Toronto Film Festival 2013: Reporter's diary
The BBC's Neil Smith reports from the 38th Toronto International Film Festival on the movies, stars and industry heavyweights that are making waves on the shores of Lake Ontario.
SUNDAY 15 SEPTEMBER 07:00 (12:00 BST)
My last night at the Toronto Film Festival was spent pretty much like the first: At a huge, noisy, well-liquored party.
In many ways the event - enormous, convivial and a little intimidating - felt representative of my festival experience as a whole.
The size and scale of this annual showcase can make it difficult to negotiate, especially to a first-time attendee like myself.
With a bit of luck, planning and persistence, though, it is possible to see, do and achieve pretty much anything to which one sets one's mind.
For example, I had more or less given up on catching The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a three-hour, two-part drama starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain.
But a tip-off from a Toronto veteran alerted me to an early morning screening at an uptown venue less frequented than the festival's primary locations.
Two subway rides and a bit of queuing later, I found myself watching one - or should that be two? - of my personal festival highlights.
I left with an even firmer conviction that the pale-skinned, flame-haired Chastain is the Meryl Streep of her generation.
Subtitled Him and Her, the two halves of Eleanor Rigby tell of a young New York couple dealing with a devastating bereavement.
Each part works fine as a self-contained story. Seen in tandem, however, you get the whole story - one that is painful and poignant yet ultimately life-affirming.
McAvoy is excellent as the impulsive Conor, a struggling restaurateur bewildered when his wife deserts him to start her life afresh.
But Chastain is simply outstanding as Eleanor, transforming before our eyes from a tragic victim of circumstance into an independent woman with a renewed sense of purpose.
The unconventional structure and hefty running time of Ned Benson's film(s) may militate against her Oscar chances this time around.
Such accolades, though, are only a matter of time. And yes, the Beatles reference is intentional.
Next to Eleanor Rigby's ambition and audacity, festival closer Life of Crime struck me as a bit of a damp squib.
Based on a novel by the late Elmore Leonard, this darkly comic tale of a kidnapping gone awry has plenty of amusing moments but not much substance.
That its ne'er-do-well protagonists previously featured in Jackie Brown invites comparisons with Quentin Tarantino's 1997 film that do Daniel Schechter's no favours.
But I did like Mark Boone Junior's turn as a slovenly collector of Nazi memorabilia, who responds to another character's moral qualms by spluttering: "What, you don't like history?"
The festival comes to a close in a couple of hours with the presentation of this year's awards, so look out for my report on that later.
For now, though, I'll sign off this diary by thanking Toronto for making me feel so welcome over the last 11 days. Go Blue Jays!
SATURDAY 14 SEPTEMBER 08:00 (13:00 BST)
With the festival drawing to a close, I thought I'd say a few words about some of the other films I've seen out here that I haven't mentioned so far.
US comedy Bad Words casts Jason Bateman as a middle-aged curmudgeon who finds a loophole that allows him to enter a national children's 'spelling bee'.
Sweeping aside the competition with his superior orthography, he finds himself pitted against a gifted young boy, with whom he forms an unconventional friendship.
Bateman's first film as a director sparked quite the bidding war in Toronto before finally being snapped up by Focus Features for a reported $7m (£4.4m).
With a central character reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa, it's amusing but nothing special.
Period drama Belle puts an interesting twist on the genre by making its heroine (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the illegitimate bi-racial daughter of a white admiral and a Caribbean slave.
Raised as a lady in a wealthy household yet forbidden to dine with them, her unique place in the social hierarchy allows director Amma Asante to address some of the same themes as 12 Years a Slave.
Belle, though, is very much the PG version of Steve McQueen's film, being as interested in swooning romance as it is in historical injustice.
It's great to look at but a little stuffy, with a sneering turn from former Harry Potter star Tom Felton that's essentially Draco Malfoy in a frockcoat.
Philomena and Under the Skin both played in Venice, so they arrived in Toronto with a bit of wind in their sails.
The former finds Dame Judi Dench in potentially award-grabbing form as an Irish Catholic who sets out to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier.
The latter sees Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form who drives around Scotland looking for men she can feast on.
Philomena is a charmer with a fascinating story to tell and an unlikely hero in the form of former BBC journalist turned Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan).
