For those keeping score after the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, here’s the tally: one thunderstorm, one lightning strike and a few cinematic fireworks.
From the opening night screening of “The Judge” to the world premieres of “St. Vincent,” “Nightcrawler,” “The Equalizer” and “The Theory of Everything,” TIFF 2014 has presented a lavish spread of debuts and attracted a starry cast that includes Denzel Washington, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Downey Jr., Channing Tatum and Bill Murray.
What it hasn’t quite done, though Sunday’s premiere of “The Theory of Everything” came close, is deliver the kind of knockout blow it did in years past, where festival audiences have walked out of films like “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave” thinking they’d just seen the Oscar winner.
“I’m still waiting for greatness,” said one producer who said he saw 15 films in the festival’s first three and a half days.
[UPDATE: About 24 hours after saying that, the producer, David Permut, got back in touch to day he had found greatness at TIFF, in the movies “Foxcatcher” and “Love and Mercy” and in Eddie Redmayne’s and Felicity Jones’ performances in “The Theory of Everything.”]
One reason: A new TIFF policy banning any film that played at the Telluride Film Festival from the first four days pushed a number of potentially hot films out of the first weekend, with Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild,” Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater,” Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” all screening this week.
It also didn’t help that the New York Film Festival stole a lot of thunder from both Toronto and Telluride by snatching David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” two plum bookings that Toronto no doubt wanted.
Still, maybe any year would be an anticlimax after the 2013 festival – where, by the end of the first weekend, audiences had seen “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” which went on to win 13 Oscars and land 25 nominations between them, including wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
It’s hard to imagine any such bonanza coming from this year’s opening weekend, though films that emerged with good buzz include the Bill Murray vehicle “St. Vincent,” Kristen Wiig’s portrait of mental illness in “Welcome to Me,” the dark Jake Gyllenhaal drama “Nightcrawler” and Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which prompted the biggest (and really, the only) bidding war of the first few days.
“Top Five” tells the story of New York City comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen, whose unexpected encounter with a journalist forces him to confront both the career that made him famous and the life he left behind. The film became the first to get big buzz, and it attracted interest and lucrative offers from four buyers, according to an individual with knowledge of the negotiations.
The slate of other movies looking for acquisition is full of big names – apart from Wiig in “Welcome to Me,” there’s Jessica Chastain in Liv Ullman’s “Miss Julie,” Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer in “Black or White,” Jennifer Aniston in “Cake,” Adam Sandler in “The Cobbler,” Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” and Tobey Maguire in Ed Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice.”
It’s still likely that most of the high profile titles will find a home before long. (And when “While We’re Young” sells, it’ll be a nice moment for Barry Diller, whose new IAC Films is behind both that and “Top Five.”)
Monday morning, meanwhile, marks a turning point in Toronto, the moment when the festival opens to Telluride bookings. Phase one was sporadically rewarding but relatively uneventful; phase two looms.