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Colman Domingo helps promote the film Sing Sing during the Toronto International Film Festival, on Sept. 10, in Toronto.Joel C Ryan/The Associated Press

As moviegoers head into the final weekend of the 48th Toronto International Film Festival – a kind of popcorn-scented slouch toward Bethlehem – two guessing games are being played on the emptying streets of King West.

The first is which movie is going to take home the People’s Choice Award, a coveted Oscars bellwether that can, and has, changed filmmakers’ lives. There is no clear frontrunner but rather a quartet of competing crowd-pleasers that could each fit the loose criteria of a) making audiences feel warm and fuzzy and b) arriving at the fest already marketable enough to solidify its place on, rather than crash, the awards race. This year’s best bets: the excellent prison drama Sing Sing, the romcom Hit Man, the dramedy The Holdovers, and the lit-world comedy American Fiction. (For a hot second, Next Goal Wins had the edge, but audiences quickly soured on Taika Waititi’s soccer comedy, even though it’s amusing enough and hardly the next-level atrocity some have labelled it.)

The other and messier guessing game is trickier to answer: Will TIFF 2023 go down as a success? Like most things involving the film industry today, it’s complicated.

Over the fest’s opening weekend, it was hard to shake the nagging (perhaps grumpy) sense that the programming promises of this year’s edition were deteriorating before ticket-holders’ eyes. It wasn’t only the muted energy on the streets due to the relative lack of stars – a problem out of TIFF’s control, and one that organizers tried to rectify as best as they could; hello, Nickelback! – but also the offerings on the screen.

There were a lot of fine-to-good films premiering – including the opening-night selection The Boy and the Heron, TIFF’s one true 2023 coup – but too few must-see knockouts and a whole lot of unmistakable mistakes.

Going up against the many high-profile titles from other fall fests that were energizing the conversation – Michael Mann’s Ferrari! Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla! Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things! Way too many more to list here without blowing the word count! – TIFF was asking a lot for audiences to get pumped up for such world premieres as Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money (forgettable fun), Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour (ambitious, but overpraised), Michael Keaton’s Knox Goes Away (distressingly dull), or Brian Helgeland’s Finestkind (don’t worry if you didn’t hear about it; you never will).

But then Monday rolled around and things levelled up – or perhaps my selections, schedule and cynicism just ironed themselves out. Errol Morris’s taut John le Carré documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, Bertrand Bonello’s demanding sci-fi drama The Beast, Greg Kwedar’s electrifying Sing Sing, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s evocative Evil Does Not Exist, and Richard Linklater’s smouldering Hit Man all surprised and energized. These are movies that remind you why TIFF is so essential to the cinematic ecosystem, to say nothing of the pure transformative pleasure of a communal cultural experience.

But the gems – some exclusive world premieres, others having played different festivals prior, not that the average TIFF-goer does or even should care – were still being outnumbered by fare either mediocre or worse. TIFF might have solved its quantity problem since the days of its 300-title lineups, but this year’s slate made clear that there remains a quality-control issue.

The festival’s accidentally prescient move to program a rash of films from actors-turned-directors, for instance, revealed strengths and weaknesses. For every marquee name that organizers lured to the city with a genuinely interesting film and an interim union agreement in hand (Viggo Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt, Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat) there were many more duds (Keaton’s film, Kristin Scott Thomas’s limp drama North Star, Finn Wolfhard’s sloppy slasher Hell of a Summer, and Chris Pine’s Poolman, the latter already christened this fest’s biggest disaster).

But audiences – many of whom paid top dollar to attend only to by greeted by a director, or no one at all – encountered a lot of second-tier offerings no matter a film’s budget, provenance, or star power. With the exception of the Colman Domingo-led biopic Rustin, Netflix held back its big fall-season guns (Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, David Fincher’s Killer, Todd Haynes’s May December) and instead sent its B-to-C-to-D-team (including the warmly-but-cautiously received Nyad and the decent Sundance also-ran Fair Play, but also Pain Hustlers and Reptile, whose hostile receptions guarantee that you’ll never see them at the top of your homepage queue).

Apple TV+ delivered its mildly received sci-fi romance Fingernails and easy-to-love musical drama Flora and Son, but not Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Will anyone remember that Hulu/Disney+ chose Toronto to debut its comedy Quiz Lady? Will anyone remember Quiz Lady?

TIFF made much noise over the summer about snagging the world premiere of the drama Les Indesirables from Parisian provocateur Ladj Ly. But aside from one effective late-film sequence involving the eviction of residents from a public-housing complex, the picture doesn’t hold up to even far-sighted scrutiny.

There is also no pleasure in reporting that the Canadian lineup feels just a degree short of expectations, at least compared to the homegrown highs of 2022. After following the local buzz as best as I could (I’ll have to catch Molly McGlynn’s Fitting In and Sophie Dupuis’ Solo during their forthcoming theatrical releases), the true highlights came down to M.H. Murray’s powerfully nerve-wracking I Don’t Know Who You Are, Christian Sparkes’s carefully crafted The King Tide, and Atom Egoyan’s fascinating if flawed Seven Veils.

The television sidebar Primetime, meanwhile, generated as much warm sentiment as the Scotiabank escalator (or maybe I’m thinking of the multiplex’s Cinema 12, which broke down on opening day, scuttling three screenings).

None of these dilemmas and complaints are exactly new. Almost since its inception, TIFF has aimed to be all things to all people – a solid strategy if you’re serving each of those different audiences the highest-quality offerings. Less so if the programming target sometimes feels like the big, squishy, easy middle ground.

Certainly, I’m willing to admit that I simply messed up and missed the best of the fest, even with 30-plus titles under my belt. I wish I had caught Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves, Ava DuVernay’s Origin, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (whose screening with Spike Lee and the Talking Heads turned into a once-in-a-lifetime dance party), or the second half of Harmony Korine’s Agrro Dr1ft (I bailed for a competing commitment, though I saw enough to get the edge-lord drift/dr1ft). If other festivalgoers had stronger batting averages, I’m happy for them.

There is a guarantee, though, that next year’s TIFF will be different. Perhaps in terms of programming, but also everything else.

With – Godard willing – a new lead sponsor to step in for departing partner Bell, a new leadership team to replace or perhaps rework the responsibilities of recently departed executives, and an impressive third-floor Lightbox renovation ready to entice new audiences, change is coming to TIFF. Whether the film festival is ready for it or not.

Top 10 Films of TIFF 2023

1. The Zone of Interest

2. The Holdovers

3. Dream Scenario

4. Sing Sing

5. Evil Does Not Exist

6. Dicks: The Musical

7. The Beast

8. Anatomy of a Fall

9. Hit Man

10. Kill

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