canada but not a visa.
I save money by flying into Buffalo, N.Y., then taking a two-hour bus ride to Toronto on the super-cheap Megabus. (The one-way fare is as little as $1 if you book early on megabus.com.) Flying to Buffalo also allows me to spend a day at nearby Niagara Falls, which straddles the U.S./Canada border. Along with a better view of the Falls, the kitschy Canadian side has wax museums, miniature golf, a great Lego exhibit called Brick City and a casino.
But the best part about arriving in Buffalo is anticipating that 10 days of great movies are somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge and up the yellow brick road to Toronto.
For more information about the Toronto International Film Festival, including ticket purchases, visit the official website at tiff.net.