The Toronto International Film Festival at 40

Getting better with age

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in “Born to be Blue”

I have to admit that I’m a sucker for symmetry and my association with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is rife with coincidental parallels. As I enter the home stretch of my preparation for a week of non-stop screenings (on average five movies per day with a couple of interviews thrown into the mix for good measure), I have to note that my first opportunity to attend the festival came when I turned 40. I’m a relative newbie at TIFF, but it is amazing how inviting the event is and how quickly you start to feel right at home.

Toronto basks in its international aura. Despite the reports a few years ago involving the city’s mayor, with his outsized and outrageous personality, it wears its urbane cosmopolitan vibe with surprising ease and more than a little grace. There is none of that hurried and harried air one finds in larger American cities. The sense is more akin to an old European capital populated by a younger generation still in touch with their elder’s sensibilities. This is a global community, fully aware of, and attentive to, both the global and the communal aspects of their character.

And then, there is the event; the film festival is a showcase, working and celebrating film at the highest level.

It cannot come close to Venice (83 years) or Cannes (also dating back to 1932), and while it must compete with Venice and Telluride and New York for position as the premier venue for films that will dominate the prestigious awards season, TIFF tends to lord over the others with casual largesse, offering the widest spectrum of titles over the course of ten days, appealing not only to the Oscar-hungry crowd, but also the festival devotees eager to discover the hidden gems they can share amongst their loyal and faithful brethren back in their remote outposts.

I tend to split my time and sensibilities along carefully drawn boundaries, in search of a few perfect moments that I can bring back to the Midwest. My approach has evolved over the relatively few years I have attended the festival, creating in me the sense of being a seasoned veteran, because I have come to appreciate the ebb and flow of the event, which kicks off with a frenzy of premieres and the accompanying long lines at the Press & Industry screenings as the buzz builds. By the end of the first weekend though, the tone changes and opportunities emerge for exploration of some of the more esoteric titles, curiosity fulfilling jaunts around the cinematic landscape—whether actually sampling more global fare or merely charting a course with thematic excursions. TIFF teases us (remember, I’m your guide on this crazy trip) with possibilities.

This year, based on my tentative schedule, I’ve signed up for a musical adventure, it seems. If all goes according to plan, I will find myself awash in the melodic vibes of Aretha Franklin (the subject of the documentary “Amazing Grace”), a Rolling Stone (“Keith Richards: Under the Influence”), the resilient lead singer of the Dap Kings (“Miss Sharon Jones”), a rock and blues legend (“Janis: Little Girl Blue”) and two intriguing features—“I Saw the Light” with Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams and “Born to be Blue” with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker.

In addition, I will dive into the topical waters of gender identity with a double feature that starts with “About Ray,” a mainstream selection starring Elle Fanning as a teenager transitioning from female to male with family members—played by Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon—struggling to deal with the change. However, it is the second title that has truly gotten under my skin: the Swedish film “Girls Lost” from Alexandra-Therese Keining (adapted from an award-winning Swedish young-adult novel). “Girls Lost” merges issues of sexual questioning with allegorical fantasy tropes straight out of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a trio of teenage girls discover that they have mysteriously been turned into boys and must make painfully exciting adjustments.

Despite the fact that I beat TIFF to 40 by a few years, it is lovely knowing that on its big anniversary year, the festival will offer me reminders of what it feels like to be forever young.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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