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TIFF's first announcement lacking sparkle

Denzel Washington stars in The Equalizer, one of this year’s TIFF Gala films.

The Toronto International Film Festival released its first volley today, a slate of Gala films and Special Presentations slotted for this year's fest that mixes Hollywood and international art house fare from directors such as David Cronenberg, Jason Reitman, Barry Levinson, Zhang Yimou, Chris Rock and Noah Baumbach, among others. The full list of more than 300 features and short films will be announced before the festival launches on Sept. 4, but today's announcement carried some importance, as it comes in the wake of a controversial policy change at the festival: It will screen only world or North American premieres for the first few days.

Whether that decision will affect the festival's reputation as the premiere Oscar launch site is not yet clear, but the opening volley was low on sensational or unexpected announcements. The festival programmers still haven't picked the opening night film -- and stand-outs such as Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars and Bennett Miller's early Oscar-favourite, Foxcatcher, already took their bows at Cannes. Contrast this to the news in recent weeks of high-profile titles having premieres at New York (Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice and David Fincher's Gone Girl) and Venice (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and Emma Stone), as fall festivals have become competitive for high-profile titles that draw audiences, media and sponsors.

The TIFF policy is widely seen as an attempt to counter the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which had a major success last year in scooping TIFF's premieres of Gravity, Prisoners and 12 Years a Slave. Critics, including Sony Classics' head Tom Bernard, have suggested it could backfire and damage the festival. TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling said Tuesday morning that the policy was not intended to exclude any films, but it was necessary to "clarify" what a premiere was for the media, industry and film goers. He said that while the rule will effect scheduling, it is not the intention to shut any films out of running later in the festival.

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And while the "wow" factor might have been low, Variety noted that "the move does not seem to have diminished Toronto's clout."

Among this year's offerings are mainstream studio fare such as The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, which will screen at the festival just before its Sept. 26 theatrical release. A possible breakout among the diverse mix of Canadian, American and international fare is Edward Zwick's Pawn Sacrifice, a chess drama about the 1972 "match of the century" between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russia's Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Reese Witherspoon stars in two films by Quebec directors who have both had Oscar nominations: Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie, about an American woman who adopts a child from Sudan) and Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, about a recovering heroin addict, who after the end of her marriage decides to hike the 1,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail). As well, Toronto gets The Daily Show's directorial debut, Rosewater, based on the memoir Then They Came for Me, by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy. Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist imprisoned in Iran following an interview on the Stewart's show.

The festival's Galas program focuses on films that are crowd-pleasers, either through their star presence or subject matter. This year's selection includes Black and White, from director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me), starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer as grandparents on opposite sides of an in inter-racial custody battle. Along with Cronenberg's Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars, with Julianne Moore and John Cusack, audiences will see the latest from festival stalwarts as French director, François Ozon, whose film, The New Girlfriend, is an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story. Samba, which brings back the directors and star of the French hit The Intouchables promises to be a crowd-pleasing comedy focusing on social issues.

This Is Where I Leave You, from director Shawn Levy, is a dysfunctional family comedy starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Rose Byrne, in a story of adult siblings brought together for their father's funeral and having to deal with their wayward mother, played by Jane Fonda. Rounding out the Galas is Vallée's Wild. Last year, Vallée's last film, Dallas Buyers Club won three Oscars, including acting awards for Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey.

In the more diverse Special Presentations category, focusing on high-profile films of various genres, some stand-outs include the latest from Baumbach, entitled While We're Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried, and David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, with Al Pacino and Holly Hunter, about a small-town locksmith who has never gotten over the love of his life. Veteran director Barry Levinson is back with The Humbling, adapted from Philip Roth's novel, starring Pacino and Greta Gerwig. Festival regular Jason Reitman returns with Men, Women & Children, a look at sexual frustration, starring Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler and Judy Greer. For genre fans, there's been high-interest and buzz about Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, a comic adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a young man who becomes involved in the world of freelance crime journalism.

One of China's best-known directors, Zhang Yimou, brings Coming Home, a melodrama set against the background of the Cultural Revolution. The film was shown out-of-competition in Cannes to favourable critical response. Another Cannes critical success was the German film Force Majeure (directed by Rubin Östlund): It's a bracing social commentary about a German family's disastrous ski vacation and gender roles in the face of potential catastrophe. Actress-turned-director Liv Ullmann, now 75, famous as Ingmar Bergman's star and muse, takes on one of the great Swedish dramatists in her adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play, Miss Julie.

Contemporary North American social issues are explored in both Good Kill (from Gattaca 's Andrew Niccol) starring Ethan Hawke as a drone pilot who begins to question his ethics, and Falardeau's The Good Lie.

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