Toronto: Festival Slate Brings Fall Landscape Into Focus

Black Mass
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, the cat is really out of the bag now. After weeks of intense blogosphere speculation about the fall festival season and palate-whetting gala announcements from the New York Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival kicked things into high gear this morning when it announced more than 40 titles that will comprise the festival’s Gala and Special Presentations categories come September. It’s a typically starry list, full of A-list names in front of and behind the camera, some very obvious Oscar bait, and a few Toronto stalwarts to satisfy the requisite quota of local Canadian talent, including Atom Egoyan, who makes a bid for a comeback (after the career-pummeling one-two of “Devil’s Knot” and “The Captive”) with “Remember,” starring Christopher Plummer as a Holocaust survivor trying to track down the former Nazi guard responsible for murdering his family.

Egoyan’s film is listed by the Toronto programmers as a North American premiere, which means we can deduce that it will first screen earlier in September at the Venice Film Festival, where another Toronto title, the Johnny Depp gangster drama “Black Mass,” has already been announced for an out-of-competition berth. Using similar logic, we can divine that director Tom Hooper’s hotly anticipated “The Danish Girl,” starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe — one of the earliest known recipients of male-to-female gender reassignment surgery — is headed for a spot on the Lido.

We can also safely assume that a quartet of new films listed as “Canadian premieres” will screen first in some combination of Venice and super-secretive Telluride. They include co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion animated feature “Anomalisa” (described, in typically Kaufman-esque fashion, as a film about “a man crippled by the mundanity of his life”); Cary Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation”; “Frank” director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” (adapted from Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed 2011 novel); and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” which features Michael Keaton’s first post-“Birdman” screen appearance as Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who headed the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 2003 Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.

Last year at this time, there was a lot of hubbub in the press about the battle lines being drawn between Toronto and its rival fall festivals — especially Telluride — over who would get to show which movies first. This year, those tensions have eased, with Toronto relaxing its penalties on films that do choose to premiere at the small-but-mighty Labor Day weekend soiree in the mountains of Colorado. That’s all for the best, since, at the end of the day, most of these movies need all the help they can get to attract attention amidst the billion-dollar big-studio franchise pictures. Indeed, for all the ink that’s been spilled about 2015’s record-breaking box office figures — with “Star Wars: Episode VII” still to come — it’s been anything but a banner year in the indie sector, with buzzy festival titles like “Love & Mercy,” “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” all performing well below expectations.

JUSTIN CHANG: I’m glad Toronto decided not to hold a grudge against Telluride this year, not least because all this tussling over titles and bragging rights ultimately amounts to the sort of passive-aggressive pissing contest that winds up distracting from the films themselves. It’s worth noting, of course, that those movies that screen first at Telluride will still get a mild slap on the wrist in Toronto, where they will not be allowed to screen at any of the festival’s three prime venues — and frankly, there are far worse punishments. As we know, Scott, no film has ever been particularly well served by that sorry excuse for a movie palace called the Roy Thomson Hall, which seems founded on the curious architectural notion that the smaller and more faraway-looking the screen, the better. (Me, I’ll take a seat at the Bell Lightbox or the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema any day.)

Still, as this morning’s announcement makes clear, Toronto hasn’t abandoned its policy of strict transparency where a film’s premiere status is concerned — and in this, it does still deal a bit of a blow to Telluride, which has always insisted on keeping its lineup a secret until Labor Day weekend. Well, as you noted, thanks to those handy “Canadian premiere” indicators in Toronto’s press release, it seems all but certain that “Anomalisa,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Spotlight” are Colorado-bound, along with “Room,” an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel about a boy and his mother living in captivity, directed by the fine Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank,” “Garage”). It’s quite likely, too, that “Black Mass” will make a Telluride stopover en route from Venice to Toronto.

And I’d be willing to bet that Danny Boyle’s highly anticipated “Steve Jobs,” which is conspicuously absent from the Toronto list, will play Telluride before heading to its centerpiece gala at the New York Film Festival. Boyle, after all, is no stranger to Telluride, which is not only where “127 Hours” premiered in 2010, but also where “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) began its celebrated trek to Oscar glory. With its exclusive-yet-inclusive atmosphere, its rarefied feel and its unbeatably gorgeous scenery, Telluride is a festival that commands an unusually high degree of filmmaker loyalty. (Those who go usually wind up going back.)

But Toronto has its favorites, too, as I’m reminded by the world-premiere announcement of Terence Davies’ “Sunset Song” — which is, by my count, the great British auteur’s sixth feature to play Toronto (after “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes,” “The House of Mirth,” “Of Time and the City” and “The Deep Blue Sea”). And then, of course, there are some filmmakers who move around a bit, like the very busy Jean-Marc Vallee, whose “Dallas Buyers Club” made a terrific splash in Toronto two years ago, and who last year took “Wild” to both Telluride and Toronto. This year, he’s headed straight to Toronto again with his Jake Gyllenhaal starrer, “Demolition,” which will have its world premiere on the festival’s opening night.

