Thirty-four years after its inception, the little film festival that could has become a major player on a global scale, turning the city of Toronto into a movie-lover’s paradise with historic world premieres and enough cachet to attract A-list celebs who rightly look at TIFF as a must-attend celebration of cinema.
Here’s a look back at the standout moments – good, bad and otherwise – from the past three decades.
French New Wave master comes to Toronto – 1980
Jean-Luc Godard, one of the leading figures of the French New Wave cinema that ushered in an experimental, youth-oriented, politically potent film viewing experience in the ‘50s and ‘60s, made his way North for a retrospective held in his honour. Godard’s mere presence at TIFF significantly upped the global profile and credibility of the festival and indeed the city. Merci, Jean-Luc!
They only come out at night: Midnight Madness – 1988
Former TIFF co-director, and current artistic director of Bell Lightbox Noah Cowan started the Midnight Madness program as a late-night refuge for those flicks deemed too base, gory, weird or avant-garde for the masses and standard screening times. Exceeding expectations from day one, MM has become a trademark of a film festival that caters to the Hollywood-loving crowd as well as those who prefer films on the fringe.
Michael who? Roger & Me premieres – 1989
Famously divisive documentary filmmaker Michael Moore wasn’t always the forceful, spotlight-hungry agitator that we know today. When he came to Toronto to premiere his doc Roger & Me, audiences flocked to his film about the fallout of General Motors’ closing its Flint, Michigan plant – to the tune of 30, 000 jobs – and Moore’s search for answers from GM CEO Roger Smith. It went on to win the People’s Choice award and Moore has continued to make provocative documentaries that take to task the powers that be.
TIFF predicts Oscars – 1999
Given the top-tier selection of films that show up on the big screen during the film festival, it’s no small wonder than a handful would end up either being nominated for that coveted golden statue or in fact take one home. But 1999 saw a seriously impressive crop of would-be Oscar winners premiere in Toronto, among them: American Beauty, Cider House Rules, Sweet and Lowdown, Boys Don’t Cry and Snow Falls on Cedar. As we know, Kevin Spacey, Hilary Swank and Michael Caine won Oscars for their acting, Sean Penn was nominated and Snow Falls on Cedar received a Cinematography nom. That’s a pretty impressive haul!
McConaughey’s got one powerful pucker – 2001
Having had much practice playing the Southern gent in films, Matthew McConaughey got to try out his act in real life when a woman fainted during the screening of his film 13 Conversations About One Thing. (It seems like there’s an obvious punch line in there, but not one to resort to cheap shots, I’ll move along.) The woman, 49-year-old mother of three Janice Flisfeder, blamed her blackout on the fact that she hadn’t eaten all day and was clearly dazzled by McConaughey’s caring gesture, which varies from a reported kiss on the forehead and hair-stroking to full-out mouth-to-mouth. Either way, a pretty solid move on his part. You win this round, McConaughey.
Sean Penn lights up TIFF – 2006
The notoriously prickly actor-writer-director was in Toronto to promote the world premiere of All the King’s Men when he decided to light up a cigarette indoors at the Sutton Place Hotel during the press conference for the film, which normally wouldn’t make the back page of a small-town paper. Given that he was openly flouting the Smoke Free Ontario Act, photos of Penn taking long drags off his smoke were interpreted as defiant and a mini-scandal ensued that ended with Penn getting a warning and the hotel being fined to the tune of $600.
Colin Farrell sheds ‘bad boy’ image – 2007
When the salty-tongued, hard-drinking Irishman helped out a local homeless man named Stress whom he’d befriended years ago, he instantly dropped the scandalous reputation that had been plaguing him for years. When Farrell spotted Stress among a gaggle of fans waiting for autographs outside his Yorkville hotel, he took him shopping at Europe Bound Travel Outfitters and picked up everything from socks and underwear to a sleeping bag. And as if that wasn’t generous enough, Farrell withdrew a large sum of money and gave his friend money towards first and last month’s rent. Cynics claim it was a publicity stunt but if someone, besides Farrell, was helped in the process, it can only be a good thing.
Tears from Mark Ruffalo – 2008
Given the source material and actor Mark Ruffalo’s personal relationship with Brian Goodman, the writer-director of Southie drama What Doesn’t Kill You, overtly emotional displays don’t seem like a stretch. But it still came as a shock when Ruffalo broke down in tears after he was asked by moderator Richard Crouse what it was like taking on the role of former junkie, and now friend, Goodman and how Ruffalo dealt with such a hefty responsibility. It was a truly poignant moment that cut through all the celebrity fanfare and proved that films can still move people, even actors.
Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt avoid each other in Toronto – 2008
The interwebs were positively humming with news that Jennifer Aniston and ex-hubby Brad Pitt were rumoured to be taking a “business dinner” when both were visiting Toronto for the film fest, although just the fact that these two were in the same city at the same time was enough to make headlines. Since their, ahem, rather dramatic separation in 2005, even an accidental run-in would have been all kinds of awkward (you think you don’t like running into your ex) and apparently Aniston had her people take serious precautions so she never crossed paths with Mr. Jolie. Alas, the business dinner never was.
Watch your mouth! Bill C-10 vs YPF – 2008
A clear example of what can happen when art and politics collide, producer-writer-director Martin Gero’s feature film debut found itself at the centre of a debate when an amendment to Bill C-10 allowed the heritage minister to deny tax credits for a film if it was deemed offensive, even if the government had already invested in said lewd material. The film in question, the bravely titled Young People F—ing, chronicles the sexual (mis)adventures of five couples and for all of the controversy and finger-wagging, actually doesn’t show much scandalous imagery, choosing instead to rely on spicy dialogue, innuendo and well-placed cameras rather than out-and-out nudity. No matter, the film premiered at TIFF with hype to spare and went on to pick up a Genie and bring in serious box office loot.