The Toronto Film International Festival is a crucial passage into the fall film season, not only for potential awards players but commercial entries. Returning to the Fairmont Royal York on Tuesday night, I ran into director Peter Farrelly, riding high from a rousing standing ovation for ’60s dramedy “Green Book.” It’s a strong contender for TIFF’s coveted People’s Choice Award against Bradley Cooper’s updated “A Star Is Born” (October 5, Warner Bros.), which scored two ovations at its September 9 North American premiere, for the movie and breakout Lady Gaga.
While winning TIFF’s audience prize does not guarantee a Best Picture win, it does presage a nomination — and Best Picture winners include “Chariots of Fire” (1981), “American Beauty” (1999), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010), and “12 Years a Slave” (2013), among many Oscar-winners in other categories, from “Precious” and “La La Land” to last year’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
While a slew of winners gained momentum from the festival’s overheated media bubble as they head for release, the less fortunate must navigate rougher headwinds.
Participant: While Netflix is marketing the hell out of Alfonso Cuaron’s mind-blowing digital game-changer “Roma” (December 14), remember that one man greenlit the risky $15-million movie: Participant CEO David Linde (who released Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” at Good Machine International before becoming co-president of Focus Features and co-chairman of Universal Pictures), said yes to Cuaron, funding “Roma” and producing it with Esperanto Filmoj, Cuaron’s company. Only after an intense bidding war did Netflix wind up buying “Roma” in April for far more than its cost.
Participant also backed TIFF crowdpleaser “Green Book” (November 21, Universal). Farrelly jumped on the true story about jazz musician Don Shirley and the New York bouncer who protected him on a concert tour of the Deep South, and co-wrote a terrific screenplay brought to vivid life by two great actors with chemistry, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. It’s like jazz. But this funny and serious emotional movie is hard to capture in a trailer, so Universal plans to screen the hell out of it. Actors will love it.
“A Star Is Born”: Actor-director Bradley Cooper’s movie is charging into the fall as a potential box office juggernaut and top Oscar contender. As expected.
Twentieth Century Fox: Telluride breakout “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (October 19, Fox Searchlight) continued its forward push at TIFF and will score in the fall season (Searchlight’s Venice and Telluride hit “The Favourite” skipped Toronto en route to opening the New York Film Festival) along with Robert Redford-starrer “The Old Man & the Gun.”
The Fox studio — which is in the process of merging with Disney — also launched at TIFF two mighty mainstream fall titles: Steve McQueen’s “Widows” and George Tillman, Jr.’s “The Hate U Give,” to rapturous audiences and reviews.
“First Man”: While “A Star is Born” is blazing through the Hollywood cosmos, Universal has maneuvered Damien Chazelle’s mission movie about Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing through Venice, Telluride, and Toronto on its way to a commercial release and multiple Oscar nominations.
Netflix: Of the streamer’s eight movies in TIFF, “Roma” will garner the most attention — and the biggest day-and-date theatrical release — as it moves into Oscar season. Like HBO, Netflix picks and chooses the higher-profile films on its slate to take to festivals to build awareness and buzz, along with modest theatrical play. While TIFF opener “Outlaw King,” a Medieval actioner starring Chris Pine from director David Mackenzie, met bad reviews, the rest were better-received: Jeremy Saulnier’s hardboiled Alaska noir “Hold the Dark,” starring Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Holofcener’s suburban midlife crisis drama “The Land of Steady Habits” starring Ben Mendelsohn, Paul Greengrass’s hard-hitting Norway terrorism re-enactment “22 July,” Lukas Dhont’s transgender drama “Girl” (the Belgian Oscar submission), Sundance’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones’ music documentary “Quincy.” (Tamara Jenkins’ well-reviewed Sundance debut, New York family drama “Private Life,” plays NYFF.)
