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Guess who’s coming to TIFF 2017

Rob Morgan, Frankie Smith, Joshua J. Williams in Mudbound.

With a drop in programming announced this February, the festival will have to select this year’s films wisely

Will less be more at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival?

Each year, TIFF aims for a program that is based on taste as much as it is on cold, hard math – it’s a carefully calculated formula of a lineup consisting of awards bait for the Oscar-obsessed industry players, celebrity fluff for those willing to while away hours for the faint hope of a selfie, art-house gems for the cineastes and a dutiful slice of Cancon for everyone else.

This mix works better some years than others, but its execution will be especially critical this September, when TIFF will screen 20-per-cent fewer films, part of what artistic director Cameron Bailey described to The Globe and Mail this past February as a “fine-tuning” of its programming. (The 2016 festival featured 296 features, an intimidating number that Variety critic Peter Debruge decried in a now-infamous article headlined, “Has the Toronto Film Festival Gotten Too Big for Its Own (or Anybody’s) Good?”

Despite the bloat of 2016 – including such high-profile disappointments as American Pastoral, Snowden and The Birth of a Nation – last year’s fest still delivered such all-timers as Moonlight, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Jackie.

Yet what to expect this year, with all eyes on TIFF to not only curate a tighter lineup, but one that washes away the taste of an especially bitter summer-movie season? The festival will not announce the first, and typically glitziest, portion of its programming until July 25 – but that doesn’t mean it’s not too early to play Guess Who’s Coming to TIFF, an industry pastime whose eventual answers will map out the film calendar for the rest of the year and the festival’s place within it.

The most obvious, and vexing, place to start is opening night, scheduled for Sept. 7. Although the slot’s timing gives off the impression of prestige, TIFF has programmed so many misfires that the honour is practically a running joke – they might as well just run those tired old ads for the Grolsch People’s Choice Awards over and over and see if anyone notices.

Last year, the festival tried an overhaul of sorts, fully embracing Hollywood gloss with the remake of The Magnificent Seven. But does anyone, aside from Denzel Washington’s agent, remember the film? If recent gossip-mongering is to be believed, TIFF may be angling toward a new balance by snagging Blade Runner 2049 – a blockbuster that also boasts serious homegrown credentials, thanks to its Canadian star (Ryan Gosling) and director (Denis Villeneuve). But with the film already highly anticipated the world over, its plot guarded as if a state secret by Warner Bros., and a wide release set for one long month after opening night, the film has nothing to gain by playing TIFF and everything to lose.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

A compromise, then: Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. It’s loaded with festival-friendly stars (Natalie Portman, Kit Harington and Jessica Chastain, the latter of whom seems to be shooting in Toronto every other week), comes from Canada’s most polarizing director and would be a nice kick in the teeth to Cannes, which has premiered five of his six films. (There is, however, the question of whether it would even be ready in time; it only entered post-production last month.)

In terms of the awards chum that TIFF hopes to crow about come February, the festival is likely courting the tennis biopic Battle of the Sexes, with Academy-primed performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell; the second Winston Churchill biopic of the year, Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman; Aaron Sorkin’s Toronto-shot poker thriller Molly’s Game, starring Idris Elba and Chastain; the tearjerker Wonder, featuring everyone’s favourite tiny Canadian, Jacob Tremblay; George Clooney’s crime comedy Suburbicon, with BFF Matt Damon; Stronger, the second Boston Marathon-centric biopic of 2017, but this time featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Canadian Tatiana Maslany; Darren Aronofsky’s typically freaky-looking Mother! (expect Venice to snag this first, as it did with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan); Martin McDonagh’s black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, starring a foul-mouthed Frances McDormand; and the romance Our Souls at Night, the latest on-screen pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes.

Like this past spring’s edition of Cannes, expect Netflix to shove its algorithmic head into the conversation, with the streaming service eager to tout the Oscar bona fides of Dee Rees’s period drama Mudbound, and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers – even though those films won’t make it to many theatres outside the festival circuit. (This past spring, before Cannes reversed course and effectively banned Netflix from its competition because of the company’s insistence that its films play big screens the same day they are made available to stream, TIFF’s Cameron Bailey told The Globe that “our festival selection is open to the best work we can find, whether or not it’s destined for theatres.”)

Then there are the holdovers from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and SXSW, titles that used to make up the bulk of TIFF’s lineup back when it was simply the “festival of festivals.” Good bets here include Luca Guadagnino’s same-sex romance Call Me by Your Name; Sean Baker’s universally acclaimed drama The Florida Project; Francois Ozon’s ribald L’amant double; Loveless, from Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev; Michael Haneke’s Happy End (spoiler: it’s the exact opposite); The Killing of a Sacred Deer from Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos; Lynne Ramsay’s sex-trafficking thriller You Were Never Really Here; James Franco’s meta comedy The Disaster Artist (a Midnight Madness candidate if there ever was one); the transgender drama A Fantastic Woman; and Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or-winning art-world satire The Square.

Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder.

This spit-balling doesn’t even include a rash of late 2017 films that might want to pop earlier than normal (Alexander Payne’s dark comedy Downsizing, the Hugh Jackman/P.T. Barnum musical The Greatest Showman, the Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse historical pic The Current War) and early 2018 films that might shift their weight back into the calendar year (Alex Garland’s dystopic thriller Annihilation).

Finally, you can be certain that gender parity will be carefully looked at, too, with TIFF having recently unveiled its “Share Her Journey” campaign.

Suddenly, selecting 20-per-cent fewer films seems like an immeasurable headache.

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