NEW YORK — The Toronto International Film Festival is an overwhelming omnibus of moviegoing that every year, through an onslaught of Oscar contenders and cinematic feasts, reflects the world around us. But more than usual, this year's festival radiates with urgent topicality, both on screen and off.
Take Steve McQueen's "Widows," which will make its world premiere at Toronto. McQueen's follow-up to his Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave" has the trappings of a genre movie: It's about a group of recently widowed women who seek to pull off a heist their husbands had planned before dying in a police raid. But it electrically, expansively surveys fault lines of racial and gender biases across the vicious landscape of Chicago politics. For McQueen, it's a movie about today.
"To me, this film was important because it's about questions which are raised now. These are scenes that are going on now. Yes, it's within the genre of a heist film, but within that, I wanted to raise very important political questions, and that's what it was all about. Elections, voting. No one is to be trusted," McQueen says. "But at the same time, how do we as individuals navigate our way through this cesspool of politics and corruption? How can we be valiant? Small victories sometimes lead to bigger victories, but all we have right now is small victories."
The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival begins Thursday with the premiere of David Mackenzie's Robert the Bruce epic "Outlaw King," one of eight Netflix original films at the festival. In the 343 films to unspool over the next 10 days, there will be films that investigate democracy in the face of white supremacist terrorism (Paul Greengrass' "22 July"), that pry into the intimate tragedies of police brutality (Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk," George Tillman Jr.'s "The Hate U Give") and that directly confront the Trump era (Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 11/9," Errol Morris' Steve Bannon documentary "American Dharma").
"If you look at the slate, I would say that cinema is alive and well and more engaged than ever with the world around it," says Cameron Bailey, the co-head of TIFF. "You're finding filmmakers who are really digging into contemporary life, the politics, the social conflicts that are happening all around us."
That engagement includes the festival, itself. Toronto will host a women's rally in the ongoing push to improve gender equality in the movie industry. It's also diversifying the TIFF press corps, inviting and paying the way for approximately 180 journalists from underrepresented groups: women, minority and LGBTQ critics.
Toronto, where for years Harvey Weinstein was a red-carpet regular and where Louis C.K. last year debuted his now much derided (and since buried) "I Love You, Daddy," is also making its code of conduct more visible. Films directed by women make up 36 percent of this year's lineup, TIFF's highest percentage.
"The film business changes when we make changes. I think a lot of us have the ability and the power to make change and we just have to use it," says Bailey. "We're looking harder. We're making more of an effort to find great films by women. But they're out there."
Among the many findings are new films from Claire Denis ("High Life," with Robert Pattinson), Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?" with Melissa McCarthy) and Rashida Jones ("Quincy"). Some of the most high-profile premieres are headlined by actresses, including Viola Davis ("Widows"), Nicole Kidman ("Destroyer"), Julia Roberts ("Homecoming") and Natalie Portman ("Vox Lux").
"It does feel like there's a lot of female-driven content up there. And that's great. I'm happy to stop and celebrate for a moment. But as my dad says in the movie, we have so much work to do," says Jones, whose documentary is about her music legend father Quincy Jones. "So let's celebrate for a second and then let's get back to work and make sure that we don't get too pleased with ourselves about having fixed everything. Because there's a lot to undo."
Much of the attention at TIFF will surround the films that drew raves last week at the Venice Film Festival, like Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," Damien Chazelle's "First Man" and Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born." How potential Academy Awards contenders reverberate among the larger audiences and massive media contingent of Toronto's launching pad usually says a lot about their Oscar chances. Added to the mix will be Felix Van Groeningen's father-son addiction drama "Beautiful Boy," with Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet, and Moore's anticipated Trump documentary.
Moore believes his film, which examines the roads leading to what he considers a frightfully perilous moment for America, will connect with audiences unlike any of his previous documentaries.
"The fact that it's ready before the midterms is our good luck, I guess. But I've never believed you should put a film out until it's ready," says Moore. "I think this movie, I've seen it sear into people's brains, into their hearts. I believe with this film people are not even going to go to bed that night."
As the swift sale and release last year of eventual Oscar-winner "I, Tonya" showed, the films on the market in Toronto can quickly enter the awards fray, too. Some of this year's top titles include "The Wedding Guest," with Dev Patel; "American Woman," with Sienna Miller; "Skin," with Jamie Bell as a neo-Nazi; and Sam Taylor-Johnson's adaption of James Frey's controversial memoir "A Million Little Pieces."
For Taylor-Johnson, the director of "Shades of Grey," Toronto comes at an exciting moment.
"To feel that now there's an opportunity where everything is laid bare and the rules are changing — is exciting," says Taylor-Johnson. "Everything that has happened is leading us to a good place. I just hope the progress continues and keeps taking strides. Not small steps, but strides."