Toronto -- Lady Gaga put her hand on her hip and sashayed down King Street in downtown Toronto like it was her own personal fashion runway.
A day later, George Clooney traversed the same grounds, shaking hands, signing autographs and taking selfies with the throngs of fans who were gathered behind barricades in front of the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Pop mega-performers, gigantic movie stars: Toronto has been absolutely crawling with them — along with hundreds of thousands of fans — during the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicked off Thursday and wraps up Sunday.
From hot premieres to cool, low-key gatherings at private parties behind roped off barricades inside hotel bars, the town has been radiating with activity and star power. From Gaga (on hand to introduce her forthcoming Netflix documentary, “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) to Clooney, Angelina Jolie to Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lawrence to Nicole Kidman and beyond, TIFF brings out the big guns, and they’re here to support projects that will generate the sort of buzz that will carry them through Hollywood’s protracted awards season.
That’s the hope, at least.
Some movies come here and die on the vine, like Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” a Matt Damon-starring comic noir which, with its abrupt shifts in tone and shoehorned subplot about racism in a whitebread 1950s suburb, puzzled critics during its debut. It came in as an Oscar hopeful and leaves TIFF as a curiosity, as does another Damon vehicle, Alexander Payne’s bizarre “Downsizing,” about a man who shrinks himself to 5-inches tall and begins an odd journey of self-discovery.
Earning a lot of praise at the fest were “Molly’s Game,” writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s whip smart, lightning-fast story about former Olympic hopeful-turned-underground poker-game runner Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a rich, warm comedic drama about a mother (a radiant Frances McDormand) who attempts to bring justice to her slain daughter by taking out a series of billboards criticizing her small town’s police department.
Also gaining favor and building awards-season steam were smaller films such as “The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker’s (“Tangerine”) magical look at several families living in a cheap motel outside of Disney World in Orlando, Florida; and “Call Me By Your Name,” an early 1980s love story starring Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet. Chalamet, 21, is the festival’s breakout star. Aside from “Name,” he’s one of the stars of Greta Gerwig’s enchanting “Lady Bird”; he appears opposite Christian Bale in the Western “Hostiles”; and he stars in “Hot Summer Nights,” which was picked up at the festival by hot indie distributor A24.
On Saturday night, Chalamet mingled with pals and the media at a star-packed dinner celebration supporting “Call Me By Your Name” at Morton’s the Steakhouse, where Josh Lucas was seen chatting up Liam Neeson and Armie Hammer embraced Stanley Tucci like they were long-lost brothers. Also at the event — supporting Sony Pictures Classic’s slate of TIFF films — were Kate Mara, star of “Chappaquiddick,” Melissa Leo, a fiery Oscar contender for “Novitiate,” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s” Jamie Bell.
Across town at the Elgin Theatre, Colin Farrell was on hand at the premiere of the deeply disturbing “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” one of the fest’s most divisive films, a descent into madness in which Farrell plays a father who is forced to sacrifice one of his children. On his way into the theater, Farrell was asked what people could expect from the film. “I have no idea,” he said with resignation. “Good luck, man.”
Farrell also is one of the stars of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a late addition to the fest starring Denzel Washington as an idealistic lawyer with symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome who is out of step with modern times. The film celebrated its world premiere Sunday night at the Ryerson Theatre, and Washington was on hand to discuss the film, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to “Nightcrawler.” Washington was polite but brief when discussing his process of creating the character, telling an interviewer during a post-film Q&A session, “I don’t like to talk about it too much, I just like to do it.”
TIFF is sprawling: There are hundreds of screenings — not just awards season bait but foreign films, documentaries, shorts, genre experiments and even some TV fodder — spread out across the city, and choosing one movie or one red carpet event means missing several others. For instance, while Clooney was working the crowd in front of the theater before “Suburbicon,” Elle Fanning was a few hundred feet away walking the red carpet for the premiere of her film “Mary Shelley.”
It can be a lot to keep up with. In the crowd between the two theaters on Saturday, a middle-aged couple, both clutching iPhones and hoping to snap pictures of some stars, reacted to the latest roar from a crowd, signaling the arrival of another Hollywood luminary. “Who is it?” the woman asked the man, as it wasn’t immediately clear. “It’s famous people, apparently,” the man answered, and they both shuffled into the crowd to get a closer look.
In a nutshell, that’s TIFF.