Toronto So Far: Fewer Stars, Fewer Studios Make for a Muted Festival

Four days in, the theme that ties together the 2023 TIFF experience is the inescapable scarcity of stars

Nicolas Cage attends the "Dream Scenario" premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Nicolas Cage attends the "Dream Scenario" premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Steve Pond’s inside look at the artistry and insanity of the awards race, drawn from more than three decades of obsessively chronicling the Oscars and the entertainment industry.

TORONTO — When the crowd settles in, the lights go down and the movie starts, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is more or less business as usual.

The rest of the time, not so much.

This is a TIFF with fewer stars, fewer studio movies and more films up for sale but fewer buyers willing to commit during the writers’ and actors’ strikes. That’s a distinctly different beast from the TIFF that would normally host a parade of movie stars on an array of red carpets every day, particularly during the opening weekend that concludes on Sunday.

And yet, this year’s festival has had a familiar assortment of potential awards movies, crowd-pleasers, bold indies, star vehicles, international projects and weirdo midnight romps. And in the theaters when those movies play, the number of movie stars in the seats can be beside the point for at least a couple of hours. TIFF is still drawing full houses and the audiences are still enthusiastic and passionate, which an on-screen ad points out before every public screening.

And even better, those audiences are enthusiastic without feeling obligated to dispense the kind of mandatory 5-to-10-minute standing ovations that have become de rigueur in Venice and Cannes. That means one of the dumbest things to come out of those international festivals is mercifully missing from Toronto: no ridiculous headlines that put stopwatches on standing ovations as if endurance-test clapping means a damn thing.

After four days of this year’s festival, the only real grand theme to tie together the 2023 TIFF experience is the inescapable scarcity of stars. Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone are here for “Gonzo Girl,” and Nicolas Cage for “Dream Scenario,” and Vicky Krieps for “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” and Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson for “Daddio,” and Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard are on their way for “Memory,” and there are others — but you can’t go more than a screening or two without hearing a director announce to an audience that his or her stars really, really wanted to come to Toronto but are supporting the strike.  

Beyond that, this Toronto does not carry the usual feeling that it’s introducing the movies that will dominate the awards race for the next six months. There have been a few clear awards contenders here — maybe Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” and Craig Gillespie’s “Dumb Money,” plus films that have premiered at earlier festivals like “Origin,” “The Holdovers,” “The Zone of Interest,” “Rustin,” “Anatomy of a Fall.” But Venice hogged some of the top awards titles with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” and Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” none of which made the trip to TIFF.

That last title, though, presaged a clear TIFF trend this year: films directed by actors. So far, the Toronto schedule has yielded films by Patricia Arquette (“Gonzo Girl”), Michael Keaton (“Knox Goes Away”), Anna Kendrick (“Woman of the Hour”), Viggo Mortensen (“The Dead Don’t Hurt”), Kristin Scott Thomas (“North Star”) and Tony Goldwyn (“Ezra”); still to come are Chris Pine (“Poolman”) and Ethan Hawke (“Wildcat”).

In that first batch, Mortensen picked up where his directorial debut, 2019’s “Falling,” left off, increasing the complexity of that family drama with a nonlinear Western that centered immigrants and put a woman at the heart of the narrative. Thomas mounted a handsome if somewhat conventional family story. Keaton had fun with the noir trappings of his hit-man thriller. Arquette and Kendrick struck tricky balances in their directorial debuts, with the former’s wild story inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and the latter’s 1970s-set tribute to female empowerment through the lens of a real-life serial killer who was booked on “The Dating Game.”

(As actor-directors, Keaton, Kendrick and Thomas opted to skip TIFF, while Arquette and Mortensen got waivers and attended.)

The opening weekend produced a few strong candidates for the festival’s People’s Choice Award, among them the very funny and very serious “American Fiction,” the GameStop saga “Dumb Money” and Taika Waititi’s crowd-pleasing if slight “Next Goal Wins.” But there’s another six days to go before that award can be announced, days in which the TIFF premieres will include Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” David Yates’ “Pain Hustlers” and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “Nyad,” so there’s still time for those films or others to make a move.

In the meantime, this muted TIFF will continue as if things are normal — at least when the lights are out and the screens are lit.