Toronto: How the Festival Shaped the Awards Landscape

THR's awards columnist discusses why the festival is "an important — almost essential — stop on the road to the Oscars," and speculates about which film will win its audience award on Sunday.
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
Sally Hawkins in 'The Shape of Water'

The 42nd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival winds to a close on Sunday. This annual gathering north of the border, which comes right on the heels of the Venice and Telluride film fests, has long served as an important — almost essential — stop on the road to the Oscars. Indeed, only one film in the past 10 years, 2014's Birdman, has won best picture without screening at Toronto. Why might that be? Because the buzz that emanates out of Toronto (with audiences more attuned to the Academy than Venice's and larger than Telluride's) is heard around the world (thanks to a massive presence of international media), and so shapes the viewing priorities of Academy members just before they are bombarded with screenings and screeners.

The winner of Toronto's People's Choice Award for this year will be announced on Sunday. This audience-determined prize has been one of the better harbingers of Oscar success over the 39 years in which it has been presented, with almost every one of its recipients ultimately going on to some measure of Academy recognition. Collectively, they have accounted for 148 Oscar nominations, including 15 for best picture — 2016's La La Land being the most recent — and nine for best foreign-language film. Fifty-one of those nominations resulted in Oscar wins, including five for best picture: 1981's Chariots of Fire, 1999's American Beauty, 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, 2010's The King's Speech and 2013's 12 Years a Slave.

Handicapping the audience award is never easy, given the size of the Toronto lineup, which this year encompassed more than 250 films  — plus, one must factor in not only the appeal of a film, but also the size of the fest venues in which it was exhibited. This year, I would put my chips on Guillermo del Toro's otherworldly The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight), which came to Toronto with great buzz after its world premiere at Venice (where it was awarded that fest's top prize, the Golden Lion) and subsequent screenings at Telluride. It was shown three times at the massive 1,561-seat Elgin Theatre (where several scenes from the film itself were shot) and was the talk of the town.

Other possibilities, though, include Sundance carryover Call Me by Your Name (Sony Classics), a gay love story that moved many deeply; I, Tonya (Neon/30West), an unconventional biopic of 1990s tabloid fixture Tonya Harding that was the hottest acquisition title at the fest before being snapped up on Monday; two directorial debuts that went over like gangbusters, Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game (STX), making its world premiere, and Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird (A24), which also played at Telluride; the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs dramedy out of Telluride, Battle of the Sexes (Fox Searchlight); and The Florida Project (A24), which I've described as sort of an American Slumdog Millionaire, and which picked up major momentum following its North American debut, after its Cannes premiere in May.

Many of the eventual acting nominees are likely to hail from some of these films and others that played at the fest. Gary Oldman, whose portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Focus) won raves at Telluride, solidified his standing as the man to beat in the thin-looking best actor race with another series of well-received screenings in Toronto. But Oldman's competition also grew a bit more formidable thanks to the re-introduction of Timothee Chalamet's performance as one of the young lovers in Call Me by Your Name (earning him a new New York Times profile), as well as the unveiling of new work by several other past nominees, even if some of their films otherwise received a bit of flak: James Franco as a wacky filmmaker in The Disaster Artist (A24); Denzel Washington as a defense attorney in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Sony); Andrew Garfield as a man stricken by polio in Breathe (Bleecker Street); Jake Gyllenhaal as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing in Stronger (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions); and Liam Neeson as "Deep Throat" in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (Sony Classics).

Three other performances that cannot be written off entirely, even if their movies got skewered at the fest, are Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in The Current War (The Weinstein Co.); Matt Damon as a man who literally shrinks himself in Downsizing (Paramount); and newly minted honorary Oscar recipient Donald Sutherland as a man afflicted with Alzheimer's disease in The Leisure Seeker (Sony Classics). And Hostiles, which was unveiled at Telluride and features an awards-caliber performance by Christian Bale as a 19th century Army captain, played again at Toronto, but has yet to sell and thus doesn't have a 2017 release in place.