Under the Skin, alas, is a pretentious snooze that would probably provoke titters of derision if it wasn't so boring.
Set in a British prison where violence and intimidation are commonplace, Starred Up feels like a homegrown version of the French film A Prophet.
Lurking beneath the thuggery, though, is a sentimental streak as new inmate Eric (Jack O'Connell) finds himself sharing a wing with his old lag of a father (Ben Mendelsohn).
David Mackenzie's powerfully-acted drama has a brooding intensity and feels grimly authentic. But I still found myself longing for an early release.
I was also distracted by Mendelsohn's accent, a curious amalgam of estuary English and his native Australian drawl.
Karen Gillan does a better job adopting an American twang in Oculus, a blood-splattered horror film about a haunted mirror.
Part of the festival's Midnight Madness strand, it's a predictably gory affair with some well-staged shocks that could go on to enjoy cult success.
The Stag, meanwhile, is a rambunctious Irish comedy about a group of male friends on a debauched stag weekend in the country.
Its best moment, though, comes when Sherlock actor Andrew Scott quietly performs a beautiful rendition of the old folk standard Raglan Road.
I didn't get a chance to see August: Osage County, a heavily-hyped family drama with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor heading a very starry cast.
I also missed All Is On My Side, a biopic about Jimi Hendrix that focuses on the early life of the legendary rock musician.
But there are only so many hours in the day, and you can't spend all of them inside a movie theatre.
With that in mind, I think I'll do a bit of sight-seeing.
FRIDAY 13 SEPTEMBER 08:00 (13:00 BST)
Last week there was a lot of talk about Benedict Cumberbatch being "the man of the festival", thanks to his roles in three Toronto titles.
Daniel Radcliffe has also been feted for having three films in the line-up, prompting one publication to call him the event's "unofficial poster-boy".
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska also has three movies showing this year, all of which have been enthusiastically received.
Yet no-one to my knowledge has been calling her "the woman of the festival". Maybe I should start.
I've already written about Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the 23-year-old Canberran plays a flighty vampire who can't be trusted around humans.
I've since seen the other titles in which she appears, which show the Alice in Wonderland actress to be as versatile as she is prolific.
In Tracks, she plays Robyn Davidson, a real-life nomad who trekked 2,000 miles across the outback with only a dog and four camels for company.
Wasikowska effectively conveys Robyn's indomitable spirit in an unaffected and refreshingly ungroomed performance.
John Curran's film boasts awesome desert scenery that emphasises the solitude, hardship and danger its heroine willingly signed up for.
It also opens with an unusual warning, aimed at Aborigines, that it might contain the voices of people who have died.
I then saw Mia in Richard Ayoade's The Double, playing the elusive and ethereal object of Jesse Eisenberg's affections.
There are two Eisenbergs in this Dostoyevsky adaptation, set in a grimly mechanised vision of the future reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
One Jesse is a meek and downtrodden milquetoast, while the other is a smoothly confident doppelganger who invades and takes over his life.
The film as a whole is rather muddled. But I did like the cheesy Blake's 7 parody, starring Paddy Considine, that's always playing when any character turns on a television.
Wasikowska, by the way, will be next be seen alongside Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg's 2014 release Maps to the Stars.
FRIDAY 13 SEPTEMBER 03:00 (09:00 BST)
A few days ago you could hardly move for celebrities. As the festival nears its end, though, there's a distinct shortage in the star department.
Yet there are still a few familiar faces in the vicinity, with more to come as we enter the final weekend.
The most recent flash of glamour came courtesy of Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson, in Toronto to launch light-hearted heist caper The Love Punch.
The former James Bond and the two-time Oscar winner play a divorced couple who set aside their differences to stage a jewel theft on the French Riviera.
"Emma and I had met over the years and we always said 'let's work together'," said Brosnan on Thursday.
"This wonderful piece fit like a glove. It's a beautiful romp of a film and we hit the ground running."
"For us it was the best summer ever," agreed Thompson, adding that the stunt driving she performed for the film had made her keen to pursue similar opportunities.
"It really gave me a taste for it," she revealed. "I'd like to do an action movie one day and get really ripped, with tattoos."
THURSDAY 12 SEPTEMBER 08:00 (13:00 BST)
One of the most popular and colourful sidebars at the Toronto Film Festival is the Midnight Madness section, a nightly orgy of culty thrills from the worlds of horror, fantasy and action.
