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Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth Of A Nation. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth Of A Nation. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Who’s coming to TIFF this year? Ryan Gosling, Lupita Nyong’o, Justin Timberlake – but something is missing Add to ...

Films starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling, Lupita Nyong’o and Justin Timberlake (playing himself) are heading to the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, organizers announced on Tuesday at their first press conference of the year.

The slate of galas and special presentations offers just a fraction of what TIFF will eventually screen Sept. 8 through 18, though they are undoubtedly the splashier selections. At first glance, it appears that TIFF has succeeded in striking its balance of star power and critical goodwill – always an awkward programming formula, especially as the fest runs so close to the smaller but prestigious Venice (which starts nine days before Toronto) and the industry-chummy Telluride (six days before Toronto) festivals.

In addition to films that have already played to acclaim at Sundance and Cannes, this year’s TIFF lineup includes such inspired-by-true-life Oscar bait as Garth Davis’s Lion, starring Dev Patel as a man who used Google Maps to track down the family he left behind in India; Mick Jackson’s Denial, which focuses on historian Deborah Lipstadt’s (Rachel Weisz) courtroom battle against a Holocaust-denier; and Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, which stars Academy Award winner Nyong’o as the mother of a Ugandan chess champion, which should lock up the inspirational-film vote.

On the celebrity front, TIFF can claim new films starring Washington (The Magnificent Seven remake); Mark Wahlberg (Deepwater Horizon, another true-life tale); Liam Neeson (the fantasy A Monster Calls); Ryan Gosling (the musical La La Land); Rooney Mara (both The Secret Scripture and Una); Jake Gyllenhaal (Tom Ford’s thriller Nocturnal Animals); Amy Adams (both Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Arrival); Michael Fassbender (the crime drama Trespass Against Us); and Timberlake (the focus of Jonathan Demme’s awkwardly titled concert documentary, JT + the Tennessee Kids).

But while the announcement was heavy on buzzy films and known quantities – nine of the 68 films announced have already premiered on the festival circuit, including the acclaimed-to-the-heavens Loving, The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea – it wasn’t too hard to notice what was, so far, absent.

Among the expected selections that are M.I.A.: Ang Lee’s war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; James Marsh’s The Mercy, which is building an Oscar campaign for Colin Firth; The Founder, which is doing the same for Michael Keaton; the Gone Girl-esque The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt; Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, starring last year’s TIFF darling Brie Larson; both Brad Pitt’s war drama Allied and his Netflix satire War Machine; How to Talk to Girls at Parties, from Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell; Denzel Washington’s directorial effort Fences; the Chekhov adaptation The Seagull, starring Saoirse Ronan; and two Terrence Malick films that are allegedly ready to screen (Weightless and Voyage of Time) – though it is Malick, so who knows when or if ever they see the light of day.

There are of course many more weeks of programming announcements to come – including the Canadian lineup, which is unveiled next week – but the fact that some of the season’s more hyped titles are absent from TIFF’s initial slate is disheartening. Still, if the programming team felt any disappointment, they were hiding it well. “This is the largest amount of titles we’ve ever announced in our opening,” said a beaming Piers Handling, TIFF’s CEO, after he helped unveil the lineup at the festival’s Lightbox theatre in downtown Toronto. “So huge congratulations to Cameron [Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director].”

And surely to the relief of many at TIFF, there was precious little talk about the festival’s once-controversial, though still in-effect, policy aimed at blunting Telluride’s influence (any films to screen during the first four days that are not world or North American premieres are barred from TIFF’s glitziest venues). Although you can’t help but wonder how badly TIFF must have wanted the star-studded and Canadian-ish Arrival for opening night instead of Antoine Fuqua’s so-so looking The Magnificent Seven – but as Villeneuve’s film is playing Venice before Toronto, that was a non-starter, at least according to the festival’s self-imposed edict.

One thing to watch closely for this year, though, will be just how well TIFF’s films fare outside of the festival’s comfortable berth. Last year’s once-hyped selection faced a particularly brutal post-festival reality, with a number of notable flops including Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next; the presumed Ellen Page-Julianne Moore awards fodder Freeheld; Elle Fanning’s transgender drama About Ray, which was pulled just a few days before its wide release; the Lance Armstrong biopic The Program; the Midnight Madness sensation Hardcore Henry; the Drew Barrymore melodrama Miss You Already; the 60 Minutes political thriller Truth; Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis; and Emma Watson’s Colonia, which opened without a peep in Canada before failing to clear even $100 opening weekend at the British box office.

Of course, those failures can be traced back to myriad factors that have nothing to do with Toronto – but as festival season begins to overwhelm the industry, it is worth remembering that not even TIFF can save Hollywood. Sometimes, it just does the best it can.

TIFF runs from Sept. 8 to 18 (tiff.net).

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