After Venice and Telluride have put several films squarely in the Oscar game, now it is Toronto’s turn to weigh in as it unveils at least 10 more world premieres with varying degrees of awards ambition.; That’s in addition to more exposure for those seen during the first two parts of the fall festival trifecta that traditionally launches the six-month awards season and march to the Dolby Theatre.
The Toronto International Film Festival opens tonight with the premiere of a 2018 release, Borg/McEnroe, as well as Sony Pictures Classics November release of Luca Guadagnino’s Sundance sensation Call Me by Your Name. It will run through September 17, and by the end of it we might have a good idea of just where this awards season is heading. On the surface, though, the TIFF lineup of world premieres looks a little lighter than usual, and Venice and Telluride might have stolen a lot of its glory by jumping the gun on well-received titles including Lady Bird, Victoria & Abdul, Darkest Hour, Battle of the Sexes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Downsizing, Suburbicon, The Shape of Water, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Hostiles, Mother! and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, among the many movies that already have staked their claim to a spot this season after debuting at those festivals.
TIFF used to lead the way primarily, now it is playing catchup even if all those films will also be shown here. However, the festival did score a very big get with its final film announced, the world premiere of Denzel Washington’s heavily buzzed performance in the title role of Roman J. Israel, Esq., which TIFF has slotted for Sunday night at the Ryerson in a last-minute move. The film is the second directorial effort for screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Nightcrawler in 2015, and is said to be Sony’s big push this. Clearly, by coming into Toronto the way it is, the studio is confident. Sony opened last year’s TIFF with Washington’s The Magnificent Seven, but that was not with awards in mind as the star had Fences coming up later in the season.
Among other contenders rolling out for the first time in the next few days are Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate’s Boston Marathon bombing survivor drama Stronger, with a powerful Jake Gyllenhaal performance as Jeff Bauman, who came back after losing both legs as he watched his girlfriend competing in the race that terrorists attacked. I think Gyllenhaal was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Nightcrawler, but he deserves one here. It will depend on how the film fares when it opens wide next week and how it is received here in Canada after its Friday unveiling. Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game should put Jessica Chastain squarely in the Best Actress contest as Olympic skier-turned-poker madam Molly Bloom, along with juicy supporting turns from Idris Elba and Kevin Costner.
Chastain also will be seen at TIFF in the acquisition title Woman Walks Ahead, and Elba also will be on view in the world premiere of 20th’s plane crash survivor drama, The Mountain Between Us, one of several movies in the race from the busy Pico lot this year. Kate Winslet co-stars in that film which debuts here Sunday night, but she will be competing with herself when Woody Allen’s Wonderwheel — which I hear is his best since Midnight in Paris — opens later in the year. Annapurna and Amazon’s Ben Stiller dramedy Brad’s Status contains some of Stiller’s best work ever and could put his name in the hat when it debuts this weekend. Although Breathe is a British drama in which its lead character battles a life-threatening illness, it hopes to overcome that familiar-sounding premise with terrific turns from leads Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish, who had to live life hooked up to a breathing device, and Claire Foy as his wife who never gave up the fight for him.
Liam Neeson delivers strong work in the politically timely Watergate tale of the whistleblower known as “Deep Throat” in Sony Pictures Classics’ Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. Margot Robbie as notorious figure skater Tonya Harding hopes to win strong enough raves out of TIFF’s Friday night world premiere of Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya not only to make her mark in the uber-crowded Best Actress contest this year but also to nail a distributor willing to release the film in 2017 in order to make her eligible. That appears to be the deal producers insist on (CBS Films has been mentioned as a potential buyer).
Debuting directly opposite it tomorrow is the American remake of French smash The Intouchables, now called The Upside and starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart which has been scheduled for 2018 but I am told will get a qualifying run by the end of the year. Of course, no TIFF is complete without some sort of Oscar candidate from Harvey Weinstein (his Lion debuted here last year, came in second in the People’s Choice poll and eventually scored a Best Picture nomination). In addition to the already released Wind River which has been doing very well in the indie sector, as well as The Upside, his TIFF hopes lie with The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon as electricity giants Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. It debuts on Saturday.
Several documentaries also take flight here and hope to land in the docu feature race including China Hustle; the Obama administration behind-the-scenes account Final Year; and the magnificent Jane from National Geographic, in which long-lost footage details the young Jane Goodall’s expedition to explore the world of chimpanzees.
At any TIFF, there are tons of titles just hoping to land a distributor, not necessarily a spot in this year’s awards cycle. My colleague Mike Fleming Jr. covers all of that sales action and identifies the hot prospects, but I have seen a lot of these films already and many are worthy of awards campaigns, if not this year then in 2018. I already wrote about the Scott Cooper Western Hostiles starring Christian Bale, which debuted in Telluride in search of a distrib and berth in the 2017 Oscar race. It comes to Toronto continuing that quest, as does Paul Schrader’s challenging First Reformed, starring a fine Ethan Hawke, which played Venice and Telluride.
Among deserving titles debuting at TIFF in search of a home are Mary Shelley, the story of the 18-year-old Frankenstein author with a breakout turn from Elle Fanning; the young marrieds’ sexual drama On Chesil Beach with Saoirse Ronan in another wonderful performance on top of Lady Bird, which put her in this year’s Actress hunt after its Telluride debut; Brie Larson’s quirky fantasy and directorial debut The Unicorn Store; and another strong directorial debut via The Mentalist star Simon Baker with the fine Australian surfing drama Breath (not to be confused with Breathe) from producer Mark Johnson. Aiming more on the commercial — and controversial — side is the self-explanatory Chappaquiddick, of which the Kennedy family likely will not be fans.
Then there is Three Christs, a remarkable true story set in 1959 revolving around a daring experiment with three paranoid schizophrenics who each believe they are Jesus Christ, starring Richard Gere as the doctor and a great trio of actors in Peter Dinklage, Bradley Whitford and Walton Goggins playing the patients. Jon Avnet directs the award-caliber film, which might be the best in the genre since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set the bar in 1975. Producer Daniel Levin had the aforementioned Lion here last year and tells me he has intentionally held back the debut of Three Christs to debut at TIFF, where he hopes a strong response will net the right distributor. It doesn’t have its premiere here for another week.
Shawn Levy’s burgeoning production company 21 Laps was also in Toronto last year with Arrival, which went on to several Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and had Levy’s directorial effort This Is Where I Leave You at TIFF in 2014. 21 Laps is based on the Fox lot and has first refusal of all their projects. It had passed on Arrival , which went to Paramount, and Levy tells me Fox couldn’t find room on its current packed schedule for its latest, Kodachrome, a powerful and entertaining father-son drama that has been in development for several years. It was written by Jonathan Tropper, who also penned the novel and script for This Is Where I Leave You, and contains a performance from Ed Harris that I would say is pretty much guaranteed to net that actor yet another supporting Oscar nomination. Jason Sudeikis and Elizabeth Olsen also star, and Levy says they are bringing it to TIFF tomorrow with a complete open mind toward a distribution deal. He says all he wants is someone who will put their heart and soul into it.
There’s a lot to take in for the next 11 days, even though TIFF’s Cameron Bailey said the fest has cut its program by 20%. That still leaves nearly 300 choices to make at a festival that also seems to have a party accompanying every one of them.