I got my first taste of it the other night and was captivated by the exuberance and enthusiasm of an audience markedly younger than the ones I have been a part of elsewhere.
Midnight Madness takes place on the campus of Ryerson University, some way away from the festival's primary hub downtown.
I asked Colin Geddes, programmer of the section, whether this physical separation reflected the sidebar's outsider status, apart and distinct from the rest of the line-up.
"Very much so," he agreed. "It is a festival within a festival, with a very different energy.
"There's music playing, people are excited and sometimes there's a beach ball."
The night I was there, to see a low-budget alien abduction thriller called Almost Human, someone had brought an inflatable alien to be bounced around beforehand.
Yet once the movie started the audience became almost eerily quiet, at least until the first instance of extra-terrestrial hostility.
"The audience is respectful," Geddes nods. "They don't yell out at the screen. They're there for the experience.
"For the first five to 10 minutes, they're waiting to feel what the tone of the film is. And then they just slide right into it."
Midnight Madness was first held 25 years ago to cater for cinemagoers who were having difficulty relating to the festival's more serious fair.
"Back then it was mainly foreign-language, art-house cinema," Geddes explains. "If you'd never been to a film festival before, it was a little impenetrable.
"But everyone can relate to horror films, to black comedies, to martial arts movies. So in many ways it's been a gateway drug to get audiences into the festival."
According to Geddes, the careers of Peter Jackson, Eli Roth and Japan's Shin'ya Tsukamoto are among those to have been boosted significantly by Midnight Madness exposure.
He also recalled a few occasions when ticket holders found its offerings too hard to stomach.
"When we showed Eli Roth's Hostel in 2005 we had two people passing out," he says.
"Eli, of course, took that as a badge of honour."
THURSDAY 12 SEPTEMBER 02:30 (07:30 BST)
"People in the music industry don't make good life partners," says a character in Can A Song Save Your Life?, which sees Keira Knightley play a budding singer-songwriter trying to make it in New York.
The irony is that Knightley recently tied the knot with a person in the music industry - the splendidly named James Righton, from indie rockers Klaxons.
There's been a lot of interest in John Carney's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Once, particularly after The Weinstein Company acquired its US distribution rights for a cool $7 million (£4.4m).
A lot of critics seem very impressed also that Keira can carry a tune, having apparently forgotten she displayed a perfectly acceptable set of pipes in 2008's The Edge of Love.
The story of a jaded music producer (Mark Ruffalo) who encourages the newly jilted Greta (Knightley) to make good on her potential, Can A Song… mirrors Once so closely one might almost call it Twice.
As before, the action involves an older man and a younger woman, their will they/won't they relationship and a veritable tsunami of poignant guitar ballads.
At one point James Corden, in his role as Greta's best friend, even appears to be imitating the angst-ridden performance style of Once's Glen Hansard.
As derivative as it is, though, it still works a treat, charming and disarming in equal measure with its humour, heart and honesty.
Corden cropped up again this week in One Chance, a trite comedy inspired by the overnight success of Britain's Got Talent winner Paul Potts.
On this occasion Corden lets Potts do the warbling in a heavily fictionalised version of his life story that it would be misleading to call a biopic.
Yes, Paul gets to sing Nessun Dorma for Simon Cowell. But he also gets to work in a foundry and have his hopes crushed by Luciano Pavarotti.
We're also told his first BGT appearance was broadcast live, something that could never happen given how the show's produced.
David Frankel's film was financed by the Weinsteins and is self-evidently aimed at a North American audience.
There's a song from Taylor Swift over the end credits, while at one point Corden pops into Boots to purchase adult diapers.
Ask for diapers down your local branch and you'll likely get an expression of bewilderment.
Let's hope they do a better job when they film the Susan Boyle story. Come to think of it, Corden could probably play her as well.
WEDNESDAY 11 SEPTEMBER 14:00 (19:00 BST)
Remember that press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on Saturday that was abruptly halted about 45 minutes in?
Well, the scuttlebutt going around is that there might be more than meets the eye to the "unforeseen mechanical difficulty" blamed for its curtailment.
The rumour is that somebody on high wasn't too thrilled by the idea of potentially disparaging reviews appearing ahead of the film's world premiere that evening and took decisive steps to prevent it.
