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TIFF 2017: Here’s the Winners and Losers of the Festival

It was a great year for "The Shape of Water," "mother!", and "Molly's Game." For The Weinstein Co., not so much.

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”

Clooney and his producer/co-writer Grant Heslov slammed two stories together that don’t mesh — a serious drama about an African-American family who meet ugly resistance when they move into a white suburb, and a Coen brothers “Double Indemnity” film noir script about a man (Matt Damon) who gets rid of one sister in order to marry the other (Julianne Moore) and the insurance agent (Oscar Isaac) who smells a rat. The Coens wrote a comedy that Clooney took far too seriously.

Liam Neeson in Mark Felt The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Liam Neeson in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

As Liam Neeson turns his back on action franchises in favor of more satisfying dramatic fare, he took on the juicy title role of Deep Throat in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Took Down the White House.” But Neeson and a top-flight cast can’t save Peter Landesman’s clotted plotting. (It’s at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes.) It’s too bad; this movie is timely as hell.

“The Current War”

Any Oscar hopes harbored by the Weinstein Co. for period drama “The Current War” were dashed with its harsh reception in Toronto; again, top-tier actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon couldn’t save a mismatch between flashy visual director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me, Earl and the Dying Girl”) and a character-driven high-concept premise about the rivalry between two electrical pioneers (Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse) as they push to wire the country.

Possibly more commercial is the Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart comedy “The Upside,” an entertaining and poignant remake of French Cesar-winning hit “The Untouchables,” which Weinstein will give a year-end qualifying run before going wide in January. (At 38% on RT, Harvey Weinstein may want to change his mind.) Cranston will take a three-day break from starring in the London stage version of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” to turn up for New York Film Festival opener “Last Flag Flying,” in which he plays the matured Navy man portrayed by Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq

Also no longer in the awards hunt is “Nightcrawler” auteur Dan Gilroy’s “Roman Israel, Esq.” (Sony), a densely plotted legal drama which was written for Denzel Washington. Although the star creates a memorably colorful lawyer out of sync with his time, the movie doesn’t support him well enough. It’s at 62% on Rotten Tomatoes. 

“Kings” (The Orchard) also marks a less-than-stellar follow-up for Deniz Erguven, whose astonishing first feature “Mustang” landed a foreign-language Oscar nomination. Making her English-language debut with “Kings,” Erguven cast Halle Berry as the foster mother of an unwieldy brood of children who scatter during the L.A. riots of 1992 as cops handcuff her to a pole with her handsome neighbor (Daniel Craig). Erguven’s gift is for naturalistic drama, but this hodgepodge of movie styles never comes together in a believable way.

Margot Robbie I tonya

“I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

Big buys

As expected, Craig Gillespie’s true sports story “I, Tonya” was the big sale at TIFF, scooped up for $5 million by Neon, who agreed to launch a last-second awards campaign for Margot Robbie in the title role and Allison Janney in supporting.

The Orchard made another major buy, paying $5 million for Louis C.K.’s controversial black-and-white comedy “I Love You, Daddy,” in which he plays father to a young woman who falls for a Woody Allen-esque director (John Malkovich) who has much professional respect and a highly dubious personal rep.

Also acquired, by Byron Allen’s fledgling Entertainment Studios, was John Curran’s take on what really happened at “Chappaquiddick,” starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy with a thick Boston accent. A 2018 release is likely.

"The Children Act"

“The Children Act”

courtesy of TiFF

Also heading for 2018 is Richard Eyre’s “The Children Act” (A24/DirectTV), based on an Ian McEwan novel, a brainy British drama starring Emma Thompson as an ambitious, childless top barrister who takes for granted her loving husband (Stanley Tucci). Then, just as she faces a life-or-death decision on behalf of a young Jehovah’s Witness (“Dunkirk” star Fionn Whitehead), her husband threatens to launch an affair. Thompson and Whitehead make this straight-ahead talking heads movie dazzling and emotional.

A24 stepped up for Paul Schrader’s elegantly wrought “First Reformed,” starring Ethan Hawke as a disillusioned minister. Still with no takers was Scott Cooper’s tough epic western “Hostiles,” for which producer John Lesher was trying to recoup a hefty production budget of $35 million-$50 million. This gorgeously made period adventure, carried by stars Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, will eventually find a home at a lower price point. (It’s at 71% on RT.)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY'S GAME

“Molly’s Game”

Courtesy of STXfilms

Crowdpleasers

Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us” (Fox 2000) features stunning camerawork from Mandy Walker and charming, sexy performances from Kate Winslet and Idris Elba as two hard-driving professionals who must help each other to survive a plane crash atop a mountain range, and could catch the fancy of mainstream audiences.

In Paolo Virzì’s effective tearjerker “The Leisure Seeker” (SPC), two canny pros, Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren, play an aging couple who take off on their last vacation in their old RV, revisiting past haunts. The senior demo will eat this up — and cry buckets.

Debuting director Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” (STX) plays well for audiences and critics, who adored Jessica Chastain in the splashy title role based on the memoir by high-stakes poker wrangler Molly Bloom. While the fast-paced drama may make money, Academy members could judge Sorkin’s reliance on over-narration and television directing style more harshly. (It’s at 92% on RT.)

Jamie Bell Annette Bening Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Another movie that audiences adore is Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (SPC), adapted from Peter Turner’s memoir about Gloria Grahame, starring Annette Bening as the aging star who has an affair with a younger actor (Jamie Bell). (It’s at 88% on RT.) Can Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard score Bening the Oscar nod she was denied for “20th Century Women”? If anyone can, it’s them.

“Battle of the Sexes” is a likely commercial hit and Fox Searchlight also knows how to play the Oscar game. Their task: to follow Emma Stone’s “La La Land” Oscar win with a nomination for her moving portrayal of closeted tennis hero Billie Jean King. (It’s at 73% on RT.)

“mother!”

One of the hits of the festival was raucous comedy “The Disaster Artist,” which debuted at SXSW and has earned by far the best reaction ever for a James Franco movie. It’s an “Ed Wood” flick about making a bad movie, and sits at 76 on Metacritic. I still have to see this in order to gauge its Oscar potential — but A24 shouldn’t have any trouble following their own “Spring Breakers” release model.

Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” (Paramount) is a wild and crazy E-ride that makes no sense and should not be explained ahead of time — debates after the fact are great fun. And although Aronofsky would like to see his girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence land a Best Actress nod, it’s unlikely, even if only she could pull off this female archetype with such conviction. I bet this movie (77% on RT) gets repeat business, along with “The Shape of Water.” I can’t wait to see them both again.

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