There’s a broader vibe than the usual Hollywood A-listers this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the world’s top cinema showcases and a prelude for contenders at the Academy Awards.
Stars such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Glenn Close, Robert De Niro and Viggo Mortensen are on the guest list for the 11-day festival that opens Thursday with an unusually heavy emphasis on music and documentaries.
Pitt is on hand for the premiere of "Moneyball," a film he has been trying to bring to the screen for years as both star and producer. Directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote"), "Moneyball" casts Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who rebuilt his team on a shoestring budget applying a fresh statistical approach to find under-appreciated players.
"Baseball had relied on a form of statistics that just hadn’t been questioned, and this discovery that had been around for 30 years but had been dismissed showed that there’s much more to it," Pitt said. "There’s a lot of talented people out there who aren’t being used."
Pitt’s "Ocean’s Eleven" pal Clooney stars in two Toronto films, the family drama "The Descendants" from director Alexander Payne ("Sideways") and his own latest directing effort, the political saga "The Ides of March," in which he plays a presidential candidate opposite Ryan Gosling as an ambitious press secretary.
Weisz has three films playing Toronto: the 1950s drama "The Deep Blue Sea"; the sexual thriller "360," co-starring Anthony Hopkins and Jude Law; and the British spy tale "Page Eight," the festival’s closing-night premiere that co-stars Bill Nighy and Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes has a second film at Toronto, too. He directed and stars with Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler in the Shakespeare adaptation "Coriolanus." Redgrave also has another Shakespeare film at the festival, playing Queen Elizabeth I in "Anonymous," which stars Rhys Ifans as an aristocrat some scholars believe is the actual author of the Bard’s work.
Other highlights among the 260 feature films playing Toronto: Williams and Seth Rogen in actress Sarah Polley’s latest directing effort, the marital tale "Take This Waltz’; Close in the cross-dressing story "Albert Nobbs," about a 19th century Irishwoman who disguises herself as a male butler; De Niro, Jason Statham and Clive Owen in the action thriller "Killer Elite"; and Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in the Sigmund Freud-Carl Jung drama "A Dangerous Method."
Polley, who grew up in Toronto and still lives there, said that unlike industry-dominated festivals such as Cannes and Venice, Toronto draws regular film fans that give filmmakers a sense of how their work might play in the real world.
"The audiences are so enthusiastic," Polley said. "It’s a great launching pad for a film. You get your optimum audience here. If a film’s not loved by audiences here, it’s probably not going to be loved by an audience anywhere, so it’s a great first shot."
The 36th Toronto festival is putting music on a pedestal, as well, with documentaries about Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Pearl Jam and U2, the Irish rockers who are the subject of Thursday’s opening-night gala.
In "From the Sky Down," director Davis Guggenheim (the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth") traces the genesis of U2’s 1991 album "Achtung Baby" and follows singer Bono and his band mates today as they prepare for a live performance of those songs.
The festival typically starts with a Canadian film, but "we were looking at a number of ideas of just opening up what’s possible in terms of opening night," said Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto fest, which also premiered Guggenheim’s 2008 film "It Might Get Loud," featuring U2 guitarist The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White.
"The fact that it’s Davis Guggenheim is as important as the fact that it’s U2. Our audiences like his films and like his filmmaking. I like how he’s able to get under the skin of these very prominent figures, whether it’s the guitarists in ‘It Might Get Loud’ or Al Gore or with this one on U2."
Also on a musical note: Jonathan Demme directs "Neil Young Journeys," his third concert film featuring the rocker, this time in a solo show at Toronto’s Massey Hall at the end of his tour to promote the album "Le Noise."
Cameron Crowe combines his two occupations, filmmaker and rock journalist, to direct "Pearl Jam Twenty," a portrait of the Seattle-area music stars built on rare archival material and candid new interviews with Eddie Vedder and his band mates.
McCartney is at the heart of "The Love We Make," Albert Maysles’ chronicle of the former Beatle’s preparations for a memorial concert after the Sept. 11 attacks. The film screens at Toronto on Friday, the night before its TV premiere on Showtime and two days before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
The attacks left stars, filmmakers, studio executives and fans stranded in Toronto 10 years ago. The festival briefly shut down before resuming with a subdued air.
To mark the 10-year anniversary, all festival screenings on Sept. 11 will be preceded by a four-minute film featuring directors and other industry professionals looking back on that day and its aftermath.
"From the Sky Down" marks the first time the festival has opened with a documentary, and the nonfiction department also offers one of the festival’s most potentially divisive films with "Sarah Palin — You Betcha!"
Director Nick Broomfield ("Biggie and Tupac," ”Kurt and Courtney") spent 10 weeks during winter in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where he interviewed her parents, friends, church members and others who have known the former governor and Republican vice presidential candidate.
"The idea was to go with a pretty open mind, not with a lot of preconceptions," Broomfield said. "It’s almost like we made a diary of what we found rather than going out to nail her."
Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby in a scene from Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz.”