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Steven Spielberg arrives for the premiere of The Fabelmans during the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

Steven Spielberg, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and the two most frighteningly powerful pop stars in the world helped give the Toronto International Film Festival arguably its biggest opening weekend in the organization’s 47-year history.

Over the course of 48 hours, TIFF 2022 nudged the near-complete attention of the global fan-industrial complex toward Toronto, hosting a logjam of world premieres whose conflicting schedules and crossover appeal ensured a feverish chase-the-dragon sense of FOMO (that would be “fear of missing out,” or in this specific case, TIFF-OMO).

If you loved serious awards contenders, they were here. Frothy spectacle? Yes. High-wattage prestige projects? Certainly. Hashtag-equipped megastars whose connection to film is either nascent or tangential? But of course.

And for anyone who might have questioned just where TIFF lands in the film industry’s multibillion-dollar food chain – or anyone who was skeptical that the organization could come back to prepandemic life after two years in sleepy hybrid mode – the rapturous audience receptions over the weekend answered any lingering doubts.

From the queer rom-com, Bros (audience laughter drowned out approximately 12 per cent of the dialogue); to the whodunnit sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (several moments of collectively audible jaw-drops echoed throughout the auditorium); to the shrieks heard across the downtown core for events featuring Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, TIFF’s welcome-back party confirmed what the craftiest of Hollywood players have long known: Toronto audiences love movies. And we absolutely adore celebrities.

Oh, and if our festival – the people’s festival, let’s remember – can cement future Oscar contenders, all the better. Which is the direction where Spielberg’s new film, The Fabelmans, might just be going. Inarguably TIFF’s biggest coup this year, the drama’s world premiere Saturday night at the Princess of Wales Theatre carried the air of a Manischewitz-drunk love-in.

Loosely fictionalizing his own tense Jewish upbringing in Arizona and California, Spielberg’s deeply personal film – the first that he has a writing credit on since 1977′s Close Encounters of the Third Kind – had the entire audience in the palm of its hand from the unfurling of the Amblin Entertainment title card.

“This is the first film festival that I’ve ever had one of my films entered,” Spielberg told the audience – a nice bid to get Toronto on his side, but also not quite exactly true. E.T. and The BFG were shown at Cannes (out of competition, but still), and Bridge of Spies screened at the 2015 New York Film Festival.

Anyway, the spontaneous myth-making was entirely appropriate given the content of The Fabelmans, in which the filmmaker produces the most expensive recreation of home movies of all time, lovingly chronicling the passions and problems of a young Spielberg stand-in named Sammy (Canadian Gabrielle LaBelle) as he learns to love movies and come to terms with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams).

While much of The Fabelmans could only be made by a true master – including a final shot for the ages and two perfect cameo performances – there is an awful lot of sloppiness on display, too. Scenes are often stretched out past any point of tension or purpose, the film’s perspective is never quite grounded (Sam just floats there as a character, instead of anchoring the narrative), and Spielberg loses control of his actors frequently.

Dano delivers quietly devastating work as the put-upon patriarch – even though there appears to have been little done, makeup wise, to actually age his character, so that by the time Sam is a teenager, the father-son duo look like brothers. But it is Williams who is worst-served, going off the rails into a cringe-y mama-loves-you-baby act that is difficult to watch, and not in the ways that the filmmaker intended.

Or perhaps I’m the unhinged one here, as audiences leapt to their feet during the end credits, with nearly every critic quickly pumping out praise for Williams in particular. Perhaps this is all a severe case of Film Festival Brain (in which immediacy of reaction trumps cognitive discipline), and the janky trailer that Universal released the morning after should smooth down the general public’s expectations.

Still, no matter how big a hit, a festival cannot live and die on one film alone. Which is good, because audiences and critics – even the cold-hearted ones like me, I suppose – were on the same page with Glass Onion and Bros, both of which provide pure, high-polish fun.

But while the Billy Eichner-starring Bros will be given a proper theatrical push – so necessary to fuel its hoot-and-gasp punchlines conceived on the Judd Apatow factory floor – Glass Onion’s life outside the streaming vortex is yet to be determined. Given how high the energy was inside the Princess of Wales during the Netflix production’s world premiere – everyone breaking out in pure joy when each of director Rian Johnson’s twists were revealed – the film will absolutely kill in auditoriums across North America, generating all manner of bloody-good word-of-mouth in the process. It is now in Netflix’s court as to whether that matters a whit.

Meanwhile, though I could only view Taylor Swift’s in-person event from the comfort of my various social-media feeds, and the premiere for the Harry Styles romance, My Policeman, started too late to make this deadline, it was genuinely delightful to see TIFF bring so much high-wattage energy to the city.

We can debate later about exactly what T-Swift has contributed to the transformative power of film – and whether My Policeman is any good, or if it’s as meme-able as Styles’s other big fall movie, Don’t Worry Darling. If you want to throw yourself a big comeback party, then you invite the most popular boy and girl in school. And then they bring all their friends – and business – too.

TIFF can happily spend the rest of the week cleaning up, and come Tuesday, most international press will have flown the coop. The city will be ours again. But it was delightful – necessary and life-affirming, even – to hand Toronto over to the megastars, and their megafollowers, for the weekend.

Director Rian Johnson returned to the Toronto International Film Festival after a two year hiatus due to the pandemic with a star-studded cast for a screening of the film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Johnson says showing a film at TIFF is always an experience to remember.

The Canadian Press