It's all completely unsubstantiated, as most good rumours are. But I must admit it did smell a little fishy at the time.
Tuesday, by the way, saw Toronto bask in a mini-heatwave that pushed the mercury up to a sweltering 32 degrees centigrade.
"I've got to get a beverage," I heard one local remark. "I'm sweating more than Nixon."
Yet a solution is on hand for those wishing to beat the heat: a labyrinth of subterranean malls and walkways that allow one to negotiate the heart of the city in air-conditioned comfort.
It certainly beats a simmering sidewalk or subway carriage - and you can pop into Urban Outfitters en route.
WEDNESDAY 11 SEPTEMBER 03:00 (08:00 BST)
Three of my more unsettling minutes at this year's festival were spent watching Jude Law wax lyrical about his penis.
Not in person, of course. That would be unthinkable. No, I'm talking about his new film Dom Hemingway, which opens with its titular moustachioed hard man, played by Law, delivering a soliloquy in praise of his "exquisite" appendage.
Law continues in like vein in this violent, blackly comic crime caper about a volatile safe-cracker ("I've got anger issues!"), which I am tempted to call his Sexy Beast.
Back in 2000, that film gave Sir Ben Kingsley a perception-altering role as a psychotic headcase. It's conceivable Dom may do the same for Jude.
"I asked the director Richard Shepard if we could shoot that scene first," the actor told reporters in Toronto this week. "It set the bar at a certain height for the rest of the film."'A good fit'
According to the 40-year-old star, the festival felt like "exactly the right place" to launch his latest venture, which has its UK release on 8 November.
"I've been coming here for 12 years with films of all shapes and sizes, and this one seems like a very good fit," he said.
"It's a tough market place out there, and a film this size is fighting against films that are 200 times bigger. That's all the more reason for it to be embraced by a festival like TIFF."
TUESDAY 10 SEPTEMBER 12:00 (17:00 BST)
It's easy to be seduced by the glamour, energy and hoopla of the Toronto Film Festival, now on its sixth, predictably hectic day.
It's refreshing, therefore, to see a group of enterprising film-makers seek to channel that energy into something a little more substantial than the promotion and selling of movies.
Canadian director Atom Egoyan, his countrywoman Sarah Polley and documentarian Alex Gibney are spearheading a campaign calling for the release of two individuals who were arrested in Cairo on 16 August.
According to the campaigners, film-maker John Greyson and doctor Tarek Loubani have been detained in prison ever since, without being formally charged.
"With so many people from other countries in town this week, it's a great moment to raise international awareness," Polley told me earlier.
"We just wanted to take full advantage of any opportunity to keep this story in the public eye."
Paul Giamatti and Emma Thompson are among the celebrities who are showing their support by wearing one of the bright red buttons - another word for badge - that are being used to promote the initiative.
There's more about the campaign on the website www.tarekandjohn.com
TUESDAY 10 SEPTEMBER 02:30 (19:30 BST)
Monday night saw the likes of Nicolas Cage, Scarlett Johansson, Julia Roberts and Taylor Swift tread red carpets at various venues across Toronto.
But hey, why bother with those guys when you can hang out with Craig and Charlie Reid from The Proclaimers?
The Scottish twins travelled a lot further than 500 Miles to attend the world premiere of Sunshine on Leith, an Edinburgh-based musical that uses their songs to propel its narrative.
Their reward was by the far the warmest welcome I've seen a film receive at this festival, capped off by a prolonged standing ovation.
Based on a stage musical first presented at Dundee Rep in 2007, Sunshine tells of two squaddies returning from Afghanistan to an uncertain future in Scotland.
Work and family troubles make it doubly hard to readjust. But not to worry, because there's always a jaunty Proclaimers number waiting in the wings to buck up their spirits.
I suppose one could call it McMamma Mia. And in the hands of actor turned director Dexter Fletcher it's a recipe for joyous, uninhibited, unadulterated fun.
That fun continued at an after-party that saw Craig and Charlie perform a selection of their hits for a select gathering that included Andrew Scott of Sherlock fame.
The film's title proved prophetic last November when its shooting on location was blessed with day upon day without rain.
"They tell us global warming has no benefits," Charlie deadpanned after the screening. "Trust me: For Scottish tourism it's brilliant."
