The Toronto International Film Festival’s welcoming audiences and traffic-chasing media can deliver a mighty headwind for movies hoping to gain momentum in the Oscar race. But not everybody gets that push. And the reality does not always match the clickbait headlines.
Yes, festival fave “Hustlers” rode a tsunami of press. After all, Jennifer Lopez is an established global star who knew exactly what to do with her alluring role as a pole-riding stripper. But while all that buzz might pull moviegoers into theaters this weekend, “Hustlers” (which B-movie distributor STX took over from A-movie producer Annapurna) is far more likely to play for the Hollywood Foreign Press than the more tony Academy voters, who want their Oscar contenders to shine with the patina of art. If the movie is a hit and Lopez’s team finds financial backing for an awards campaign, she could squeak into a Supporting Actress slot.
I’ve already weighed in on the triumph of DC noir “Joker” at TIFF — it could go far this Oscar season — but on the other side of the spectrum “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” also came out ahead, upending expectations of a saccharine soft-edged studio entertainment. Produced by Big Beach, which managed to obtain movie rights from the Fred Rogers estate (and wisely allowed Morgan Neville to go ahead with his popular documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”), the movie is precisely directed by Marielle Heller, who was hired before the release of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Tom Hanks initially turned the movie down, having played real heroes Captain Phillips, Captain Sully, and Walt Disney. Because he had a strong relationship with Heller, he agreed to read the script and took on the challenging supporting role of a deeply humane children’s talk show host who helps an embittered Esquire journalist (“The Americans” star Matthew Rhys) deal with dark family issues. The movie’s opening shot, as Rogers goes through his trademark ritual of changing into sweater and sneakers while singing his theme song, took 22 takes to get right. The Academy should reward the skill required to pull off this tricky true story with multiple Oscar nominations, including Hanks.
Oscar perennial Fox Searchlight (TIFF audience-award winners “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) wisely introduced writer-director-actor Taika Waititi’s bold Hitler satire “Jojo Rabbit” at TIFF for a reason: they needed the rapturous audience response to counterbalance the mixed critical reaction. Currently sitting at 52 on Metacritic, the movie is applauded by those who delight in Waititi’s whimsical story of a young Nazi enthusiast (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi), who becomes increasingly threatened by the kid’s growing infatuation with the Jewish teenager (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden in his home by his resistance-fighter mother (Scarlett Johansson). And the film is derided by those who question Waititi’s use of a Wes Anderson-style aesthetic as well as a light, humorous approach to the Nazi subject. Where this arthouse movie will wind up with Academy voters is anyone’s guess. Searchlight will need to start by growing a box office hit.
Oddly, Searchlight’s popular TIFF movie was another World War II anti-Nazi screed, Terrence Malick’s lauded Cannes entry “A Hidden Life.” Based on a real-life Austrian farmer who was ostracized and imprisoned for refusing to pledge his loyalty to Hitler, this moving testament to a man’s courage to stand alone should be embraced by Academy voters as much as festivalgoers.
But Searchlight’s TIFF went out on a sour note, as Noah Hawley’s oddly sanitized film version of the true story of an astronaut (Natalie Portman) who adjusts to life back on earth by having an extra-marital affair with a womanizing fellow astronaut (Jon Hamm) fell completely flat–even in friendly Toronto. No Oscar hopes there.
James Mangold’s Telluride favorite “Ford v. Ferrari” (Fox/Disney) also played well in Toronto, amid debates about whether this $100-million riveting action spectacular and real-life character drama about a race car designer (Matt Damon) and his ace driver (Christian Bale) hired by Henry Ford 2 (supporting actor candidate Tracy Letts) to beat Ferrari at the 1966 LeMans race could yield two Best Actor candidates in a competitive year.
Warner Bros. picked up writer-director-actor Edward Norton’s independently-financed Jonathan Lethem adaptation “Motherless Brooklyn,” which moves the story back to 1950s New York. In his second directing effort, Norton gives a wily lead performance as a canny private detective with brilliant verbal tics from Tourette Syndrome, supported by a colorful cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, and last but not least, Alec Baldwin as a racist and corrupt city powerbroker (inspired by Robert Moses) who believes that the ends justify the means. If Warners can lure audiences to see the densely plotted movie (it’s at 62 on Metacritic), Academy members will appreciate its production values, from top-notch period production design to a sumptuous jazz score.
Warners also supplied one of three modest-scale TIFF biopics with “Just Mercy,” along with Roadside Attractions’ Telluride hit “Judy,” and Focus Features’ “Harriet,” which are all anchored by powerful performances. In “Just Mercy,” Michael B. Jordan shines in a low-key role as death-row legal advocate Bryan Stevenson, while Jamie Foxx has the showier supporting part as Walter McMillian, the death-row inmate he tried to save.
