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TIFF TIFF 2019: Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman, Daniel Craig and ... the Joker? Our best guess on who’s coming to Toronto this year

Matt Damon, left, and Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox’

Meet the old TIFF, same as the new TIFF?

Last year, the 43rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival acted as the unofficial last hurrah for some of the organization’s most familiar faces. Long-time chief executive Piers Handling, chief operating officer Michele Maheux, vice-president of advancement Maxine Bailey and director of programming Kerri Craddock all stepped down after the 2018 fest, which featured the buzziest lineup in recent years because of the premieres of If Beale Street Could Talk, Roma, A Star Is Born and eventual (if polarizing) Oscar champion Green Book.

So what can audiences expect from TIFF 2019, with Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente firmly installed as co-heads, and Diana Sanchez occupying the newly created role of senior director (film)? Very likely: more of the same. Which is to say a heady mix of glitzy premieres, awards-season wannabes and the best art-house cinema culled from the European film circuit. Oh, and the latest from that little disrupter called Netflix.

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While TIFF won’t begin revealing its 2019 programming until next week – organizers will announce this year’s opening-night film on July 18, with the gala and special presentation films revealed July 23 – it’s never too early to play a round of the film industry’s favourite game, Guess Who’s Coming to TIFF.

Daniel Kaluuya, left, and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen & Slim.

Universal Pictures

The obvious place to start is that pesky opening night. As ‘twas ever thus, the festival is still trying to solve the slot, with last year’s world premiere of the wan historical epic Outlaw King generating all the wrong kind of headlines (mostly related to the length of the film and/or the length of star Chris Pine’s penis). The fact that the movie was a Netflix production didn’t help matters, with industry dinners and cocktail parties drowning in grumbles over the fact that the streaming giant was awarded precious prominence in a fest ostensibly dedicated to the big screen. Then again, it’s not as if anyone anticipated anything earth-shattering, given that previous TIFFs have opened with the woeful (2017’s Borg/McEnroe), the wasteful (2016′s The Magnificent Seven remake) and the forgettable (2015′s Demolition).

If an opening-night bet had to be made – if, say, editors were holding a gun to my head, which for the record they definitely are not and never ever would – then the murder-mystery Knives Out would be a smart play. Director Rian Johnson has opened TIFF before, with 2012′s Looper, arguably one of the stronger films to kick off the fest in recent memory. Plus, the Agatha Christie-riffing whodunit features a stacked cast (Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis) whose star-wattage would satisfy red-carpet quotas. And the film even has a faint whiff of Cancon, given that it will be the first Lionsgate movie to be distributed under a new, and intriguing, deal between local indie giant Mongrel and exhibitor Cineplex. (I said “faint,” okay?)

As for the red meat of the festival – the awards bait that the festival hopes to crow about snagging first come Oscars time – the options are plentiful. James Gray’s sci-fi drama Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut on a mysterious mission, seems like a good gala bet, given the fact that the film will be released right after the festival closes and Gray has a strong relationship with TIFF, having enjoyed a retrospective of his work at the organization’s Lightbox this past January. Far-off explorers could in fact be this year’s theme, with Noah Hawley’s drama Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman as an astronaut adjusting to life back on Earth, a well-timed contender, as well as Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts, about a 1860s pilot (Felicity Jones) and scientist (Eddie Redmayne) fighting for survival while aboard a gas balloon.

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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts.

Amazon Studios.

Other strong possibilities include the racing drama Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale; the thriller Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith; the dark comedy Jojo Rabbit, from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi; the Tom Hanks-starring A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which follows the relationship between Fred Rogers and a journalist; Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women; and Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger, whose hooray-for-Hollywood subject matter might also lend itself well to opening night. And then there’s Joker, Todd Phillips’s grimy take on the Batman villain starring Joaquin Phoenix. Yes, I’m serious, and not in an ugh-here’s-your-obligatory-"why-so-serious"-joke kind of way, either.

The Netflix question will rear its head in the gala and special presentations lineup, too. Last year, TIFF screened eight Netflix productions and it’s easy to see the festival edging close to that number this September, given that the streamer is debuting new films from Steven Soderbergh (The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep), Dee Rees (The Last Thing He Wanted, starring Anne Hathaway), David Michod (The King, starring Timothée Chalamet), Fernando Meirelles (The Pope, starring Anthony Hopkins) and the Safdie brothers (Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler). Although, expect Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the year’s biggest Netflix film – perhaps the biggest Netflix film ever, in terms of cost and expectations – to premiere instead in Venice or perhaps the director’s hometown New York Film Festival.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker.

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

Typically, TIFF also showcases holdovers from Sundance, Berlin and Cannes. Yet this year, almost all of Sundance’s shiniest offerings will have hit theatres before TIFF begins (including The Farewell, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Late Night, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Luce and Apollo 11), while a handful of Cannes titles will also be old news by September (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Dead Don’t Die). Still, expect Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite to hit Toronto before making their way to your finest art-house cinema. (Or, you know, your Apple TV queue.)

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Finally, given TIFF’s continuing emphasis on its Share Her Journey fundraising campaign – and the fact that Bailey signed the “50/50x2020” agreement last year, which pledges to achieve gender-parity in top festival management by 2020 – the diversity of its lineup should be at the top of programmers’ minds. Last year, about 36 per cent of TIFF’s films were directed by women. There is little doubt that organizers will aim to do better this year – unless, that is, the new TIFF is fine with looking just as familiar as the old.

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

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