The Big Chill, Water, Fly Away Home and more: we rate TIFF’s best and worst opening night films

The Big Chill, Water, Fly Away Home and more: we rate TIFF’s best and worst opening night films

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany at the premiere of Creation in 2009 (Image: James Helmer)

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival will open with the homegrown Score: A Hockey Musical, which stars Olivia Newton-John and boasts a bunch of cameos from our countrymen (Nelly Furtado, George Stroumboulopoulos). We’re waiting to see if the film will be corny-awesome or corny-awful. In the meantime, we’ve gathered the most spectacular opening night failures and successes in TIFF history to see how they fared after the festival. Begin the slide show now >>
Loving Couples (1980)
The film: A romantic comedy about adultery starring Shirley MacLaine and Susan Sarandon.
The reaction: Despite the charm of MacLaine and Sarandon, Loving Couples was called “flat” and “lifeless” by the New York Times and “a dumb remake of a very old idea that has been done so much better so many times before” by Roger Ebert. Needless to say, it bombed big time at the box office, showing that crowd-pleasers can have a paradoxical effect when they open at TIFF.

We of the Never Never (1982)
The film: Set in the early 1900s, the film is based on the true story of the first white woman to settle in Mataranka, in the Northern Territory of the Australian Outback.
The reaction: An opening night upset, We of the Never Never beat out the movie adaptation of The Wars as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, to the disapproval of CanCon devotees and film buffs alike. The Aborigine subject matter didn’t grab North American audiences and led many to conclude that if they’re going to open the festival with a film people don’t get, it might as well be Canadian.

The Big Chill (1983)
The film: A group of strung-out college friends reunite after the death of a friend.
The reaction: Probably the most commercially successful film to ever open TIFF, pulling in over $3.6 million in its opening weekend, The Big Chill received three Oscar nominations, for best picture, original screenplay and supporting actress for Glenn Close. It also heralded a renaissance for such Motown classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “My Girl.”

Dead Ringers (1988)
The film: Two identical-twin gynecologists (played by Jeremy Irons) take turns sleeping with women who come through their clinic, but their arrangement is disrupted by a troubled actress.
The reaction: The movie that put David Cronenberg on the map, Dead Ringers was named one of the top 10 Canadian films of all time by the Toronto International Film Festival Group and was praised by critics everywhere for its creepiness.

In Country (1989)
The film: Norman Jewison directed this film about a teenager living with her pot-smoking uncle (Bruce Willis) and their journey to come to terms with their family’s Vietnam War–ravaged past.
The reaction: Willis picked up a Golden Globe for his role, but James Horner’s music was panned by critics, as was the disjointed story and ambiguous theme. The film did receive a wide release almost immediately following the festival and pulled in just over $3.5 million in the U.S., but it’s not regarded as one of Jewison’s best efforts.

Fly Away Home (1996)
The film: A single dad (Jeff Daniels) and his daughter (Anna Paquin) lead a flock of Canadian geese to a U.S. wildlife refuge, loosely based on a true story.
The reaction: The stunning cinematography received a nom from the Academy and paid homage to the legacy of Canadian nature films. Sure, it’s a kid’s film, but who doesn’t like it?

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
The film: Grieving parents launch a class action lawsuit after the tragic death of their children in a school bus accident.
The reaction: Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece was nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay at the Oscars and tops every list of all-time best Canadian films. In her first post–Road to Avonlea role, Sarah Polley brilliantly portrayed a child who survived the crash, foreshadowing her future success. Set in small-town British Columbia, The Sweet Hereafter proved that distinctly Canadian movies can have critical appeal.

Les Invasions Barbares (2003)
The film: A well-to-do son copes with his philandering father’s declining health in the context of a shifting Québécois landscape.
The reaction: Denys Arcand’s 18-year follow-up to his revolutionary Déclin de l’Empire Américain showcases Quebec and the complex characters of his earlier film with astounding intelligence and grit. The film picked up the Oscar for best foreign language film, collected awards by the handful at international film festivals and grossed almost $17 million worldwide.

Water (2005)
The film: Set in India in 1938, Deepa Mehta’s Water explores the strict rules of widowhood and its heart-breaking effect on a group of women living together in an ashram.
The reaction: Despite being a Canadian production, the film is spoken entirely in Hindi and became the first non-French Canadian film to be nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars.

Fugitive Pieces (2007)
The film: Based on Anne Michaels’ Holocaust novel, a young Polish Jew escapes the Nazis with the help of a Greek archaeologist and eventually settles in Toronto.
The reaction: The film opened on limited release in the U.S. in 2008 (over six months after its premiere at TIFF) and brought in a pitiful revenue of just over $634,000 south of the border. Solid acting, a touching story and great cinematography earned it several awards at minor film festivals, but critical response was middling.

Passchendaele (2008)
The film: The most expensive film funded and made in Canada, Paul Gross’s Passchendaele is a tortured love story between a drug-addicted nurse and wounded Canadian sergeant amid the backdrop of the famous battle.
The reaction: This Great War epic may have cleaned up at the 2009 Genie Awards, taking home six statues, including best picture, but the film’s critical reception was ho-hum at best. Despite costing $21 million to make, it grossed a relatively impressive $4.5 million at Canadian box offices.

Creation (2009)
The film: For the first time since 1996, TIFF decides against a Canadian film for the opening night and opts for this Charles Darwin biopic, set during his writing of On the Origin of Species, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.
The reaction: After its world premiere at TIFF, American distributors initially kept their distance, with weeks passing before Newmarket Films picked it up. Some film industry insiders speculated it was due to its controversial evolution theme, but a more likely explanation was the film’s snore-worthiness and poor critical reception. On its opening week, it placed 43rd at the box office.