TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 14 – Midway through the 23rd Toronto International Film Festival, the big news is just how little genuine news, modest or monumental, there is to relate. The irony is, for those of us who are here neither to buy nor to sell, the absence of hype has proved to be a relief, since it means we're free to concentrate on the movies we want to see – obscure Japanese films that will never see an American release, the work of Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev, this year's festival “spotlight” director – rather than those blown aloft by industry trade winds. The buzz on the fourth day of the festival is notable only for its low frequency, as well as its impact on the media. The best case in point is Bernard Weinraub's coverage in The New York Times. “Only half a dozen years ago,” he wrote, “Toronto was a backwater on the film-festival map.” An assertion that probably surprised anyone who was here in 1992 for A River Runs Through It, Husbands and Wives, The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs and Like Water for Chocolate, to name a few of the titles adrift then in the backwater.
Still, you can almost forgive Weinraub his lead. Like all of us, he was looking for a hook in a festival that doesn't readily furnish one. Although Toronto has ignited firestorms in the past – Priest, Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Apostle all had their world premieres here – the lack of a film market has invariably meant that it's been more of a cineaste's paradise than a distributor's. Which means attention gets focused not on the deals but on the movies themselves – some 300 this year – most of which, because they originate outside the United States, don't provide the kind of sexy copy that works the U.S. media into a lather.
This is a festival where studios launch upcoming films (such as Paramount's A Simple Plan, a nifty, atmospheric puzzle-box from Sam Raimi), lubricate publicity and put on a show. Deals have been struck, but generally by smaller outfits such as Artisan (a company fast becoming the old Miramax), Paramount Classics (a studio boutique) and Trimark, which picked up Larry Clark's second film, Another Day in Paradise, based on the Eddie Little book, before the film screened for either the public or the press and industry. A company that enjoys brandishing its checkbook at festivals the way Harvey Weinstein did before Disney coffers made theatrics unnecessary, Trimark also has one of this year's busiest festival darlings, Slam, which it snapped up at Sundance. For a movie like Slam, Toronto isn't an end in itself, but the latest destination in a carefully orchestrated whistle-stop campaign: Since its January premiere, Slam has traveled to festivals in Rio, Sydney, Edinburgh, Cannes, Athens and Munich; next up are Pusan, New York – with a domestic release shortly thereafter – and then on to London.
So what films are the biggest stories at this year's Toronto film festival, at least midweek? So far, outside of newcomers like Peter Berg's Very Bad Things (a probable commercial hit) and Christopher Nolan's Following (an art-house possibility), many of the same films that were news at Cannes remain so at Toronto: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's sublime Flowers of Shanghai; Todd Solondz's incest comedy Happiness; Erick Zonca's La Vie Revee des Anges (forthcoming from Sony Pictures Classics); and Gaspar Noe's Seul Contre Tous, a relentless, often very funny, misanthropic romp about an unemployed French butcher that Santa Monica-based Strand Releasing is heavily pursuing. Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand, saw the Noe film at Cannes, and thus far hasn't been too impressed by what Toronto has had to offer. “My revelation,” he laughs, just before clicking off his cell phone, “is that there's a lot of crap out there.” Just five days to go.