Venice Film Festival
Neon: The distributor (backed by 30West) picked up two big titles at TIFF, both musicals. “Vox Lux” stars Natalie Portman as a hateful pop star, and “Wild Rose” (2019) stars Irish breakout Jessie Buckley as a Scottish country singer in Nashville. Neon secured “Vox Lux” with a seven-figure deal and plan to follow the playbook for last year’s TIFF buy “I, Tonya,” which rushed into awards season and snagged a Supporting Actress Oscar (Allison Janney). This edgy movie will be a higher hill to climb.
And Neon landed the hot documentary buy of TIFF, wildlife cinematographer John Chester’s charming environmental makeover “The Biggest Little Farm.” Also at TIFF: “Border,” the audacious, jaw-dropping Swedish Oscar entry, which is not unlike a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, with its own set of peculiar rules and the potential for a Hair & Makeup Oscar nod.
Film4: Steady as they go is the British indie film funder led by Daniel Battsek, which has backed a long string of films by name auteurs such as Steve McQueen (their fourth, Fox/New Regency’s “Widows”), Mike Leigh (their ninth, Amazon Studios’ $18-million “Peterloo”), Yorgos Lanthimos (their third, Fox Searchlight’s fall festival hit “The Favourite”) and Pawel Pawlikowski (their second, the Cannes Best-Director-winning Amazon release “Cold War”). Film4 also seeks out rising directors such as Michael Pearce (“Beast” and TIFF acquisition title “Wild Rose,” which sold to 30West/Neon).
Michael Moore got a big TIFF lift for his new movie “Fahrenheit 11/9,” which marks a return to form for the documentary maverick who loves to rail against the Republican order. The movie will hit as many as 1,800 theaters on September 21, for maximum impact on the midterm elections.
Annapurna/Plan B: Megan Ellison’s production and fledgling distribution company brought three films to TIFF. First up, Karyn Kusama’s twisty, divisive LA noir “Destroyer” (12/25) stars Nicole Kidman in top form as a rogue cop on a revenge odyssey — young in flashbacks, middle-aged in present — who takes wrong turns and tries to set things right. With mixed reviews (Metascore: 65), this tough genre movie presents a marketing challenge. Can Annapurna do well enough at the box office to turn “Destroyer” into a must-see? Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”) has delivered a long line of knockout performances that have not always landed her Oscar nods, because they were in little-seen films like “Birth” and “The Paperboy.” Oscar-wise, Kidman might have a better shot at Supporting Actress for “Boy Erased.” Again, these films have to be seen.
Venice Best Director winner Jacques Audiard’s first English-language film “The Sisters Brothers,” a rigorous revisionist western starring four superb actors — Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed — should play well to adult audiences on the art-house circuit. Depending on how it plays (Metascore: 78), producer-actor Reilly, who developed the book, is a longshot for Best Actor.
Annapurna chose to take in-house producer Plan B’s period drama, “If Beale Street Could Talk” (November 30), Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Oscar-winner “Moonlight,” to world premiere at Toronto rather than Telluride. (It will have its New York Film Festival premiere at The Apollo.) Adapted over some years by Jenkins from James Baldwin’s Harlem novel, this ‘60s story about young sculptor Alonzo (Stephan James) in love with Tish, his best chum since childhood (discovery KiKi Layne) is gorgeously mounted by Jenkins’ “Moonlight” team. This elegant, European-flavored film (Metascore: 86) will likely stay in the art-film realm — it’s not a mainstream play. Expect “If Beale Street Could Talk” to wind up on many year-end Ten Best lists and dominate the Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards.
Plan B’s “Beautiful Boy” (October 12, Amazon Studios) is another uncompromising TIFF entry. Timothée Chalamet anchors the grim drug drama which tells the story of wealthy father David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his addict son Nic (Chalamet), who both wrote memoirs about their struggle. Adapted by recovering addict Luke Davies (“Lion”), Belgian Oscar-nominee Felix Von Groeningen’s movie is a tough sit, but rings true, and many people who have experience with addiction may relate to its accuracy. While the actors basked in a standing ovation when they came on stage, and rising star Chalamet (Oscar-nominated for “Call Me By Your Name”) is a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nomination, the movie is admired more than loved and will face an uphill challenge at the box office.
