Last year’s Toronto International Film Festival launched more than a few exceptionally good, and, as things turned out, Oscar-contending titles: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Eastern Promises,” “Juno,” “Michael Clayton,” “No Country For Old Me,” and “Persepolis” among them. Not bad.
This year’s festival, which will run through Sept. 13 in the movie-crazed Canadian town, boasts 249 features from 64 countries. To quote the Toronto-based singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, there’s gold in them hills. And probably more than a few 2009 Academy Award nominees-to-be in the mix.
At the same time, there are several “difficult” projects that hope to use North America’s most important film festival to gain acclaim, attention, and good box office numbers down the line: “The Lucky Ones,” from Neil Burger, director of “The Illusionist,” is a road movie looking to shrug off the Iraq war-movie curse (as in nobody’s bothered to see any of those pics). It stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena and Tim Robbins as three returning veterans on a wild cross-country drive.
“Synecdoche, New York,” which had its premiere at Cannes in May, marks screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut. The “Being John Malkovich/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” surrealist has assembled a crack cast - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams - for the dark tale of a hypochondriacal theater director and the women, and worry, in his life. Sony Pictures Classics will roll the movie into art houses starting in October - hoping for a bounce from Toronto.
And Steven Soderbergh’s two-part “Che” - with Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionist and T-shirt icon Che Guevara - is another high-profile pic that’s counting on emerging from TIFF with a formidable buzz.
There should be smoother sailing for some studio and specialty division releases boasting big stars and top directors: Anne Hathaway is the lead in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” a family comedy that’s already generating strong word of mouth, and is slated to start its theatrical run in early October. “Miracle at St. Anna,” from Spike Lee, offers the inspired-by-history drama of four black American soldiers trapped in an Italian hill town during World War II. It will open Sept. 26.
“Appaloosa” is an old-school Western directed by and starring Ed Harris, with Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons and Renee Zellweger along for the ride. And “The Duchess” boasts the cheekbones and beaming smile of Keira Knightley, in the role of 18th-century noblewoman Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Ralph Fiennes and Hayley Atwell co-star, and Atwell, at least, makes it sound pretty provocative.
“My character is this lover and confidante of the duchess,” she said in an interview in Philadelphia last month, when she was plugging “Brideshead Revisited.” “But she also ends up being the lover and confidante of the duke. And they live together as a menage a trois for 25 years, and I found that concept fascinating.”
Fascinating! The Duchess will open Sept. 26.
The Coen Brothers, multiple Oscar winners for “No Country for Old Men,” will return to Toronto this year with lighter, loopier fare: “Burn After Reading” is a screwball spy caper with Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as Washington fitness instructors who try to extort the CIA, and get in way, way over their heads. George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton are caught up in the huggermugger, too. “Burn After Reading,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this week, will open Sept. 12.
Among the many, many titles going into Toronto looking for distribution deals are Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” with Mickey Rourke as a retired pro on the comeback trail; Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles,” with Ben Chaplin, Claire Danes and Zac Efron; “Management,” with Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn; “Gigantic,” with Jane Alexander, Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel and John Goodman; and John Stockwell’s “Middle of Nowhere,” a teen romance with Eva Amurri, Anton Yelchin and Susan Sarandon.
Alternative programming. The summer of 2008 has had more than its share of mega-blockbusters - “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” “Hancock,” “Wall(ASTERISK)E,” “Kung Fu Panda” - and a mess of other hits have crossed the $100 million mark. (A few more will do so.) So, tons of people have seen tons of Hollywood fare: action, comic-book adaptations, suspensers, Judd Apatow comedies, stoner farces, teen romps, the lot.
Which means that your time should be freed up to check out some smaller, but no less rewarding, movies. And in many cases, more rewarding movies. Five titles currently on the marquees of various art-house venues are absolute must-seers:
“The Edge of Heaven,” a multifaceted missing-persons drama set in Germany and Istanbul, from the great German-Turkish director Fatih Akin.
“Frozen River,” with Melissa Leo as a desperate single mother involved in smuggling illegals across the New York-Canadian border.
“Man on Wire,” a documentary about Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who, in 1974, walked a steel cable between the tops of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
“Tell No One,” a taut, terrific French thriller, adapted from a Harlan Coben best-seller.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” with Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansson in a quadrangle of love and longing, set in sun-splashed Spain, from a top-of-his-game Woody Allen.
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