The eclectic mix of films -- often high-minded and audience-friendly -- on display at the 34th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival can be summed up by the two titles screening on the festival's very first evening.
This year's opening night selection -- and a rare non-Canadian pick for the fest's kickoff slot -- is British director Jon Amiel's "Creation" starring real-life husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as naturalist Charles Darwin and his religious wife Emma in a tale of the making of his landmark work, "On the Origin of Species." Also screening Thursday night in the midnight slot is the premiere of the gender-conscious horror film "Jennifer's Body," the first post-"Juno" feature film script by writer Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama and starring Megan Fox as a high schooler possessed by a demon.
Running through Sept. 19, this year's TIFF will screen more than 250 feature films from more than 60 countries. Last year the fest provided an early launching pad for award juggernaut "Slumdog Millionaire," which had its world premiere at Toronto following a sneak preview just days before at the Telluride Film Festival. This year, "Up in the Air," "An Education" and "The Road" are among the titles working the Telluride-to-Toronto shuffle, playing alongside high-profile for-sale titles such as "A Single Man," "Agora," "Chloe" and "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits."
The art-house movie business continues to struggle. A number of specialty labels (Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage among them) have closed, and ticket sales for highbrow films remain soft. Sales at Toronto, not surprisingly, will likely be slower than in years past, but many remain hopeful that there will be an uptick in deals as companies such as Overture Films (which has Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" in this year's fest) and Summit Entertainment (which bought Toronto's "The Hurt Locker" last year) become more active on the festival scene.
"I'm not sure there will be the old-school bidding wars," said Bob Berney, who is launching his distribution company Apparition with two films in the festival, "Bright Star" and "The Young Victoria." "It's not quite the same atmosphere as when you had to chase down the seller literally running through the alleys of Toronto in the storied days of the past. It's not quite that sort of instant buying environment."
As Toronto has often played a critical role in establishing award season momentum, the recent expansion of best-picture Oscar nominees from five to 10 films means more festival titles stand to benefit from positive exposure. "I think Oscar fever is going to hit a new level," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which enters the festival with the awards contenders "An Education," "The White Ribbon" and "Broken Embraces."
While Hollywood may be concerned with awards and acquisitions, the average festival goer cares only about seeing good films. Every year some supposedly hot titles fade after their festival screenings (see last year's "Me and Orson Welles") while others suddenly jump to the fore ("Rachel Getting Married"). It's the discovery, and the hunt for the next surprise, that keeps the annual event interesting. With that in mind, here's a rundown of some of the festival's buzz-worthy movies:
Two years ago, "Juno" was the darling of the festival, launching a flurry of award attention and media coverage. This year, four of the film's main collaborators all return with new projects. Director Jason Reitman sails into town with "Up in the Air," a light existential drama starring a mature-looking George Clooney as an exec specializing in corporate downsizing. Oscar-winning "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody will unveil her latest screenplay, the femme-centric horror flick "Jennifer's Body," while actress Ellen Page roller-derbies through Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, "Whip It," and actor Michael Cera tweaks his own twee persona in "Youth in Revolt." (Clooney, not part of the "Juno"-verse, also has the military comedy "The Men Who Stare at Goats" in the festival.)
Michael Moore has been a longtime favorite of the crowds in Toronto, and this year he turns up with what promises to be another explosive film. After the perceived stumble of "Sicko" -- he was swinging at the healthcare issue perhaps too soon -- Moore turns his camera toward something we can pretty much all relate to: money and the recent lack thereof. "Capitalism: A Love Story" digs into the current financial crisis, the wayward ethics of the banking system and where we might end up next. As always equal parts provocateur and self-promoter, Moore proves maddeningly hard to ignore.
'A Serious Man'