Todd McCarthy's Toronto Wrap: A Mixed Bag

The Equalizer Still - H 2014
Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures

The Equalizer Still - H 2014

Nearly all of the highly hyped titles at the fest — which is exhausting, bullying and undeniably essential — drew measured reactions

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Whether you're a filmmaker, sales rep, publicist or critic, doing your job at any big-league film festival is usually an exhausting experience, but it's gotten to the point where Toronto beats them all in fatigue factor.

With 271 contemporary features jammed into 10 days, just figuring out the schedule is daunting enough, but then darting from one cinema to another, snaking through the lines to get into showings, eating mostly on the run and barely seeing friends except to say hi as you rush to the next screening -- it's enough to make you feel like a human pinball, ricocheting from one point to another, interrupted only by two-hour intervals of immobility in the darkness.

But if you need to get a look at some of what's to come the rest of the year, Toronto has long since become indispensable. Ever since Crash made the giant leap from Toronto world premiere to Oscar glory, the festival was officially essential to the industry.

It's precisely the desire for just such bragging rights that led Toronto to throw down the gauntlet this year at the feet of the Telluride Film Festival, which was regarded as having stolen Toronto's thunder by staging world premieres of four of the past six best picture winners: Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, Argo and 12 Years a Slave. Adding insult to injury, Telluride's greatest big-title hit two weeks ago, Birdman, skipped Toronto altogether (just like Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis and All Is Lost last year).

But Toronto's bullying of Telluride, which took the form of denying any film that showed at Telluride a slot during Toronto's press- and junket-heavy opening weekend, seemed to provoke ill will all around; one hopes the rumors heard early in the week, that festival organizers were inclined to rethink the punitive policy, are correct.

The other headache plaguing the festival was one to which out-of-towners were largely oblivious, even though it caused the event's organizers to take a pummeling from locals.

This stemmed from the long-weekend traffic closure on King Street, the major east-west thoroughfare on which the Bell Lightbox festival headquarters and Princess of Wales Theatre are located a half-block from each other. The Princess of Wales is where most of the celebrity premieres (with red carpets and swarming fans) take place. The shutdown of much-used streetcars combined with various related street blockades and considerable construction sites (related to next summer's Pan American Games) created Manhattan-at-5-p.m. type gridlock.

All this aside, how were the films? No matter how many you managed to see, you could only put one hand on the elephant. Still, it's fair to say that the select crop of new, heat-seeking movies basically came in various shades of good. No matter how vociferously Toronto audiences shrieked and screamed and applauded for their favorites (Chris Rock, Bill Murray, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Aniston, et al.), there were no through-the-ceiling smashes, no instant classics or films you need to see again immediately.

One's perception here can be significantly colored by the screening you attend. At the gala premiere of Rock's extremely likable Top Five, for example, the laughter was so heavy and unending that many lines of dialogue were inaudible. At the morning press screening, there was laughter, to be sure, but it never threatened to obscure anything on the soundtrack.

At any film festival, an audience privileged to be watching a premiere in the presence of its makers will be disposed to show its appreciation of the talent in its midst. In Toronto, the audience is not only eager to audibly embrace whatever it is the filmmaker is trying to do; it wants to love the work and instantly celebrate it. This is the reward offered by Toronto moviegoers in return for having been blessed with a privileged early look.

So how did it go for the big-name titles hoping to get a bounce into commercial release and on to the awards-season conveyer belt? Aside from Top Five, which was the major winner both in terms of audience reaction and large-money acquisition, reactions fell decidedly in the mixed range for enthusiastically awaited films such as The Judge, which opened the festival; This Is Where I Leave You; Men, Women & Children; Nightcrawler; Time Out of Mind; The Equalizer; and Pawn Sacrifice. Observers found qualities, but also significant qualifiers, in all these films. Did the people who made them get out of Toronto what they wanted or expected? Maybe, but probably not entirely. Except for The Equalizer, they're all uncertain bets commercially.

Emerging a bit rosier, perhaps, despite their artistic shortcomings, were The Theory of Everything, While We're Young and St. Vincent -- films audiences and no shortage of critics rallied around yet didn't acquire universal groundswells of support.

A couple of films from known European directors, Francois Ozon's The New Girlfriend and Christian Petzold's Phoenix, went over so well that observers were shocked they had not previously turned up in any top European festival. Phoenix, which was especially well-received, is known to have been rejected by Cannes.

And then, as is always hoped, a couple of American indies came out of nowhere to take nearly everyone who saw them by surprise: Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice (starring Julianne Moore) -- both, as it happens, about people with treatment-worthy mental conditions. These, in the end, were among the prominent needles in the haystack that was Toronto 2014.