Big Screen: Toronto International Film Festival

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival didn't have a notable breakout hit, like Juno or Slumdog Millionaire in years past, but as a semi-official starting point for awards-season angling, it was still altogether respectable.

In the course of the fest A Single Man, the directorial debut of former Gucci creative director Tom Ford, went from undistributed indie to a hopeful Oscar magnet for The Weinstein Company.

Becoming the first film to win the Audience Award at both Toronto and the Sundance Film Fest, Precious, an inner-city drama championed by Oprah Winfrey, leapt from Sundance sensation to serious contender.

And based on reactions from critics (this one included), Jason Reitman's midlife crisis tale Up in the Air is assured a place on Oscar night, with another acting nod for lead George Clooney seeming likely.

Alongside all the awards bait is the film fest's Midnight Madness program, a celebration of the crude, the comical and the horrifying that's introduced movies like Dazed and Confused, Hostel and Borat to the world. This year, however, its populist spirit seemed to seep out of the late-night slot into other parts of the festival.

Though selections representing contemporary world cinema and serious English-language fare still dominated, the recent addition of free outdoor programming at bustling Yonge-Dundas Square has added a lighter, more accessible element to the happenings.

For example, on Sept. 12, the film festival took over the square for a "Special Director's Cut Edition" of Toronto's Zombie Walk. The event ended with a showing of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and an unofficial citizenship ceremony for Romero, a Toronto transplant. His latest addition to the Dead canon, Survival of the Dead, screened as a midnight selection later that night.

Faced with shuffling throngs of fans in full undead makeup, Romero admitted, "It's very flattering," but added, "I always feel like I'm at the wrong party, sort of underdressed."

Whether or not Romero believes he fits in, films like his seem to be extending the festival's reach, and weakening barriers between highbrow and mainstream movie audiences. Here's the skinny on a few more, and when you can expect to see them in Columbus.

"Whip It"

Screened in the Special Presentation program, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut about a small-town teenager (Ellen Page) who finds her true self through competitive roller derby is a pure crowd pleaser. Toronto's presentation of the world-premiere screening also included a public event with stars of the film and an exhibition match by the Toronto Roller Derby League. Whip It opens in Columbus next Friday, Oct. 2.

"Kings Ransom"

As part of the Mavericks program that also featured public conversations with Michael Caine and Chris Rock, director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock) presented a screening of his documentary about old friend Wayne Gretzky. It recounts the pivotal decision in 1988 to trade the Edmonton Oiler and Canadian national treasure to the L.A. Kings. Created for ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary project, which commemorates the sports network's 30th anniversary, the film premieres on ESPN Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m.

"A Town Called Panic"

Based on a popular TV show, this Belgian animated feature brings cowboy, Indian and horse figurines to life for a combination of absurd comedy and under-the-sea adventures. It's almost like Adult Swim's Robot Chicken with the trippy, stream-of-consciousness storytelling of Gumby. And it's coming to Columbus the first weekend of December as part of the Wexner Center's Zoom Family Film Festival.

"Youth in Revolt"

The latest Michael Cera teen comedy forces the actor to stretch out of his sweet, romantic stock character with dual roles - lovestruck doormat Nick Twisp and his borderline-sociopath alter ego Francois Dillinger. The effort does both the actor and his audience a favor, as does the dark sense of humor instilled by C.D. Payne's source novel. Despite mostly positive critical response, the film's been bumped from an October opening to Jan. 15.