Lately, the popular way to approach the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins Thursday, is as an Academy Award barometer. “Brokeback Mountain,” “Up in the Air,” “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech,” “Moneyball,” “The Descendants” are a few of the best picture nominees and winners to receive their world and North American premieres at Toronto, where critics, business writers, and entertainment reporters flock and attempt to put the Oscars’ ducks in a row. Yet, as much as the festival has positioned itself as an awards-season gateway, it’s still also a great festival for thousands of civilian moviegoers to have some fun in the dark. This year that might be especially true, given the dearth of obvious Academy bait on the schedule. Here are four reasons to look forward to spending a week at this year’s festival.
1. The documentaries keep getting better.
It’s easy to miss, but the nonfiction films are often better than a lot of the fiction films. This year, the festival’s documentary division is trying to turn more heads with provocations and alluring subject matter. “9.79” looks at the 1988 mens’ Olympic 100-meter race, Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, and the world of drug testing. “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp” will also remind us, we hope, that he wrote novels, too. “How to Make Money Selling Drugs” has a self-explanatory title and features everyone from 50 Cent and David Simon (“The Wire”) to Woody Harrelson and high-ranking government muckety mucks. The ludicrously prolific Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”) tackles both pedophilia in the Catholic Church and a mile-long title with “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.” And Spike Lee has made a film about Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which turned 25 this summer but still sounds only about 18 or 19.
2. Great but pokey American directors are back.
Well, Terrence Malick suddenly refuses to go away, having done something he hadn’t previously done in nearly 40 years of moviemaking: release films in consecutive calendar years. “To the Wonder” follows “Tree of Life” and appears to have an easier premise: man meets new woman after old marriage ends. But “The Thin Red Line” was also “about WWII” and look at what Malick managed to do with that. The new movie stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, and Javier Bardem, and allegedly once featured Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, and Amanda Peet. But in typical Malick fashion, they haven’t made the final cut. Also, speaking of McAdams, she’s poised to get it on with Noomi Rapace for Brian De Palma in a sex thriller called “Passion.” And Paul Thomas Anderson’s purported Scientology allegory, “The Master” — with Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — will screen here, too.
3. “I missed it at Cannes.”
Michael Haneke’s “Amour” was the movie most people seemed to adore at that festival, including the jury, which awarded it the top prize. It’s about a long-married couple — Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva — physically caring for each other at the end of their lives. There’s also “Rust and Bone,” a new movie from Jacques Audiard (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “A Prophet”), with Marion Cotillard as a killer whale trainer sleeping with a jobless 25-year-old (Matthias Schoenaerts).
Look, not everybody cares about the Oscars and respectability and classiness. So, while lots of people will climb over each other to see Bill Murray as FDR in “Hyde Park on the Hudson” or Keira Knightley and Jude Law pant and writhe all over Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” some of us just want to see the high priestess of skank-rap-rock, Peaches, star in “Peaches Does Herself” and “Peaches Does the Drake.” We want to see Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and Nicole Kidman do Florida humidity, death row, and hopefully each other in “The Paperboy,” Lee Daniels’s first movie since “Precious.” We want to see Saoirse Ronan in “Byzantium,” Neil Jordan’s first that-girl-bit-my-neck movie since “Interview With the Vampire.” Then there’s De Palma’s “Passion,” “Gangs of Wasseypur,” a two-part Indian gangster epic, and “The Bay,” in which Barry “Rain Man” Levinson tries out fake-documentary and eco-horror. At the same time. Of course, will anything top Eli Roth’s sure tour de force as an American tourist in the Chilean disaster thriller, “Aftershock?” My fingers are crossed.