While ostensibly TIFF is a film festival, it is more a celebrity festival — a chance to gawk at our silver screen icons from mere paces away. While the business of film is taking place in hotel room meetings after screenings, actors, models, socialites, journalists and publicists all perform a dance: the surreptitious ogling and preening and cocktail swilling that takes up a vast majority of our lot’s festival time.

Many things happen in this fantastical realm of the festival, and all of them happen at TIFF 2012 parties. Sponsored parties, after-parties, underground, secret parties. There’s booze to drink, snacks to be had, gossip to be passed around the room like a kindergarten game of broken telephone. There are people in film-adjacent industries who claim exhaustion after festival, but who have not seen a single screening, worked a door, or interviewed a celebrity. Their exhaustion comes from night after night of donning Spanx and stilettos, negotiating guest lists as if they are international peace accords, and standing, smiling, and then standing some more in stylish restaurants or lofts or event spaces all across town.

No matter. Everyone from the filmmakers whose projects are being celebrated to the socialites whose interest in the festival is entirely based on free champagne and photo ops is left with the same thing at the end of the day: a collection of moments — exciting, banal or electric — that they’ll share in bed with their lovers and across the table at dinner parties and on Facebook until next year’s festival arrives to add new gems to their collections.

And with that, I share with you some of my moments from TIFF 2012.

Moment 1: Everyone is a fan

Great floods of ink are spilled each year on which celebrities were where each night of the festival. In all honesty the answer is usually hide in a corner until they are allowed by their handlers to leave the party they have been scheduled to attend, and go to the party they want to attend. The hiding is a result of being the centre of everyone’s attention. We are all conditioned to stare at actors (literally, in movies and photos and on our favourite shows), so that is what we do when we see them in real life — we stare. People who have been to these types of parties over and over, and have seen celebrities over and over generally don’t stare, as much as glance. We glance over shoulders, brush past to get to the bar, peer around the party looking for friends and let our eyes pass them once or twice. Everyone has their unicorn though, the celebrity that they are so excited/amazed/awed by that they can’t help but stare. I too have a unicorn, and this year I saw her in her natural habitat.

It was on the rooftop of the Thompson Hotel, at a party for a film starring a model. The model was the person people were there to stare at, and they did. I was not there to look at her, as stunning as Miss Deyn is. My fascination was not with an actor, director, model or socialite — and they were there by the handfuls (think Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Michael Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, Bradley Cooper and Kate Hudson just to get started). She is an Amazonian figure — both literally and professionally. She is Amy Sacco.

As an urbanite at heart growing up in a smallish place on the far west of the country, my peeks into city living were sourced in Vanity Fair and surreptitious Sex and The City watching. I heard about Amy Sacco from both these personal oracles of New York living. She was the brassy, bodacious ball buster who reigned over New York nightlife when she opened her club Bungalow 8 (currently closed for renovations), and I found her endlessly fascinating. (As I do most women who climb atop male-dominated industries with seeming ease.) This party I was attending was her party, a post-premiere soirée for Agyness Deyn‘s first feature film, Pusher hosted at an outpost of Bungalow 8. Tucked in amongst partygoers and champagne in hand, I was ready to view my unicorn in her natural habitat.

She was exactly what I hoped — a glamorous host in a black dress, who threw her head back in peals of laughter. I watched her welcome guests, actors, producers, directors including Eli Roth and his manic pixie dream girlfriend of the moment, Sky Ferreira with utter charm and openness. It wasn’t a wild party, or one that ended up on the cover of the paper (it was too exclusive for that), but it was so personally satisfying to confirm my long held belief that this woman is a one of a kind broad in the best sense. Thank goodness for unicorns.

Moment 2: Actors be actin’

Seeing celebrities interact with each other is much like watching a nature documentary. The behavior is similar, but vaguely different from the normal human species. Their actions are more of everything — more dramatic, more staged, more emotional. During the festival, you can watch the drama unfold everywhere: as co-stars interact during their scheduled media interviews, as they greet one another on the red carpet, or of course at the festival’s simulated natural habitat, The Grey Goose Soho House.

