TORONTO - A lot of superlatives are being tossed around ahead of this year's Toronto International Film Festival — Most World Premieres! Most Countries Ever! Record Number of Female Directors!
All auspicious achievements, to be sure. But the blinding star power expected to light up the city as the 11-day event kicks off Thursday is bound to quickly steer chatter back to the more usual distinctions — Hottest Lead, Cutest Ingenue, Sure-fire Oscar Contender, Audience Favourite.
For your consideration, attendees expected to showcase new projects at the fest include Ben Affleck, Ryan Gosling, Robert Redford, Johnny Depp, Susan Sarandon, Joaquin Phoenix, Keira Knightley, Tom Hanks, Kristen Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The celebrity guest list goes on and on, but artistic director Cameron Bailey is also taking pains to highlight the record 72 countries represented at the fest (up from 65 last year) and the fact that 25 per cent of this year's slate is directed by women.
"The diversity of the festival seems to be the real story for us this year," says Bailey, clearly immune to constant Gosling-Eva Mendes wedding speculation and Stewart's tabloid-fodder trysts.
"That may possibly be the largest and broadest representation globally that we've ever had."
The female contingent is especially noteworthy given the lashing the Cannes Film Festival suffered back in May when its competition failed to include any women. Toronto's slate includes 91 female directors, six of them with prestigious gala slots.
TIFF boss Piers Handling says criticism of Cannes had no bearing when his programmers assembled their roster, although he admitted that gender representation is something they're "conscious of."
"The quality of the film is, at the end of the day, always the deciding factor, especially when it comes to the gala program," says Handling, noting the big titles must withstand the scrutiny of the international press.
"You don't set out with any quotas in mind but some of the best films we saw this year were obviously directed by women that we wanted to put in very, very prominent positions."
That includes Sally Potter's "Ginger and Rosa" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," neither of which were ready for Cannes. Chief among the Canadian slate is Deepa Mehta's ambitious adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel "Midnight's Children."
Nevertheless, if there is one popularity game TIFF freely admits to playing, it's chasing the next Oscar sensation — and there are several titles that could make waves come awards time.
They include the Weinstein Company's period drama "The Master" — a weighty offering directed by Paul Thomas Anderson that's said to be inspired by Scientology. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic spiritual guru and Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled war veteran.
Affleck returns to the director's chair for his political thriller "Argo," in which he also stars alongside Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin. It's about a CIA agent who tries to rescue six U.S. citizens held hostage in Iran by pretending they are a Canadian film crew.
And Hanks hits the red carpet with his centuries-sweeping film "Cloud Atlas," a massive mash-up of six stories and time periods stretching from the 19th century to a distant future. Its dizzying celeb cast includes Sarandon, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent.
"It's been a few years since Tom Hanks has been to the festival so to have him with 'Cloud Atlas' is exciting for us," says Handling.
Also sure to draw attention is Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo's ensemble comedy "Thanks for Sharing," Terrence Malick's exploration of love "To the Wonder," the West Memphis Three documentary "West of Memphis," which is being promoted by Depp, and Spike Lee's Michael Jackson documentary "Bad 25."
But there are notable films missing: Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, is skipping the fest even after Bigelow's Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker" made its North American premiere at the 2008 edition.
And then there's Ang Lee's ambitious "Life of Pi," based on the Yann Martel novel about a zookeeper's son sent adrift on the ocean with a Bengal tiger. Instead, the Montreal-shot fantasy is opening the New York Film Festival immediately after TIFF.
"Not even Cannes gets all the films they want," Handling explains simply. "Clearly, we're after every single film that's out there but some films just decide for a variety of reasons not to come to us."
"I think the glass is more than half full," Bailey adds. "Some of the films that we have premiering here, I think, are some of the films that maybe in previous years might have started elsewhere. We're really lucky that through timing and through our perseverance we were able to get this killer lineup."
Perhaps it also helped that the Venice Film Festival, a rival marathon immediately before Toronto's fest, decided to limit its competition to just 18 films this year, after admitting as many as 24 in previous editions. Meanwhile, the overall selection was halved to just 60 films.
TIFF's crowd-pleasers will include the opening film, "Looper," predicts Bailey, touting the time-travelling actioner as an effects-laden spectacle with brains. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hitman who is assigned to kill his future self, played by Bruce Willis.
"We wanted a film that would be exciting and fun for the audience to watch, that would be really big enough to play for the opening night crowd," says Bailey.
"But we also wanted a film that had some cinematic smarts to it, that understood film history and film genre and (director) Rian Johnson does that beautifully."
If there are any themes to be teased out of the diverse slate, Handling points to a preponderance of features on aging.
That includes Michael Haneke's "Amour," Redford's "The Company You Keep," Patrice Leconte's "The Suicide Shop," Marco Bellocchio's "Dormant Beauty" and the closing night film, "Song for Marion," starring Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave.
"It seemed like the baby boom generation has kind of grown up and are just dealing with these issues of aging, what it means to age," Handling says.
There also seems to be a slew of politically minded fare, he says, pointing to Affleck's "Argo," Nair's 9-11 themed "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," Olivier Assayas' "Something In the Air," Costa-Gavras's high finance feature "Capital," the Chilean-set "No" and Potter's Cold War-era "Ginger and Rosa."
Overall, TIFF's spotlight is shifting to more globally minded fare, says Handling. He points to a healthy number of Eastern films in the gala and special presentations section — generally the domain of A-list Hollywood and European titles.
"We've spent a lot of time in Asia, China over the last 15 years. Now we're actually starting to put some of these key films into big positions of prominence in the festival," he says, pointing to China's "Dangerous Liaisons," "Caught in the Web" and "The Last Supper" and Japan's "Thermae Romae" as some of the beneficiaries.
"Asia's emerging, Asia's making exciting films, Asia has been for years and now we're acknowledging that and putting them into some of the major slots in our festival."
It helps that more countries are thinking "globally," he adds.
"The Chinese in particular are trying to look at Hollywood, emulate Hollywood and say: If Hollywood could actually conquer the international screens from around the world, what do we have to do as an industry to actually do exactly the same thing?" says Handling.
"Both India and China are beginning to ask these questions because I think those are the two countries that could actually probably eventually challenge Hollywood."
Canadians hoping to make a splash include rookie filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg. His debut feature "Antiviral" is a sci-fi-tinged look at celebrity worship.
Meanwhile Ruba Nadda, who won the best Canadian feature prize at TIFF a few years ago, returns with the political drama, "Inescapable," starring Alexander Siddig, Marisa Tomei and Joshua Jackson.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 6-16.
—With files from Michael Oliveira