Critic's Notebook: TIFF, Venice Lineups Stoke Fear of Weak Awards Season

Truth Still - H 2015
Lisa Tomaestti/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Truth Still - H 2015

It's the equivalent of back-to-school season for film critics, but this fall's festival offerings have yet to drum up much excitement, writes THR's chief film critic.

It's not what anyone in the industry wants to hear, and it's not what festivalgoers about to dive into three or four films per day in Toronto want to imagine — but something tells me that the most anticipated season on the cinematic calendar, Oscar-bait autumn, may not be so hot this year.

With vaunted titles and fresh work from major directors and stars cascading across screens at festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto during the first two weeks of September, memories of franchise fatigue and summer silliness are quickly subsumed by the hope that the cinematic equivalent of the start of the school year will yield some real excitement: serious works by esteemed auteurs, the discovery of a brilliant new talent or two and, for critics, a few embraceable titles that will help fill out a respectable 10-best list by year's end.

But just as the Cannes Film Festival was seriously disappointing this past May, yielding only three or four works that have firmly stuck in the memory in a good way, the far bigger Toronto Film Festival does not look to me to be loaded with stunning surprises this year. Of course, I'd be happy to be proven wrong, but I'm just not picking up the sense of enthusiasm, the overwhelming must-see impulses, the expectation of great things in store.

The Venice Film Festival, which gets underway on September 2, will continue its recent practice of world premiering a number of high-end titles, some of which it will no doubt share with Telluride, which starts two days later (Birdman played at both festivals last year); others will turn up a week or so later in Toronto. Among these, early viewers have expressed palpable enthusiasm for Scott Cooper's Whitey Bulger crime yarn Black Mass and for French director Xavier Giannoli's classical music-world tale Marguerite, and there is eager anticipation as well for Tom McCarthy's Boston priest scandal expose Spotlight, Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion animated Anomalisa, Cary Fukunaga's Netflix-bound African war saga Beasts of No Nation, Davis Guggenheim's documentary He Named Me Malala, Tom Hooper's gender-change drama The Danish Girl, Sarah Gavron's British women's-right-to-vote historical piece Suffragette, and the 43-years-late premiere of the late Sydney Pollack's Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace.

But perusing the lineup of Toronto world premieres, it's hard to work up anything more than guarded optimism about most of the offerings; there are few absolute must-sees that stir the pulse weeks in advance. The film with undoubtedly the highest budget and toniest pedigree, Ridley Scott's stranded astronaut drama The Martian, starring Matt Damon, is based on a clever book and has a promising trailer. But it will inevitably be compared to both Gravity and Interstellar, and it must be admitted that the old master's batting average on big-budget epics has been slipping over the past several years.

Given that the last two Toronto opening night attractions were The Fifth Estate and The Judge, my hopes remain restrained for Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhall and Naomi Watts. Inspiring more curiosity are two based-on-actual-events dramas, first-time director James Vanderbilt's Truth, starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as CBS news veterans brought down by their TV reporting of George W. Bush's alleged draft-dodging, and David Gordon Green's Our Brand Is Crisis, featuring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton in a look at U.S. involvement in South American political campaigns.

Two American show business biographical dramas stir some interest: Jay Roach's Trumbo, in which Bryan Cranston portrays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light, a look at Hank Williams (about which the least can be said is that, based on photographs, star Tom Hiddleston looks like a near-dead ringer for the late country singer).

From a topical point of view, nothing can beat Gaby Dellal's About Ray, in which Elle Fanning plays a transgender teen. Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon costar.

Among the documentaries this year, an unusual number focus on the arts, and three that jump out as perhaps of special interest are Nick Read's Bolshoi Babylon, an inside account of the fallout from the acid attack on ballet director Sergei Filin; Amy Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue, about Janis Joplin; and Pietra Brettkelly's A Flickering Truth, which spotlights the efforts of Afghan cinephiles trying to retrieve and save 8,000 hours of film they hid from the Taliban.

Among the foreign world premieres, it's very hard to know in advance what titles might pop. Still, word has been circulating about Martin Zandviliet's post-WWII thriller Land of Mine, and it's hard not to be curious about the obviously topical Desierto, the debut feature from Jonas Cuaron, son of Alfonso, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a story about a racist killer hunting immigrants south of the Rio Grande.

There's an abundance from the U.K. this year, beginning with the eight-film special sidebar section, "City to City London," which includes the anticipated Owen Harris adaptation of John Niven's book about a murder in the '80s music scene, Kill Your Friends, with Nicholas Hoult and James Cordern, as well as Michael Caton-Jones' Urban Hymn.

Martin Amis' London Fields seems like a devilishly difficult novel to adapt for the screen, so it remains to be seen what music video director Matthew Cullen will make of it with a cast including Amber Heard, Billy Bob Thornton and Jim Sturgess. Among the other Brit fare of potential interest are Nicholas Hytner's The Lady in the Van starring Maggie Smith, Robert Budreau's Born to Be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, Matthew Brown's period mathematician biographical drama The Man Who Knew Infinity, featuring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons and Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky, a modern Middle East terrorism drama with Helen Mirren.

It's well known within the industry that Stephen Frears' The Program, Terence Davies' Sunset Song and Ben Wheatley's High-Rise were turned down by Cannes, although the latter is one of a dozen films in Toronto's new competitive category, "Platform," seven of which are world premieres.

It will be interesting to assess the impact of Platform, the introduction of which has been read in different ways by the trade and competing festivals. When it was announced in May, international festival followers interpreted the move as the beginning of a siege on the continued prominence of Venice, which appears vulnerable due to the high cost of attending it and the relative lack of international, and especially American, press coverage. It was also seen by some as a distraction from Toronto's decision to ease its competition with Telluride for major world premieres (the rivalry is far from over, however, as Marguerite director Giannoli has let it be known that he was forced by Toronto to choose between it and Telluride; he went with the latter).

However, by keeping the section modest in terms of numbers and not including major auteurs and high-profile English-language productions in the selection, Toronto seems intent on suggesting that it has merely created a new "platform" upon which to spotlight international titles that might deserve heightened attention but are in danger of getting lost in the shuffle. If Platform succeeds and grows into a legitimate world-class competition within two or three years, then Venice and even adamantly non-competitive Telluride could have something to worry about. For now, it will be worth watching its baby steps.