At 255 titles, the Toronto International Film Festival’s smorgasbord is 20 percent smaller than last year — and still overwhelming. A number of filmmakers took creative risks that paid off with exuberant praise, from Darren Aronofsky’s outrageous “mother!” to Guillermo del Toro’s inimitable “The Shape of Water,” but many others found themselves in the doghouse, or worse, utterly ignored.
Buyers were unhappy that there wasn’t much to choose from at this sellers’ market, because many distributors cherry-picked the more promising titles ahead of time — which is its own risk, as when The Orchard’s LA riot drama “Kings” didn’t meet high expectations.
Here’s how the festival shook out.
Best of the Fest
Top Tier Oscar Contenders
Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeously mounted fantasy thriller “The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight), shot in Toronto, was so popular that it’s vying for TIFF’s audience award (often an Oscar Best-Picture forerunner). British Sally Hawkins could earn her second nomination for her luminous performance as a mute lab cleaner, and leads the crowded Best Actress category. It’s at 86 on Metacritic.
Greta Gerwig’s Gen-X coming-of-age drama “Lady Bird” rode momentum out of Telluride to become a TIFF must-see. (It’s at 91 on Metacritic.) A24 could take this movie far commercially with a boost from awards attention. The movie will nab strong support from Academy writers, directors, and actors (Gerwig will draw warm support as a Hollywood star who directs: see Oscar-winners Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson). Star Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “Brooklyn”) will land another Best Actress nod, and Laurie Metcalf as the mother should score as well.
The British had a good year: Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” (Focus Features) joined Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” as an Oscar frontrunner, and Gary Oldman as Sir Winston Churchill will be hard to beat as Best Actor. Stephen Frears’ latest portrait of a Queen, “Victoria & Abdul,” launched Judi Dench as a Best Actress candidate, and Andy Serkis’ “Breathe” showed what last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge” nominee Andrew Garfield could do from the neck up as polio victim Robin Cavendish.
Also likely to be appreciated by actors and writers is “Seven Psychopaths” writer-director Martin McDonagh’s searing, hilarious, and timely portrait of American dysfunction, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (Fox Searchlight), which eventually took home the coveted TIFF audience award. Frances McDormand and returning McDonagh vets Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell could get recognized for their superb dark comedy. What they do in this movie is hard to pull off. It’s at 90 on Metacritic. (See “Downsizing” and “Suburbicon.”)
David Gordon Green’s Boston marathon bombing survivor drama “Stronger” (September 22, Lionsgate) delivers heart-tugging performances from Jake Gyllenhaal as local hero Jeff Bauman, who lost his lower legs at the marathon finish line, and Tatiana Maslany as the girlfriend who helps him cope, along with his hard-drinking mother (Miranda Richardson). In a wide open year for Best Actor candidates, Gyllenhaal could land a slot.
Actors are also the likeliest branch to value the achievement of Sean Baker’s small-scale “The Florida Project” (A24), which boasts a moving performance from Willem Dafoe as an Orlando poverty-row motel manager along with newcomer Brooklynn Prince, the best emerging young actress since “Beasts of the Southern Wild” nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. The movie played well in Toronto, but will need to continue building awareness in theaters. It’s at 92 on Metacritic.
Two Sundance hits returned to the awards conversation: Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” (Sony Pictures Classics) and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” (Netflix). One is a lovely reverie about summer love that will launch Timothée Chalamet’s career and enhance the standing of Armie Hammer (who plays his older lover) and ubiquitous character actor Michael Stuhlbarg (as his father). “Mudbound,” however, is still a question mark, as Netflix needs to prove what it can do with a stunning period epic without a conventional theatrical build-up. Jason Clarke worked the Netflix party in Toronto with Rees, Garrett Hedlund, and Netflix movie chief Scott Stuber, who assured me they will get the job done.
Continuing to build into a must-see is Agnes Varda and JR’s artful Cannes-winning documentary “Faces, Places” (Cohen Media), which also won the TIFF People’s Choice documentary audience prize. And “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” director Brett Morgen delivered a stunning achievement with “Jane” (NatGeo), by merging new interviews with animal advocate Jane Goodall with gorgeous archive footage of her early years in Africa as she was getting to know a tribe of chimpanzees.
Another TIFF doc that gained awards momentum is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “One of Us,” Netflix’s story of three young New Yorkers who struggle to escape their oppressive Hasidic community. At TIFF, Netflix also acquired Chris Smith’s Jim Carrey documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.”
Foreign-language Oscar breakouts
Cambodian citizen Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” (Netflix), based on a true story from the ’70s Khmer Rouge takeover and told from the point-of-view of a young Cambodian girl in her own language, could be the Cambodian entry.
“Foxtrot” is favored to win Israel’s Ophir award on September 19, which would make Samuel Maoz’s twisty and stylish family drama a strong Oscar submission. It needs a North American distributor: Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, who released his film “Lebanon,” attended the public screening at TIFF.
Already in the Oscar race for Sweden is this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Ruben Östlund’s accessibly entertaining artworld satire “The Square” (Magnolia), starring Danish star Claes Bang and American Elisabeth Moss, who both charmed at TIFF.
Germany’s Oscar entry is Fatih Akin’s brutal terrorist thriller “In the Fade” (Magnolia), which marks a return to her home country for Cannes Best Actress winner Diane Kruger as a grieving and vengeful widow.
Also scoring was Chile’s likely entry, “A Fantastic Woman” (SPC), featuring a moving performance from Daniela Vega as a fierce and vulnerable transgender woman whose older lover dies, leaving her to pick up the pieces.
Robin Campillo’s likely French submission, 90s AIDs drama “BPM: (Beats Per Minute)” (The Orchard) also played well, along with Joachim Trier’s Norwegian submission “Thelma” (The Orchard) and likely Russian entry “Loveless” (SPC) from Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Not returning to Toronto after his triumph in “The Martian” was Matt Damon, who starred in two anticipated movies that underwhelmed many critics. Alexander Payne’s sporadically brilliant holiday comedy “Downsizing” (Paramount), starring Stupid Matt Damon, sits at a modest 74 on Metacritic, while George Clooney’s deflated dramedy “Suburbicon” (Paramount), starring a slightly Less Stupid Matt Damon, scored a miserable 46.