Focused on her last London concerts weeks before crooner July Garland’s tragic death, “Judy” nabbed a huge Toronto response for Renée Zellweger, who is riding the festival swells toward inevitable SAG, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations. Her comeback narrative combined with the irresistible Garland songbook will be catnip to awards voters.
Actors should also support British warbler Cynthia Erivo’s fiercely athletic performance as underground railroad heroine Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ rousing but straightforward historical narrative.
A24 effectively deployed Toronto to promote its three would-be awards contenders. Cannes entry “The Lighthouse,” an intense period two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a lighthouse keeper and his strapping new assistant, played well at the festival and should garner support from actors. Two Telluride breakouts continued to build momentum: the Safdie brothers’ noisy dramedy “Uncut Gems,” starring comedian Adam Sandler in a dramatic role as a Manhattan diamond district gambling addict, and Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves,” an anxiety-provoking family drama about a high school athletic achiever (“Luce” star Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) who gets into terrible trouble; the most likely Oscar nominee is Emmy-winner Sterling K. Brown as the well-meaning father who pushes his son a tad too hard.
TIFF audiences adored the Netflix Oscar slate, led by New York auteur Noah Baumbach’s wrenching (and painfully funny) divorce dramedy “Marriage Story,” which has built frontrunner momentum from Venice and Telluride to Toronto, followed by New York. No other movie has displayed such universal appeal at so many festivals. “Marriage Story” manipulates moviegoer sympathy between the narcissistic New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his estranged actress wife (Scarlett Johansson), who hires a hard-driving lawyer (fast-talking Laura Dern) in order to keep their child in Los Angeles. Baumbach balances the two narratives with insight, humor, and compassion and builds up to a climactic fight scene that will land both actors Oscar nominations. It would be Driver’s second (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Marvel star Johansson’s first. While the movie will briefly play in limited theatrical release, “Marriage Story” is also well-calibrated for global Netflix play.
Netflix is also orchestrating the comeback narrative of Eddie Murphy, who produces and stars in Craig Brewer’s rollicking ’70s biopic of blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore, “Dolemite Is My Name.” The well-cast bravura comedy keeps audiences smiling throughout and played the best of any public screening I saw in Toronto.
Another fictionalized true story is Fernando Meirelles’s “The Two Popes,” written by Oscar-whisperer Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody, “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour”) who dramatizes the behind-the-scenes verbal swordplay between Popes Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Francis (Jonathan Pryce) just before conservative Benedict shocked the world by stepping down.
Steven Soderbergh brought two hard-hitting political exposes to TIFF. He directed Netflix’s broad comedy “The Laundromat,” starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, which he directed from a script by Scott Z. Burns, which did not build much Toronto buzz. And he produced writer-director Burns’ political drama “The Report,” which broke out at Sundance with a $14 million Amazon buy, but has been buried by fresher movies in the fall festival fray. Star Adam Driver will be lauded for “Marriage Story,” while four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening could score a supporting actress slot for her uncanny portrait of Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Amazon Studios’ strongest Oscar contender may be Israeli documentarian Alma Har’el’s Sundance breakout “Honey Boy,” written from rehab by troubled actor Shia Labeouf, who plays his own father. Lucas Hedges gives a sensitive, heartrending performance as actor Labeouf, along with British child actor Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place,” “Ford v. Ferrari”). If Amazon can draw enough attention for this drama, which Har’el said she made for children of alcoholics (of which there are many), actors should support it.
Another Amazon also-ran was period balloon spectacular “The Aeronauts,” despite the best efforts of “The Theory of Everything” acting team Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Among the foreign-language breakouts at Toronto was Bong Joon Ho’s widely acclaimed Palme d’Or-winner and Korean Oscar submission “Parasite” (Neon). The genre-defying and crowdpleasing comedy-thriller about a lower-depths family of con artists who move into a wealthy home is playing so well across the board with audiences and critics that it could be a Best Picture contender like “Roma,” as well as picking up nods for director, original screenplay, cinematography, and production design.
Also contending in multiple categories is Cannes Best Actor-winner “Pain & Glory” (Sony Pictures Classics) starring Antonio Banderas as a film director based on beloved auteur Pedro Almodovar (who directed the film), which Spain submitted for the Oscars. And if France chooses Celine Sciamma’s lesbian bodice-ripper “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Neon), it will be a robust contender for Best International Film Feature as well.
As always, all of these films are eligible for the coveted TIFF People’s Choice Award, which often — but not always — points to a likely Best Picture winner. If the award goes to Rian Johnson’s sprawling Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit “Knives Out” (Lionsgate), all bets are off.