Why this place over any of the other million and one party spaces during the festival? It has become the hub of the celebrity vortex. Combine a high profile vodka brand (PS: try the signature cocktail recipe below), a raw bar, several floors filled with comfortable furniture, dark nooks and attentive waiters, and the world’s strictest guest-list mistresses, and you have celebrity heaven where the cast of Looper go to unwind after their premiere, where you can overhear Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence share funny stories from the set of Silver Linings Playbook and where you can see Andy Samberg, being SNL funny Andy Samberg, but in his own glasses.

This is what you’ll see there. Two young British actresses enter. One is a Bond girl with some indie cred, the other a teen actress with gravitas, and the award nominations to back it up. They are co-stars and the party on the top floor of the Soho House in the early evening with the pearly teethed producers from their mutual film, Byzantium. They enter separately, one — Gemma Arterton — in a floor length gown with handlers hovering at her elbows, the other — Saoirse Ronan — in a cocktail dress arms linked with a female friend/employee. They see each other, and a look crosses their face. It is not joyful or bitter, happy or disappointed. It doesn’t resemble the expression an average person would have on their face except perhaps the facial expression one might walk into a job interview with. It says “time to work.”

Then there is a physical transformation. Both their beautiful faces ripple into pure pleasure. They throw their arms up, hug, rub each other’s arms, squeeze hands, grin widely and photogenically, whisper into each other’s ears. And out of the air, a photographer appears to snap a few shots of their candid moment. He is not a paparazzo, and is not told to stop. Instead, both shining faces turn towards him, and press their cheeks together, grin and make the necessary body adjustments to get their perfect angle before the camera, all so subtly it’s nearly unnoticeable. They hold the pose for six or seven flashes. The photographer vanishes, and the dial turns down on the crackling energy of their performance. The smiles are no less friendly, they continue to chat, but it’s as if the conversation is fading to black. After a moment they are rejoined by companions, and sucked in opposite directions at the party. And scene

This entire process took under 10 minutes. While watching this I would have believed I was watching sisters or the very best of friends, reunited after a long separation. Afterwards the dynamic was more like cordial colleagues at a business function, which of course it actually was. This moment surely repeated itself a hundred times during Soho Houses’ five-night bacchanalia. This is why celebrities are different, witchy and magic and weird. Actors be actin’

Moment 3: Life is a Dance floor

Parties are hit and miss. Sometimes you pull every string to get on the guest list, call in every favour, and beg every “It girl” you know for access only to end up in a sweaty, boring crowd fighting to get a terribly made sponsored cosmo, and praying for earplugs. Other times you wander in with low expectations, and the assumption you will leave in 20 minutes, only to find yourself dancing at 4 am with an actor you have had a crush on since you were twelve. On a night where you plan to pinball around the city with a fist full of invites, and a strategically planned itinerary, sometimes it is hard to know whether you are in for a hit or a miss. And then midway through a night of the same faces, places and trays of generic canapés, you end up at a party that exceeds your expectations so wildly that you forget your whole plan, and stay there all night.

This year that party had an east end address and a Canadian headlining film (meaning more annoying to get to and less money to invest than the big American galas respectively), and yet it triumphed as the unleavable fête of the fest. It was the after party for Canadian documentarian Jamie Kastner’s film The Secret Disco Revolution, held at The Courthouse on Adelaide East. An ode to its subject matter, it had an unironic disco ball, a million and one sequin dresses, every Canadian media “personality” imaginable, and a live disco performance from era legend Thelma Houston, that ignited the packed venue into a literal disco fever.

We drank, and danced, and drank some more. That would have been entertaining enough on its own, but watching the highbrow Atom Egoyan shaking his groove thang to “Night Fever” surrounded by babes who were unlikely to have been born until after the disco revolution, was both hilarious and life affirming. The pure joy of everyone on that dance floor was enough to make a true believer out of the most anti-disco militant. What it comes down to, as pronounced by Pink, who really should have been around for disco, is that “life is a dance floor.”

Moment 4: Seeing a white rabbit

White rabbits are elusive, sometimes mischievous, and always fun to follow. Celebrities can rarely be white rabbits — they are too aware, to desperate to be loved and left alone at once, and so media trained that they have no spontaneity left. What about train-wrecks? Celebrities falling apart at the seams, whose handlers can no longer control them, and therefore whose exploits are fairly unpredictable? No, these aren’t white rabbits either, they are self-conscious in their own terrible way, and there is no fun to be had in following them where they are headed.

