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How TIFF 2016 Rocked The Oscar Race: Why ‘Moonlight’ Glows, ‘Birth’ Struggles, and More Revelations

It's still an open field, but one that's increasingly diverse. And the Toronto festival introduced two more movies that may be up for consideration.

Moonlight

“Moonlight”

A24

This year’s Oscar race is in crazy flux, moving and changing every day. Every year the Toronto International Film Festival pushes a new slate of high-profile Oscar hopefuls, adding more players—and media—to the season’s ongoing awards trajectory. And many movies that don’t make the grade fall by the wayside.

"Jackie"

“Jackie”

“Jackie,” which tells the JFK assassination aftermath from the perspective of widow Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), was not a TIFF debut; that honor went to Venice, where it was a hit and Noah Oppenheim won for best screenplay. However, it was TIFF’s Sunday night screening where the bidding began in earnest — and with it, the possibility that Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s  film would be an Oscar contender.

Fox Searchlight, which has first and last dibs on the movie, may want to rush it into the awards season, as they’ve done in the past with such films as “Jackie” producer Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Other distribs were bidding Sunday night as Portman and other Oscar entrants — including Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Joel Edgerton (“Loving”) —mingled at the Soho House after-party thrown by LD Entertainment’s Mickey Liddell, who financed the $9 million “Jackie.”

There’s a delicate balance between what a Natalie Portman Oscar nomination would add to the box office of this exquisite art-house flower, and how much it would cost to land one.

So what of the Oscar race so far? Many entrants are jockeying for position as more press and audiences screen and talk about the movies showing in Toronto.

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

Oscar Frontrunners

“Arrival”: Toronto press reaction solidifies the strong Venice/Telluride response to “Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama. Amy Adams is a clear frontrunner for Best Actress (with added heat from her performance in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”) with her luminous movie star turn as a brave and gifted linguist able to communicate with sophisticated alien visitors. Other Oscar categories depend on the usual mix of critics, box-office, and year-end kudos, but the tech branches will recognize the film’s outstanding design. (Paramount)

“La La Land”: Damien Chazelle’s charming musical won’t play Toronto until Monday night, but in press screenings the film continues to build on the rapturous receptions it received in Telluride and in Venice, where star Emma Stone received the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. (Lionsgate)

“Lion”: Wowing audiences and critics in Toronto is “Top of the Lake” director Garth Davis’s first narrative feature, based on the true story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), an Indian boy who was separated from his family at the age of 5 and adopted by Australian parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Thanks to Google Earth 25 years later, Brierley searches for and eventually finds his family again. This surefire four-hankie crowdpleaser is handsomely shot, dramatically taut, and effective. This is strictly Patel’s show (Rooney Mara is relegated to supportive girlfriend). Patel’s had consistently strong performances since “Slumdog Millionaire” in such films as arthouse hit “The Man Who Knew Infinity;” with strong reviews, he could prove a Best Actor candidate. The Weinstein Company needs a hit and is betting the farm on this one.

“Loving”: Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ well-made biracial historical romance is steady as they go, with many Oscars in the offing, especially for moving leads Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. The question is whether Focus Features can make this restrained drama a must-see for art-house audiences and Academy actors.

“Manchester by the Sea”: Picking up steam since Sundance and Telluride, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s tragic drama has grown men weeping and still leads the Oscar field. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are acting locks.

“A Monster Calls”: As expected, “The Impossible” director J.A. Bayona’s fantasy about a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) dealing with his dying mother (Felicity Jones) who seeks help from a giant tree monster (Liam Neeson) played well in Toronto. Jones is a sure thing as supporting actress, and writer Patrick Ness is a strong candidate for adapting his own novel. Hollywood has already embraced Bayona—he’s working on the next “Jurassic” sequel. He’s in the club. (Focus Features)

“Moonlight”: Building on Telluride buzz, the Toronto press is continuing to amplify high praise for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” as his cast does the media rounds. Strong marketer A24 will keep pushing for this. The likeliest outcome: “House of Cards” emerging star Mahershala Ali as Supporting Actor, for his heart-tugging role as a tough drug dealer who mentors the vulnerable young “Little.”

Queen of Katwe

“Queen of Katwe”

Disney

Contenders

“The Birth of a Nation”: With no choice but to forge ahead with a Toronto press junket for the October 7 release of their much-touted $17.5 million Sundance Nat Turner rebellion pickup, Fox Searchlight got some good news after battling with writer-director Nate Parker’s college rape revelations. Toronto audiences gave the slave uprising movie standing ovations Friday night. This suggests that the historic movie has a commercial future, which is step one on the road to any further awards consideration. But the film’s Oscar hopes are dim.

