Since its inception in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival has remained the unofficial kick-off to Oscar season. The acclaimed festival, which has seen its popularity grow in recent years, features a wide array of soon-to-be released and distribution-seeking films that never fail to get both moviegoers and moviemakers buzzing. With this year’s festival nearing its close on September 13, MM takes a look back at 10 of the landmark premieres TIFF has hosted in its 30 years.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Five years after the festival’s birth, Chariots of Fire stormed in, making its North American debut and winning the fest’s distinguished People’s Choice Award. The story of two British track athletes who compete in the 1924 Olympics proved to be a feel-good hit. The film won Best Picture at the 1982 Oscars and its haunting music, by Vangelis, quickly became one of the most recognizable film scores of all time.
Roger & Me (1989)
Before controversy surrounded him wherever he went, Michael Moore was just another ambitious moviemaker who debuted his first documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1989. Soon after, audiences nationwide got a chance to see his provocative film, which details his attempts at interviewing General Motors CEO Roger Smith about the closing of the company’s Flint, Mich. plant. The closing resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs in Moore’s hometown. Roger & Me won the People’s Choice Award and ever since, Moore has remained one of the most polarizing documentarians alive. His indictment of President Bush, Fahrenheit 9/11, still stands as the highest-grossing documentary of all time.
Whale Rider (2002)
The unlikely tale of an 11-year-old girl determined to become the new chief of her patriarchal New Zealand tribe was one of the bigger success stories of the 2002 festival, winning the coveted People’s Choice Award. The star of Whale Rider, Keisha Castle-Hughes, broke record books in 2004 by being, at 13-years-old, the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. The film had its premiere at TIFF, proving yet again that the prestige and power of the festival continues to grow, nabbing high quality, low-budget films like Whale Rider before even Sundance has a chance to screen them.
Taylor Hackford’s in-depth portrait of the extraordinary life of legendary, blind R&B singer and musician Ray Charles made its premiere at TIFF in 2004. Audience buzz about Jamie Foxx’s career-defining, note-perfect portrayal of the music icon quickly caught Hollywood’s attention, making it no surprise when, several months later, Foxx won Best Actor at the Oscars.
Alexander Payne’s wine-infused tale of love and friendship, starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, had audiences punch-drunk raving when the film made its premiere at the festival in 2004. A crossover indie hit, Sideways made over $70 million at the box office and garnered many awards, including Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and one in each of the six main categories at the Spirit Awards.
Before it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, this polarizing, ensemble racial drama from Paul Haggis was a blip on the radar. But then Toronto audiences started discussing the film’s thought-provoking themes. By the time Lionsgate came aboard as a distributor and released the film throughout the U.S. in May 2005, Crash was already the most controversial film of the year. The following spring it was named Best Picture by the Academy Awards, proving that even films with the lowest profiles can have a big impact after premiering at the festival.
Jiminy Glick in Lalawood (2004)
This goofy comedy from Canada’s own Martin Short (who stars and co-wrote the script) uses the Toronto International Film Festival as the backdrop for a murder mystery storyline. Short, virtually unrecognizable in a fat-suit, originally played the pompous, grotesque celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick in a short-lived Comedy Central TV series. The feature was shot at a previous year’s festival, which probably accounts for cameos ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal to Sharon Stone. The film premiered in 2004 but, even with Martin Short in a fat-suit, did not, alas, result in any awards.
Arriving in a Kazakh music-blaring ox-cart, pulled by several pseudo-peasant women, Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious alter-ego, Borat, made an unforgettable entrance at the 2006 festival. Later, at the film’s screening, tragedy struck when the projector malfunctioned and the film was unable to be shown. Instead, the evening took a surprising turn-of-events when Cohen, director Larry Charles (whose follow-up film, Religulous, makes its premiere at this year’s festival) and introducer Michael Moore conducted an impromptu Q&A with the enthusiastic audience. The evening ended with Borat offering the receptive audience, in his trademark crude yet undeniably hilarious style, “five minutes for sex-making with my nice cart-pull prostitutes.” The movie went on to gross more than $125 million in the United States alone.
By far the most popular film at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Jason Reitman’s Juno received an extended standing ovation and was lavished with praise by both movie fans and critics, who fell in love with the pregnant, idiosyncratic 16-year-old title character. Three months later, when the film was released in U.S. theaters, Juno would touch audiences nationwide. The movie became both a critical phenomenon (winning Best Original Screenplay and nominated for Best Picture) and a huge financial success (grossing over $140 million), becoming the sleeper hit of the year. In an odd promotional stunt, Fox Searchlight hired faux-runners to jog around TIFF, all dressed in Michael Cera’s memorable outfit from the film.
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
One of the festival’s many first-look premieres, Me and Orson Welles will mark the 15 year anniversary of director Richard Linklater’s TIFF premiere of the cult hit Dazed and Confused. Based on Robert Kaplow’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name, Welles is a fictional account of a teenage boy (played by Hairspray’s Zac Efron) cast in the 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, which is being directed by an arrogant, young, pre-Citizen Kane/War of the Worlds Orson Welles.