Lucas Hedges: Another young Oscar nominee (“Manchester By the Sea”) gives two moving, impeccable performances this fall — in Joel Edgerton’s agitprop conversion therapy true story “Boy Erased” (November 2, Focus Features), which earned mixed reviews, and his father Peter Hedges’ recovering addict drama “Ben is Back” (December 7, Roadside Attractions), opposite well-reviewed Julia Roberts as his mother. Both delicately mounted movies are more audience-friendly than “Beautiful Boy,” but emerge from TIFF without much heat and face a competitive fall season.
Sony Pictures Classics: The venerable studio specialty house came into Toronto with a slimmer portfolio than usual. But they pulled “The Happy Prince” (October 10) creator Rupert Everett into their annual opening weekend Yorkville dinner, as well as John C. Reilly, who stars in London Film Festival closer “Stan & Ollie,” which they just acquired for possible 2018 award-season release, along with Milorad Krstic’s adult-audience animated feature “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” which played Locarno, and TIFF documentary “Maiden,” the rousing tale of an all-women sailing crew proving their mettle on the high seas. (30West/Neon outbid SPC for “The Biggest Little Farm.”)
SPC’s Oscar season is always dominated by foreign-language titles. While feminist drama “The Wife” is doing business and could yield a longshot Best Actress nomination for Glenn Close, a more likely Oscar nomination could be Lebanon’s Cannes prize-winner “Capernaum,” from one-time TIFF audience award-winner, Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”), as well as TIFF German Oscar entry “Never Look Away,” a romantic thriller from “The Lives of Others” Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which critics admired. While some reviews praised “Sunset,” Hungarian Oscar-winner László Nemes’ brilliant holocaust drama “Son of Saul” is a hard act to follow. And Canada might submit Montreal filmmaker Denis Arcand’s “The Fall of the American Empire (Metascore: 63).
A24: While the indie distributor usually pushes a few fall contenders, from “Room” to “Moonlight,” this year A24 came into TIFF quietly. They checked out reaction to “Gloria Bell,” Sebastian Lelio’s slavishly faithful and effective English-language remake of his own “Gloria” (2013), starring Julianne Moore. Her portrayal is so powerful they may consider pushing the planned spring release to fall, although that would mean pitting Moore against Toni Colette, star of A24-summer horror hit “Hereditary.”
Jonah Hill’s TIFF world premiere, high-school comedy “Mid90s” (October 19), didn’t rev up Oscar pundits (Metascore: 78), but critics raved about A24’s pickup, Claire Denys’ latest genre-tweaking exercise, the English-language father-daughter space drama “High Life,” starring Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson.
Justin Kelly: “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” the writer-director’s collaboration with Savannah Knoop, author Laura Albert’s sister-in-law who impersonated Albert’s fictional creation J.T. LeRoy for six years, has earned mixed reviews before closing out the festival without a buyer. Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart do their best in this meandering alternate point-of-view of the fascinating psychological complexities revealed in the far superior Jeff Feuerzeig documentary “Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story.”
Xavier Dolan: The Canadian enfant terrible landed the worst reviews of his young life for the troubled “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” which he cut down from four hours to two (excising Jessica Chastain in the process). It remains unsold in the U.S.
Apple: While their video content division has plowed ahead with multiple projects, the Apple acquisitions team made its first festival buy with “The Elephant Queen,” Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble’s family-friendly nature documentary.
TIFF in Transition: 2018 brought the strongest festival line-up in years, as exiting CEO Piers Handling and transitioning executive director and COO Michele Maheux are passing the baton to a new duo: veteran artistic director Cameron Bailey and his new co-head and executive director, Independent Feature Project’s Joana Vicente, who will move to Toronto from New York.