White rabbits offer a chance to be entertained, challenged and excited. They can’t be overexposed, no matter how much you see them, because they are always doing and saying the unexpected, allowing each encounter to be fresh. This year I found a real white rabbit, and to my deep regret did not have the pioneering spirit to attempt to follow him down the rabbit hole. I will probably always see that as a personal failure.

My white rabbit arrived unexpectedly at an after party for the film Zaytoun, held in the heart of this year’s festival partyland. And the man of the hour that night was none other than every 80s baby one time teenage dream, Stephen Dorff. Held at Patria, a restaurant that is not yet a restaurant, but will be soon, and likely with success based on that evening’s delicious trays of snacks, passed endlessly along with a continuous flow of wine. I had been there quite a while, glancing at Dorff and gossiping with other writers. We had established an excellent relationship with the girl in charge of the trays of wine, and were several glasses past dry when a bluster at the door announced the white rabbit’s arrival.

It was Bill Murray; ghostbuster, aquatic explorer, house party crasher. He was unexpected (of course) and entered with the relaxed attitude of someone who is content to be just about anywhere. He paid his respects to the evening’s original main attraction (Dorff), and then settled easily into a nebulous cluster of people, with ladies to the right and left like an Italian game show host. I watched carefully. Those ladies wouldn’t know a white rabbit if it chomped on their fingers like carrots. They wouldn’t follow this opportunity to its inevitable amazing conclusion, in which Bill Murray offers advice from atop a fence after crashing a neighbourhood BBQ. They were wasting the white rabbit.

I wasn’t sure what to do with the opportunity myself. I was mere feet away, and if I proposed we hit a cool house party around the corner, Bill’s reputation indicates he would be game. However, it was Monday (maybe Sunday?) and I couldn’t think of any parties anywhere aside from more TIFF dos. I couldn’t think of anything except that this man had the ability to go down the rabbit hole, and I would pay dearly for a chance to tag along. So I went home, and despite walking away, felt better knowing officially that the celebrity white rabbit still exists. There’s always next year.

Moment 5: Very occasionally, the excess is worth it

The amount of money it takes to throw a good party, especially on the level expected during the festival, is shocking. One party was scrutinized last year as an example of this — a gathering paid for vaguely by taxpayers, since it was for a Canadian show on Canada’s goverment-semifunded network. People saw the cost that was publicized and were shocked. I saw the same numbers and wondered if anyone would realize that that was just the amount the PR agency was paid, and didn’t account for a venue fee, food, booze, security or any of the other sundry details.

There are parties during festival that boast every kind of ridiculous excess. Live animals, literal fountains of food and alcohol, gift bags that are worth a month’s rent to many. It is normal to roll your eyes at this, or get angry at the skewed priorities (while drinking from an open bar of course). Every so often however, there is an over the top expense that sounds absurd, and then turns out to be worth every last cent.

My example from this year comes in the form of a DJ. Pretty standard, right? Every party needs a DJ. Does every party need a DJ flown in from Europe? St. Tropez to be exact. There are plenty of DJs in Canada, so why import? You need a French DJ, get one from Montreal, right? Wrong. Flying a DJ from St. Tropez to Toronto for the Nikki Beach pop up lounge on the roof of The Spoke Club was the absolute right decision.

Why? Well he was perfect. To begin with he was super cool, with a toque that slouched just so, and long hair that hung perfectly, and the correct blend of enjoyment/boredom on his face. Not convincing? He is an amazing DJ. His choices were inspired. No stale house music, no esoteric tribal beats. He spun the 90s nostalgia songs that made the entire crowd start shuffling, he played covers and hits and unknown music that sounded so perfect you wanted to ask him what it was (and if you did, you got the impression he would be nice about it, and have the perfect accent). He turned a party full of people who often had little discernible connection to the festival itself into the absolute best place to be each time I was there, in the same way a boy in high school got to second base because he put the perfect song on the mix tape playing in the background. He was a curator, and he made art. He was not an expense, but a necessity.

P.S. His name is Sylvain Armand, although my friends and I spent the entire festival just calling him St. Tropez. I don’t know if he does weddings, but I promise, it would be worth it. FILLER hearts you St. Tropez xoxo