For some, the Toronto International Film Festival means a 10-day movie blitz. For others, it means an opportunity to see stars in actual 3-D. Over its 38 years, TIFF has done a stellar job of attracting celebrities; they say they enjoy Toronto and its polite, enthusiastic audiences. But as the festival directors Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey noted on Tuesday, filmmakers and actors alike know that exposure in Toronto can be vital for kick-starting awards season.
Scarlett Johansson: Play a human-eating alien? Check.
Scarlett Johansson has already portrayed a superhero, a 17th-century servant and a brainy sexpot. So naturally, she jumped at the chance to play Isserly, an alien accessorized with a Pat Benatar-inspired coif, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Based on the protagonist in Michael Faber’s novel from 2000, Isserly belongs to an extraterrestrial race that enjoys eating humans. Her job is to fetch Earthling hitchhikers who will be subject to fattening, you know, like foie gras. Handling called Under the Skin “maybe one of the most daring, audacious films starring a Hollywood star that [they] had seen this year,” presumably because there are a number of deeper take-away messages. Or maybe because Johansson as a cannibal remains seared in his mind.
Sandra Bullock: Did somebody say action?
The trailer for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity looks nothing short of terrifying. We don’t see much of Sandra Bullock; she’s in a space suit floating somewhere above Earth. And that’s exactly the issue. On a spacewalk with co-star George Clooney, something goes disastrously wrong and all hope seems lost. Not since Speed has Bullock taken on a suspense role that has the potential to jolt our adrenaline levels into overdrive. It will be exciting to see her step out of her comfort zone – heck, out of anyone’s comfort zone.
Matthew McConaughey: Losing weight, winning form.
By the end of Montreal-born director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, we see one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men emaciated in the final stages of AIDS. The year is 1985 and Matthew McConaughey’s character pursues various alternative courses of treatment, eventually forming a club to help others. Images of the actor at his lowest weight – reportedly down 47 pounds – had celebrity watchers fearing for his health. But body transformations always score points when it comes to award season. And anyway, McConaughey has assured interviewers that he’s back to cheeseburgers.
Julia Roberts: Call it a comeback.
It’s been three years since Eat, Pray, Love – the last time that Julia Roberts starred in a movie worth watching (ahem, Mirror Mirror). And all signs point to August: Osage County being a winner. The story comes care of Tracy Letts, whose 2007 play by the same name won both a Pulitzer for best drama and several Tonys. Roberts’s pal George Clooney is a co-producer and John Wells (ER, The West Wing) directs. Roberts plays Meryl Streep’s daughter, which is persuasive to the extent that both have earned Oscars. But really, as long as Roberts gives good smile on the red carpet, we’ll be happy.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Good things come in threes.
Each year, there’s one actor who emerges as TIFF’s triple threat. For 2013 that honour goes to Benedict Cumberbatch, seemingly bestowed with a name straight out of a Dickens tale. But of his three films that premiere at the festival, only one has the 37-year-old stepping back into time: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which takes place in 1841. Cumberbatch is also part of the brood in August: Osage County (see above). His final film, The Fifth Estate, bows in TIFF’s choicest spot: opening night. It’s a thriller about government cover-ups that is very much of our times and positions Cumberbatch as – wait for it – Julian Assange. You definitely won’t forget his name now.
Meryl Streep: Because she’s Meryl Streep.
By now, you’ve probably realized that August: Osage County has quite the ensemble cast (Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin and Juliette Lewis also contribute to the family dynamic). The entire film, however, hinges on Streep as the no-nonsense dysfunctional matriarch, Violet. Consider that when TIFF first began as the Festival of Festivals 38 years ago, Streep hadn’t even transitioned into film. And today, she’s arguably the finest actress of them all. The festival was lucky to score this title – and luckier still to have Streep attending.
Idris Elba: The awards buzz starts here.
According to Bailey, Idris Elba’s performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom remarkably captures the leader’s body language, as well as his way with words. At a time when Mandela’s health remains so fragile, there’s sure to be something moving about seeing such a realistic portrayal. We’ve watched Elba flex his muscles in dark, gritty or high-impact pics like Thor, Prometheus, 28 Weeks Later, Obsessed and TV’s The Wire. But you don’t get to play Nelson Mandela if you can’t deliver emotion. So when the award buzz starts building around Elba in a few months, it all began here.
Jude Law: Still got it.
One look at the poster for Dom Hemingway circulating online and any question that Jude Law has lost his mojo can be put to bed. The catch: We’re no longer dealing with a seductive dilettante à la Alfie or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Here, his titular character sports mutton chops and has a mouth filled with gold teeth. He’s a convict whose soft spot is his estranged daughter. Yep, he’s gone from cad to criminal dad. Who’s judging, though; he can woo with his accent alone.
Léa Seydoux: Looks good in Blue.
There is no shortage of beautiful French talent expected at this year’s TIFF (Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Devos round out the légion française). But in May, Léa Seydoux, along with co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos and director Abdellatif Kechiche appeared on the podium at Cannes to accept the Palme d’Or for Blue Is the Warmest Color. Anyone who has seen Seydoux in the Prada Candy fragrance ads can attest to her gamine-next-door charm. In Blue Is the Warmest Color she plays a young lesbian with blue hair. It’s the type of role that makes an impression – if you weren’t already convinced from Midnight in Paris and Inglourious Basterds.
James Franco: The artist is present.
James Franco is one of the few whose name appears as both director and “guest” (aka celebrity) on the official TIFF red-carpet list. Indeed, he’s turned into the type of ambitious polymath – actor, artist, author, director – whom no one takes seriously until he’s completed his art and then, voilà, it’s not actually that bad. He is becoming a TIFF regular (127 Hours showed here, as did Spring Breakers) and, frankly, he cleans up real nice. No doubt he’ll also be promoting his two films, Child of God and Third Person (directed by Paul Haggis), on Instagram to his 461,000-plus followers. In that way, he’s a PR pro, too.
(JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)