09/05/2013 05:07 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST

TIFF unites stars, audiences for celebration of film

Toronto returns to the cinematic spotlight today, as the Toronto International Film Festival gets underway for its 38th edition.

Celebrities, actors, directors, producers, cinephiles and star-chasers are descending on downtown Toronto for the annual 11-day movie extravaganza, which officially kicks off tonight with the world premiere of Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate.

Charting the rise of WikiLeaks and its outspoken head, Julian Assange (portrayed by in-demand British actor Benedict Cumberbatch), the drama is an example of one theme emerging across several TIFF movies this year: the current information age.

"We have a number of films dealing with the idea of living in an information society, what that means now. [In addition to The Fifth Estate], we have a documentary called The Square, about the Arab Spring and the Tahrir Square revolution and how so much of that was about information — about Facebook and Twitter and YouTube," TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey told CBC News.

"These things are now part of our lives. People are asking questions about having political change enacted through media, but also how information about us is held through governments, by authorities."

A movie can sometimes provide deeper context and enhance our understanding of history as well. For Bailey, this is the case with a movie such as Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. One of TIFF's gala premieres, the film stars noted British actor Idris Elba as anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

"It's powerful to see dramatized things that we read about in newspapers or see on television news, but you don't often know the context, the emotional and social context," he explained.

"Mandela is a good example: most of us grew up hearing about the inspiring story of Nelson Mandela and hearing of the change he was able to bring about in South Africa. But to know a little bit more about the man illuminates that social change he brought about — it goes beyond the headlines."

Vast lineup from around the globe

TIFF's hefty 2013 lineup spans 366 feature-length and short films altogether, from titles by promising first-time feature directors likeCanadian Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) to venerable Japanese animation guru Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises), who revealed just last weekend his intention to retire from filmmaking.

Altogether, TIFF's 2013 offerings span more than a dozen different programs, including Docs, Contemporary World Cinema, the City to City spotlight on modern Greek filmmakers, Short Cuts Canada and the cult favourite Midnight Madness, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Beyond TIFF’s glitzy, celebrity-studded red carpet premieres, the vast number of film screenings, and a host of industry-only sessions, special events this year include:

- onstage Mavericks chats, including those with director Spike Jonze, Indian film veteran Irrfan Khan and former Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor.

- a 30th anniversary presentation of The Big Chill, the seminal, star-studded comedy-drama that opened at TIFF in 1983.

- a new edition of writer-director Jason Reitman's popular "Live Read" series, which this year will see Hollywood stars perform a one-take, full script read-through of Boogie Nights — without prior rehearsal — before a live audience.

- a program of cinematic art projections at locations around the downtown core.

- a Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art showcase tied to TIFF's upcoming exhibition on filmmaker David Cronenberg.

"We have a mission statement: to transform the way people see the world through film … it's something I feel like I have tattooed on my brain," Bailey said.

"We're about a lot more than the red carpets and glamour of the festival. We actually are about trying to bring that transformative experience, through cinema, to our audience."

Ahead of the TIFF awards luncheon, the festival will close with Life of Crime, Daniel Schechter's 1970s-era caper comedy based on the late Elmore Leonard’s story The Switch. Its high-profile cast includes Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, yasiin bey (aka rapper Mos Def), John Hawkes and Isla Fisher.

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Leonard, who died in August, "wrote indelible characters. Some of the characters just stay with you — the language they spoke, the way they talked about their work, their lust for life. He was an amazing conjurer of the criminal world," Bailey recalled about the iconic American author.

"We loved [Life of Crime] because it’s fun. It’s light. It's the world of Elmore Leonard and I think there was a cinematic reference that we really enjoyed as well: this is essentially the same group of characters that we see 20 years later in Jackie Brown, but played by different actors 20 years earlier, when they're still in Detroit. So for anybody who loves movies, who loves the world of Elmore Leonard, I think it's a real thrill and a real pleasure to watch."

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sept. 15.