Of course, this is merely the first and splashiest of Toronto’s lineup announcements; there will be more in the coming weeks, and while they will surely be lower on name recognition and star wattage, they will be no less deserving of serious scrutiny. I know it’s where you’ll be paying most of your attention, Scott, in your new capacity as an acquisitions and development with the feature films division of Amazon Studios — and needless to say, we will all be anticipating your first slate of pickups with bated breath.

FOUNDAS: The vast majority of the movies we’ve discussed thus far are coming into Toronto with distribution deals already in place: “Remember” and “Room” from A24; “Beasts of No Nation” from Netflix; “Spotlight” from Open Road; and “The Danish Girl” from Focus. But it’s among those couple of hundred other movies in the Toronto lineup that critics and buyers alike hope to find that unheralded diamond in the rough by a promising new director who might go on to become the next Egoyan or Abrahamson or Fukunaga.

Amazon and Netflix are two of the companies heretofore associated with small-screen entertainment who are making a high-profile bid to enter the movie business. Netflix paid a whopping $12 million for Fukunaga’s film earlier this year, and Fukunaga himself is one of a new breed of directors who seem equally at ease working in feature films and long-form television (like “True Detective”). This year, Toronto itself will acknowledge that ever-winnowing line between those two mediums with a new programming section called Primetime, devoted to episodic series from across the globe. It’s a smart move, given that today’s audiences scarcely seem to care what format something was originally conceived for as long as it’s an example of good storytelling.

Still, there will always be directors whose work demands to be seen on the largest possible screens, and one of them is Ridley Scott, a classical master of the medium who is still, at age 77, making big-canvas entertainments at an astonishingly prolific rate. He’ll be present in Toronto this year with “The Martian,” an all-star space drama adapted from Andy Weir’s self-published 2011 novel about an American astronaut (played in the movie by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars. Scott had only just started shooting “The Martian” on locations in Hungary and Morocco, when I interviewed him in London last November (for a Variety cover story about his quite beautiful and underrated “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a movie I know you, Justin, also admire greatly), and now 10 months later it’s ready to go, with a terrific teaser trailer that burned up the internet when it debuted earlier this summer. Whatever else my Toronto itinerary may hold in store, I’ll be first in line for this one.

CHANG: I know that, as someone who never misses a Claude Lelouch picture, you will also find a way to be first in line for “Un plus une.” Of the titles that have been announced so far, the biggest attention-grabber of the lot, for me, is “The Idol,” Hany Abu-Assad’s drama about the Palestinian pop singer Mohammed Assaf, a kid from a refugee camp in Gaza who went on to win the second season of “Arab Idol” in 2013, and thereafter was named a goodwill ambassador for peace by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. Abu-Assad previously directed the grimly unsettling, Oscar-nominated duo of “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” and for him to take on the inspiring underdog story of Assaf, a widely beloved figure in the Arab world, suggests an intriguing change of direction. (Fun fact: My sister-in-law was lucky enough to snag a photo with Assaf when they were crossing out of Gaza earlier this year; needless to say, it was an easier trip than the one he took in order to make his first audition.)

There will, of course, be no shortage of ripped-from-the-headlines dramas this season, including Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong biopic “The Program,” in which I fully expect Ben Foster to turn on the angry-man fireworks in the role of a fallen American icon. And like many people, I’m quite curious about the Julianne Moore-Ellen Page drama “Freeheld,” not just because of its relevance to the ongoing battle over gay rights in this country, but also because it’s the latest feature directed by Peter Sollett (another Toronto regular), who before “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” made a terrific debut with “Raising Victor Vargas” a scrappy, emotionally rich indie drama that still persists in my memory 13 years later.

Finally, I’m glad you mentioned Primetime, which is one of a few brand-new initiatives Toronto is implementing this year. In the coming weeks, we’ll find out which 12 films will be competing for prizes in the festival’s Platform section, which is being juried by Agnieszka Holland, Claire Denis and Jia Zhangke (whose landmark 2000 drama lends the program its title). As it happens, Toronto will also host the North American premiere of Jia’s “Mountains May Depart,” which, despite a few obvious third-act problems, struck me when I saw it in Cannes as one of his finest and most emotionally overwhelming achievements.

One of the essential functions of Toronto, of course, is that it grants festival-goers access to several standout titles from the international festival circuit; so far that list includes Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan”; Yorgos Lanthimos’ divisive but highly regarded Cannes prizewinner “The Lobster”; Denis Villeneuve’s technically immaculate cartel thriller “Sicario”; Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder “Victoria”; Paolo Sorrentino’s deluxe cinematic spa package “Youth”; and John Crowley’s tender immigrant romance “Brooklyn,” which didn’t exactly dominate headlines at Sundance but was rapturously received by the few who made time for it; and which is clearly being primed for an awards-season push by Fox Searchlight. It’s a welcome reminder that Toronto is a place of not just discovery but also rediscovery, and that of all the things one can say or appreciate about a movie, “which festival had it first” is surely the least significant.