MONDAY 9 SEPTEMBER 11:30 (16:30 BST)
Sometimes even movie stars get upstaged. Just ask Sandra Bullock at last night's premiere of Gravity.
The audience cheered her robustly as she walked on stage to introduce the film, in which she plays a Nasa astronaut coping with a calamity in space.
But they went positively potty over real Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a man who had actually done the things we were about to see simulated on screen.
I can see why Alfonso Cuaron's movie was so warmly received in Venice. It's a gripping, pulse-quickening thrill ride with astounding 3D visuals.
Behind the spectacle, though, I couldn't help detecting a geopolitical subtext.
The disaster that cripples the shuttle Bullock shares with veteran spacewalker George Clooney is caused by the Russians blowing up one of their own satellites and the debris shower it causes.
Their salvation, meanwhile, hangs on a Chinese escape pod they must get to and pilot if they're to have any hope of returning home.
Is Cuaron saying that the Chinese are to be trusted in space while the Russians aren't? Or is China's heroic role in the story a sweetener aimed at that country's vast cinema audiences?
Then again, it could just be a really cool movie about astronauts...
MONDAY 9 SEPTEMBER 0:00 (5:00 BST)
Daniel Radcliffe made quite a stir a few years back when he bared all on stage in Equus.
He's at it again in The F Word, a romantic comedy that at one point sees him strip off to go skinny-dipping in a chilly Lake Ontario.
He'll catch his death at this rate. Yet it's all in the service of a witty depiction of a "let's be friends" courtship that, as well as providing its star an appealing post-Potter vehicle, happens to be set in Toronto.
It occurred to me afterwards that I had seen more of the city by watching it than I'd done in five days of actually being here.
Other Brits who've been flying the flag include a pregnant Kate Winslet, in town to launch her new film Labor Day.
It's not a reference to her condition, but to the American public holiday on which some of its action is set.
Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, it tells of a single mother and her young son who are taken hostage in their home by an escaped convict.
Gruff at first, Josh Brolin's uninvited houseguest proceeds to win them over by teaching the kid to play baseball and Kate to bake a pie.
As a pilot for a cookery show, Jason Reitman's film shows promise. As a drama, it's missing a few ingredients.
Speaking after its screening on Saturday, Winslet revealed her current circumstances precluded her watching a distressing scene in which her character suffers a miscarriage.
Andrew Macdonald, the Scottish producer of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, is also in Toronto, along with his director brother Kevin.
The former is here to launch the Proclaimers-inspired musical Sunshine on Leith, while the latter is screening his apocalyptic war parable How I Live Now.
In a quirk of fraternal fate, the two titles are set be released in the UK on the same day - 4 October this year.
I asked Andrew if he and his brother would be comparing box office receipts to see which of them comes out on top. "No, but our kids will," he laughed.
SUNDAY 8 SEPTEMBER 02:30 (07:30 BST)
Okay, so you know that Dallas Buyers Club premiere I mentioned earlier? Well, it turned out to be a big fat bust.
Matthew McConaughey wafted past us without so much as a word, for all our trumpeting of his Oscar-worthy performance.
Bad McConaughey. That's the last time I see one of your daft rom-coms.
But I was glad to have made the effort, if only to share a couple of minutes with his co-star Jared Leto.
The Requiem for a Dream actor is also the frontman for Thirty Seconds to Mars and, on clocking I was from England, was quick to mention the band's UK tour dates in November.
Here is a man who recognises the value of good publicity. McConaughey, take note.
SATURDAY 7 SEPTEMBER 18:30 (23:30 BST)
Around this time I had hoped to bring you my reaction to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a hefty adaptation of the South African figurehead's autobiography starring Idris Elba in the title role.
Unfortunately, around 45 minutes into the screening, the movie stopped, the lights came up and we were told it could no longer continue due to an "unforeseen mechanical difficulty".
I should have read the runes from the fact that the escalator up to the cinema was broken. All in all, it turned out to be a pretty short walk to freedom.
But it is clear Elba gives a commanding performance in a biopic that, from what little I saw, may prove a little conventional for some viewers' tastes.
What's a reporter to do? Well, maybe tell you what I thought of some of the other titles that have screened so far.
