Quality Overload: A Critic's Preview

With so many high-profile titles to choose from, Toronto requires a discerning eye.

On paper, the Toronto International Film Festival, which will screen 289 films from Sept. 6 to 16, is democratic and all-embracing, seemingly offering something for everybody. But because it has cornered the market as the clearinghouse for fall movies seeking awards-season attention, it also is positively Darwinian. For every Slumdog Millionaire or The King's Speech that uses Toronto to build buzz, dozens of other films, even some of genuine merit, will fall by the wayside.

So getting a handle on what to focus on is the first challenge the festivalgoer faces.

Some titles will have debuted elsewhere before they set down in Toronto, so the word will have begun to spread. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and Robert Redford's The Company You Keep are having their world premieres at the Venice International Film Festival, which runs through Sept. 8. Ben Affleck's hostage-crisis thriller Argo got a rousing reception over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, where Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson, Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa and Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha also screened.

Further winnowing the list is the fact that not everything screening in Toronto is necessarily designed for the art house. A case in point is the opening-night movie, Rian Johnson's time-traveling sci-fi thriller Looper, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Clearly designed to be a crowd-pleaser, it's a somewhat unusual choice for a festival opener. But TIFF director Piers Handling has defended the choice, saying, "I think for your opening-night film you want a film that actually commands the screen, a film that is entertaining, that people really enjoy."

But that still leaves plenty of films of serious intent making their debuts in Toronto. The big question is which will deliver and which will fall flat? Sometimes the talent involved offers clues.

Keira Knightley has become something of a muse for director Joe Wright -- they last worked together on 2007's Atonement -- so there should be plenty of interest to see how their new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina plays, especially because playwright Tom Stoppard contributed the screenplay. Another filmmaking partnership, Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling, who collaborated on 2010's Blue Valentine, is back, this time with the crime drama The Place Beyond the Pines, also starring Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes.

David O. Russell, who scored his first Oscar nomination for 2010's The Fighter, is switching it up by taking on the tough-minded comedy drama Silver Linings Playbook, with Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence.

And if film critics scored a movie according to the degree of difficulty attempted, then Cloud Atlas is asking for lots of points. The ambitious, time-jumping epic, based on David Mitchell's novel, stars a sprawling cast headed by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry and has not one but three dir-ectors: Tom Tykwer and the two Wachowskis.

But that doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what Toronto offers. One of the true delights of this festival is that a previously unsung movie can suddenly emerge, seemingly out of nowhere.

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NORTHERN LIGHTS: Often mocked for being bland or middlebrow compared to their neighbors to the south (see quiz, above), the truth is that Canadians have had a major -- and underappreciated -- impact on American pop culture. Don't believe it? Here are six Canucks destroying the stereotype.

James Cameron: He made the top two highest-grossing movies of all time (Titanic and Avatar), turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a movie star and became the first person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench -- the deepest part of the ocean. And he did it alone and in a submersible vehicle he helped design. Not bad for a high school dropout from tiny Chippawa, Ontario.

Anna Paquin: Although True Blood vamp Paquin grew up in New Zealand, Canadians still claim her as their own because she was born in Winnipeg. In addition to being the second-youngest actress to win an Oscar (for 1993's The Piano), Paquin, now 31, came out of the closet as bisexual in 2010 and regularly champions LGBT causes. To recap: vampires, bisexual, Oscar winner. Not what most people think when they hear the word "Canadian."

William Shatner: The man who started his career as Capt. James T. Kirk has been shrewdly reinventing himself ever since. From his hilarious spoken-word segments on Conan to his gig as Priceline pitchman (a role he recently returned to), the Montreal native has managed to became a hero to multiple generations. His pop culture bona fides were cemented in 1999's Fight Club when Ed Norton's character, after being asked whom he'd choose if he could fight anyone, replies: "Shatner."

Paul Haggis: The Oscar-winning writer-director of Million Dollar Baby and Crash did something very un-Canadian when he penned a blistering resignation letter to the Church of Scientology in 2008 in which he denounced the church's stance on Proposition 8. Who would have thought that the former hippie from London, Ontario, would be one of the first -- and only -- Hollywood A-listers to take on the controversial religion. Oh, and he did volunteer work in Haiti, too.

Justin Bieber: This London, Ontario, teenager has become Canada's most recognizable musical export ever, surpassing everyone from Bryan Adams to Shania Twain and Neil Young. No one knows how long it will last, but with more than 15 million records sold, 27 million Twitter followers and a global fan base of "true Beliebers," don't look for Bieber fever to cool off anytime soon.

Ryan Gosling: He single-handedly stopped a fight on the streets of New York. He has an Internet meme devoted to him (the hilarious "Hey Girl"). He traveled to New Orleans to help clean up after Katrina. Born in London, Ontario (what is it with that place?), the 31-year-old former Mousketeer now is transitioning into filmmaking with How to Catch a Monster. Don't be surprised if he's good at it.

 

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