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2014 Toronto International Film Festival Preview: Five Key Questions

On your mark. Get set. Roll ‘em.

The 39th Toronto International Film Festival—TIFF for short—kicks off today and RogerEbert.com is there. Content Editor Brian Tallerico and I will be racing around North America’s premier movie event, trying to see as many of the must-see titles that we can among the some 284 features from 70 countries.

This year marks my 15th consecutive trip up north while Brian, who has previously covered festivals in Park City and Chicago, is a Toronto first-timer. If anything, our perspectives on what happens in the coming days should offer a contrast in viewpoints.

For those who engage in Oscar prognostication, many consider Canada’s biggest city as the place where the awards season starts in earnest. That reputation that was solidified by the successful TIFF launch of "American Beauty," the 1999 comedy-drama that would go on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture and a best actor Oscar for Kevin Spacey. And I witnessed that tradition being born.

But the competition among rival festivals for exclusive world premieres of potential contenders has heated up considerably since then, with TIFF refusing to screen any film during its first four days that has already been shown in North America. "Foxcatcher," the latest real-life drama by director Bennett Miller ("Capote," "Moneyball"), will arrive in this city already bearing the Cannes seal of approval. And "Birdman," with a tour-de-force performance by  Michael Keaton, opted to make its initial landing in Venice (skipping TIFF all together) and has already soared to critical hosannas last week.

However, there is a new twist this year that might guarantee that the 2014 edition of TIFF stands out and becomes one for the history books. The organizers, no fools they, have decided to declare Friday as Bill Murray Day—guaranteeing that the elusive funnyman will participate. Showings of Murray’s favorites "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day" will be topped by the first-ever unveiling of his latest comedy caper, "St. Vincent," complete with a destined-to-be-memorable Q&A afterwards.

Trust me. Considering how Toronto’s slate often goes heavy on titles that reflect a world mired in trials and tribulations alongside personal tales of facing strife and adversity that regularly leave festival-goers awash in despair, a heaping helping of Murray mirth will go a long way.

Yes, setting yourself up for Oscar glory is important. But what is often less remarked upon is how Toronto can also be a career changer for many even without drawing awards attention. TIFF regularly serves as a proving ground for talent both in front of and behind the camera, especially as the rare festival of this scope that encourages and benefits from public participation.

Actors and filmmakers can remake their image, try a new career option, begin a journey on the comeback trail or instantaneously break out as a discovery. While waiting to see what Murray wroughts on screen and off, consider these five questions that will be ultimately answered by the time TIFF wraps on Sept 14.

1. Are you ready for the Reese Witherspoon revival?

As happens all too often with best-actress Oscar winners, including Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry, one of America’s big-screen sweethearts saw her career take a nosedive after she was honored for her portrait of country-music legend June Carter Cash in 2005’s "Walk the Line." But all will likely be forgiven—even the foul "Four Christmases"—when Witherspoon comes on strong this fall with three efforts that seem destined to impress.

While her work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Inherent Vice" won’t be unveiled until October’s New York Film Festival, Toronto has the world premiere of "The Good Lie," whose trailer gives off "The Blind Side" vibes, as well as "Wild," a biopic about a troubled woman who finds her path in life again by undergoing a 1,100-mile trek. That it is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, whose "Dallas Buyers Club" took off in Toronto last year, is a bonus. Plus, "Wild" already comes to Toronto packing certified Oscar talk after its Telluride bow last week.

2. Can Al Pacino matter again?

Even though his best work since 2003 has occurred in TV projects ("Angels in America," "You Don’t Know Jack," "Phil Spector"), the Oscar winner for 1992’s "Scent of a Woman" just might regain his standing as a relevant movie star with two promising titles arriving at TIFF.

Pacino reunites with "Jack" director Barry Levinson in "The Humbling," based on a Philip Roth novel about an aging Shakespearean actor  who has an affair with a sexually adventurous lesbian (Greta Gerwig). And "Manglehorn" finds Pacino being directed by David Gordon Green ("George Washington," "Joe") as a lonely small-town Texas locksmith who connects with Holly Hunter’s bank teller.

While both titles played Venice (with "Manglehorn" earning more positive notices), TIFF wisely found a way to pump up its Pacino potential by throwing the actor a fancy career-retrospective fundraiser party on Wednesday night before opening day.

3. Will we buy Round Two of "Adam Sandler, Serious Actor"?

Sandler has tried to drop the goofball act and show off his dramatic ability before in such films 2002’s "Punch-Drunk Love" and 2004’s "Spanglish" with mixed results. But he is at it again, as he teams with a pair of directors whose sensibilities might mesh better with his strengths.

Toronto audiences will be the first to see Sandler in "Men, Women & Children"—no surprise, since it’s the latest effort by Canadian-born filmmaker Jason Reitman (who also has something at stake, given last year’s lackluster reception for his TIFF entry, "Labor Day"). The commentary on how the Internet and social media has changed the nature of personal relationships finds Sandler as part of an ensemble— including Emma Thompson as a narrator and Jennifer Garner as his wife—which might work to his benefit.

Meanwhile, "The Cobbler"—another world premiere with Thomas McCarthy ("The Visitor," "Win Win") directing—puts Sandler front and center in what sounds like a modern-day fairy tale as a shoe repair man uses a magical object to help him see life through the eyes of his customers. In other words, he walks a mile in their footwear.

Sandler is not the only comedy specialist looking for respect at TIFF. For Jennifer Aniston, "Cake" will be no laughing matter with topics such as chronic pain and suicide touched upon. Kristen Wiig takes a bit of a stretch on the darker side with the comedy-drama  "Welcome to Me," as a sufferer of borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery.

Meanwhile, if the buzz is to be believed, "Foxcatcher’s" Steve Carell might need to upgrade his awards-show tux for Oscar night.

4. What happens when Captain America, Professor Snape and that "Daily Show" dude step behind the camera?

There is a tradition of actors-turned-directors relying on TIFF audiences to test out their directing debuts, including Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Jack Goes Boating"), Casey Affleck ("I’m Still Here") and David Schwimmer ("Trust"), who all showed their wares at the festival back in 2010.

This year, Chris Evans drops his superhero persona to both direct and act in "Before We Go," a romance that takes place in Manhattan. First-time helmer Alan Rickman managed to snag the closing-night gala slot with "A Little Chaos," in which Kate Winslet is a gardener hired to build one of the fountains at the Palace of Versailles by Rickman’s Louis XIV.

And Jon Stewart trades his political commentator hat for a filmmaking cap as the director and writer of "Rosewater," based on the story of a London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist who was held captive in Iran after appearing on "The Daily Show."

5. What happens after being killed off of "Downton Abbey?"

Followers of the popular British series who are still mourning the loss of Matthew Crawley are about to find out when actor Dan Stevens steps into the TIFF spotlight with two projects. Not only does he show up in "The Cobbler" alongside Sandler. He also appears in "The Guest," his first true film lead that is part of the wilder-and-woolier Midnight Madness portion of the festival.

Stevens is right in his element as a charming stranger who visits the family of a slain soldier, claiming to have been his best friend, and proceeds to insinuate himself into their lives. After causing a stir at Sundance, this one may prove to be an under-the-radar hot ticket.

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