TIFF 2014: Looking back at the festival's cinematic landmarks

12 Years a Slave. (Courtesy)

12 Years a Slave. (Courtesy)

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:23 PM ET

The glitz and glamour surrounding stars who walk red carpets is just the surface noise for any successful film festival. What really makes or breaks a film fest is content, the on-screen product that programmers unearth or organizers wrestle out of the hands of producers and distributors. Since the Year One Festival of Festivals in 1976, content has always been critical for the Toronto International Film Festival.

So it is no surprise that long-time fest director Piers Handling — who first attended the festival as a film student long before he took the reins of management — can instantly cite a long list of titles that have made a difference. These are films that put Toronto on the map in world cinema circles, that burnished the reputation of Toronto audiences as discerning arbiters. These are films that helped give Toronto its status as the world’s number two film festival, behind only Cannes.

Among the thousands of films screened at TIFF, Handling’s prime time list includes Chariots of Fire (1981), The Big Chill (1983), The Princess Bride (1987), The Fisher King (1991), American Beauty (1999) and Crash (2004). Plus — of course — Slumdog Millionaire (2008), with its fabled story of going from obscurity to its Oscar triumph through Toronto.

These are all obvious choices. Handling has more titles on his list, films which may be less heralded yet still made a profound difference in TIFF reputation. Here are 11 films (from 10 directors) that were landmarks in the history of the festival:

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978): Australian Fred Schepisi’s breakout drama starred Tommy Lewis as an Aboriginal youth whose mixed heritage, and the pressure to conform to white society, led to violence. This shattering true story was not just material for an enlightened film, it also underscored how Toronto was willing to showcase cutting edge cinema from the ends of the earth.

Diva (1981): French director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s stylish thriller flopped on its initial release at home. Then Toronto “discovered” the film, gave it a lavish build-up and turned Diva into a worldwide sensation. That helped the film, but it also established Toronto as critical for releasing European films in North America.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and her Lover (1989): Peter Greenaway’s romantic crime drama still unsettles audiences (as do most of Greenaway’s highly intellectual yet venal films). But this one has a special place in cinema history, not least because its co-starred Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, but also because it hides an allegorical lesson about Thatcher-era Britain. The world took notice.

Days of Being Wild (1990): By itself, this is just notable as the second film from Chinese director Wong Kar Wai. But it showed how adept Toronto programmers were at finding, nurturing and showcasing the right directors in New Asian Cinema. Wong would eventually make masterpieces such as his Hong Kong romance, In the Mood for Love, which Toronto also celebrated.

Bullet in the Head (1990)/Hard Boiled (1992): In 1992, TIFF programmed John Woo’s best early Hong Kong films, unveiling a major stylist to the world. TIFF also reminded audiences, and the cinema world, that genre violence was no reason to dismiss films as second rate. Both of Woo’s crime thrillers are “hard boiled” and bloody, but they are also the stuff of great cinema.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995): Mike Figgis’ dark romantic drama explored alcoholism and despair, but with a fresh breath of air. It may never happen again, but the film also gave Nicolas Cage his only Oscar win. For a change, he delved into the material, not just into his own well of weirdness, and Toronto gave him the platform to excel in public.

L.A. Confidential (1997): Based on a novel by James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed Demon Dog of American Literature, Curtis Hanson’s glossy crime drama generated nine Oscar noms, including one for best picture, and it won two Academy Awards, including Kim Basinger’s award for best supporting actress. But it also underscored just how dazzling the trio of Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce could be in the right material. This is an influential film, an underrated American classic.

Rushmore (1998): Wes Anderson’s quirky career reached its zenith this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is worthy of Oscar noms. But what would his career be like today without the “off-Broadway” success of films such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums? Rushmore broke out of TIFF and firmly established the Texan as one of America’s most creative, clever and off-kilter filmmakers. We are still reaping the rewards today.

School of Rock (2003): Richard Linklater’s only successful Hollywood movie is a gonzo rock ‘n’ roll comedy starring Jack Black. But, because it was Linklater, and because Black has more than sweaty antics, School of Rock has a poignant side that made it worthy of a festival. In turn, Toronto propelled it into theatres.

12 Years a Slave (2013): TIFF helped launched filmmaker Steve McQueen’s career with Hunger (2008). A year ago, the fest played a hand in launching his successful Oscar campaign for a film that has historical significance. What titles get that treatment in 2014? Time will tell.

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