TORONTO - This year's Toronto International Film Festival will open with the Bruce Willis time-travelling thriller "Looper" and showcase projects starring A-listers Ben Affleck, Ryan Gosling, Tom Hanks, Rachel McAdams, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Redford.
Organizers revealed the gala and special presentations at a press conference Tuesday and also touted the world premiere of Deepa Mehta's sweeping Salman Rushdie adaptation, "Midnight's Children."
The fest's artistic director Cameron Bailey calls the mix of films "one of the most international and diverse" they've ever had.
That includes the effects-laden actioner "Looper," which Bailey says is part of a calculated bid to rid the first night's reputation of being "the Canadian night" that some foreign buyers skip.
"We want to make sure that changes over time and I think one of the ways we can do that is just make it a night that the entire world's film industry pays attention to, rather than just our local friends in the industry," said Bailey, noting that last year's fest also broke with tradition to open with the U2 documentary "From the Sky Down."
The futuristic, time-travel flick "Looper" is about hitmen hired to kill victims from the future. Willis plays a man who is sent back in time to be killed by his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Other big films include world premieres of Affleck's political thriller "Argo," Hanks' centuries-spanning epic "Cloud Atlas," Gosling's drama "The Place Beyond the Pines" and Paltrow's ensemble dramedy "Thanks for Sharing."
North American premieres include Redford's drama "The Company You Keep," which he directs and stars in, while Terrence Malick directs "To The Wonder," starring Affleck, Javier Bardem and McAdams.
"It's a big list, I'm very excited about it," says Bailey.
"The gala (section) especially is one of the most international and diverse that we've ever had and (includes) lots of films that I think people have been expecting to see.... We're just thrilled to have them here."
Festival director Piers Handling said many more titles will be revealed in the coming weeks.
So far, the most high-profile homegrown pick is Mehta's sweeping "Midnight's Children," an ambitious Canadian-UK co-production based on Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning novel and adapted for the screen by Rushdie himself.
Canadian co-stars Zaib Shaikh and Anita Majumdar said they were thrilled to debut at the high-profile festival, which Shaikh called "the Olympics of the film circuit."
"To be here at the world's greatest stage and to have it in your hometown and to be in a film that's Canadian, that's going internationally, it's what every Canadian person that's interested in film could hope for," said Shaikh, best known for starring on CBC-TV's recently concluded sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie."
"This is my first movie at TIFF and so even getting to be in this movie felt like the greatest gift and getting to share it with Toronto is just the next level," added Majumdar.
Also earning a gala berth is Canadian director Ruba Nadda, whose Middle East thriller "Inescapable" stars Alexander Siddig, Marisa Tomei and Joshua Jackson.
Nadda says her career enjoyed an invaluable boost after her film "Cairo Time" earned the best Canadian feature prize at the festival in 2009.
"Having my film premiere here for 'Cairo Time' really put me on the map as a filmmaker," says Nadda, whose new film is about an Arab man who lives in Toronto but is pulled to Syria in search of his missing journalist daughter.
"You always need to prove yourself a little bit and I think with the support that the Toronto International Film Festival gave me on my last movie, it really helped get this one off the ground."
This will be the second year in a row that a non-Canadian feature will kick-off the annual showcase, regarded by many as a key platform for potential Oscar contenders.
Bailey argues that a prestigious gala slot is often better than the opening night position for many films, noting the first-night screening comes with "a lot of pressure from the hometown audience."
"If you talk to producers or you talk to the people who are selling Canadian film they will tell you they want a different kind of screening — they don't want expectations to be overly inflated. They want to come in a little under the radar and then surprise with a great movie."
The festival's Canadian slate is expected to be announced Aug. 8.
Bailey says the effects-laden "Looper," written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a "super-fun way" to launch this year's festival.
"It's not just stuff blowing up, this is a really smart script," he says.
"It's about big ideas and some of the things that you've seen in the science fiction genre and literature over many, many decades but played out in a really entertaining way."
Other star-packed films headed to the fest include:
— "Quartet," a "high-drama comedy" about opera in which Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut;
— "Anna Kerenina," starring Keira Knightley in a big screen take on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel;
— "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," based on the bestselling novel and starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson as awkward teens trying to make it through high school;
— "Hyde Park on Hudson," with Bill Murray as president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Olivia Williams as his wife Eleanor;
— "End of Watch," with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as young L.A. police officers who patrol south central's drug-riddled mean streets;
— "Silver Linings," featuring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as troubled people drawn to each other as they try to rebuild their lives;
— "Great Expectations," with Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Jeremy Irvine starring in a theatrical adaptation of the Victorian novel;
— "Much Ado About Nothing," in which U.S. director Joss Whedon puts a contemporary spin on the classic Shakespeare comedy.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 6 to 16.