THE LISTS: Top 10 memories from TIFF

Posted by · 8:01 am · September 8th, 2009

Sarah Polley in The Sweet HereafterOne of the joys of my life is the 10 days in September I spend at the Toronto International Film Festival, bringing the film world to our city, the world press, and enough stars to take over Hollywood. The little festival that could, as it was known in the 1970s and early-1980s, The Festival of Festivals has become a world cultural event, perhaps the most important film festival in the world, and certainly rivaling Cannes for prestige.

Created by William Marshall, Dusty Cohl and Henk den Henk in the mid-1970s, the festival struggled in its early days to get product, finally landing a major film with “Midnight Express” in 1978. A few years later “Chariots of Fire” would leave the fest on its march toward the Academy Award, while “The Big Chill” would make a huge impression when premiered here in 1983.

More importantly, the actors and directors were turning their attentions to Toronto. In the early days, the organizers hosted tributes: Warren Beatty and Robert Duvall were there with many friends, further putting the festival on the map. Through the 1980s the festival continued to grow in prestige, expanding its Canadian program to showcase homegrown cinema, but never losing touch with Hollywood and world product.

In the 1990s, Piers Handling took over as Director of the festival and changed the name to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and took the proceedings into the international realm. Handling, one of the greatest cinematic minds I have ever encountered, has been an extraordinary leader for TIFF, taking it into the next level of success worldwide while maintaining the roots that make it a people’s festival.

I love it, and I maintain it is the finest festival on the planet.  Having covered it for the better part of a decade, close to 15 years, I think, here are my top ten memories of the festival, the films, the performances, the events, the goings-on.

TIFF10. Meeting and Interviewing
One of the great parts of the job is, of course, meeting and interviewing the many actors and directors attending the festival, some of them the finest artists on the planet.  I’ve had the chance to sit down with a number of my heroes, and it’s always interesting to finally meet the person you have watched on screen for years.  But the end of the day, they are people just like you and me.  I’ve seen them hungover (leaving the interview to vomit), fighting with significant others, having words PR or dismissing a bone-headed critic who asked a stupid question.

(from left) Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Coppola at he 28th annual Toronto Film Festival9. Sofia Coppola arrives
Slaughtered for her performance in “The Godfather Part III,” Sofia Coppola had quietly begun a new career as a writer/director, earning some good reviews for her first film, “The Virgin Suicides.”  Her second was the talk of the festival in 2003, bolstered by a career best performance from Bill Murray. “Lost in Translation” stunned the press. Coppola’s script was perfect, her direction bold yet subtle, possessing the courage to keep a final line secret, and Murray was astonishing. The NYFCC named Coppola Best Director, while Murray won their Best Actor Award. Four Oscar nods followed.

Sean Penn in All the King's Men8. The Disappointments
You take the bad with the good at Toronto, and each year, there are definitely some bad films. No one sets out to make a dud. They arrive here loaded with star power and high expectations but crash and burn in front of the stars. The most severe example I recall is Steven Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men,”, a gala presentation in 2006 at the jammed packed Roy Thomson Hall. The entire cast was paraded out before the film started (a tradition) but none had stayed for the after film bow.  Same thing with “Elizabethtown” and, the most embarrassing opening night gala I remember, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.”

The Sweet Hereafter7. “The Sweet Hereafter” and other homegrown delights
When Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” played here in 1997, I emerged from the theater two hours later drained, haunted and terrified.  Brilliantly acted and directed, the film had been a sensation at Cannes before arriving here as the opening night gala. From there it became a critical darling in the United States and earned Egoyan Oscar nods for Best Director and Best Screenplay. But it reminds that TIFF is also a great way to catch up on Canadian cinema.  I remember discovering “Last Night”, “The Red Violin,” “The Barbarian Invasions,” “Atanajurat: The Fast Runner” and “Away From Her” here, among many others.

(from left) Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights6. “Boogie Nights”
We were told before the screening that the color had not been entirely corrected and that a couple of scenes were not yet finished, and further, some scenes might be removed.  But still, New Line was going to show “Boogie Nights” regardless.  All I knew about the film was what I had read in the thick program book the festival publishes, so I had no idea what I was about to see.  Nearly three hours later, I knew Paul Thomas Anderson was going to be the future of American cinema. “Boogie Nights” was a knockout, merging Robert Altman’s sense of ensemble with Martin Scorsese’s edgy, dark character studies.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth5. Cate Blanchett and “Elizabeth”
In 1998, Cate Blanchett was a little-known actress, but after “Elizabeth” screened here, she instantly became one of the most exciting new talents in movies. Her performance in Shekar Kapur’s brilliant film was astonishing, dominating every frame of the superb period piece, which played out like an Elizabethan version of “The Godfather.”  My eldest daughter Aurora swam in the Four Seasons Hotel pool with Blanchett and at the tender age of six made a fast friend, if for a couple of hours. Blanchett left Toronto and, a few months later, landed an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, kick-starting a strong career.

