Amazon Studios; Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures; Dog Eat Dog Films
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September 06, 2018 at 05:11 PM EDT

A divided nation is mirrored within expansive films and personal stories at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) kicking off on Thursday, the launchpad for much prestigious dramatic fare headed into Hollywood’s annual awards race.

This year’s most anticipated TIFF world premieres include Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his follow-up to 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight; Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows starring Viola Davis; Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet in the addiction drama Beautiful Boy; French filmmaker Claire Denis’ English-language debut High Life, a space thriller starring Robert Pattinson; and Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 11/9.

“As always, artists are trying to deal with the state of the world around them,” TIFF programming director Kerri Craddock tells EW.

She highlights films such as Fredrick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana and Errol Morris’ American Dharma as two of the numerous films dealing with the state of present-day America, while other films, such as Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, see parents trying to protect their children. Then there’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix drama Roma, which premiered to great praise at Venice Film Festival, and Alejandra Márquez Abella’s The Good Girls, both exploring Mexico’s class system, and numerous films dealing with music artists and the pressures of being in the spotlight, such as Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in a remake of A Star is Born.

More than 340 feature films and shorts will premiere at the festival this year, representing 83 countries. For many, this is the first major stop in the road to Oscars, coming on the heels of Venice Film Festival and the more intimate Telluride festival. Recent years have seen films such as I, Tonya, Lion, La La Land, and The Martian use Toronto to kick off the awards campaign.

The opening night will see a selection of films that “give a taste” of what the rest of the festival has to offer, Craddock noted. The buzziest premiere might just be Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, a searing analysis of the Trump presidency and its impact on the state of America. It’s a full circle moment for the prolific documentarian, whose debut film Roger and Me made its premiere at TIFF in 1989.

“I don’t know if I would have had a career if it hadn’t been for TIFF,” Moore told EW ahead of the festival. He said that after Roger and Me won the audience prize for best film at the festival, it put him on the map.

“All these years later, that they’d select this for opening night is quite an honor,” he added.

Fahrenheit 11/9 will be showcased alongside Alex Holmes’ Maiden, a documentary about the first female crew to sail around the world, as well as Netflix’s historical epic Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine as exiled Scottish king Robert the Bruce, and psychological thriller Greta starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz. Each film, Craddock explains, “counterbalances the other.”

This year’s festival will also find ways to spotlight female and minority filmmakers, in response to the greater Time’s Up campaign that kicked off in Hollywood earlier this year and is attempting to achieve gender and racial parity across all industries.

Out of 342 films, there are 136 female leads (and one majestic elephant in the documentary The Elephant Queen), and 36 percent of films are directed by women, up from 33 percent last year. In the Shorts and Discovery line-ups, Craddock said there are more films by women than men, which is “encouraging, because these are the emerging voices and the next people that are going to be feeling future stories.”

But there’s still a long way to go, Craddock adds.

“It’s a disappointment to us that we don’t have any films by females in our Masters program … but it’s a reflection of the films submitted to us,” she says. The 11 films selected for that segment are made up of respected filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard (with The Image Book), Mike Leigh (with Peterloo), Paolo Sorrentino (with Loro) and Hong Sang-soo (with Hotel by the River).

“We have to continue fighting for films to be made by women and people of color because you can say it’s always been easier for people to make short films and first films, but where it gets harder is when women and people of color move further along in their careers and are looking at bigger budgets and working with bigger companies,” Craddock says.

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