It can be said in one magic word that rhymes with abracadabra: Oprah.
If you want to know just how gigantic an event the Toronto International Film Festival has become in its 34th year, you need only consider that among those in the world of international fame putting their lives on hold to make their obeisant way to Toronto will be the Empress of American culture herself, Oprah Winfrey. And she's a woman whose own magic wand has been been known to make best sellers, box office smashes and perhaps even presidents with a single wave. (There are those who routinely opine that without Oprah Winfrey, our current president might still be brandishing his cool in the U.S. Senate -- or, for that matter, the Illinois State Senate.)
Oprah Winfrey is the producer of "Precious," based on Sapphire's novel "Push" and said to feature a career-changing performance by comedian Mo'nique.
Oprah Winfrey and her star are only two of the small occupying army of renown and accomplishment that will arrive in Toronto during the course of 10 days to celebrate themselves and display work they may actually be proud of -- at least a little anyway.
It begins Thursday.
Hold onto your hat. Here are some of the others expected: George Clooney, Chris Rock, Penelope Cruz, Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon, Colin Farrell, Mariah Carey, Michael Douglas, Bill Murray, Drew Barrymore, Demi Moore, Michael Cera, Michael Caine, Naomi Watts, Jennifer Connelly, David Duchovny, Viggo Mortensen, Tyler Perry, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Claire Denis, Daniel Ellsberg, Werner Herzog, Clive Owen, Colin Firth, Jonathan Demme, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, The White Stripes, Edward Norton, Ricky Gervais, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, etc., etc., etc.
And then, as the old joke might have it, after lunch. . . .
What has happened to the Toronto Film Festival is that it has long since grown into what is, unquestionably, the most prestigious and influential -- as well as the largest, by far -- in the Western Hemisphere.
Cannes will always be Cannes. The Sundance Film Festival will always be the place the little films get a lot bigger. But it is part of Toronto's long-standing history of all-inclusiveness that those annual landmark cinematic events always turn into feeder festivals for Toronto. In other words, films that excite huge comment and interest elsewhere are almost certain to wind up in Toronto long before they ever think of commercial openings around the world.
What always happens with audiences of film fans standing in the ubiquitous lines is that they are sure to get embroiled in at least one merry discussion with at least two other movie fans in line. Often, in fact, what happens is that instant discussion groups of five or six people are suddenly formed almost as often as you can say "chat room." People have been known to make friends for life that way. (Marriage has no doubt resulted, too. If you know of any, by all means tell us.)
Films may make a splash elsewhere -- Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Berlin -- but Toronto is now where they are truly made. There is no way, for instance, that such films as "Juno," "Sideways," "The Piano," "Little Miss Sunshine," or even "Blue Velvet" and "Reservoir Dogs" -- just to name six off the top of my head -- would have had a fraction of the reputation and historical and/or commercial significance they did have without the Toronto Film Festival.
You almost always know it when you see it, too. You knew, for instance, just sitting in that press and industry audience for the little sleeper about a pregnant teen, "Juno," that audiences would love it as much as press and industry types.
You knew watching a smiling Michael Moore present "Roger and Me" that this viciously sarcastic leftist blue-collar avenger from Flint, Mich., was neither kidding nor about to go away. And, yes, of course, he, too, is going to be delighted to haul his large self to the scene of the crime and present a new documentary, sweetly called "Capitalism: A Love Story."
Here, then, are just a few handsful of the 335 to be shown at the festival:
* Rebecca Miller's "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," starring Robin Wright Penn, whose marriage to Sean Penn seems to be ending just as her career is about to gets its biggest boost since "Forrest Gump." She plays the disturbed wife of a much older Alan Arkin. The film also features Buffalo-bound actor Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Julianne Moore.
* "The Informant," directed by Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's 11," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic") back in serious comedian mode. Only this time, his star is Matt Damon, as a bipolar whistle-blower making life difficult for Archer Daniels Midland Corp.
