TORONTO — Is the Toronto Film Festival getting too big for itself? For the first time in a veteran festival-goer’s memory, the fall season’s major movie event, which ends Sunday, feels in danger of spiraling slightly out of control. With many of the most prominent films (and related appearances by A-list stars) frontloaded into the first five days of an 11-day schedule, the festival has had a hectic, overtaxed feel.
Lines have been longer and more fractious, the race from one must-see screening to the next is more harried, and publicists have been tearing their hair out in larger chunks than usual. The crowds lining the streets for the evening premieres have seemed more obsessive, too.
One night, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrived outside the Princess of Wales Theatre for the opening of his directorial debut, the porn-addict comedy-drama “Don Jon,” the cellphone-wielding hordes set up a chant: “Jo-SEPH, Jo-SEPH.” The night before, outside the Elgin Theatre, on Yonge Street, another mass of fans had spied Ralph Fiennes alighting from a limo for the world premiere of “The Invisible Woman,” and chanted “Ralf! Ralf!” No matter that it’s pronounced “Rafe.” It all feels positively un-Canadian.
But Toronto has always been a festival with a split personality: half glitzy opening gun for the Oscar season and half carefully-curated buffet of global cinema. More than ever, the awards bait has expanded to fill the opening days while the back half is where the discoveries are.
Which isn’t to say that the first half doesn’t have its lasting pleasures. A movie like “August: Osage County,” due in theaters in December, is rich with big, juicy performances from a cast that almost beggars belief: Meryl Streep, playing the toxic Midwestern matriarch of Tracey Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, goes head to head with Julia Roberts as the daughter who’s almost as mean as she is, and the stark contrast in their styles — craft versus charisma, an actress who loses herself in roles versus a star who’s embodied in them — is thrilling to behold.
But everyone brings their A-game here: Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, and character actress Margo Martindale, who almost steals the final act from the rest of the company. Who cares if John Wells directs “August” like a play that occasionally wanders outdoors for a look-see? The movie promises a thespic cage-match, and it delivers.
If the media descend on Toronto looking for likely best-picture contenders, they also try to sniff out great performances and overarching themes. “12 Years a Slave” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” have provided both. Along with the recently released “The Butler,” the films represent a deepening in the presentation of black life in commercial cinema, and both have been singled out for lead performances by actors whose career breakthroughs are long overdue.
In director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” — perhaps the best-received 2013 festival entry — Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Kinky Boots’’) plays a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and taken below the Mason-Dixon Line (Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender costar). And in “Mandela,” Idris Elba (”The Wire”) takes on the title role of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela from his imprisonment to his presidency.
Both those projects seem tailor-made for awards season. Other movies, like Fiennes’s “The Invisible Woman,” are more quixotic. Fiennes’s second directorial effort (after 2011’s “Coriolanus”) is the story of 19th-century author Charles Dickens’s secret love affair with the much younger Nelly Ternan. Felicity Jones, the It girl of 2011 with the festival hit “Like Crazy,” is incandescent as Ternan, and Fiennes plays Dickens with a shaved-back hairline and a natty little beard.
The movie’s a hushed and hesitant thing, extremely beautiful in its camerawork, lighting, and editing, and extremely British in its repression, and it won’t be an easy sell for Sony Classics when it comes out on Christmas Day. More than anything else, “The Invisible Woman” feels as inward as its director-star himself, moving to Fiennes’s private rhythms rather than the imperatives of a commercial marketplace. This was clear in the post-screening Q&A session Monday night at the Elgin, when one distressed audience member asked Fiennes why the lovers hardly ever got it on and then was so tactless to suggest that it was because of the “age difference.”
The dramatization of history, both recent and in the more distant past, has probably been the most common thread in Toronto’s first half. In addition to the above films, there was “The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon’s take on the WikiLeaks scandal, a sprawling affair that resists being crammed into the confines of a conventional feature film. Featuring an expertly multilayered performance by Cumberbatch as Julian Assange — with three films in this year’s lineup, the actor has been the de facto It boy of Toronto 2013 — “Fifth Estate” is a smart, over-directed film built squarely on the bones of “The Social Network,” down to Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the common-sense counterweight to Assange’s brilliant loose cannon.
Tuesday’s big premiere, “Kill Your Darlings,” turned out to be another luridly engrossing fact-based drama, this one the tale of young Beat writers Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and their involvement with the 1944 murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, of “Dexter”) by their friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). The film marks a strong debut for director John Krokides, whose occasional stylistic overreach is balanced by a swooning sense of time period; DeHaan’s mercurial performance as a complex, closeted young man got all the Toronto buzz, but Radcliffe’s less-showy work as Ginsberg is solid as a rock. It’s official: He’s much more than Harry Potter.
To be sure, the bulk of films here have been fictional, and plenty of them have found appreciative audiences. They range from the small — Richard Ayoade’s “The Double,” with Jesse Eisenberg bedeviled by the appearance of a doppelganger, or the Mumbai-set romantic drama “The Lunchbox,” an audience hit earlier this month at the Telluride Film festival — to such ambitious Hollywood productions as “Gravity,” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts marooned in space.
But even the documentaries unspooling in Toronto have tended to cluster around real-life figures who seem paradoxically larger than life. Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” allows disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong to finally unburden his soul while remaining curiously delusional about the damage he did to others. On one level, the film’s simply a way for Gibney (”Client 9”) to repurpose footage he shot during Armstrong’s failed Tour de France comeback bid in 2009. But “The Armstrong Lie” is also an indictment of a sport so overwhelmed by banned substances that it had ceased to be a sport: When everybody’s cheating, the winner is simply the best cheater, and that was Armstrong.
Gibney clearly likes his subject and retains a certain amount of sympathy, but ultimately understands that it’s sympathy for a devil. “I think [in 2009] I desperately wanted him to be clean, but I’m not sure I believed that he was,” Gibney said in an interview after the Wednesday press screening. “The bigger issue is how [the movie] shows the terrifying nature of what we often admire, which is the ethic of ‘win at all costs.’ ” This past week you could have felt just a little of that mania in the air above Lake Ontario, too.