Robert Duvall in The Apostle4. Robert Duvall and “The Apostle”
Beyond meeting Robert Duvall and becoming friends, I remember the 1997 fest for the performance he gave in “The Apostle,” which was electrifying.  I sat in the theater and thinking I might be watching the greatest performance ever given by an actor.  The film arrived with Miramax wanting it, but it was the more modest October Films that was left standing after a furious night of bidding and back-and-forths that are now legendary and well-documented in the superb Peter Biskind book “Dirty Little Pictures.” Duvall got an Oscar nomination for his performance, the finest of his career, and won countless critics awards.

(from left) Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in American Beauty3. “American Beauty”
Sam Mendes’s directorial debut arrived here in 1999 with little fanfare.  In fact, no one expected the film to be what it was. DreamWorks was clearly experimenting with the work to see audience reaction, which was incredible, and the two-year-old studio took the film all the way to an Academy Award for Best Picture.  Mendes became the toast of the festival for his brilliant film, and Kevin Spacey seemed to be everywhere celebrating the performance that would win him his second Oscar. It was a case of a film arriving with no expectations and leaving well on its way to dominating the festival circuit.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford2. 2007
It was the best TIFF I’ve ever attended.  There were a bounty of films unlike anything I had seen before, and a genuine sense that the 1970s had returned.  Four of the five eventual Best Picture nominees were here, as well as other brilliant efforts such as “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Into the Wild,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “Mongol,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “The Brave One,” “Across the Universe,” “I’m Not There,” “Eastern Promises” and many more. It seemed each film I saw was extraordinary.  Such a magical year.

World Trade Center towers on September 11, 20011. September 11, 2001
It was a strange day. I began by listening to”The Howard Stern Show” as I drove in, one of the few times I had stayed at home, 50 miles away from the city. Normally I live in the Delta Chelsea Hotel for the duration, but I had gone home on the 10th. Stern talked about how something had hit one of the World Trade Center towers, and then went off the air when it was clear America was under attack. Arriving at the festival press office, I encountered reporters weeping openly in the hallways, though still not aware of the magnitude of the attack.  CNN was on and I finally saw what was happening.  Piers Handling, as classy as ever, dealt with the situation like the gentleman he is. All red carpet screenings were canceled for the duration of the festival, and though the fest went on, as it should have, there was a black cloud over the event. It’s an odd memory, but one that dominates.  How could it not?

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12 responses so far

  • 1 9-08-2009 at 9:09 am

    James D. said...

    Hopefully Coppola returns to form with her newest film. Lost in Translation is my second favorite film of the decade.

  • 2 9-08-2009 at 9:15 am

    Matt Mazur said...

    2007 was an amazing festival. I remember at my press screening of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly looking around at the audience of cynical, jaded industry types and seeing them (myself included) just weeping during the Max von Sydow scenes. I knew that if that film could muster such an emotional response from press, then it was going to KILL with the Academy! lol!

    I think this year spoiled me because 2008 was quite dour!

  • 3 9-08-2009 at 9:45 am

    Nick Davis said...

    Well, to be fair, Lost in Translation played to acclaim in Venice almost a week before its Toronto bow and had already received a full-page glowing “First Look” write-up in Film Comment in the July/August issue. But this was a really enjoyable read, and I envy you the chance to attend this festival so regularly. Thanks for the vicarious thrills!

  • 4 9-08-2009 at 9:46 am

    santillan said...

    Wow! That’s an interesting and exciting top ten… so original!

  • 5 9-08-2009 at 10:03 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Nick: “It all started here” was an addition to John’s piece on my part. I forgot the film had screened in Venice prior to Toronto, so thanks for pointing it out.

  • 6 9-08-2009 at 11:33 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    For all the good TIFF may have done, it still foisted American Beauty onto the world. I still consider this a litmus test of pretentiousness, though, so I guess it has its uses.

  • 7 9-08-2009 at 12:53 pm

    Silencio said...

    Very nice, grazie.

  • 8 9-08-2009 at 1:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    A great read, John, thanks. I’d love to be there … though I think my system would rebel at another festival straight after Venice! Hope you make more Top 10-level memories this year.

    (PS. “Translation” took Best Director from the NYFCC, but it was actually “The Return of the King” that won the top prize, I seem to recall.)

  • 9 9-08-2009 at 2:12 pm

    Simone said...

    Fantastic historical recount of Tiff. I’m so proud to be going for the sixth year in a row!

  • 10 9-08-2009 at 3:00 pm

    nanoush said...

    Te di mi amor, te di el calor
    Te di toda mi pasión

  • 11 9-08-2009 at 6:57 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Funny you should mention the Howard Stern Show on 9/11. That’s how I first heard about the attacks, and for a minute I thought they were talking about the 1993 bombings.

  • 12 9-09-2009 at 4:25 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Just a surreal day Robert Hamer — forever locked in my head — getting to the press offices and seeing people weeping openly in the lobby, hallways, and then to finally see the sight on CNN?? My family and I visited Ground Zero this summer and it was quietly haunting — to think of what happened that day on the ground we were standing upon — gave us shivers — not sure anyone has ever really given New Yorkers their due for surviving and recovering in the manner they did. God I love NYC.