(L-R) Joaquin Phoenix and Zach Braff star in I’m Still Here and The High Cost of Living, respectively

By Andrea Miller
Sure, icons in the biz, the Redfords, the Eastwoods, the Allens, the Boyles, etc., demand much ink – or bandwidth – when they bring new work to the Toronto International Film Festival, where discerning viewers and critics alike try to determine where the latest projects from experienced artists fit in amongst a robust body of work and chart just how an auteur has stretched, grown or flipped on auto-pilot.
Of course there is something to be said for hitting TIFF as a director for the first time. A sea of expectation lies before you, undeniably waiting to swallow you whole as reviewers are poised to employ words like “pedestrian” and “amateurish” to describe your work, but no matter the outcome, you’ll always remember your first.

Luckily, there are plenty of emerging talents who deserve to be singled out as they mark their inaugural participation at TIFF behind the camera.

Casey Affleck – I’m Still Here
Ben’s little bro, a fine actor in his own right (see Gone Baby Gone) takes his turn behind the camera for the is-this-for-real look at Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix during the turbulent months where he announces his retirement from acting, grows a Rick Rubin beard and a serious belly and tries his hand at throwing rhymes with help from Diddy. Fact or fiction (or you know, acting)? You decide.

Dustin Lance Black – What’s Wrong with Virginia

How do you follow up an Academy Award win for Best Writing (Milk) but by taking the leap into the director’s chair? Ambitious 36-year-old Black takes on double duty as the helmer and screenwriter for drama What’s Wrong with Virginia, starring Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Emma Roberts and Carrie Preston, and follows the goings-on of a small town sheriff, a mentally ill woman, old affairs and new romances.

Massy Tadjedin – Last Night

After helping pen the script to 2002’s Leo and 2005’s The Jacket, Tadjedin does her thing as director on Last Night, a romantic dramedy that follows a young couple (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) whose loyalties are put to the test by an attractive colleague and a past love when they are apart for one night. The film fittingly closes the 11-day festival.

Deborah Chow – The High Cost of Living

Toronto’s own Deborah Chow is no stranger to TIFF, having screened her 2004 short The Hill at the festival and attending the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival Talent Lab, but 2010 marks her first effort as director of a feature length film. The High Cost of Living stars Zach Braff in his grittiest, un-Braffiest role yet, playing a drug dealer who’s behind the wheel of-a-hit-and-run involving a young pregnant woman (Isabelle Blais) and strikes up a sincere friendship with his none-the-wiser victim that inches ever closer to her finding out his true identity.

Jonathan Sobol – A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

Jonathan Sobol directs this look at what happens when three very different brothers (Paulo Costanzo, Scott Caan, Jason Jones) find out they only have a few days to live and each set out on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment in this comedic look at mortality, family and loyalty. Bonus – A Beginner’s Guide to Endings stars Harvey Keitel as the wise (but not so wise) papa.

Michael Goldbach – Daydream Nation

Kicking off TIFF’s Canada First! Program is Goldbach’s look at a year in the life of a young city girl (Kat Dennings) who moves to the sticks has a bit of everything. Everything being a steamy affair with her handsome teacher (Josh Lucas) and news of a serial killer haunting the small Canadian hamlet she now calls home, in addition to a bourgeoning attraction to an age-appropriate stoner (Reece Thompson). Coming-of-age for a new generation.

Daniel Cockburn – You are Here

Starring the late Tracy Wright in her last movie, Cockburn’s first feature film maintains the experimental tone he’s established as a video artist while taking viewers on a labyrinthine meta-journey that’s at times confounding, enlightening, weird and highly sophisticated but never stops asking questions about human consciousness and connection. Charlie Kaufman-esque is the word on everyone’s lips.