Our critic on the ground surveys the festivals that was.
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18 Sep 2013 - 12:14 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2013 - 2:12 PM

The standard greeting exchanged between strangers at most film festivals is an especial favourite at TIFF: How many have you seen? Rankings of quality and recommendation come second; your number establishes your seriousness, whether you're a dabbler or a snob or a hero, prepared to sit through no fewer than five films a day until they sweep you out the door, until next year.

This year the heroes had a particular job of it, given the number of 288 total films that pushed or passed the 200-minute mark. Those include Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley (244 minutes); Wang Bing's Feng Ai (227 minutes); Lav Diaz's Norte, The End of History (250 minutes); Agnieska Holland's Burning Bush (234 minutes); and 190-minute The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, writer/director Ned Benson's bisected story of a marriage starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain.

Despite its unusual length and structure, Rigby was one of 32 films sold by the end of the festival. Other sales include David Gordon Green's Joe, starring Nicholas Cage, which added UK, Australian, Japanese, and Scandinavian rights. Jason Bateman's Bad Words also found a buyer after its crowd-pleasing world premiere, as did The Railway Man, the latest from Australian director Jonathan Teplitzsky (review here) and Under the Skin (review here). The festival reported a ten percent increase in accredited industry delegates; their numbers now push 5 000, which helps account for the crowding and overwhelmed volunteer force. TIFF, which began in 1976 as 'The Festival of Festivals,' intended to attract local filmgoers with a program curated from other festivals, continues to embrace it reputation as a marketplace.

'Oscar-maker' is the other half of TIFF's reputation, and this year it was Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave that sparked the Oscar drum-beating among critics and audiences alike. This weekend the film won TIFF's audience award (excuse me, 'Blackberry People's Choice Award'), considered the biggest get at a festival that otherwise eschews competition. Runners up for the award were Stephen Frears's well-received Philomena, starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Telluride favourite Prisoners (review here). August: Osage County, which with its fancy pedigree (Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer for the play) and studio backing looked like a strong contender, brought stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts to Toronto, but the southern family epic received a politely disappointed reaction. By contrast, Dallas Buyers Club's Matthew McConaughey and surprise favourite Jared Leto as a cross-dressing sweetheart began what promise to be strong Oscar campaigns with the film's warm TIFF reception.

It was a nice year for the home team: In addition to Prisoners and Dallas Buyers Club (directed by French Canadians Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée, respectively; Villeneuve also brought the smaller and darker Enemy, again starring Jake Gyllenhaal, to TIFF), there was Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot, a feature about the much-documented West Memphis Three story, Crash director Paul Haggis's Third Person, and Goon director Michael Dowse's The F Word, a Toronto-set romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. The F Word, a kind of millennial When Harry Met Sally, secured one of the larger deals at the festival—almost $3 million for U.S. rights.

I enjoyed The F Word, which on the whole felt slight but reasonably satisfying, though it suffers from the script's frequent mistaking of canned, sitcom-grade crudeness for wit. Dowse captures enough of the heartache that a platonic friendship between a man and a woman can generate, should the man harbour feelings and the woman believe their bond is on the level, to draw the viewer in. It's the kind of film you see more often at Sundance, which suggests Toronto did not abandon but is continually revising its signature 'festival of festivals' approach. There really is something here for everybody, which can be good or bad—sometimes on the same day—but never, ever boring.