Prisoners, an intense thriller about child abduction, boasts an angry, angst-ridden turn from Hugh Jackman as a father who will go to any lengths to locate his missing daughter.
If you thought he was miserable in Les Miserables, you ain't seen nothing. But the film as a whole, the work of the Canadian Denis Villeneuve, is too overwrought and improbable to boot.
The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, tells of Charles Dickens' mistress, an actress named Nelly Ternan, and the lengths the author took to keep their affair secret.
Partly funded by BBC Films, it's a lavish period drama with an accomplished cast that, try as it might, never quite catches fire.
Maybe it's the facial hair. It's hard to get caught up in a love story when you're being continually distracted by mutton-chop sideburns and beards.
And then there's Enough Said, a film that bears the poignant distinction of being the last to be completed by the late James Gandolfini.
The Sopranos actor is cast against type as a lonely divorcee whose new relationship with a masseuse - Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus - is undermined when she unwittingly takes on his ex-wife as a client.
It's a slight yet charming piece from an American writer-director called Nicole Holofcener who specialises in female-oriented comedies of romantic misunderstanding.
I randomly bumped into Louis-Dreyfus's husband in a hotel elevator on Friday, something I'll be sure to bring up when I interview her next week.
SATURDAY 7 SEPTEMBER 15:00 (20:00 BST)
After three days of blazing sunshine, Toronto woke up to rain on what is now the third day of an increasingly hectic film festival.
It doesn't appear to have dampened any spirits, though I suspect some attendees are wishing they'd remembered to pack an umbrella and sensible footwear.
After catching Parkland last night, a multi-stranded, rather exploitative drama about JFK's assassination 50 years ago and the Dallas hospital where his body was taken, I arose bright and early to see Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in The Railway Man.
Based on the story of Eric Lomax, a British prisoner of war forced to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway during World War II, it's an earnest but rather torpid affair that feels like a footnote to The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Firth plays Lomax in middle age, looking back on the traumatic ordeal he endured as a younger man (Jeremy Irvine) while nursing fantasies of avenging himself on his chief Japanese tormentor.
This latter element leads to some questionable melodramatic embellishments that detract from rather than bolster the film's central theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Kidman is good value though, in a relatively unshowy role that sees her sport a flawless English accent, a fetching brunette bob and a sturdy pair of Wellingtons.
Far superior to both of the above is Dallas Buyers Club, a showcase for resurgent star Matthew McConaughey that's practically guaranteed to secure him his first Oscar nomination.
The Hollywood heartthrob is a sight to behold as Ron Woodroof, an HIV positive rodeo cowboy in 1980s Texas who turns to illicitly obtained, alternative treatments to help him battle the onset of Aids.
Scarily emaciated, the actor nonetheless exudes charisma and defiance as he fights his doctors and the authorities over the "buyers club" he establishes for fellow patients.
An unrecognisable Jared Leto also shines as a flighty transsexual who becomes Ron's partner in crime, for all his homophobic tendencies.
The film, the work of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee, runs out of gas before the end, but not before confirming McConaughey as one of this awards season's leading candidates for honours.
I'll be on the red carpet tonight at the film's premiere, so check back later to see how I got on.
SATURDAY 7 SEPTEMBER 01:00 (06:00 BST)
With so many movies showing in so many different cinemas, the ever-present fear at Toronto is that you're missing the must-see.
That definitely wasn't the case on Friday evening, which I spent at a "special presentation" of the heavily Oscar-tipped 12 Years a Slave.
The "special" came courtesy of a dashing on-stage line-up featuring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch.
It was the "presentation", though, that made the night worthwhile. From the very beginning, I had no doubt I was watching one of the strongest titles in this year's programme.
Steve McQueen's gripping and gruelling saga tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black musician from Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
His suffering and exploitation at the hands of a succession of slave owners is unflinchingly detailed in a film that lays bare the cruelty and barbarity of this heinous institution.
The whippings, beatings, kickings and lynchings make for a difficult watch, and one sudden act of unprovoked violence had the audience gasping in dismay.
Yet the harshness of such scenes is tempered by a lyrical beauty elsewhere that is enhanced further by the stirring Negro spirituals used to underpin the action.
At one point Solomon - the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor - is forced to destroy a letter to his family that, if found by his "master", will surely result in his demise.
