Few institutions in cinema can match the teeming, overwhelming Toronto International Film Festival as a conversation-starting force. It simply has a lot of movies worth talking about.
And this year, many of the films that will parade down Toronto red carpets will hope to shift the dialogue not just in terms of awards buzz, but in other directions, too: equality in Hollywood; politics in Washington; even about the nature of the movies, themselves. At TIFF, expect debate.
That’s what the filmmakers behind “The Battle of the Sexes,” one of the anticipated films heading to TIFF in the coming days, are hoping for. After the festival opens Thursday with another tennis movie, the rivalry drama “Borg/McEnroe,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the directing duo who helmed 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine”) will premiere their drama about the 1973 showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
The movie, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, holds obvious parallels for a movie industry with its own issues of gender equality, in both pay disparity and directing opportunity. For others, it will recall issues that dominated last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. But “Battle of the Sexes” may surprise moviegoers in its broad sympathies on both sides of the net.
“The one thing we didn’t want to have happen was this polarizing political document,” said Dayton. “Right now, there’s enough of that in the world. We wanted to tell a more personal story and keep it from becoming too binary.”
The filmmakers say they are expecting “a variety of opinions in any one audience.”
“It’s really the best way to release a film, at a festival like Telluride or Toronto,” said Faris. “It’s a great way to get the word out about a film. It’s a great thing for the filmmakers to have what is usually a pretty film-oriented, film-loving audience. It gives you hope that they’re still out there.”
The Toronto International Film Festival comes right on the heels of the Venice and Telluride festivals, but the size and scope of Toronto has long made it the centerpiece of the fall movie season. It’s where much of the coming awards season gets handicapped, debated and solidified. It’s also a significant market for new films, and this year several intriguing films — “I, Tonya,” with Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, and “Hostiles,” a brutal Western with Christian Bale — are on the block.
But most eyes will be on the gala premieres of the fall’s biggest films, including Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” and maybe the most explosive movie of the season, Darren Aronofsky’s mystery-shrouded allegorical thriller “mother!”
It can be a competitive landscape, with dozens of daily premieres and their respective parties, all trying to stand out. But several first-time directors may end up stealing the spotlight. Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” will sail into Toronto on waves of rave reviews from Telluride. Aaron Sorkin, arguably the top screenwriter in Hollywood for two decades, will present his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game.”
Sorkin didn’t initially anticipate he’d direct his script. But he became, he says, obsessed with the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the former elite skier who was indicted for running a high-stakes poker game in Los Angeles. It’s a potentially career-redefining movie for Sorkin — and he’s appropriately anxious.
“I’d feel the same way if we were launching it in Wyoming. I’m nervous because other than test audiences, this will be the first time people see it,” said Sorkin. “The Toronto Film Festival is a very prestigious place to debut a film, so I’m aware of the company I’m in and what’s expected in the movie. It will be up to others to decide if it delivered.”
“The Disaster Artist” poses a similar turning point for its star and director, James Franco. It’s about the making of what’s widely considered one of the worst movies ever made — the cult favorite “The Room,” by Tommy Wiseau. Franco, who plays Wiseau, considers it a new step for him as a filmmaker, and says the film’s parody is laced with affection.
“The characters are outsiders. They are weirdos,” said Franco. “But everybody can relate to having a dream and trying to break into this incredibly hard business.”
The film will premiere to a surely raucous audience at a midnight screening. Franco, who first saw “The Room” with an especially excitable Vancouver audience, expects it to be the perfect debut for his film: “Canadians know how to do ‘The Room.”’
“The Disaster Artist,” which A24 will release in December, might give TIFF what “La La Land” did last year — a happily escapist movie about Hollywood. Other films will tackle less comic real-life tales, including Angelina Jolie’s searing Cambodia drama “First They Killed My Father,” the Winston Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour,” with Gary Oldman; and the documentary “The Final Year,” about the last year of Barack Obama’s administration.
Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the festival, said Trump’s presidency “was not a factor in the films we selected,” though he expects it to color the reception of many.
“Some of them will be received with the current political climate in mind,” said Bailey. “One of the things I think you learn from films like (the Watergate drama) ‘Mark Felt’ and (the Ted Kennedy drama) ‘Chappaquiddick’ and others that we have here is that the process of politics is not a pretty one. It involves a lot of conflicted motives, shall we say.”
And who better to make sense of the current political landscape than Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “The Thick of It”), the master of rapid-fire political farce. In his second feature film, “The Death of Stalin,” he travels back to 1950s Russia only to find an expectedly timely tale of the madcap machinations of political power.
“It is bizarre, isn’t it? When I started showing it to people in January and February earlier this year, people said it resonated with Trump and Putin and fake news,” said Iannucci. “It is about autocracy. It is about what happens when democracy falls apart and one person decides everything. I’m kind of glad it does resonate now. But am I pleased?”