"What's the best thing you've seen?" By the second Friday of the Toronto International Film Festival, this question is unavoidable, provided the inquisitor can still form complete sentences after more than a week of screenings, lineups, Grolsch ads and $11 cold-pressed juices-as-meals (my body is 90 per cent kale/beet/lemon/cayenne, 10 per cent burrito). What everyone really means, though, is what's the buzz, what's the hype – what is TIFF going to be remembered for this year?
Last fall, the festival's legacy was clear. On the business side, Paramount doled out an astounding $12.5-million (U.S.) for Chris Rock's crowd-pleasing comedy Top Five. In terms of its awards-race cachet, Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, Wild, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game all helped TIFF maintain its reputation as a coming-out party for Oscar contenders. On the indie front, The Duke of Burgundy, Phoenix and Eden heralded an exhilarating year to come at the art house. And, of course, there was the off-the-screen drama with Telluride, which served as a nice sideshow and convenient cocktail party fodder.
This year, though, like the skies during the festival's first weekend, things are murkier. Sales are slow – Variety has already dubbed 2015 the year of "Let's Not Make a Deal" – and even the hotter titles, such as Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next, have yet to be picked up. Hopeful awards-season players came to the city with high expectations (The Danish Girl, Our Brand Is Crisis, Freeheld, About Ray) only to receive shrugs. And critics have been publicly (re: on Twitter) slugging it out over which indies are worthy of a pedestal (Anomalisa? No, too depressing! The Lobster? Too weird! High-Rise? Too weird, depressing and aggressively British!).
Although there are fewer murmurs about Toronto's territorial feud with Telluride – partly because TIFF sorta-kinda-not-really reversed its premiere policy – as would-be showstoppers came and went, it became harder to ignore that the Rocky Mountains hosted such films as Carol, Steve Jobs and Suffragette just days before. The sighs that greeted TIFF selections Legend, The Martian and I Saw the Light collided messily with raves coming from 2,900 kilometres away.
With no one title breaking out in spectacular fashion, critics and industry-watchers have been spending the past few days hurriedly anointing last-minute saviours. Currently, the journalism thriller Spotlight is the odds-favourite to win the People's Choice Award (a.k.a. the festival's unofficial Oscar predictor). It's certainly a film worthy of attention – and comes with a tidy little comeback story for director Tom McCarthy, here last year with the horrid The Cobbler – but it's far from the best movie of the year. Other great-but-flawed films include Room (stellar performances trapped inside a pat narrative device), Beasts of No Nation (strong vision, though its hellish nature makes it a tough sell) and Sicario (ditto).
In a welcome twist, the Canadian contingent has never been stronger. Although homegrown filmmakers no longer have a dedicated program – and opening night has ceded to underwhelming Hollywood fare – this year heralded a new generation of artists so talented that it throws the entire narrative of obligatory CanCon into question. Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant is a masterpiece: not just the best Canadian film of the year, but one of the best to play the festival, period. Kazik Radwanski's How Heavy This Hammer, Stephen Dunn's Closet Monster and Igor Drljaca's The Waiting Room are all works of startling confidence. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, meanwhile, is a delirious pseudo-documentary by Guy Maddin and Galen and Evan Johnson (it screened for free at the Bell Lightbox, though in an out-of-the-way and poorly promoted location, perhaps the gravest TIFF insult to its countrymen since the 2010 fest opened with Score: A Hockey Musical). It was as if witnessing a new era of Canadian cinema – one that's more independent, ferocious and unconcerned about the country's outdated star system (cough, Paul Gross's Hyena Road and Atom Egoyan's Remember, cough).
But the rest of the world (re: Hollywood) largely isn't paying attention to Canadian films, except as a potential farm team for commercial fare. It wants – needs, really – breakout hits, record sales and critical unanimity. In that sense, TIFF 2015 can be summed up in one unfortunate emoticon: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.