It was a no-brainer that “Drive,” the taut, stylishly propulsive thriller that opens in theaters Friday, would make its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Its star, Ryan Gosling, is a native of Ontario. And the timing dovetails perfectly with Toronto’s reputation as a launching pad for star-driven movies, from “Moneyball” and “The Ides of March” (which star Brad Pitt and George Clooney, respectively) to “From the Sky Down,” Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about U2, which opened the festival on Sept. 8. (The festival ends Sunday.)
Gosling, Pitt and Clooney, as well as U2’s Bono and the Edge, dutifully showed up on their red carpets, gamely waving to the scores of assembled fans and stopping for pictures and autographs. But the Toronto International Film Festival — or TIFF, as it’s affectionately called by its loyal attendees — derives its allure not from glitz and glamour but from an abiding commitment to balance. At its best, TIFF exemplifies the kind of healthy filmmaking ecosystem that allows for movies big and little, commercial and artistic, entertaining and edifying.
What’s more, with some of the festival’s smallest independent productions having been acquired by studios in recent days, audiences can be assured that, even as multibillion-dollar spectacles and comic-book franchises threaten to gobble up the smaller fry, a diverse, harmonious cinematic habitat still has a chance of surviving.
So, at this year’s TIFF, audiences could rousingly applaud the funny, touching mainstream comedy “The Descendants” — the festival’s first bona fide home run, featuring a by-turns hilarious and heartbreaking performance by Clooney — then a few days later see “Shame,” Steve McQueen’s stark, disquietingly graphic portrait of a man grappling with sex addiction.
“Shame” stars Michael Fassbender, who appeared in McQueen’s feature debut, “Hunger.” As in that film, Fassbender’s body is put through punishing rituals of self-abasement. It’s an uncompromising performance that earned the actor an award at the Venice Film Festival and gave the movie an NC-17 rating. Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired “Shame” this week, clearly on the strength of both of those talking points. (As the unofficial start of awards season, TIFF also launched Pitt, Clooney and Fassbender as early front-runners for Oscar nominations.)
Although “Shame” was picked up with relative alacrity, observers noted that sales were slow in Toronto this year, although Sundance Selects snagged Werner Herzog’s new documentary, “Into the Abyss,” CBS Films got “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt), IFC Films bought Lynne Shelton’s comedy “Your Sister’s Sister,” and Oscilloscope acquired “Wuthering Heights,” Andrea Arnold’s revisionist take on the Emily Bronte classic.
But even though the market heated up somewhat, the heart and soul of TIFF beat on the streets of downtown Toronto, where thousands of cinetourists make their annual pilgrimage, seeing up to four or even five movies a day, emerging only to cadge a hurried meal before plunging again into the dark. This is a world blithely oblivious to wheeling and dealing that occur in such elegant precincts as the Fairmont Royal York or InterContinental hotels, where the swells congregated this year. Instead, festival-goers — who could be heard coining the term “TIFF-ing” for their cine-obsessed pastime — shuttle from queue to queue, comparing notes with their fellow enthusiasts over well-thumbed programs, circling and crossing out titles with the ruthlessness of seasoned racetrack sharpies.
Unlike Cannes or even Sundance, TIFF isn’t known for celebrities or their antics. But every once in a while a scandal erupts. On Tuesday, even as serious an artist as McQueen could be overheard dishing about Madonna, who the day before had presented her movie “W.E.” (to virtually universal derision). Rumor had it that the singer ordered TIFF volunteers to face the wall when she left a press area, a story that was later debunked by her representatives but that nonetheless helped cement her film’s post-TIFF reputation as a disaster.
Such kerfuffles are thankfully rare at TIFF, which usually traffics in more serious stuff.
This year’s program featured its share of politically themed movies. In addition to starring in “The Descendants,” Clooney starred in and directed “The Ides of March,” a well-crafted but oddly dated thriller based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North.” Ambush artist Nick Broomfield presented “Sarah Palin — You Betcha!,” a glib, gossipy hit job that, along with the recent pro-Palin film “The Undefeated,” still leaves viewers longing for an insightful, clear-eyed assessment of the former governor’s record and character. And actress Jennifer Garner showed up in support of “Butter,” a Midwestern satire in which she plays a racist, hypocritical right-winger trying to strong-arm a young African American girl out of a butter-carving championship.
All comparisons to tea party darlings are utterly intended, according to “Butter” producer Harvey Weinstein, who asked co-star Olivia Wilde to read an e-mailed statement before Tuesday’s premiere. Inviting Minnesota congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to co-host the Iowa premiere of “Butter,” Weinstein added: “I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the Tea Party movement to make an entire day of it. We could take some math classes in the morning to help balance the budget, brush up on the Constitution in the afternoon, play some ping-pong and then maybe some verbal ping-pong on gay rights and women’s rights (especially the right to choose).”
Half-baked when they weren’t ham-handed, the politics in “Butter” were far outshone by some lovely performances, especially from Rob Corddry and newcomer Yara Shahidi, who plays the Obamaesque orphan who takes the Iowa State Fair (read: caucus) by storm with her compelling rhetoric and personal story.
Still, what was supposed to pass for high stakes in “The Ides of March,” “Sarah Palin” and “Butter” felt unsuitably trivial when compared, say, with David Hare’s “Page Eight,” a smart British intelligence thriller starring Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy that will play on PBS this fall; or “The Island President,” Jon Shenk’s documentary about Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and his desperate fight to save his tiny nation from being completely drowned as a result of global warming.
Even more stirring was “This Is Not a Film,” made by Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi, who in 2010 was banned by the government from making movies, and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was on his way to TIFF when he was detained by Iranian authorities.
At once a sardonic commentary on the folly of extremist repression and a deeply affecting portrait of its physical and psychic costs, “This Is Not a Film” was made on Panahi’s iPhone and a digital camera and smuggled out of Iran in a loaf of bread. It served as a sobering reminder of how high the stakes can be for filmmakers, both on-screen and off. And it exemplified precisely the kind of movie that makes a cinematic ecosystem not just healthy but crucial to the larger world.