Benedict Cumberbatch
Credit: George Pimentel/WireImage
  • Movie

For an entertainment journalist, there is nothing quite like covering a film festival, especially one as influential and deep as the Toronto Film Festival, which began 11 days of wall-to-wall must-see movies yesterday. I suppose it’s not unlike covering the Olympics, with simultaneous spectacular events taking place at different venues, forcing sportswriters to choose between gymnastics and swimming. You want to see everything, but you simply can’t, which is frustrating, but at least you have the perfect conversation-starter for every stranger you meet: “So what did you see today?”

Toronto itself gives off an almost Olympic vibe during the festival, what with the influx of industry and media from around the world announcing their foreign presence on the streets with the orange lanyard and TIFF pass they wear around their necks. (I do my best to hide mine, but I’m sure the locals aren’t fooled.) For those Americans who haven’t visited Toronto, they might be surprised by its sheer magnitude: it looks and feels a little like a more international Chicago, but it’s actually bigger than Chicago. This isn’t some sleepy ski resort or some luxurious Mediterranean gem that gives itself over to Hollywood for a spell each year: this is a vibrant, extremely diverse metropolis that just so happens to host one of the most prestigious festivals in the world. The well-mannered natives are well aware of why we’re here, but their lives haven’t stopped on our account.

Veteran journalists might take their marathon movie assignment for granted — as well as the golden-ticket press pass that opens doors to the best screenings — but once they encounter their first line of enthusiastic moviegoers, filled with cinephiles who’ve built vacations around the festival and paid top dollar for a chance to catch a glimpse of an Oscar hopeful, it’s impossible not to be infected by their enthusiasm and reminded of the awesome privilege. These people love movies, and for people who love movies, there’s nothing better than watching movies with other people who love movies.

Toronto has a plethora of world premieres, but I began my odyssey with Blue is the Warmest Color, the polarizing erotic lesbian drama that won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. (Restrain yourself, peanut gallery: my colleagues have already made the obvious icky trench-coat jokes.) The French-language movie, from Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche is certainly erotic and explicit, as advertised, but it’s also a gripping and relatable relationship drama that deserves more than just titillating headlines. (Which there will be plenty of, especially after the film’s two actresses expressed regret about the graphic sex scenes and a reluctance to work with Kechiche again, in a recent interview with the Daily Beast.) It will be interesting to see how the NC-17 film will perform when it opens on Oct. 25.

In the afternoon, I saw Kill Your Darlings, a very different same-sex awakening film that stars Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg, who together with William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac (Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston), and Lucian Carr (Dane DeHaan), plant the seeds for a new literary vision while students at Columbia University in 1943. There are echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley in the web of relationships between the men, especially Ginsberg and the damaged golden-god, Carr, and the movie goes to some dark places. One can’t help but continue to be impressed by Radcliffe’s bold post-Potter career choices — he has two other eclectic, high-profile films debuting at the festival this week, Horns and The F Word — and DeHaan, who starred in Chronicle and appears in the next Spider-Man sequel, is simply going to be a huge star.

Officially, the festival didn’t begin until the evening’s gala world premiere of The Fifth Estate, the WikiLeaks movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as white-haired hacker Julian Assange. Toronto rolls out the red carpet for its showcase screenings at the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall, and there were plenty of squeals from the crowd for the film’s dashing actors. (Cumberbatch was the clear favorite, but Dan Stevens, late of Downton Abbey, was a close second.)

Before the movie began, the festival honored Roger Ebert with a special video tribute and presented his widow, Chaz, with a replica of the plaque that was recently affixed to a festival movie-theater chair that had been dedicated in the late critic’s honor. “Roger Ebert was a huge presence at our festival for more than 30 years,” said TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling. “He was one of the key people who put us on the map and we felt it was only fitting to pat tribute to Roger in a way he would’ve wanted — in a cinema surrounded by friends, family, and the Toronto audience, which was always close to Roger’s heart.”

Chaz Ebert accepted the honor with grace and explained Roger’s lifelong passion for the magic of movies. “To Roger, movies were not just watching movies. It was art that allowed us to step into this big empathy machine so you can see what it felt like to step into somebody else’s shoes,” she said, “so you can understand what it’s like to be a person of another race, of another age, of another nationality, of another gender. What he thought movies were so good at was giving you the visceral feel for what it’s like to see the humanity in another person.”

The Fifth Estate director Bill Condon introduced his film by first sharing his own festival encounters with Ebert and then thanking Toronto for honoring him with the prestigious opening-night slot. “From my experience with this audience — not only film-loving but so open-minded — I think it is the perfect place to unveil this film and start what I hope is an interesting and long conversation,” he said.

The film’s reception was mixed — read Anthony Breznican’s Oscar analysis here — and though there was a standing ovation in Thomson Hall after the lights came on, it felt slightly obligatory. This was Toronto’s opportunity to use its credibility to launch a movie into the Oscar race, and there was a palpable sense within the Hall and at the after-party that The Fifth Estate won’t get the same boost that Gravity enjoyed from Venice and 12 Years a Slave received at Telluride.

The first day of the festival culminated with the Opening Night party at Maple Leaf Square, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex adjacent to the professional sports arena. There are drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and lots of shouted conversation over the DJ’s deafening bass. For pure people watching, though, it’s bliss since it’s packed with Hollywood industry types, some who don’t flinch at the opportunity to perpetuate the stereotypical image in your head of how they look and dress. To be fair, I’m sure the same can be said about at least one woefully underdressed journalist wearing white sneakers.

The Fifth Estate
  • Movie
  • 124 minutes
  • Bill Condon
  • R.J. Cutler