At this time last year, the Toronto International Film Festival opened on a punchline, with the instantly dismissible tennis biopic Borg vs. McEnroe. This week, TIFF kicks off with a question mark.
Not as to whether its buzzy-ish opening-night film, Outlaw King, will mark a turning point for that cursed festival slot. Or even as to whether the Netflix-produced epic can offer the streaming giant a much-desired stamp of film-fest prestige.
Instead, the questions facing TIFF today are larger and more existential than one movie, or a single programming decision.
Last year, the organization took a step back to ask who it was serving, and why. In the span of 12 months, long-time chief executive officer Piers Handling announced he would retire. Chief operating officer Michele Maheux did the same. Artistic director Cameron Bailey touted a new five-year strategic plan, neatly titled "Audience First." The communications and marketing team pivoted to a more socially progressive branding, with impactful campaigns focusing on underrepresented voices. And the board sought out a new leader (well, co-leader) in Joana Vicente, an expert in two worlds crucial to TIFF: independent film, and the power to convince the well-heeled to open their wallets – and keep them open.
Now, on the eve of the festival's 43rd edition, there is a genuine sense of curiosity to the state of TIFF – and even some upward momentum. The fate of its opening night is yet to be determined – and given that critics are under an Outlaw King review embargo until 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 6, any decision will have to wait for Friday morning's social-media feeds – but the festival promises one of its most exciting, and important, editions in recent memory.
This Saturday's Share Her Journey rally will put action to TIFF's woke online presence. The opening weekend's scheduling – historically a hothouse nightmare for anyone lacking the ability to be in five places at once – seems manageable for mere mortals. And even the most cynical of industry prognosticators (guilty!) must admire TIFF 2018's programming coups, including a stack of world premieres that puts competitors Venice and Telluride to shame.
There's the elevated genre thriller Widows, from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and featuring the most intimidating cast (Viola Davis! Colin Farrell! Brian Tyree Henry! Elizabeth Debicki!) of the season. The father-son drama Beautiful Boy stars awards-bait Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet. High Life marks the English-language debut of the world's most provocative working auteur, Claire Denis. Ben Is Back features Julia Roberts and this year's undisputed think-piece magnet, Lucas Hedges. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan arrives courtesy Xavier Dolan, not only Canada's most polarizing director but the reigning firebrand of European cinema, too.
And, if we need an inarguable case that TIFF went and stole thunder this year, there's If Beale Street Could Talk. The new film from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins will have its first-ever public screening Sept. 9 at Toronto's massive Princess of Wales theatre – even though the filmmaker has strong ties to Telluride, where he was in the student program before joining the festival team itself.
The slate can only act as a morale boost for a festival that, while not exactly requiring one, could surely utilize the energy as it plots its future.
The trick, as is ever, will be whether TIFF uses this velocity of goodwill to further its self-stated goal – literally putting the "audience first" – or employ it as armour when the inevitable and justified criticisms come in about the festival lacking access, being overpriced, and relying on quantity over quality. (This year's lineup of 255 feature-length films is leaner than the bloated days of 2015 and '16, but there are at least a dozen films here whose inclusions will remain unsolved mysteries.)
Today, TIFF 2018 looks sunnier than a guest of TIFF 2017 might have expected. But as any filmgoer knows, everything can change in the course of two hours – let alone 11 days. We will all be watching the show, eyes wide open.