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Directors Carlos Lopez Estrada and Zac Manuel take a selfie during the world premiere of 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

There were a handful of electric moments during the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival that could resuscitate the coldest and most coagulated of cinephile hearts.

There was the delightfully meta hall-of-mirrors experience of watching Atom Egoyan’s sometimes shaky but consistently fascinating drama Seven Veils inside the same location (Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre) in which the opera-centric drama was shot. The hooting and hollering alongside gut-busted Midnight Madness acolytes for the world premiere of Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s relentlessly impressive thrill ride Kill. The gasps of wait-what surprise that escaped the audience of Kristoffer Borgli‘s surreal comedy Dream Scenario. Or the deep pauses for breath that seemed necessary to reckon with the historical weight of Jonathan Glazer’s riveting, monumental Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest.

Despite every piece of bad news that has been thrown at TIFF and its dedicated audience – the most uncontrollable element being the two major strikes steamrolling Hollywood – watching auditoriums usually reserved for the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead fill with patrons eager to spend their Saturday afternoons watching everything from movies about talking genitals (instant cult-classic Dicks: The Musical) to incendiary French dramas about social inequity (Les Indesirables) was a soul-nourishing reminder that the death of movie-going has been greatly exaggerated.

But if the typical opening weekend of TIFF offers something of a cinematic-cleanse exercise – movies-celebrities-popcorn-repeat – then the removal of a critical part of that equation turns the focus entirely on the films.

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With apologies to the few famous faces who did show up so far thanks to their independent productions securing interim union agreements – including Willem Dafoe (Gonzo Girl), Viggo Mortensen (The Dead Don’t Hurt), and Nicolas Cage (Dream Scenario), all of whom were greeted with Taylor Swiftian amounts of enthusiasm – TIFF’s energy levels cannot help but feel muted. And without so many of the marquee names that help drive both ticket sales and the contagious mania that makes the fest’s opening stretch such an energizing form of communal gawking, the movies better be good.

Which is a way of saying that, with a handful of exceptions so far, festival organizers seem to have picked a particularly bad year to whiff on the programming.

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Nicolas Cage arrives on the red carpet for the showing of Dream Scenario at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Not to be unfair and kick a festival when it’s down – even worse, to do so just four days into an 11-day affair – but it was difficult this past weekend to escape the feeling that, in some other city at some other festival, audiences were being treated to far more interesting films. Certainly, there were titles that arrived here from other fests (Cannes, mostly) that proved TIFF still knows what audiences want, and what they deserve. At the top is Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which barring an incredible surprise over the next week will go down as the best film of TIFF, if not the entire year. Alexander Payne’s dramedy The Holdovers, a return to Sideways-era form, also hit all the right spots. And the Midnight Madness slate kicked in all the right doors, as ever.

But when one of the next most exciting selections is a half-hour film from Pedro Almodóvar (Strange Way of Life), which was only available to see for audiences who snagged tickets to the director’s onstage conversation with TIFF chief Cameron Bailey, something feels amiss.

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After a weekend spent following the buzz, which had an air of try-hard exasperation to it, the only constant was a sense of shoulder-shrugging. Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour was at one moment the breakout hit of the festival, the next a solid first-time directorial effort that landed like an HBO Sunday movie. Craig Gillespie’s finance-world comedy Dumb Money has an enthusiastic David vs. Goliath spirit that will rile the rightfully aggrieved, but it is ultimately more angry than absorbing. Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel delivers a fantastically fiery punchline of an ending – and pairs nicely with Kendrick’s film in its appropriation of the famous Margaret Atwood quote about men being “afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them” – but audiences will likely leave feeling cheated, too.

Cord Jefferson’s race-relations comedy American Fiction, meanwhile, can be as enjoyably sharp as it distressingly dull, a lit-world satire that butts up against a weak Nancy Meyers-lite romcom. Already, its many half-hearted provocations and the fact that it’s one of TIFF’s handful of marquee-level studio world premieres make it a good contender for the coveted People’s Choice Award. (Although Taika Waititi’s underdog sports comedy Next Goal Wins, which premiered Sunday night after this column’s deadline, has the second-best shot at nabbing the Oscar-bellwether prize.)

There have not been many, if any, out-and-out disasters, but also too few knockouts. At last year’s festival, all attention converged on Saturday night’s traffic jam of can’t-miss titles, headlined by the back-to-back world premieres of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion. This past Saturday night, most of the press contingent seemed to be hoovering up free food and cocktails on the diminished party circuit. Which is where the conversation revolved around what wasn’t playing Toronto, including Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, which on Saturday was awarded the top prize at the just-concluded Venice Film Festival.

Every year, there is a robust list of hot titles that TIFF should have played but didn’t, for whatever reason. But this year’s roster of missed opportunities – films playing the Venice, Telluride, and New York festivals – feels especially long. Not only Lanthimos’s sex-tinged comedy, but also (deep breath) David Fincher’s The Killer, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Todd Haynes’ May December, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, Garth Davis’s Foe, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, and the HBO series The Curse from Nathan Fielder and the Safdie brothers Josh and Benny (that last title’s absence feels especially pronounced given that the TIFF Cinematheque just held a Safdies retrospective).

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From the left: Chris Evans, Andy Garcia and Emily Blunt in Pain Hustlers, which is set to show at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11.Brian Douglas/Netflix via AP

Yes, the festival isn’t even half-over. On Monday, TIFF delivers the promising Emily Blunt drama Pain Hustlers, the already well-received Colman Domingo-led activist biopic Rustin, and Ava DuVernay’s Venice-certified drama Origin, the latter a last-minute addition to Toronto’s slate. And there is still so much more to come. (Having so far only sampled an appetizer-sized amount of the Canadian lineup, it’s unfair to lump homegrown programming here, though I’ll say that M.H. Murray’s I Don’t Know Who You Are is a seriously impressive microbudget debut.)

It is impossible for anyone outside the Lightbox’s walls to know why one title gets programmed and another doesn’t – and perceptions differ wildly depending on which side of the screen you’re on. If you’re a cinephile, you might think that TIFF never says no to accepting a film. If you’re a distributor, you probably think TIFF never says yes quite enough. And if you’re an average Torontonian who avoids TIFF, you surely think that blocking traffic for four days is silly if Kate Winslet isn’t even around to justify the headache.

Hopefully, the next seven days of TIFF will clear everyone’s heads.

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