McQueen holds the camera on the paper as it burns, its smouldering embers mirroring the death of his hero's last slim hope of salvation.
Speaking after the screening, the Turner-winning artist turned award-winning film-maker said he had been drawn to make a drama about slavery because he felt no such drama existed.
"Steve was the first to ask the big question," said Pitt, who appears in the film (which he co-produced) as a Canadian abolitionist. "Why have there not been more films on the American history of slavery?
"It was a big question and it took a Brit to ask it. And I just have to say, if I never get to participate in a film again, then this is it for me."
Expect to hear a lot more about 12 Years a Slave as the movie awards season gets under way.
FRIDAY 6 SEPTEMBER 08:00 (13:00 BST)
Though the focus was on The Fifth Estate last night and its black tie premiere, it certainly was not the only film to make its Toronto debut on Thursday.
So did Blue is the Warmest Colour, the winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, which I caught in London last week.
Running three hours long and featuring some of the most graphic lesbian sex ever simulated on camera, it's being released in North America with an NC-17 certificate - the most restrictive rating there is for a mainstream release.
Controversy is swirling around this critically acclaimed coming-of-age story after its two lead actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulus, said the shoot had been "horrible" and that they would never work with director Abdellatif Kechiche again.
Kechiche was none too impressed with those comments, prompting Seydoux to tearfully issue a partial retraction.
Let's hope this sideshow does not impact on the film itself, a riveting and unflinching rite of passage built around two intensely committed performances.
FRIDAY 6 SEPTEMBER 03:00 (08:00 BST)
The Toronto Film Festival's opening night party was an enjoyable if slightly rum do. Held partly on the street and partly in a shopping mall, it felt like several shindigs at once, united by a vaguely British theme.
The menu included such English culinary staples as Beef Wellington and good old fish and chips, while guests had the opportunity to pose beside a retro-style, bright red phone box.
Were they of a mind to, they could also munch on bags of popcorn bearing the name of The Fifth Estate, the festival's opening night film.
Bill Condon's drama was not half as corny as that dubious honour might suggest. But it was a little bland and lacking in texture.
Charting the swift rise of cyberspace renegade Julian Assange and his secrecy-busting WikiLeaks website, the film follows a similar template to that of Facebook movie The Social Network.
Again we see a brusque, not particularly likeable visionary sacrifice friends and ethics in his quest to make his pioneering internet venture a rulebook-rewriting phenomenon.
Sporting a white fright wig and a languid Australian drawl, Benedict Cumberbatch memorably portrays Assange as a single-minded iconoclast driven by a childhood trauma that is revisited obliquely in surreal flashbacks.
That element extends to a number of striking dream sequences that at one point conjure up 100 grinning Cumberbatches, each operating a laptop computer in a Kubrickian vision of an office.
The problem is that where The Social Network boasted an Oscar-winning script by Aaron Sorkin full of wit and one-liners, The Fifth Estate has a clunky and declarative one (by Josh Singer) that spells everything out in capital letters.
WikiLeaks, we are informed, is "a window into every government in the world", a "diplomatic nightmare" behind "the biggest leak of confidential information in history".
At times it almost sounds like a press release that wastes no opportunity to paint Assange as a heroic bastion for transparency and free speech, for all his egotism and personal foibles.
Assange himself has been dismissive of the project, calling the film the "anti-WikiLeaks movie" in an interview filmed at the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has been residing since June 2012.
The film itself cheekily concludes with Cumberbatch quoting from that same interview, a self-referential touch that may not be enough to placate the critics.
I am told the movie - which I saw at a separate screening for the press and industry - drew a respectful but hardly ecstatic response at the opening night gala.
And Variety's reviewer appeared to concur, describing the film as "cluttered", "too busy" and "overly frenetic".
While we're on the theme of releasing sensitive information, I was intrigued to learn that Toronto has its own hush-hush equivalent of Nando's much-sought after "black card".
Only a hundred "Pronto" cards are issued, but those in possession of one have access to any screening no matter how "full" or "sold out" it supposedly is.
The owners have to pay an eye-watering sum for the privilege, but it certainly saves time that would otherwise be spent waiting in line with the riff-raff.
As far as we know, though, peri peri chicken is not included.
