The 38th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival opens Sept. 4 under a slight cloud of missed chances. This year, festival programmers announced that any movie that had its world premiere at one of the fall’s other major festivals — Venice, New York, Telluride — wouldn’t get a prestigious early berth at Toronto. So Canadian audiences won’t be getting to see Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl,” the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. Nor will they see Alejandro Inarritu’s “Birdman,” with its wild comeback performance by Michael Keaton. Toronto festivalgoers will just have to be content with the 400-plus other films from Hollywood, off-Hollywood, and around the planet. As the annual awards race seems to start earlier with each passing year, TIFF is still Oscar season’s prime launching pad, and beyond the glitz are some terrific films you may not see anywhere else. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to.
The unholy mix of talents on this one is enough to get anyone paying attention. Flemish filmmaker Michael R. Roskam turned heads with 2011’s startling “Bullhead” and has now adapted a short story (“Animal Rescue”) by the pride of Boston, Dennis Lehane. Not surprisingly, it’s about a botched robbery and its aftermath, but promising to raise things further above the ordinary is a stellar cast: the always-mesmerizing Tom Hardy, original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace, and — in his final role before his untimely death — James Gandolfini.
The latest from stealth auteur Bennett Miller (“Moneyball,” “Capote”) was a sensation at Cannes in May, not least for Steve Carell’s career-changing dramatic turn as John DuPont, the wealthy eccentric who bankrolled the careers of Olympic wrestlers and who, in 1996, shot one to death in his driveway. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum costar; the Oscar drumbeats have already begun for Carell, who seems to have physically transformed into an entirely different person for this role.
“The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything”
Two broody big-science biopics that star, respectively, the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”) as WWII code breaker, AI pioneer, and persecuted homosexual Alan Turing and the not-well-enough-known Eddie Redmayne (“Les Miserables”) as renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in his early days. Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) plays Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde, on whose book the film by James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) is based.
“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”
Japan’s Studio Ghibli has seemed almost as much a locked room as the mind of its resident genius, animator Hayao Miyazaki. Arriving not long after the announcement of the studio’s imminent shuttering, filmmaker Mami Sunada’s documentary promises to reveal what goes on in the real Magic Kingdom — the one responsible for surreal classics like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” “Kingdom” also stands to make a long-overdue case for the second grandmaster of Ghibli, animator Isao Takahata, whose “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” will also be playing TIFF.
“The Last Five Years”
A film adaptation of the cult off-Broadway musical that tells a love story both forward (from his side of events) and backward (from hers), with one song that meets in the middle and gets all the musical-theater groupies crying like babies. Richard LaGravenese directs and Jeremy Jordan (currently starring in the American Repertory Theater’s “Finding Neverland”) plays the guy, but the reason this may be special is Anna Kendrick as the girl. Some of us have been waiting for this Maine native to get a shot at a big, old-fashioned musical since seeing her nail “The Ladies Who Lunch” in 2003’s “Camp.”
The legendary Liv Ullmann, once the muse of Ingmar Bergman and now a Boston-area local, goes behind the camera to bring August Strindberg’s 1888 psychosexual power struggle to the screen. Colin Farrell plays the stroppy valet Jean, and Jessica Chastain plays the nobleman’s daughter who wants him and taunts him. Can the ethereal Chastain do envelope-pushing classic drama? Hell, yes, say the few moviegoers lucky to have seen Al Pacino’s 2013 filming of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” with the actress in the title role.
Germany’s Christian Petzold conquered the international festival circuit with 2012’s “Barbara,” and now he returns with the kind of weighty-yet-crazy melodrama that will either soar on wings of intensity or fall flat on its face. Nina Hoss, the gravely beautiful star of “Barbara” — she almost stole “A Most Wanted Man” from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman — plays a disfigured Holocaust survivor who gets a new face and a new relationship with an old husband.
Jon Stewart made a movie, so it has to be a comedy, right? Or perhaps a documentary? Wrong. Stewart was inspired — actually, chagrined might be a better word — by the case of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was featured in a satiric segment on Stewart’s “The Daily Show” in 2009 and was subsequently imprisoned and brutalized by Iranian authorities for five months, on suspicions of being an American spy. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari. On TV Stewart has perfected a balancing act of stinging political commentary behind a comic façade, but his debut feature sees him walking far out on the wire.
Sept. 5 is Bill Murray Day at the Toronto Film Festival, and, oh heck, why not just call it a global holiday and give everyone the day off? Screenings of the comedian’s classic films will culminate in the premiere of his latest, which costars Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy and casts Murray, a.k.a. the Buddha of the movies, as a “misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran.” In other words, “Stripes Pt. XVII.”
Other Toronto film’s I’ll be jostling in line to see: “Love and Mercy,” featuring Paul Dano as young Beach Boy Brian Wilson; Cannes hit “Mr. Turner,” with Timothy Spall as painter J.M.W. Turner for director Mike Leigh; Mia Wasikowska as “Madame Bovary” for director Sophie Barthes; Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) trying to wrangle Adam Sandler into a genuine acting performance in “The Cobbler”; and “Natural Resistance,” the latest wine documentary from Jonathan Nossiter, perhaps the only filmmaker who’s also a professional sommelier.
And these are only the movies I know I want to see. The best part of a film festival is discovering the ones you don’t.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.