The Irish Times is attending the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time since 2008. It would be understating the case to argue that, in the decade since my late colleague Michael Dwyer reported on Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker, the bash by the lake has gone from strength to strength. At that point, most pundits would have accepted that TIFF was the second most important festival in the calendar. It did not have the history or the highbrow kudos of Cannes, but it screened more films and it was more conveniently situated for visiting US moguls. Over the intervening years the industry's attention has toppled ever more conspicuously towards the supposed start of awards season. Yes, the phony war for the Oscars really does begin six months before the ceremony.
The beneficiaries of this change in atmosphere have been the three major festivals that – positioned with no such original intention – have always kicked off as the leaves begin to brown. The Telluride Film Festival, a pricey boutique event, has done well out of the shift. The venerable Venice Film Festival, for years at home to arthouse cinema, now swells with potential Oscar-winners. Toronto, the busiest of the three, has consolidated its position as the biggest beast in North America. The gap with Cannes is closing.
TIFF has, of course, much to recommend it aside from its role as an Oscar barometer. Unlike Cannes, it is a genuinely public event that welcomes thousands of enthusiastic citizens alongside the critics, distributors, agents and producers who clog up the Côte d’Azur each May. When Michael Dwyer launched the Dublin International Film Festival in 2003, he stated explicitly that Toronto, his favourite festival, was to be the guiding model. There would be as much flash as could be mustered. But the event would always remain friendly to everyday cineastes. TIFF enthusiastically pushes Canadian movies. Smaller independent pictures get their chance among the shuffling big beasts.
Pick up speed
Beginning as a "Festival of Festivals" in 1976, TIFF really began to pick up speed in the 1990s. As the years progressed, Oscar pundits perked up to an interesting development. Though not a formally competitive event like Cannes or Venice, Toronto does invite visitors to vote on a "People's Choice" award. Over the last decade all but one of the winners has received a nomination for best picture. (Congratulations to outlier Nadine Labacki, whose Where do We Go Now? took the title in 2011.) Best picture winners such as Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and The King's Speech launched their campaigns with a People's Choice triumph. A great annus mirabilis for Irish cinema began with Lenny Abrahamson's Room taking the prize in 2015.
Aware of the festival's status as a springy launching-pad, domestic producers have again been directing their attention towards southern Ontario. Six Irish features will receive some sort of premiere at TIFF this year. John Butler, director of Handsome Devil, brings Papi Chulo to the top-flight "Special Presentations" section. Concerning the friendship between a TV weatherman and a Latino migrant worker, Butler's picture receives its world premiere, as do Carmel Winters's Float Like a Butterfly, the story of a determined woman boxer; Neil Jordan's Greta, a thriller starring Isabelle Huppert; Paddy Breathnach's Rosie, a story of homelessness from a Roddy Doyle script and Chanya Button's Vita and Virginia, featuring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki as Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Lance Daly's famine drama Black '47, released in Ireland this week, gets a North American premier at TIFF.
Meanwhile, the inevitable Oscar conversation will bubble around Toronto's Entertainment District. Space prohibits any comprehensive summary of runner and riders, but Barry Jenkins's If Beal Street Could Talk, which has its world premiere here, is sure to figure in the conversation. The follow-up to Jenkins's Oscar-winning Moonlight stars Kiki Layne in an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years A Slave took best picture in 2013, returns with a cinematic take on Lynda La Plante's TV series Widows. Also a world premiere, the indecently promising heist movie stars Viola Davis, Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson.
Riding praise from Venice, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, a monochrome family saga, and Damien Chazelle's First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, are sure to generate long queues. The Oscarologists may, however, be most interested in Bradley Cooper's take on A Star is Born. Co-starring the director and Lady Gaga, the already acclaimed revisiting of a much-remade Hollywood weepie – a hit out-of-competition at Venice – has the potential to pull off a bizarre double. If it proves as big a smash with cinemagoers as it already is with critics, the picture could very possibly win both best picture and the newly instituted, much-derided Academy Award for outstanding achievement in popular film.
The sniggering has already begun.