THURSDAY 5 SEPTEMBER 18:00 (23:00 BST)
I'd heard great things about Don Jon, the directorial debut of Looper and Inception star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from when it screened in Sundance in January, so when I saw it was playing in Toronto I was keen to catch it.
I'm glad to say this tale of a swaggering skirt-chaser secretly addicted to internet porn did not disappoint. It's a hoot.
Gordon-Levitt displays real presence as the New Jersey Don Juan who gets more than he bargains for when he initiates a courtship with gum-chewing vixen Scarlett Johansson.
The film has some smart things to say about the objectification of women in cyberspace and the different things men and women crave from relationships.
Mostly, though, it's just very funny, thanks in part to a resurgent Tony Danza as Jon's bullish Alpha Male of a father.
I laughed a few times during Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch's deadpan tale of centuries-old vampires brought together amidst the economic ruins of modern Detroit.
The critics were a bit sniffy when it screened in Cannes in May, but I found it something of a return to form for a director who infuriates as often as he satisfies.
The notion of a vampire (Tom Hiddleston) hiding out in the guise of a reclusive rock star is quite an appealing one, as is the idea of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) being alive, well and living in Tangier.
Tilda Swinton and Mia Wasikowska, meanwhile, make deliciously infernal sisters in an oddball story of dark desire and bloodlust that offers a mischievous spin on the Twilight series' teenage love triangle.
THURSDAY 5 SEPTEMBER 12:00 (17:00 BST)
Things seemed rather quiet in Toronto when I arrived on Wednesday, but this morning things are buzzing.
Camera crews jockey for position on the sidewalk, queues snake outside screening rooms and box offices, and barriers have been placed on the street in expectation of huge crowds.
Tonight's big event is the opening night gala of WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate, but there are a bunch of other screenings too.
One that has caught my eye, possibly for sentimental reasons, is a 30th anniversary showing of baby boomer classic The Big Chill.
Lawrence Kasdan's comedy drama about college friends reuniting had its premiere in Toronto in 1983, so someone had the bright idea of reuniting its cast this year for a special reunion.
Glenn Close, Kevin Kline and Tom Berenger - remember him? - are among those expected at what is sure to be a premium exercise in celluloid nostalgia.
My morning began with one of the festival's fabulous publicists inviting me to this evening's opening night party. It's a tough job etc...
THURSDAY 5 SEPTEMBER 0:00 (5:00 BST)
I don't know about you, but in my experience not every day begins with an air pilot imitating Elvis.
Apparently, though, that's how they make announcements on Air Canada. And our captain's Presley-style "Thank you very much" couldn't help put a smile on his passengers' faces as we commenced our seven-hour flight from London to Toronto on Wednesday.
Some turbulence en route left me all shook up, as did the shocking quality of one of the films I'd selected from the mid-air entertainment.
Here's hoping I won't see its equal among the film festival titles I hope to catch over the next 10 days.
The festival itself starts on Thursday. As a newcomer to the city, though, I thought it prudent to arrive the day before and get my bearings.
This was better thought than done. With its inflexible grid system and abundance of gleaming glass towers, a lot of Toronto thoroughfares look markedly similar to each other.
My first impression of the city was that it will look great when it's finished. I don't think I've ever seen so many building sites in such close proximity.
Luckily one is able to bypass a great deal of them by cutting through the spacious, multi-level shopping malls that appear to occupy every street corner.
My tasks for the day were simple ones. Pick up my press pass. Arrange some tickets. Attend a meet-and-greet organised by local film critics.
The latter event was a convivial affair that involved much speculation over what the opening night film, Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, will be like.
The original plan had been to show the movie to the press a few hours before the official gala on Thursday, to be attended by leading man Benedict Cumberbatch and other cast members.
But the press screening was abruptly switched earlier this week to late on Thursday evening, a move that piqued the curiosity of several journalists I spoke to.
I've only been in town for half a day but I've already enjoyed a celebrity encounter. Walking down the street I was surprised to see Daniel Bruhl strolling in the opposite direction.
I felt compelled to congratulate him on his compelling performance as Niki Lauda in Formula 1 biopic Rush which is showing in Toronto this weekend following its premiere in London on Monday.
The busy German actor also appears in The Fifth Estate as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former spokesman for Assange's WikiLeaks website.
Check back here later to learn what Toronto makes of this hotly anticipated, ripped-from-the-headlines drama.