Let the Oscar buzz begin at the star-studded Toronto International Film Festival

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TORONTO -- As if the chance to catch a glimpse of Channing Tatum or Denzel Washington or Reese Witherspoon weren’t enough, the Toronto International Film Festival will create a pedestrian promenade this year with artworks, pop-up performances, a music stage and -- as in the movie “Chef” -- food trucks.

What’s being called the Festival Street initiative is designed to allow the energy and festival fever to spill outside onto part of King Street West from Thursday through Sunday. Those are the first four and typically most crowded days of the annual event.

It’s a new wrinkle for an old festival which has grown in strength, stature and star power since its 1976 launch as the “Festival of Festivals.“

Canadians brought the best films from other festivals to audiences in Toronto. That first year, 35,000 enthusiasts watched 127 films from 30 countries; three and a half decades later, the number of moviegoers topped 400,000 as their options and countries of origins exploded, too. 

This year, the festival will showcase 285 features -- many world, international or North American premieres -- along with 108 shorts from 70 countries. Twenty-eight screens in venues new and old, cavernous and cozy, near and far from Downtown Toronto, will be used from Thursday through Sept. 14.

The event is a movie marathon, worldwide marketplace, publicity extravaganza, stargazing and selfie spectacular and, often, a stop on the road to the Oscars and a box-office bonanza.    

Festival favorites George Clooney and Brad Pitt are not expected -- weddings, honeymoons and movies such as “Fury” are keeping them busy -- but the list of starry guests due is long and luminous. The actors’ alphabetized roster is 200-strong with such notables as Benedict Cumberbatch, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Robert Pattinson, Al Pacino and Jennifer Garner due, some for more than one movie.

Perhaps no honor is greater than the one accorded to Bill Murray. The festival has declared Sept. 5 “Bill Murray Day” and will offer free public screenings of his comedies “Stripes,” “Groundhog Day” (set in Punxsutawney, as we all know) and “Ghostbusters.”

They will be a warm-up act for the world premiere of “St. Vincent,” in which he stars alongside Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard and Jaeden Lieberher in the story of a retired curmudgeon who takes a new 12-year-old neighbor under his wing. And to his stomping grounds of a race track, strip club and local dive bar.

As often happens, some actors or actresses will do double or triple duty or, in one notable case, share a role.

Paul Dano and John Cusack play younger and older versions of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy.” Adam Sandler is a lonely New York City shoe repairman who discovers a magical heirloom in “The Cobbler” and is part of the ensemble in Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children.” 

Julianne Moore portrays a desperate, insecure actress in David Cronenberg’s satire of Hollywood, “Maps to the Stars,” along with a Columbia University professor diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” based on Lisa Genova’s novel.  

Ms. Witherspoon goes “Wild” as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and appears in “The Good Lie,” about an employment agency counselor whose encounter with Sudanese refugees changes her view of the world beyond her Kansas City home.

“Wild” is just the sort of role that could return the “Walk the Line” star to the ranks of Oscar nominees or winners.   

A year ago in Toronto, audiences and critics struggled to pronounce and properly spell the name of an actress who delivered a breakthrough performance in “12 Years a Slave.” She was Lupita Nyong’o, who would win a supporting actress Oscar in the best picture of 2013 and not so coincidentally the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the festival. 

It’s an honor that had gone to other Oscar winners or nominees such as “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The King’s Speech,“ “Precious” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Michael Moore took that prize 25 years ago for “Roger & Me” and he’s returning for a special anniversary screening of the documentary. 

When the festival announced Mr. Moore would introduce the movie and kick off the TIFF Doc Conference with a keynote conversation moderated by programmer Thom Powers, the filmmaker called the silver anniversary a bittersweet milestone. 

“On the one hand, the film has affected the millions who’ve seen it and it has strongly influenced what is a now-thriving documentary movement,” he said in a statement issued by TIFF. 

“The fact that ‘Roger & Me’ is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago is a travesty. Actually, it’s more than that. At least in 1989, there were still 50,000 General Motors jobs left in Flint [Mich]. Today, there are but 4,000 GM jobs that remain in Flint, the birthplace of General Motors.” 

Roger B. Smith, GM chairman and CEO and the name of the title, died in November 2007.

As usual, there will be local connections to TIFF.

Pittsburgh native Antoine Fuqua, who was just back in his hometown making “Southpaw” with Jake Gyllenhaal, will be in Toronto for the world premiere of “The Equalizer” starring Denzel Washington. The pair collaborated on “Training Day,” which won Mr. Washington his second Oscar and first for leading actor.

Mr. Gyllenhaal is coming for his new movie, “Nightcrawler” while “Fathers & Daughters” actresses Jane Fonda and Amanda Seyfried will be promoting, respectively, “This Is Where I Leave You” and Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young.” Ansel Elgort, who largely flew under the radar while making “The Fault in Our Stars” in Pittsburgh, no doubt will be the object of red-carpet affection for “Men, Women & Children.”

Audiences got their first looks at “Foxcatcher,” filmed in Western Pennsylvania, at the Cannes Film Festival in May and Telluride Film Festival last week. It will make its Canadian premiere here, riding a wave of Oscar chatter, especially for Steve Carell as multi-millionaire John du Pont who shot and killed an Olympic wrestler in 1996. He appears alongside Mr. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

Mr. Carell could find himself making awards rounds with Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton, whose “Birdman” (not coming to TIFF) has been getting rapturous reviews since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last week. TheWrap.com, reporting from Telluride where “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher” played, headlined its story: “ ‘Birdman’ and ‘Foxcatcher’ leave Telluride Audiences Blissed Out and Bowled Over.”

In other years, “Foxcatcher” might have scored a key weekend slot, but in an effort to safeguard TIFF’s allure and standing, Toronto’s artistic director Cameron Bailey announced films that play Telluride will have to wait until Monday or later to screen in Toronto.

Critics are good-naturedly talking about a throwdown, and it’s too early to say how this will affect the festival, which is rolling out the red carpets, laying in extra supplies of popcorn and welcoming guests from around the world. It clearly hasn’t hurt demand for “Foxcatcher,” with two public showings sold out. 

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog Mad About the Movies at www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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