By general consensus, the best actress race is looking far more impressive than the race for best actor, with lots of nomination-worthy performances greeted rapturously in Toronto. Near the top of the list are Jessica Chastain as a gambling facilitator in Molly's Game; Saoirse Ronan as a version of the teenage Gerwig in Lady Bird; Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) and Diane Kruger in the German-language film for which she won Cannes' best actress prize, In the Fade (Magnolia), with both actresses playing women who are grieving and raging after losing a child; Sally Hawkins as the mute janitor at the center of The Shape of Water; and Emma Stone as tennis great King in Battle of the Sexes. Somewhat more divisive were Jennifer Lawrence's turn as a neglected wife in the horror film mother! (Paramount); Margot Robbie as Harding in I, Tonya; Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul (Focus); Annette Bening as a faded movie star in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (Sony Classics); and Helen Mirren as the wife of a man afflicted with Alzheimer's in The Leisure Seeker.

Meanwhile, a sleeper contender could be Brooklynn Prince, the irresistible 7-year-old rascal at the center of The Florida Project, who could potentially become the youngest best actress nominee ever (easily surpassing Quvenzhane Wallis' nom at the age of nine); A24 has experience promoting young talent during the awards season, having worked with Room's Jacob Tremblay just two seasons ago. And, at the other end of the age spectrum, in a late-breaking development at the fest, the somehow Oscar-less Glenn Close, who is 70, may shoot to the top of this list if The Wife, in which she gives a rapturously received turn as a long-married woman who begins to reconsider her life, is picked up and released before the end of the year.

The fest also showcased a bounty of high-quality supporting performances — male and female. Among the gentlemen, there's The Florida Project's motel manager Willem Dafoe; Three Billboards' ne'er-do-well cop Sam Rockwell; Call Me by Your Name's mentor and mentee, Michael Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer; Battle of the Sexes' Trumpian Riggs, Steve Carell; Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell, as World War II vets who become unlikely post-war buddies in Mudbound (Netflix); Tracy Letts as the softie dad in Lady Bird; Michael Shannon as Edison rival George Westinghouse in The Current War or the government investigator in The Shape of Water; Kevin Costner and Idris Elba as the title character's father and lawyer in Molly's Game; Ben Mendelsohn as the stuttering King George VI in Darkest Hour; Richard Jenkins as the roommate of a woman who brings home a water monster — and the source of most of the comedy — in The Shape of Water; and perhaps even Kevin Hart for a semi-serious turn as an ex-con turned caretaker in The Upside (The Weinstein Co.), a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables.

On the distaff side, the new frontrunner is Allison Janney, a highly respected actors' actor who never has been recognized by the Film Academy, but seems a slam-dunk for a nom and quite possibly a win for her alternatingly hilarious and menacing turn as Harding's mother in I, Tonya. Hot on her heels is another never-nominated veteran actress playing a tough-loving mom, Lady Bird's Laurie Metcalf. And then there's Mudbound's long-suffering matriarch Mary J. Blige; Breathe's faithful wife Claire Foy; Octavia Spencer as a sassy but loyal friend in The Shape of Water; Battle of the SexesAndrea Riseborough, playing the other woman; Downsizing's war survivor turned love interest Hong Chau; Melissa Leo's Vatican II-era nun in Novitiate (Sony Classics); Michelle Pfeiffer as an unwelcome house guest in mother!; Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Churchill in Darkest Hour; and Stronger's love interest Tatiana Maslany.

Buzzed-about docs at the fest included portraits of President Barack Obama's National Security Team in The Final Year (HBO); Jane Goodall in Oscar nominee Brett Morgen's Jane (National Geographic); ex-Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn in One of Us (Netflix), from Jesus Camp Oscar nominees Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; Lady Gaga in Gaga: Five Foot Two (Netflix); and a Manhattan landmark in recent honorary Oscar recipient Frederick Wiseman's Ex-Libris: New York Public Library (Zipporah). There's also still-for-sale portraits of Nick Bollettieri in Love Means Zero; a gay whisperer from Golden Age Hollywood in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood; and Grace Jones in Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.

Meanwhile, well-received titles that already have been submitted by their countries for the foreign-language film Oscar race, as well as others that could soon wind up alongside them, included Cambodia's Angelina Jolie-directed First They Killed My Father (Netflix); France's BPM (Beats Per Minute) (The Orchard); Israel's Foxtrot (still for sale); Austria's Happy End (Sony Classics), from Michael Haneke; Denmark's You Disappear (still for sale); Germany's aforementioned In the Fade; Chile's A Fantastic Woman (Sony Classics); Russia's Loveless (Sony Classics); Norway's Thelma (The Orchard); Palestine's Wajib (still for sale); and Sweden's Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Square (Magnolia).

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