National Newswatch

TORONTO — On the heels of a major summer box-office slump caused by flopping franchise sequels and under-performing tentpoles, the Toronto International Film Festival is offering up an alternative: edgy stories that have big names but don't quite fit into the mainstream.

From George Clooney's disturbing look at a home invasion in "Suburbicon," to Darren Aronofsky's enigmatic psychological thriller "Mother!" and Alexander Payne's human-shrinking satire "Downsizing," the lineup kicking off Thursday features adventurous work by major filmmakers at a time when the instinct is to not take risks, say organizers.

"It's terrific to see these very strong, very individualistic, challenging pieces of work still being done," said Piers Handling, director and CEO of TIFF.

"People talk about the death of independent cinema and how everything is a franchise or a comic book or that kind of thing — it's not really true," added Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF.

"Some of the best filmmakers are still getting the chance to tell adventurous stories, to be bold with the ideas in their movies and to still work with big budgets."

Overall, the lineup reflects an uncertainty and instability in the world, with films dealing with the notion of chaos and survival.

"It's a strange moment, let's face it, I think for everyone," said Handling. "Everyone feels this sense of disruption, it's very unsettled, a sense of really what is the future going to hold in store?"

About 340 films will screen at this year's fest, which runs Sept. 7 to 17. It's a smaller number than in recent years — a result of a TIFF mandate to trim the overall number of titles by 20 per cent. Organizers said they made the changes in response to feedback from audiences, the industry and the media.

The fest is typically seen as a springboard to the Oscars, with many titles going on to win the golden statuette, and this year's edition has a wealth of awards bait.

The festivities kick off with the world premiere of "Borg/McEnroe," starring Shia LaBeouf as tennis great John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Sweden's Bjorn Borg. It will close with the French-language comedy "C'est la vie!" by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. 

About a third of the films in the lineup are directed by women. Among them is Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father," Haifaa Al Mansour's "Mary Shelley," Angela Robinson's "Professor Marston & the Wonder Women," Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," and Brie Larson's "Unicorn Store."

"They're some of the strongest films this year, that's no surprise," said Bailey of the female-helmed films. "But also I think what's new is films that can play as a big-scale movie.

"What often happens with women trying to make films is that the people who have the money to make the films don't trust female filmmakers with the budgets to make a large-scale film, the kind of film we would show as a gala. But that is beginning to change."

"Borg/McEnroe" and "Mary Shelley," in which Elle Fanning plays the "Frankenstein" author, are among a slew of biopics in the lineup. Others include "Darkest Hour" with Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill; "I, Tonya" with Margot Robbie as ice skater Tonya Harding; James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in "The Disaster Artist"; and "Stronger" with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany as Boston Marathon bombing survivors.

Documentaries will profile luminaries including Canadian rockers the Tragically Hip, pop star Lady Gaga, guitar great Eric Clapton, singer Grace Jones, primatologist Jane Goodall, and Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman.

Star watchers can also look out for the likes of Denzel Washington ("Roman J. Israel, Esq."), Jennifer Lawrence ("Mother!), Matt Damon ("Suburbicon," "Downsizing"), Jessica Chastain ("Molly's Game"), Idris Elba ("Molly's Game") and Steve Carell and Emma Stone, stars of "Battle Of The Sexes" — among many others.

Some A-listers will also discuss their craft at a multitude of Q-and-A special events, including Jolie, Helen Mirren, Glenn Close and Javier Bardem. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan will speak at an IMAX screening of "Dunkirk," Aaron Sorkin will conduct a master class, and Louis C.K. will do a live TIFF Long Take podcast for his film "I Love You, Daddy."

"TIFF is really about providing experiences," said Handling. "I think that's very important for us — provide a context for the work that you're seeing, historical or contemporary."

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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