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This September, the Toronto International Film Festival wants to put a smile on your face.

Joker, director Todd Phillips’ dark and grimy spin on the Batman villain starring Joaquin Phoenix, was announced Tuesday morning as one of 18 films to play TIFF’s gala slate this fall. The Joker premiere will mark the first time that a mainstream comic-book film has penetrated TIFF’s programming – a decision that could be interpreted as either the capitulation of the typically high-minded festival circuit to the overwhelming power of the blockbuster comic-book movie, or the slippery, evolving nature of the superhero genre itself.

"We've had independent films that dabble in the superhero world, but this is the first from a massive franchise in comic-book lore," Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director and co-head, told The Globe and Mail. "And it's an original story where Todd Phillips has been able to take a character we know so well and reinvent him, helped by Joaquin Phoenix, who gives one of his best performances ever. It's an interesting film that's very ambitious in its scope. It doesn't feel like a franchise product at all."

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In addition to Phillips’ portrait of the crown prince of crime, TIFF organizers announced 55 other films making their way to Toronto for the festival’s 44th edition. The titles include both the expected audience-friendly Oscar bait – including the Judy Garland biopic Judy starring Renée Zellweger and the Fred Rogers drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks – but also a number of under-the-radar curiosities, such as Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy as 1970s stand-up comedian Rudy Ray Moore, and Western Stars, which marks the directorial debut of Bruce Springsteen.

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Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in the biopic Judy. The film is making its way to Toronto for TIFF’s 44th edition.David Hindley/Entertainment One

The latter film, co-directed by longtime Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny, is based on the Boss’s recent album of the same name and tells the story of a B-movie actor who finds his career fading fast. “It has a real elegiac feeling to it, and is a beautiful story,” said Bailey, who wouldn’t confirm Springsteen’s festival attendance, even though the musician also appears in TIFF’s opening-night film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. “I never like to do that kind of math at this point and put two and two together, but I will say that we’ll have a remarkable opening night.”

Like last year, Netflix is making its presence felt in TIFF’s 2019 lineup. Already, the gala and special presentation slates include five confirmed titles from the streaming giant: Dolemite Is My Name; Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers drama The Laundromat starring Meryl Streep; Josh and Benny Safdie’s crime comedy Uncut Gems starring Adam Sandler; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story starring Scarlett Johansson; and Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. In 2018, TIFF hosted eight Netflix films, including the opening-night movie Outlaw King – earning the streamer, and the festival, its share of backroom grumbles about the prominence given to a service that’s proved agnostic at best about the theatrical experience.

“We are always about the big-screen experience and always will be, and one of the great things about our festival is that this is often one of the few places where filmmakers get to see their films on the big screen,” Bailey said. “Of the roughly 250 feature films we screen every year, the majority of them won’t have theatrical lives. There is something unique about the theatrical experience and we are here to provide that to the filmmakers and the audience.”

The 2019 edition of TIFF will be Bailey’s first festival as co-head, a role he shares with New York independent film veteran Joana Vicente, who joined the organization this past November. Bailey, who served as TIFF’s artistic director since 2012 and was festival co-director for four years before that, cited this year’s gala lineup as the best evidence of his vision for the future of the institution.

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Tom Hanks stars in the Fred Rogers drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.Supplied

“I spent a lot of time on the lineup and it reflects a lot of what we want to achieve with the festival in terms of voices we want represented and chances we want to take,” Bailey said, highlighting Marjane Satrapi’s festival-closing Marie Curie drama Radioactive and Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink starring Priyanka Chopra.

The question of which voices are represented, though, will likely be asked frequently at this year’s festival, given TIFF’s continued focus on its Share Her Journey fundraising campaign aimed to “jump-start gender-equality initiatives,” and Bailey’s signing last year of the “50/50x2020” agreement, which pledges to achieve gender-parity in top festival management by next year. Yet, of the 59 directors so far confirmed to have films screening at this year’s TIFF, only 16 are women, or 27 per cent.

“This is only a portion of the films we’re announcing, so I’d wait till the full lineup is announced,” Bailey said. “We have eight gala films directed by women, which I believe is the largest number we’ve ever had, and that’s a great sign for the future. I wouldn’t put too much stock in today’s numbers."

The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15.

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