“I, Daniel Blake”: Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winner will continue to make audiences cry as it moves through the fall. It will be up to IFC to make some noise around the amazing performances by Brit stalwarts Dave Johns and Hayley Squires.

“Queen of Katwe”: The smartest thing Disney did in assembling this true film story —about a young Ugandan woman who pulls herself out of grinding poverty by winning chess tournaments— is hiring veteran director Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”), who has lived in Uganda and brings the story to authentic, vivid life, with help from her cast led by David Oyelowo (who also gives a strong performance in Amma Asante’s TIFF acquisition title, “A United Kingdom”) and Lupita Nyong’o, who could snag another Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as a tough, sacrificing, Stella Dallas mother.

Ewan McGregor in American Pastoral

“American Pastoral”

Lionsgate

Long Shots

American Pastoral”: Making his directing debut, Ewan McGregor takes on one of Philip Roth’s most-beloved novels as well as the title role of the Swede, the golden Jewish football-star-turned-Newark-businessman, for which the Scottish actor is miscast. (For example, his father is played by Peter Reigert.) Set in the turbulent ’60s, the movie faithfully represents how sour the American Dream can turn, even when a lovely, sincere man does everything right: he loves his work (crafting elegant leather gloves), his beautiful shiksa wife (Jennifer Connelly), and his sullen activist daughter (Dakota Fanning). While the actors give strong performances, this dead-serious, earnest, straightforward period film feels out of place and time. (Lionsgate)

“Bleed for This”: The best shot for this standard-issue fight picture directed by Ben Younger is a Supporting Actor nod for Aaron Eckhart as the trainer; he’s also excellent in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” so that doesn’t hurt. Open Road has at least two solid commercial entries in the fall marketplace (“Snowden” is the other), but they may not be Oscar material.

“Nocturnal Animals”:  Critics are rhapsodizing over Tom Ford’s elegant but distant exercise in style. Colin Firth brought emotion to his first film, “A Single Man,” and got an Oscar nomination for it. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are fine as a young couple who debate the role of art and artist, break apart, and then make contact years later. She deals in fine art and lives in a lonely marriage to a man (Armie Hammer) obsessed with surface appearances, while her ex-husband writes a violent book—shown as a movie within a movie—that hits her hard. What does it all add up to? I’m betting Adams gets the Best Actress nod for “Arrival” and Focus ends up with two out of three TIFF entries that make it big at the Oscars.

“Snowden”: It’s been a while since Oliver Stone was in the Oscar universe and this smart, well-made, and entertaining cyber-espionage thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt will take the filmmaker some distance on the road to redemption (read my interview with him here), but may not get all the way there. (Open Road)

Nocturnal Animals

“Nocturnal Animals”

Focus Features

Still to come:

TIFF also shines a spotlight for would-be contenders beyond the usual press conferences and media junkets. Getting extra boosts with official TIFF Conversations are “Deepwater Horizon” star Mark Wahlberg and French icon Isabelle Huppert, whose two French entries “Things to Come” and “Elle” are building Oscar momentum. “Wahlberg is a titan in the industry, a producer, a guy who initiates projects,” said TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, who met Huppert in Cannes and started negotiating for a TIFF platform for her. “She doesn’t give bad performances. This was her year.” Also getting a Conversation is great Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who stars in the Cannes competition film and controversial potential Brazilian Oscar submission “Aquarius,” which was snubbed for another less-known title amid political controversy.

READ MORE: Oscar Predictions 2017: Best Foreign Language Film

“Hidden Figures”: 2oth Century Fox’s drama about three African-American women who were brilliant NASA mathematicians is currently slated for the Martin Luther King Day weekend, but it could be an 11th-hour entry into the 2017 Oscar race. The film’s still unfinished, but Fox 2000 believed in it enough to mount an elaborate screening event that included clips, a Q&A with the cast (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, who also can be seen in “Moonlight”) and composer Pharrell Williams, followed by an outdoor concert.

While “Hidden Figures” appears to be straightforward, crowd-pleasing filmmaking from Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”), the film could provide an opportunity for its stars and for Williams, who was previously nominated for “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2” in 2014. If it does enter the race, it will join a roster of films defined by non-white contenders including “Moonlight,” “Loving,” “Lion,” “Birth of a Nation,” and “Queen of Katwe”— and that’s with “Fences” and possibly “Marshall” (which is as yet undated) still to come. All in, 2017 looks like it could be one of the most diverse Oscars in years.

Dana Harris contributed to this report.

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