It’s not the kind of picture you’d expect to kick off the Toronto International Film Festival—a pulp thriller starring Bruce Willis as a retired hit man who time travels from 2077 to 2047 to become a target of his younger self in a Kansas field. TIFF has never opened with a sci-fi movie, an action movie, a gangster movie, or a western. But Looper, which launches the festival this week, is all those things. Set in a steampunk dystopia, with noir glimmers of Blade Runnerand The Terminator, it’s a shrewd shoot-em-up that offers more gunplay than all 36 previous opening galas combined.
For most of its history, TIFF observed an unwritten rule that it open with a Canadian film. That’s largely why co-founder Bill Marshall, a producer, cooked up the whole thing in the first place—to put our cinema in the spotlight. So year after year, the socialites who flocked to the opening gala would stagger out of the theatre desperate for a drink after squirming through a David Cronenberg tale of twin gynecologists on drugs (Dead Ringers) or puzzling over an Atom Egoyan epic about the Armenian genocide (Ararat). Finding a Canadian picture palatable to the glitterati was not easy. The most recent attempt, in 2010, gave us the earnest pageant of Score: The Hockey Musical. Last year, as if bent on erasing that memory, TIFF had Bono rock the red carpet with a U2 documentary—only the third opener in more than a quarter century with no trace of Canadian identity.
Our resident mogul, Robert Lantos, whose movies have launched the festival 11 times, says that opening night evolved into “a strictly Canadian event,” which, paradoxically, made it an undesirable showcase for our own movies because foreign buyers stopped showing up. That may explain why Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, the most celebrated Canadian premiere, is not launching this festival. Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director, says he wanted to “shake up” opening night. “If you’re coming from out of town, for years you felt like it’s not your night, it’s a Canadian night,” he says. “I wanted to change that—the nationality of the film won’t matter any more.”
By launching this year’s edition with Looper, TIFF finally seems to be embracing its manifest destiny with a movie that reflects its own multiple personality. Looper is served up by a Hollywood studio, but it’s a U.S.-China co-production written and directed by a genre-busting American auteur with indie cred, Rian Johnson (Brick). Willis trades in hard-boiled testosterone, but the lead belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush), who portrays him as a young man, and sidesteps cliché with such economical cool he could be . . . Canadian.
Veterans of TIFF tend to feel proprietorial about it. Myself, I’ve been “doing” the Toronto festival for more than three decades, wearing various hats. Before attending as a critic, I worked for it as a driver, delivering films to theatres. In 2001, I wrote a 25th anniversary history of the festival, Brave Films, Wild Nights. I’ve directed a couple of shorts that played at TIFF. And this year, I’ll have to endure my own performance as an interview subject in the documentary Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky. By now I’m beyond embedded.
What was once a relatively relaxed event has grown into the TIFF industrial complex. It’s now clearly the world’s most important film festival next to Cannes. And in the North American market, it has no rival. Cannes is the Olympics of world cinema, with a narrowly curated competition of 20-odd auteurs who vie for the Palme d’Or under the gaze of a fickle press corps and juries that routinely snub American entries. But TIFF, which ushers in the back-to-school season of serious films, has become Hollywood’s prime launching pad for Oscar-pedigree fare. Though it hands out some prizes, it’s a non-competitive showcase, where filmmakers can unveil their work before an avid civilian audience while stoking the publicity mill and selling distribution rights.
But the populist love affair between TIFF and its local champions—journalists, filmmakers, cinephiles—has become strained. We love the Lightbox, its lavish new headquarters, but there’s less affection for the corporate branding and bureaucracy that has come with it. There’s no denying that TIFF still faithfully serves up the cream of world cinema. This year, its epic sweep is wider than ever, with 379 films from a record 72 countries, and the vast majority are indie films from outside of North America. Optics are another matter. Festival goers have been complaining that it has “gone Hollywood” ever since the velvet rope of a VIP zone fenced off Warren Beatty at party in 1984. But in recent years the massive influx of American stars and industry players has hijacked the spotlight—and overwhelmed the media. Crowding the red carpet this year will be Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Halle Berry, Robert Redford, Ryan Gosling, Penélope Cruz, Dustin Hoffman, Will Smith, Javier Bardem, Tom Hanks, Jackie Chan and Bill Murray, to name a few.
Trying to watch a glut of Oscar contenders in the festival’s front-loaded opening days while interviewing, blogging, tweeting and hobnobbing has turned film coverage into a kind of insane pentathlon. And the Canadian media who helped build the festival have come to feel increasingly estranged from it, as we get frozen out of interview schedules by American flacks. Bailey says TIFF is powerless to dictate how U.S. distributors divy up access to their talent. The festival doesn’t require filmmakers to talk to local media. “You should do something about that,” Lantos tells me. “The festival is in Canada and it’s publicly financed. If it stops being Canada-first, that’s a form of treason.”
The visibility of homegrown films, meanwhile, has diminished, and not just on opening night. The festival has abolished its distinct programs for Canadian films, which are now submerged in other sections. That alarms veteran producer Jennifer Jonas. “Canadian identity is trading pretty low these days,” she says. “More than ever, TIFF should put a spotlight on Canadian films.” Bailey, however, argues that “instead of submerging them, I’d say we’re trying to help them swim, to give them some buoyancy. This is not a parochial domestic industry anymore. It has matured, it’s more international, there are more co-productions. Canadian films exist beyond our borders to a greater degree.”
In fact, some of this year’s most prominent Canadian dramas unfold on foreign soil—Midnight’s Children, based on Salman Rushdie’s India-based novel; Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle, a story of child soldiers filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Ruba Nadda’s Inescapable, a political thriller set in Syria.
While smaller Canadian films may get lost, two hometown heroines won’t have any trouble attracting notice. Director Sarah Polley unearths family secrets in her exquisite documentary memoir, Stories We Tell, about discovering she was conceived in an affair. And Rachel McAdams is a double threat—steaming up the screen with Noomi Rapace in the lesbian intrigue of Brian De Palma’s Passion and playing Ben Affleck’s childhood sweetheart in To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s uncharacteristically swift follow-up to last year’s The Tree of Life.
Behind the red-carpet blaze of celebrity there’s always a promising glow of cinematic substance. And perhaps this year’s most hotly anticipated title is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the acolyte of a postwar cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who may or may not be based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. What’s astonishing is that Anderson shot his movie in the almost extinct format of giant 70-mm film, which is how TIFF will project it—a defiant gesture in a digital age.
The Hollywood that descends on TIFF is not the Hollywood of franchise blockbusters. As movies get caught in a bipolar limbo, between the shrinking box office of the megaplex and the streaming video of the Internet, a film festival tries to conjure the theatrical magic of what lies between, via the alchemy of connecting movie stars with a live audience. Looper’s time travel may take TIFF back to the future, but in the end the red carpet rolls back to the past, to a precious refuge—not just for Canadian film, but for the endangered species called cinema.
In this week’s iPad issue, Brian D. Johnson talks about the highs and lows of 27 years of covering the Toronto International Film Festival for Maclean’s.