Toronto: Awards Buzz Builds Amid Fall Festival Trifecta

Joker Still 2 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

'Joker' scores the top prize in Venice, 'Ford v Ferrari' and 'Marriage Story' build on Telluride acclaim, while at TIFF a slew of hopefuls try to rise above the clutter.

It’s been 13 award seasons since a film — Martin Scorsese’s The Departed — made it all the way to the best picture Oscar without passing through Venice, Telluride or Toronto, so it’s only reasonable that prognosticators are monitoring the three film fests.

The 76th edition of Venice ran Aug. 28-Sept. 7, kicking off with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first feature set outside of Japan, The Truth, a French-language film starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. But major awards buzz on the Lido was reserved for Todd Phillips' Joker, for which Joaquin Phoenix garnered raves that could propel him to the sort of recognition the late Heath Ledger received for playing the same part in The Dark Knight; Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical divorce drama Marriage Story, with lauded turns by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (the last three best actress Oscar winners launched in Venice); and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, which pairs Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman.

In a shocker, Joker on Saturday won the Venice jury’s top prize, the Golden Lion, which went to the eventual best picture Oscar winner of two years ago, The Shape of Water, and to the presumptive runner-up last year, Roma. But before one invests too much stock in Venice’s predictive abilities, consider that the second-place finisher, awarded the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize, was An Officer and a Spy, helmed by Roman Polanski, who was expelled by the Academy in May 2018 and is now persona non grata in Hollywood.

At the 46th edition of Telluride, which ran Aug. 30-Sept. 2, the two most buzzed-about films at a festival that prides itself on first-anywhere showings came via other fests: Marriage Story and, via Cannes, Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Korean film Parasite. The proceedings opened with the world premiere of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari in the coveted Patron’s Preview slot, resulting in buzz for Christian Bale, but reaction to that film was ultimately overshadowed by Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes, a King’s Speech-like crowd-pleaser starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins; Rupert Goold’s Judy, a film about the last year of Judy Garland’s life, for which many think Renee Zellweger could win her second Oscar; and Trey Edward Shults' Waves.

The first days of the 45th Toronto fest, which kicked off Sept. 5, have mostly reinforced the heat for films that debuted elsewhere — Parasite and The Two Popes, in particular. World premieres north of the border thus far have included Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, a moving film about a African American lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) fighting to get an African American prisoner (Jamie Foxx) off death row, and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers.

Highly anticipated films yet to screen at press time include the world premieres of Taika Waititi’s World War II dramedy Jojo Rabbit; Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy; the Natalie Portman vehicle Lucy in the Sky, from Noah Hawley, the creator of TV’s Fargo; Kasi Lemmons' Harriet, in which Tony winner Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman; and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which stars Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B.

Monday night will also bring the inaugural TIFF Tribute Gala, which will honor Phoenix and Streep, among others. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the most serious awards contenders only screen during TIFF’s first long weekend: last year, one may recall, Green Book premiered on the sixth day and went on to win the festival’s audience award and the best picture Oscar.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.