What Film Could Be the TIFF Opener?

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year
One question was probably on the minds of most future TIFF-goers as yesterday’s programming announcement ended: What could that open night selection be? This omission is the only real blip in an otherwise strong announcement. (There are so many appealing titles from yesterday's picks that it’s hard to do a top five, although Wild, Ned Rifle, Maps to the Stars, The New Girlfriend, and The Riot Club are immediate standouts.) I thought that The Riot Club seemed like a good bet for opening night, for Lone Scherfig’s film opens in the UK just a week after the festival. The factors of an attractive period drama, a cast of popular young leads (who also appeal to the older ‘Downton Abbey’ fans in the crowd), and a Danish director let The Riot Club check all the boxes for Oscar potential, commercial appeal, and world cinema. Opening with a film by a female director is also a great way for the festival to tell the industry, “We’re listening.” The Riot Club, though, doesn’t have US distribution at the moment and that seems to have been a decent factor in getting high profile titles such as Looper and The Fifth Estate for opening night in previous years. Other TIFFers pegged Wild, The Good Lie, and This is Where I Leave You as possible gets—all good ideas, but incorrect guesses. One can presume that it’s some sort of technicality that’s holding up the decision/announcement, like logistics, release dates/distribution, or maybe even final cuts.

There aren’t many obvious contenders left for opening night. Glance at the release schedule for September and October and more or less everything is included on the line-up, save for The Boxtrolls, but that seems unlikely since it’s doing a Comic Con thing. Dr. Cabbie is another potential September flick, and it could nab a Gala slot when the Canuck titles are announced in August, but Score: A Hockey Musical probably killed any chance of a Canadian film opening the festival for the next little while since it’s a film that only a Canadian could love and most Canadians flipped it the bird.

If TIFF wants to open with something CanCon-ish, Wim Wenders’ Everything Will Be Fine might be a decent get, but it’s reportedly in 3D and Roy Thomson Hall, as far as I know, isn’t equipped for that. Nothing else on the Canadian front seems big enough to open, unless a surprise gem like, say, Molly Parker’s directorial debut The Ballad of Maura Mackenzie has finished. Throw in some arbitrary reasons why other completely viable titles--Interstellar (Christopher Nolan), Unbroken (December release)--might not work, and it's hard to pick a winner. What, then, could that darn opening night film be? Here are some possible guesses from potential films. (TIFF still has over 200 or so films to go, so fret not even if your pick doesn’t land that opening slot.)

St. Vincent

Dir: Theodore Melfi (feature debut).  Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Bill Murray, Chris O’Dowd
Synopsis: A young boy whose parents just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic, war veteran who lives next door.
Release: October 24 from The Weinstein Company (USA) and eOne Films (Canada)

Why it could open: It looks the most festival-friendly of the films opening in relative proximity to the festival. (Compare it with the other potential October release Kill the Messenger, for example, and it looks like a smarter get.) St. Vincent looks funny and crowd-pleasing, but it also seems to have crossover appeal for serious indie-seeking audiences. It could have the mix of art house cred and commercial appeal that the festival seems to curate in its programming and TIFF might want to start by putting audiences in a good mood after the sombre Fifth Estate got the fest off to a so-so start last year. Plus, BILL MURRAY!

Why it might Not open: The Weinstein Company on opening night? That seems unlikely, especially after the fiasco with Grace of Monaco where TWC dumped the film just weeks before it was set to open Cannes. TWC knows the festival circuit well, as it did the Telluride-Toronto one-two punch with The King’s Speech and The Artist and won the Oscar back to back. It then skipped Colorado altogether with the Toronto-friendly Silver Linings Playbook and made a splash of winning by adding to the success of The King’s Speech and winning the People’s Choice Award two out of three years in a row, and Philomena came second last year. St. Vincent will probably play TIFF, but the track records of previous years probably mean that it’ll be elsewhere in the festival where it can get a boom of audience enthusiasm to complement—or drown out—the critical response. The film also marks the feature debut of Theodore Melfi, and opening with an unproven talent is a move that could go either way.

Suite Française

Dir. Saul Dibb (The Duchess). Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts
Synopsis: France, 1940. In the first days of occupation, beautiful Lucile Angellier is trapped in a stifled existence with her controlling mother-in-law as they both await news of her husband: a prisoner of war. Parisian refugees start to pour into their small town, soon followed by a regiment of German soldiers who take up residence in the villagers' own homes. Lucile initially tries to ignore Bruno von Falk, the handsome and refined German officer staying with them. But soon, a powerful love draws them together and leads them into the tragedy of war.
Release: TBA 2014 from The Weinstein Company (USA) and eOne (Canada)

Why it could open: If an opening night film encompasses everything the festival embodies, it’s hard to find a more appropriate choice than Suite Française. This prestigious literary adaptation is an international Canadian co-production with a roster of international stars. The source material itself ensures a healthy dose of pedigree to whoever programmes it, since the novel’s place in documenting the effects of the Holocaust is unprecedented. Irène Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz prior to finishing the novel grants Suite Française, which was found and published decades thereafter, a unique and significant sense of the power that the arts have to bring the past to life. It’s a book to cherish, and the film, which stars Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie, and Matthias Schoenaerts, is bound to garner significant buzz and attention from sophisticated moviegoers and stargazers alike. Director Saul Dibb also brought the period pic The Duchess to TIFF in 2008 and made a relatively strong debut, so it would not be a stretch to guess that he’ll return unless Venice makes an offer and it hits Toronto as a North American premiere.

