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The Oscar Race Gets Clearer After the Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto amplifies buzz from Venice and Telluride, and intros new players into the awards mix. Who came out ahead and behind?

“Belfast”

Focus Features

No question there’s more to learn from a live film festival than a virtual one. In 2021, live Cannes and Telluride events provided scads of intel on how movies played for audiences and media. Participants were on solid ground. You feel it in a room when a movie plays, from Cannes Palme d’Or-winner “Titane” to prize-winners “A Hero” (Asghar Farhadi) and “The Worst Person in the World” (Joachim Trier), likely Oscar submissions from Iran and Norway, respectively.

And at Telluride opening night, writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s 1969 time capsule “Belfastplayed well — at the near-empty Werner Herzog Theatre during a driving rainstorm. Most everyone else was checking out either buzzy Will Smith-starrer “King Richard” or Joe Wright’s period musical “Cyrano,” complete with a tribute to “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage. By the end of the weekend, though, word of mouth caught up to “Belfast,” which was clearly heading for the Oscar Best Picture race, along with “King Richard” and Jane Campion’s Venice entry “The Power of the Dog.”

At Telluride and Toronto, “Belfast” was the consensus title that combines art and commerce, personal and universal, written and visual. It has everything, including a cast of superb actors led by Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, with ace support from wily veterans Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench. “Belfast” tugs the heartstrings, too: Academy actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors will all climb on board.

And at Sunday’s Toronto awards ceremony, “Belfast” (Focus Features) took the coveted People’s Choice Award that presages many Oscar winners, if not the Best Picture statue. The two awards have lined up 10 times over the years with Best Picture winners “Chariots of Fire,” “American Beauty,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Green Book,” “Parasite,” and last year’s “Nomadland.” Why do they sync up so often? Voters are a mix of Toronto cinephiles and industry and press. And the award measures popularity. It goes to a crowdpleaser — and guess what? So does Best Picture. (“Belfast” boasts a respectable 75 Metascore; “King Richard” is at 77, and “The Power of the Dog” is at 92.)

THE POWER OF THE DOG: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

“The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

Emerging as a strong Oscar contender from Toronto, Venice, and Telluride (with New York still ahead) was auteur Jane Campion‘s 1925 noir western “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix), which will win support on all craft fronts as well as writers, directors, and actors, who will embrace TIFF award-winner Benedict Cumberbatch, who transformed himself from a posh Brit into a nasty Montana cattle rancher who undermines the wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) brought home by his brother (Jesse Plemons). “The Power of the Dog” was a runner-up for the People’s Choice prize in Toronto, which proves that it’s more than just a critics’ fave.

Beloved by critics is Pablo Larraín’s slice of royal life “Spencer” (Neon), which also played the Venice/Telluride/TIFF trifecta. No question Kristen Stewart will land in the Best Actress race for her searing portrait of Princess Diana at the end of her rope. How far the movie goes in other categories depends on how well the film plays. This one is far from mainstream.

"Spencer"

“Spencer”

Neon

While press in New York and Los Angeles were granted screenings of TIFF tributee Denis Villeneuve’s Venice entry “Dune” (Warner Bros.), which played well at IMAX cinemas in Toronto, the spectacular big-screen epic starring Timothée Chalamet should land multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It was among many high-profile TIFF titles not shown on the digital screening portal, despite TIFF’s best efforts to do so. Distributors pulled back from last year, sacrificing some buzz.

Sony Pictures Classics, to their credit, made Sundance title “Jockey,” boasting a top performance from Clifton Collins, Jr., and Cannes prize-winner “Compartment No. 6,” a likely Finnish Oscar entry, available on the platform; Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” starring Penélope Cruz, skipped Telluride and TIFF in order to open Venice and close NYFF.

Sundance may do better as they conduct the same negotiations for their hybrid January festival, which boasts more unknown titles seeking distribution and festival branding.

Clearly, all reviewers are not behind “Dune” (75 Metascore), “Belfast,” and “King Richard.” That’s par for the course for any mainstream movie. Lately, many critics have become allergic to “crowdpleasers” that play to a wide audience. What do the movies listed below have in common? Except for newbie “Dear Evan Hansen,” they’re examples of emotionally potent Oscar nominees with less-than-stellar reviews that played for a wide audience.

“King Richard”

Warner Bros.

The divide between critics and popular movies has long existed. It helps to remember that it’s not what critics like but Academy voters that count at the Oscars. Mainly, critics help to boost a movie’s profile and make it a must-see. The other key factor lost, to some degree, as long as the pandemic continues — especially for adult audiences — is the box-office measure of success. Theater performance used to be the other metric for defining a hit that plays well for a wide mix of moviegoers, as well as sophisticates in the big cities.

For whatever reason, Warners chose not to send Telluride breakout “King Richard” to Toronto, losing the chance to steal the People’s Choice crown. (Were they afraid it would be hurt if it didn’t win with Canadian audiences?) No matter. Like “Birdman,” “King Richard” will forge ahead, building strength, especially for Will Smith in the Best Actor race. The film is next set to close AFI FEST.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Searchlight Pictures

Upbeat reviews for TIFF award tributee Jessica Chastain as televangelist Jim Bakker’s long-suffering wife in Michael Showalter’s biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight) should push her into the Best Actress race, where many great performances have been recognized despite mixed reviews. (See Renée Zellweger in “Judy,” Meryl Streep in “Ironweed,” Jessica Lange in “Blue Sky,” Bette Midler in “The Rose,” Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose,” and more.) Would “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” have fared better at the pre-pandemic box office? Will critics turn the Academy voters away from checking out the movie? When it turns up on the Academy portal, actors will appreciate Chastain’s bravura blend of comedy and tragedy.

Another Toronto debut that did not score critical hosannas was “Perks of Being a Wallflower” writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” (Universal), which may find a younger audience with its portrait of disaffected high schoolers, but has proved a tough slog for many. The emotional songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“The Greatest Showman” and “La La Land”) are delivered well by a gifted cast (Broadway’s Ben Platt, movie stars Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, and rising stars Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg). But there are too many weepy close-ups for moviegoers to withstand. This is not an Oscar contender, unless breakout Stenberg gets nominated for her superb original song, “The Anonymous Ones.”

On the nonfiction side at Toronto, NatGeo’s Thai cave thriller “The Rescue” won the documentary audience award, from “Free Solo” Oscar-winners E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. (Can they land another nomination after having won?) The runner-ups are music doc “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” and animated Danish immigration saga “Flee,” which has been building momentum since Sundance and could land at least two nominations (documentary and international feature) if not a third (long-shot animated feature).

Still to come are other festival noise-amplifiers: the New York Film Festival opens with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Oscar perennials Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. The Hamptons will debut documentarian Matt Heineman’s New York Covid film “First Wave;” London opens with Netflix western “The Harder They Fall,” starring Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba; and AFI FEST opens with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directing debut “Tick, Tick, Boom,” starring Andrew Garfield, who is more likely to score an Oscar nod for playing an unfettered Jonathan Larson than uptight televangelist Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

Stay tuned.

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