I’m going to the Toronto International Film festival in a few days and my brain is already starting to hurt.
Beginning Sept. 5, the program offers 288 feature films in 11 days, including 146 world premieres. Who knows how many potential Oscar performances (on the one hand) and great films I may never get another chance to see (on the other). More than ever, TIFF is a gateway to the fall season of important movies as well as movies that desperately want to be seen as important, and the only way to tell the difference is to see them. But which do you see, and how fast can you get from one to the next? For a week and a half, a small section of downtown Toronto turns into everything great about world cinema and everything exhausting about trying to see it.
Some themes and memes to note for the 38th edition of the festival: Superstar musicians are well-represented with the Ron Howard documentary “Jay-Z: Made in America,” “12.12.12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” and a young-Jimi-Hendrix biopic “All Is by My Side.” So are the struggles of Egypt, in both documentaries (Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” which puts viewers right in the middle of events) and dramas (“Rags and Tatters,” about the night that protesters opened up Mubarak’s prisons).
More than ever, ambitious filmmakers want to parse and portray recent history: “The Fifth Estate” casts Benedict Cumberbatch — last seen as Khan in this summer’s “Star Trek” movie — as Wikileaks white-maned founder Julian Assange, while Cambridge-based documentarian Errol Morris trains his Interrotron on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” Canada’s Atom Egoyan tries his hand at a dramatic retelling of the much-documented West Memphis Three killings with “Devil’s Knot.” The great British actor Idris Elba tackles the role of a lifetime in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” while the great British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America in “12 Years a Slave.”
Maybe that’s not so recent. Fine: The offerings at Toronto include longer historical reaches as well. The chaos at a Dallas hospital the day JFK was shot is re-created with a varied cast (from Paul Giamatti to Zac Efron) in “Parkland.” “The Invisible Woman” probes the secret love affair of writer Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed) and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). And the rubbernecker in me is undeniably curious about “The Last of Robin Hood,” which casts Kevin Kline as an aging Errol Flynn, Dakota Fanning as his underage girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, and Susan Sarandon as her manipulative mother.
Will I be able to watch all of these movies? Probably not. The festival prompts despairing attempts at moviegoing triage, of choosing to skip a blockbuster I know will open in Boston a month from now (Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin) in favor of, I don’t know, a Moroccan family comedy-drama (“Rock the Casbah,” from director Laila Marrakchi). And sometimes the festival program’s plot descriptions exert a pull that can’t be resisted (“La Ultima Pelicula” — “A famous American filmmaker travels to the Yucatan to scout locations for his last movie. The Mayan Apocalypse intercedes.”)
That said, here are 10 TIFF offerings (in alphabetical order) I’ll do my darndest to catch:
THE ARMSTRONG LIE
Rabble-rousing documentarian Alex Gibney (“Client 9,” “We Steal Secrets”) originally titled this film “The Road Back” — but that was four years ago, when Lance Armstrong was mounting a Tour de France comeback and still maintaining an iron wall of deceit about his doping. Since then, the walls have come crashing down and this film may be an electrifying portrait of a winner who has now lost everything.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Director John Wells adapts the Tracy Letts play about a fractious Oklahoma clan with a cast to take your breath away: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, and Sam Shepard as the family patriarch. It’s getting a December theatrical release, but there are some movies you want to see early just for the bragging rights.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Matthew McConaughey is having a career renaissance — gone are the dippy chick flicks — and this starring role as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good ol’ boy who defied the FDA and smuggled HIV-fighting medications into the States, may put him over the top. He’s no longer a guilty pleasure — well, hey now.
The arrival of a new comedy of social mores by Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends With Money”) is always an event, but when the cast includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as single mom masseuse), Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener (as a chatty client), and James Gandolfini in his penultimate film completed before his untimely death this June, attention must be paid.
Actor John Turturro goes behind the camera for his fifth turn at directing in a New York-set tale of an aging man (Turturro) who opts for a career change (see title). The cast includes Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev Schreiber — and Woody Allen as the hero’s pimp. Will this be “After-Midnight Cowboy”? A complete train wreck? Or a wayward treat in keeping with Turturro’s other films?
Boston-born actor-writer-comedian Mark Phinney has toiled in the trenches of New York and LA sketch comedy but came back to the mean streets of his youth to shoot this autobiographically tinged comedy-drama about the perils of obesity and food addiction. Expect a lot of, uh, local flavor.
KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Jack Huston (director John’s grandson) plays Jack Kerouac, changeling actor Ben Foster plays William S. Burroughs, and Daniel Radcliffe pushes Harry Potter further into his past as Allen Ginsberg in this drama about a sensational 1944 murder case that changed the lives of the men who would become the Beats.
Can Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi recapture the success of his last film, the Oscar-winning “A Separation”? Is he courting disaster with a similar family melodrama about estranged couples and family secrets? How does Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist” figure in here? All questions I’m eager to have answered.
Is the world really crying out for a remake of Clint Eastwood’s neo-classic 1992 western transplanted to the samurais and swords of Meiji-era Japan? I hope so, because this sounds pretty fascinating. Ken Watanabe (“Inception,” “The Last Samurai”) stars.
WE ARE THE BEST!
Based on 1998’s cheerfully toughminded “Show Me Love” and 2002’s heartbreaking “Lilya 4-Ever,” is there a filmmaker on this planet better at capturing the inner lives and outer struggles of young women than Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson? This tale of 13-year-old girls who start a punk band in 1982 Stockholm may make it a trifecta.