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TIFF 2019: Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix, Paying Tribute to Late Brother River, Launch Oscar Bids

This year TIFF decided to join the drum-thumping for Oscars with its first-ever star-studded awards gala.

Joaquin Phoenix 'The Joker' premiere, Arrivals, Toronto International Film Festival, Canada - 09 Sep 2019

Joaquin Phoenix at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock

September’s Toronto International Film Festival has long been a launching pad for Oscar contenders, and its coveted People’s Choice award often presages the Best Picture Oscar winner. “Green Book” last year was no exception.

So it was inevitable that TIFF would jump-start the awards season with its own Awards Gala. This year’s first installment gave out two acting awards, to Joaquin Phoenix, star of DC’s “Batman” spin-off “Joker” (October 4, Warner Bros.), which surprisingly won the Golden Lion in Venice, and Oscar perennial Meryl Streep (21 nominations). Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, Her costars in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” (September 27, Netflix), came onstage to remind us that Streep breaks the record for the most nominations of all time every time she gets a nod — because it’s a record she set herself.

The Streep sizzle reel stretched back to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” through “Sophie’s Choice,” “Silkwood,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Iron Lady,” “The Post,” “Doubt” and more. “I happen to be very good at stories,” Streep says to Robert Redford in “Out of Africa.”

Indeed. Streep, who is 70, took the occasion to deliver a rousing speech about doing good and not harm in today’s troubling times, praising TIFF for “being a stepping stone for making real change to include women directors and their stories.” She concluded: “Time is short. We should all do the right things that count even if it’s just to get a laugh.”

Phoenix interrupted his presenter Willem Dafoe (at TIFF with A24’s “The Lighthouse”) in mid-intro (Dafoe was fooled by Phoenix’s mockumentary “I’m Still Here”) and then gave his own speech. Having acted since he was eight (he’s notched three Oscar nominations for “Gladiator,” “Walk the Line,” and “The Master”), Phoenix thanked all those who helped him along the way, including his older brother River, who when he was 15 or 16 made him watch “Raging Bull” two days in a row: “You’re going to start acting again,” River told him. “This is what you’re going to do.”

Guillermo Del Toro and Taika Waititi, TIFF Ebert Director Award honoree 44th Annual Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala, Inside, Canada - 09 Sep 2019

Guillermo Del Toro and Taika Waititi, TIFF Ebert Director Award honoree

Christopher Polk/Variety/Shutterstock

Guillermo del Toro presented the Roger Ebert directing award to Marvel master Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok”), writer-director-star of TIFF world premiere Nazi comedy satire “Jojo Rabbit” (October 18, Fox Searchlight). “Tigers and filmmakers are better if they are undomesticated,” said Del Toro. “Being Taika is not easy… Taika goes for it and innovates… He should stay savage. He should stay free.”

Waititi reminded us that he comes from a small town of a few hundred people in New Zealand. “Film was not on my list of job opportunities,” he said. “I went on the dole when I left high school.” When asked “What are you good at?” he answered, “Diving for sea weed.” “I didn’t work for a long time.” He was over 30 when he started making films. Fox Searchlight world-premiered daring “Jojo Rabbit,” in which Waititi plays a 10-year-old Nazi youth’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, to enthusiastic Toronto audiences and mixed media reaction. 

“Roma” star Yalitza Aparicio presented Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary, with the Impact Award for “its art, activism, and creativity.” The company has partnered on such films as “Green Book,” “Roma,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Syriana,” “He Named Me Malala,” “Aquarela,” “There Will Be Blood,” “RBG,” “A Fantastic Woman,” “The Post,” “Spotlight,” “The Art of Killing,” 2020 documentary Oscar contender “American Factory” and Destin Daniel Cretton’s TIFF true story “Just Mercy,” starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. “It was important that the social impact would last longer than the life cycle of the film,” said Alfonso Cuarón via video of Participant’s Oscar-winning “Roma.”

“We can all be participants,” said CEO David Linde, accepting the award.

The Variety Artisan Award went to TIFF entry “Goldfinch” cinematographer Roger Deakins, who finally won the Oscar for Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” after 14 nominations for such films as the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun.” Deakins thanked his directors and said, “My crew should be here, my camera assistant, gaffer and key grip. This is for them, too.”

Isabelle Huppert (“Frankie”) gave the Mary Pickford award for emerging talent to French director Mati Diop, whose Dakar-set moody drama “Atlantics” (November 29) won the grand prize of the Cannes jury and was picked up by Netflix. The film is a likely Oscar submission for Senegal.

Composer David Foster took to the piano with a series of silver-throated soprano voices singing his biggest movie singles. He argued that if his Oscar-nominated song “Glory of Love” from “The Karate Kid Part II” had played with the movie of the song that beat him, he would have won. So he played a clip from “Top Gun” along with his song. He’s probably right.

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