Although the Toronto International Film Festival is generally regarded as the first major event of Oscar season, my experience there has never really been tinted by which entries on the program deserve a gold statuette.
True, TIFF usually hosts many future contenders in the awards race — the last two Best Picture Oscar winners, "No Country for Old Men" and "Slumdog Millionaire," both played there — but the sprawling lineup of 335 films from 64 countries represents something far more profound.
It’s a hefty portrait of the state of international cinema, both good and bad, familiar and unconventional, groundbreaking and routine. While I do have my eyes on a few of those aforementioned buzz-worthy titles, that’s only one part of the TIFF experience that I’m anticipating this year.
Here’s a sampling of the movies I truly hope to deliver on my expectations.
International Auteurs At War
While I caught both Lars Von Trier’s in-your-face subversive horror fable "Antichrist" and Gasper Noe’s dreary vision of the afterlife "Enter the Void" at the Cannes Film Festival in May, I eagerly await the next wave of energetically divisive reactions to them from stateside audiences.
These movies offer the sort of challenging theatrical experiences that turn film festivals into a heated playground for cinephiles.
Meanwhile, there are a few other non-American directors with new works at the festival that I’ll make sure to catch: Poetically engaging French director Claire Denis’s "White Material" promises a mesmerizing vision of Africa amidst civil war and desperate survival methods (and an always satisfying Isabelle Hubbert) .
I expect a more visceral period piece with Nicolas Winding Refn’s "Valhalla Rising," a viking movie that will probably bring loads of violence and visual ferocity to the familiar scenario (if Refn’s last movie, "Bronson," is any indication of the direction he’s headed).
Then there’s "Triage," Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic’s epic portrait of an Irish war photographer (played by Colin Farrell) in the late eighties, which looks like it contains sweeping images and performances to match.
The Telluride Trio
TIFF has been good to director Jason Reitman, whose first feature, "Thank You for Smoking," landed a lucrative deal with Fox Searchlight at the festival in 2006 that led to his runaway success with "Juno" in 2008.
Now he’s back with "Up in the Air," a character-driven George Clooney vehicle that snuck into Telluride last week, where it was well-received.
Like Sidney Lumet, Reitman’s movies are noteworthy for his voluntary avoidance of a trademark style, allowing each story to work on its own terms.
Clooney usually does well with these low key roles (I remember catching "Michael Clayton" at TIFF two years ago) and it’s hard to imagine that the buzz is wrong on this one.
Meanwhile, positive Telluride word-of-mouth has also been attached to Todd Solondz’s "Life During Wartime" and Werner Herzog’s "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."
They both sound like the sort of twisted black comedies that audiences have come to expect from these consistently powerful filmmakers.
While the festival’s Midnight Madness section opens with the Diablo Cody-scriped "Jennifer’s Body," I’m more pumped about the latest offering from another Toronto regular: George Romero.
The "Night of the Living Dead" pioneer held the world premiere of his return-to-form zombie massacre "Diary of the Dead" back in 2007, and he’s sustained that momentum long enough to make "Survival of the Dead," premiering on Saturday.
Then there’s "REC 2," the sequel to the harrowing Spanish mockumentary that was remade last year as "Quarantine." The original "REC" used the style of "The Blair Witch Project" and applied it to a much freakier premise (firefighters trapped in a building filled with demonically possessed tenants).
The sequel promises more of the same.