The Toronto International Film Festival, which gets underway Thursday, is part of a trifecta of film festivals that, informally at least, kick off awards season and whose campaigns have become an all-important marketing vehicle for mid-budget adult dramas devoid of comic-book hooks or special-effects spectacle.
For Andy Mencher, programming director of Washington’s Avalon Theatre, Toronto is a crucial hunting ground for precisely the kind of film that does well at the Avalon and the weekend Cinema Clubs he runs throughout the country.
“There’s the calendar year, and there’s the film year,” Mencher said before boarding a flight from Baltimore to Toronto on Wednesday. “The film year is September 1st to August 31st. It starts every year with Venice, Telluride and Toronto. We learn about the movies that are going to be talked about for the next six months until the awards happen. That’s what everything’s built around in this industry for six months.”
Based on buzz coming out of Venice and Colorado’s Telluride, Mencher said, he has his wanna-sees. The CIA thriller “Argo,” starring and directed by Ben Affleck, is first on the list. “I loved his movie ‘The Town,’ so I’m excited to see this one,” Mencher said.
“Argo” will almost surely meet Mencher’s highest expectations. An assured, gripping film, it conjures visions of Barry Levinson and Alan Pakula smashing into each other from around a corner, with one crying, “You got your taut political thriller in my mordant Hollywood satire!” and the other crying, “You got your mordant Hollywood satire in my taut political thriller!” The result, in the case of “Argo,” isn’t a peanut-butter cup but a smart, craftily structured drama based on an astonishing real-life rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, and a film that is garnering Oscar buzz for best picture and directing nominations. (I’m interviewing Affeck on Sunday.)
Mencher also mentioned the French film “Rust and Bone,” Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” starring Keira Knightley, the Weinstein Co.’s Cannes pickup “The Sapphires” and Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” fresh from a warm reception in Telluride, as movies he wants to catch during his week here. Having made his wish list, he added, “then it’s all about how you manipulate your schedule so you can get to all of these things.”
Ah, the schedule. Part of the first-day ritual of Toronto, after getting the requisite laminated pass and bag full of things you won’t glance at for another 10 days, is perusing the color-blocked grid that lays out the ensuing days and 300-plus films like a Mondrian-inspired collage, inviting Solomonic decisions over whether to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” or Derek Cianfrance’s new Ryan Gosling movie “A Place Beyond the Pines” or Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski documentary “Odd Man Out” or an intriguing little political indie called “Janeane from Des Moines.” On the floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel here, a clutch of big-time critics (Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, Newsweek’s David Ansen, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips and People’s Alynda Wheat) were spied huddling like college freshmen comparing professors and balancing electives and required courses.
For Mencher’s part, he’ll be giving Toronto’s most highly anticipated press-and-industry screening – Saturday morning’s showing of “The Master” — a pass. “Because it’s opening on the 14th of September and because I know it’s not going to play in the Avalon or my Cinema Club organization, I’m just not going to be one of the crazy people who go see it,” he said. “I’d rather come home and see it at the AFI on their beautiful screen in 70 millimeter.”
As for this critic, today’s schedule is relatively light: I’ll be seeing “Looper,” Rian Johnson’s sci-fi adventure that will open the festival later Thursday, followed by “The Gatekeepers,” “Anna Karenina” and Miguel Gomes’s black-and-white drama “Tabu.” Simple enough. At least until I see the public screening grid — at which point the teeth-gnashing begins anew.