* "A Serious Man," by Joel and Ethan Coen, in which the Oscar-winning Smug Brothers get down to some autobiographical roots with actors Adam Arkin and Richard Kind and explore what it meant to grown up Jewish in Minneapolis.
* "The Road," starring Viggo Mortensen in John Hillcoat's latest adaptation from the works of writer Cormac McCarthy (whose "No Country for Old Men" provided the Coen brothers with a map back to major esteem). "The Road" is McCarthy's post-apocalyptic fantasy of a man and his son on the road.
* "The Joneses" starring, get this now, Demi Moore and David Duchovny (a piece of casting genius right there) as the suburban couple the rest of us are always supposedly trying to keep up with.
* "Antichrist" by Lars Van Trier, the Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg film that shocked Cannes audiences with a few notable dismemberments and physical assaults they weren't expecting -- not even at Cannes and even from the man who had made "Breaking the Waves."
* "Up in the Air" by Jason Reitman ("Juno" "Thank You for Smoking"), starring George Clooney in one of the two Clooney films that will be seen in Toronto this year. It's a festival that has always brought him luck ("Michael Clayton" premiered there). The other Clooney film will be Grant Heslov's "The Men Who Stare at Goats" about paranormal doings and co-starring Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor.
* "Jennifer's Body," in which Megan Fox, perhaps the hottest vision in the current younger male imagination, stars in a film written by Diablo Cody, the former stripper who won an Oscar for writing "Juno."
* "The Invention of Lying," wherein Ricky Gervais -- who really is one of the funniest people alive, even in movies he has no business being in -- takes on religion with the help of Tina Fey, Jennifer Garner, Patrick Stewart and Jonah Hill.
* "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky," Jan Kounen's film about the legendary designer's affair with and espousal of the cause of the even more legendary Russian composer when he was at financial low ebb.
* "Get Low," with Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek in a tale of a small-town murder case and a real Tennessee recluse who planned his own funeral.
* "Bright Star," about the relationship of John Keats and Fannie Brawne as imagined by Jane Campion, who gave us "The Piano" and "Portrait of a Lady."
No Toronto Film Festival is complete without at least one or two bang-up rock 'n' roll movies. To be shown this year are "The White Stripes Under Great Northern Lights" and the first print of Jonathan Demme's newest film about Neil Young, "Neil Young Trunk Show."
One-man shows either introducing new films or talking about their life's work on film will be given by figures as wildly disparate as Chris Rock and Michael Caine (call him Sir Michael Caine now, if you insist on being formal).
Put it this way: The Toronto Film Festival is the yearly event only 90 minutes away that reminds everyone on this continent that movies still matter.
Really, really matter.
>Toronto International Film Festival
WHAT: The largest and most prestigious film festival in the Western Hemisphere, now in its 34th year.
WHEN: Begins Thursday and runs through Sept. 19.
WHERE: All over Toronto film exhibition venues, but concentrated in Toronto's Yorkville area, centered on the corner of Bay and Bloor Streets.
WHAT IT INVOLVES: 335 films this year, including 134 world and international premieres and 108 North American premieres. In other words, 72 percent of the entire festival is premieres of one sort or another.
WHO'S INVITED: Members of the movie press from around the world. And all the major figures from each movie. What that means this year is that the star-struck hanging around Yorkville hotels have a chance of catching glimpses of everyone from Oprah Winfrey, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Demi Moore, Chris Rock and Ally Sheedy to Christopher Plummer, Daniel Ellsberg, Werner Herzog, the Coen Brothers and The White Stripes.
WHO WILL ATTEND: Film industry people from around the world. And film fans from all around the world. Of all the world's film festivals, the Toronto festival is famous for being the closest to a "People's Festival," the one most beloved of those who, whatever they do for a living, just love movies.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotels all over the area. Unfortunately, most are already well-booked, but there's always room for you somewhere.
TO GET TICKETS: 1-416-968-FILM. OR 1-877-968-FILM.
TO GET FULL INFORMATION: www.tiff.net