Why it might not open: Weinsteins. (See above.) Suite doesn’t have a scheduled release date yet, so it’s unlikely that the film will bank on opening night buzz if there is no imminent reason to capitalize on it. On the other hand, TIFF 2011 opener From the Sky Down had nobody behind it on announcement day, but it faded from memory almost immediately after the festival, which probably indicates why TIFF has picked titles that are more viable in recent years. The Canadian connection might account for the hold-up, since the film was co-produced by Alliance Films, which has since been acquired by eOne, and there could be some technicality holding it up, although most of the titles between the two companies have moved seamlessly including most of the Weinstein Company’s releases. What’s going on with this film?
Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Française


Dir. David Ayer, Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena
Synopsis: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
Release: November 14, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Why it could open: Director David Ayer was a surprise TIFF pick with End of Watch, which arguably received ample street cred at TIFF 2012, and he made a repeat appearance after his directorial debut Harsh Times premiered at the fest in 2005. He might appear again if he feels the festival has played a hand in the success of his career, and the impressively larger scale of the war epic Fury might need an event such as opening night to help give it a boost. Brad Pitt is also a regular in Toronto and seems to play the buzz machine well, while Sony scored a solid hit with Looper in 2012, and did well with NYFF opener Captain Phillips last year.

Why it might not: Both Looper and the Cap’n did well, but they opened theatrically almost immediately after their premieres. The long haul between TIFF and November 14 might make the studio weary about hype it can’t capitalize on, piracy, etc. Is November too far away? Is Fury too obviously commercial to risk a poor reception on opening night?

A Most Violent Year

Dir. J.C. Chandor, Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandina Moreno
Synopsis: A thriller set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city's history, and centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.
Release: TBA Fall 2014 from A24 Films for USA and November 14 from Elevation Pictures for Canada

Why it could open: Everyone wants a piece of J.C. Chandor. The director of Margin Call and All is Lost is one of the most popular and acclaimed new filmmakers working today. The chatty Margin Call debuted at Sundance and earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination while the near-silent All is Lost opened at Cannes and then was one of two Oscar hopefuls to skip Toronto in favour of Telluride and then all but flatline during award season despite significant acclaim. (The other, of course, is Inside Llewyn Davis.) Chandor, with his newest film slated for a fall release, seems poised to be courted by Venice and/or Toronto. This New York-set Jessica Chastain starrer seems better tailored for a Toronto bow, although it could skip both fests altogether for the New  York Film Festival, but that seems unlikely since NYFF has already announced its three prime spots with Gone Girl as the opener, Inherent Vice as the centrepiece, and Venice-opener Birdman as the closing night film. A Most Violent Year is also represented by two up-and-coming distributors, A24 and Elevation Pictures, the latter of which has The Imitation Game and Nightcrawler going to TIFF, and the opportunity might be a smart way to join Chandor on the up-and-up. And then there's the fact that Jessica Chastain appears in the TIFF pick Miss Julie and TIFF frequently stacks star appearances together...

Why it might not open: Everyone wants a piece of J.C. Chandor. He’d be smart to do Venice and Toronto if there’s interest from both festivals—and there probably is—since they’re in such close proximity and seem to have a friendly relationship. The lack of a firm release date in the US could be a hitch, although that could just as easily be a technicality holding up the decision. A Most Violent Year has announced release dates for Canada and the UK, though, so might that be enough?
Red carpet ready with some cool shades!


Dir. Stephen Daldry, Starring: Rooney Mara, Selton Mello, Wagner Moura, Martin Sheen.
Synopsis: Set in an unnamed Third World country, three kids who make a discovery in a garbage dump soon find themselves running from the cops and trying to right a terrible wrong.
Release: TBA for North America, Oct. 31 for UK; Universal distributing for USA, no Canadian distrib.

Why it could open: The ad campaign for this year’s festival advertises TIFF as “The People’s Festival.” The angle smartly plays in to the increasingly coveted and influential People’s Choice Award, which is increasingly a hot topic among festivalgoers in line as they gab about films, compare notes, and feel active in the festival. If there is any film that attests to the influence of the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, it is 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. The film was set for a direct-to-DVD release before it wowed Toronto audiences, scored the People’s Choice Award, and went on to sweep the Oscars. Opening this year’s festival with Trash, which carries unmistakable similarities to Slumdog, would situate the kickoff of the festival almost as a choice of “the people.” Taking ownership of the festival and appealing to the public have been frequent elements in festival rhetoric this year, so it could be a smart choice. Add to this factor the pedigree of director Stephen Daldry and the international scope of the project, and it’s hard to find few choices with as much appeal.

Why it might not: Although the film has Universal Pictures for American distribution, it doesn’t have a film North American release date. (It opens in the UK on Halloween.) Perhaps the question mark is part of the delay in unveiling the opening night choice if Trash is the contender and Universal just needs to sort out a release date and Canadian distributor. (eOne might be a likely choice since they did the Canadian rollout for Rush last year.) Also working against or for Trash is the heavy anticipation for Universal’s December 25th release Unbroken, which could cancel the film out if it has any aspirations for the Oscars. The distributor might want to get a feel for how Trash plays before opening it earlier in the season, or by opting to open it in direct competition to the Angelina Jolie film.

What do you think could be the opener, festival fans?

Update: None of these films is playing Venice (nor is Wim Wenders' Every Thing Will Be Fine), which means they're all still in the running! (See the full Venice line-up here.)