TORONTO – The Toronto International Film Festival celebrates its 40th edition this week with a heck of a guest list: Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren and Keith Richards are just a few of the stars set to walk the red carpet for this milestone year.
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Buzzy films already generating chatter include the star-packed muckraking thriller Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as part of a team of reporters investigating sex abuse allegations involving the Catholic Church; Scott Cooper’s gangster flick Black Mass, with a bald Depp portraying ruthless wise guy James (Whitey) Bulger; and Ridley Scott’s outerspace thriller The Martian, with Damon playing an astronaut abandoned on the red planet.
Then there’s the Irish-Canadian Room, about a five-year-old’s account of growing up with his mother locked in a shed, which he believes is the whole world; he’s unaware they are captives.
“I think there’s a lot of films that deal with the notion of traumatic events changing your life and what it does to you,” TIFF CEO Piers Handling said of trends at this year’s festival.
“There’s such uncertainty in people’s personal lives as well as politically, socially…. I think it’s a more anxious world, it’s a more connected world, so it’s a world that is a bit afraid of events that it cannot control.”
WATCH: Trailer for Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp
This year’s opening film comes from Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallee, the C.R.A.Z.Y. auteur who this time helms the studio-backed English-language drama Demolition. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker who responds to the sudden death of his wife with random acts of destruction.
Canadian titles this year include a new outing from Deepa Mehta, who switches gears with an action-packed gangster tale, Beeba Boys; Remember from festival veteran Atom Egoyan, who enlisted Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau for the Nazi revenge thriller; the war saga Hyena Road from actor/director Paul Gross; and The Forbidden Room from the assuredly strange Guy Maddin.
Celeb stalkers will undoubtedly be on the lookout for legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards – dare say we, ambling about town with his pirate brother Depp? – as he premieres his Netflix documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom).
The doc screens as part of TIFF’s new TV section, Primetime, which promises to feature the best in global television – but on the big screen. The program’s six titles include the Hulu comedy Casual, executive produced by Jason Reitman, and the second season premiere of France’s supernatural drama The Returned.
But the focus for many cinephiles at TIFF, of course, is on finding the upcoming awards-season contenders. Traditionally seen as a launching pad for Oscar hopefuls, TIFF has a proven track record for launching the next Slumdog Millionaire or The King’s Speech.
At the very least, several flicks seem certain to provoke: Michael Moore unleases his new documentary Where to Invade Next; Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender painter in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl; Charlie Kaufman experiments with stop-motion animation in Anomalisa; Netflix enters the conversation with its child soldier saga Beasts of No Nation; and Argentine auteur Pablo Trapero documents a spate of real-life brutal kidnappings in The Clan.
Artistic director Cameron Bailey had a hard time choosing standouts and instead singled out a new competitive program called Platform, which features “artistically ambitious cinema.”
“A lot of attention has been paid to the Ben Wheatley film High-Rise, which is terrific and I think people are going to love it, but there are some other films in that section that will really surprise people,” says Bailey.
WATCH: Esther Garnick showcases a variety of products labeled as TIFF essentials.
“One of my favourites is a film called Neon Bull, from Gabriel Mascaro. When I watched it I had the same feeling that I had the first time I saw a David Lynch film. The sense of being drawn into a world that is entirely new and seeing things that are really surprising.”
Among emerging Canadian filmmakers, he picked Stephen Dunn’s debut feature Closet Monster, calling it “one of the strongest films in our lineup.”
“It’s just a terrific coming of age and coming out story – beautiful stylish, very emotional. It’s about as good as you could ever get from a debut feature.”
The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday.
– With files from Canadian Press reporter David Friend