The 36th Annual Toronto International Film Festival Is Underway

The annual event has the power to make or break Oscar hopefuls.

The 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) got underway today, and I have made the pilgrimmage north of the border -- for the fifth year in a row -- to cover all of the awards-related stories that will be unfolding here over the course of the eleven-day event.

On the festival circuit, TIFF is a completely unique beast. TIFF, unlike, Sundance or Telluride, takes place right smack dab in the middle of a bustling big city, and movie stars, publicists, and buyers bump shoulders not with skiiers or retirees, but with autograph seekers, skateboarders, and the homeless. Here, unlike Cannes or Venice, a standing ovation or boos really mean something, as an incredible percentage of festival-goers really know what they're talking about. And TIFF, unlike Tribeca or Santa Barbara, attracts dozens of awards hopefuls, because studios know that, due to the timing of the festival on the calendar and presence of so many journalists on the ground here, reaction to a screening here can generate buzz about a film that will last for months, often until a late-season release date.

Indeed, five of the six most recent best picture Oscar winners -- Crash (2005), No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), and The King's Speech (2010) -- played here en route to the winner's circle. Crash was shown here before it was shown anywhere else; the others had a prior screening at Cannes, Telluride, or Venice, but it was here that they began to gain real awards momentum. Remarkably, Crash and The Hurt Locker played here more than a year before they won!

Those are the most famous examples of TIFF's sway. It is equally if not more fun to revisit are the less famous examples of how TIFF has helped to "make" or "break" a film. I'll cite a few examples just from within the five years that I have personally attended the fest.

  • MAKE  Juno (2007) played at Telluride before coming to Toronto, but that was back when fewer people paid attention to reactions out of Telluride -- apparently including the film's distributor itself. Fox Searchlight came into Toronto that year certain that its top awards contender was The Savages (2007), but when Juno had its gala screening and audiences were observed crying throughout the film and cheering wildly after it, the studio's awards season plans quickly changed.
  • BREAK  Rendition (2007) was a film that was at or near the top of most awards prognosticators' forecasts when it came into Toronto five years ago. How could it miss? It was directed by Gavin Hood, who was coming off a best foreign language film Oscar win for Tsotsi (2005); it starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, who were consistently among the top box-office attractions; it featured in supporting parts Meryl Streep, the greatest living actress, and Alan Arkin, who was fresh off his best supporting actor Oscar win for Little Miss Sunshine (2006); and it tackled a provocative political subject just as George W. Bush's second term was winding down. And yet miss it did. TIFF audiences were tremendously let down, and by the morning after its gala premiere, the film's awards prospects were essentially no more.
  • MAKE  The Visitor (2008) premiered at Toronto in 2007, was soon thereafter purchased by a distributor, was released over half a year after playing at TIFF, and earned a best actor Oscar nod for star Richard Jenkins more than a year after playing at TIFF.
  • BREAK  Brighton Rock (2011), the Rowan Joffe film starring Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough, was a hot property coming into the 2010 installment of TIFF, but buzz quickly fizzled after it was actually seen by audiences. Almost a full year after playing at TIFF, it was given a token theatrical release -- and, to add insult to injury, that took place on the weekend that Hurricane Irene ravaged the east coast, keeping roughly a third of the country from leaving their homes even if they wanted to.
  • MAKE  Lovely, Still (2008) was a beautiful little movie that featured great performances from veterans Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau under the direction of a 24-year-old first-time filmmaker, Nik Fackler. By festival's end, no studio had picked up the film, and its prospects for distribution -- indeed, for ever being seen again -- looked dim. Those who saw the film, however, remembered it and continued to champion it, and two years later a minor miracle occurred: Monterey Media picked up its domestical distribution rights and released it in the United States.
  • TO BE DETERMINED  The Whistleblower (2011), which features an awards-worthy performance from Rachel Weisz in a film that deals with very difficult subject matter, came into TIFF 2010 without a distributor, received little attention even after it premiered, but was ultimately acquired for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films and released this summer, nearly a year after it was first unveiled. While it didn't do boffo box-office, critics did tip their caps to Weisz, and it remains possible, though unlikely, that she will factor into this year's best actress Oscar race.

What will be this year's surprise hits and misses? Only time will tell... and we'll let you know when it does!