All major fall festivals debut their share of awards titles, but traditionally Toronto is the festival of choice for Hollywood studios seeking a world premiere for their audience-friendly contenders. This year, however, Toronto’s world premieres include studio titles “that are much more character-driven dramas,” said new Toronto International Film Festival co-head Joana Vicente.
She and artistic director Cameron Bailey were especially impressed by three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix’s all-stops-out performance in DC’s “Batman” spin-off “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips. “It’s an original story, not part of the existing canon,” Bailey said. “It does take the character and a lot of the elements that we know from Joker’s backstory. But it’s an original story that allows the filmmakers to go in an original direction. It’s got some real dark tones to it, but it’s just grounded in this career-best career performance by Joaquin Phoenix. I think all the awards bodies will be taking notice.”
Taika Waititi will also debut his anti-Nazi satire, “Jojo Rabbit,” which Fox Searchlight chose to break out with Toronto’s cosmopolitan film fans ahead of its October 18 release. “I don’t know how Taika Waititi pulled this off, but he did,” said Bailey. “It is a hilarious, savage satire, and really moving, surprisingly emotional.”
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TIFF is also attractive to studios with its sizable media contingent ready to fan the awards flames, even if they ignited at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, or Telluride. “We always emphasize the new films, since every year we have over 100 world premieres at the festival,” Bailey said. “But there are some films we see earlier in the year that we absolutely love, like the Pedro Almodovar [“Hope & Glory”], which we saw in Cannes.”
Other festival holdovers include three Neon entries, Alfre Woodard-starrer “Clemency,” which debuted at Sundance, Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winner “Parasite,” which is the movie to beat for the Best International Film Oscar, and Celine Sciamma’s Cannes prize-winner “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which may or may not be submitted by France.
A24 will mount a serious campaign for another Cannes breakout, Robert Eggers’ intense period drama “The Lighthouse,” starring the powerhouse duo Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
Warners is also screening John Crowley’s literary adaptation “The Goldfinch,” starring Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, and Jeffrey Wright, looking to Toronto to see how it plays for critics and audiences.
Bailey also adores Cynthia Erivo’s performance as the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons biopic “Harriet” co-starring Janelle Monáe (“Hidden Figures”). (Erivo broke out last year in Toronto in Steve McQueen’s “Widows.”) The closing-night film also has a woman director, Marjane Satrapi’s Marie and Pierre Curie biopic, “Radioactive,” starring Rosamund Pike. Amazon is also bringing back Sundance title “The Report,” a Washington CIA drama starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, for a shot at Oscar contention.
Also in the TIFF lineup are movies that were already heading for the Oscar race, including “Judy,” Rupert Goold’s late-inning Judy Garland drama starring Renee Zellweger, Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, Destin Daniel Crettin’s “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson, and “Ford v Ferrari,” starring Christian Bale as a world-class race driver and Matt Damon as the engineer who is souping up his Ford to beat the competition at LeMans. “This movie is going to win over everybody,” said Bailey, “even if you’ve never thought once about auto racing.”
Toronto also boasts four high-profile Netflix Oscar contenders. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s buzzy “Marriage Story” stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a New York couple suffering a fractious breakup (“it has two really strong performances and a great script,” said Bailey). Driver earned his first nomination for “BlacKkKlansman,” while Johansson is overdue. Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles’ “The Two Popes” is a two-hander about one pontiff handing over the papacy to his successor, starring Jonathan Pryce, who has never been nominated, and four-time nominee and winner Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”).
Netflix is also testing the waters for “Dolemite Is My Name,” Craig Brewer’s comedy starring Eddie Murphy, who could mount a comeback if audiences embrace him.
Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling ensemble drama “The Laundromat” is led by Oscar perennial Meryl Streep, making a bid for her 22nd nomination. “Meryl is really the emotional heart of that movie,” said Bailey. “She’s typically brilliant, and that’s one people will be paying a lot of attention to. It’s funny, but also really pointed. It takes you through this Panama Papers scandal that was hard to grasp in news coverage, but it really humanizes the story. It shows you that these financial shenanigans in the Caribbean and other places affected the whole world, and how people spent their money. It really brings that down to earth.”
While it may not turn out to be Oscar fodder, the TIFF heads were also impressed by Rian Johnson’s well-executed Agatha Christie-style ensemble “Knives Out” (November 27, Lionsgate) starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more. “It is amazing work in a whodunit kind of way,” said Bailey, “and he’s marshaled this incredible cast to tell that story.”
As always, a distributor could scoop up a last-minute buy like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” which Fox Searchlight plopped into that year’s Oscar race, but with the accelerated early February 9, 2020 Oscar date, that’s highly unlikely.
Bruce Springsteen’s directorial debut “Western Stars” is one buzzy title, featuring the star performing as a western persona. “The album and the film are both about this fading Western-movie, B-level star who’s looking back on his life and the decisions he’s made,” said Bailey. “That narrative and that character shape all the songs. In between the songs, you’ve got Bruce really talking about this character he invented, the story he wrote for the character, and how it reflects back on his own life as he ages and other kind of narratives he’s had in his previous albums.”
Other higher-profile Toronto acquisitions titles include Armando Ianucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” with Dev Patel in the title role; Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s drama “The Friend”; Roger Michel’s “Blackbird”;Corey Finley’s “Bad Education”; Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman”; and Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed.”
Reporting by Eric Kohn.