With the 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival ending tonight, and the Venice and Telluride fests now firmly behind us, it is time once again to take the pulse of the nascent Oscar race. Surprisingly there were no total disasters in terms of who is expected to be in the running, but clearly, some did better than others. So here is how the players did at kickoff with an assessment of the contest arranged by studio and distributor. Who’s in, who’s out, who scored biggest at the fests, and who’s got work to do.
20th Century Fox
In what could be a last hurrah, big Fox chose Toronto for their unveiling of two contenders, the YA adaptation The Hate U Give and 12 Years A Slave’s Oscar-winning Steve McQueen’s journey into genre with Widows. The latter was very well received in its World Premiere at TIFF and sparked Oscar talk for star Viola Davis and supporting player Elizabeth Dibecki. The female heist movie is the flip side of Oceans 8 but will depend on reviews and boxoffice reception to take it to the next step. Critics loved it in Canada with a current 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes out 36 reviews and just one naysayer. George Tillman Jr.’s racially charged YA movie, The Hate U Give is overlong at two hours and fifteen minutes but still packs a punch and is very timely. It also was a big critical favorite out of TIFF with an outstanding 100% Fresh score on RT, so Fox has reason to keep believing, with one other presumed contender, Bohemian Rhapsody still to come, particularly for Rami Malek’s lead portrayal of Freddie Mercury from what I hear.
This consistent Oscar player didn’t launch anything big out of Toronto for this awards season but did debut Julianne Moore’s superb turn in the English language version of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, now called Gloria Bell and likely headed for a Spring 2019 opening and possible berth in next year’s race. They also premiered Jonah Hill’s terrific writing and directing feature debut with Mid90’s about a bunch of kids and their skateboards in West L.A. It was as fresh, exhuberant, and entertaining as anything I saw on the fest circuit this year with a cast you won’t soon forget. Hill proves himself as impressive a talent behind the camera as he is in front.
This streamer started early at festivals with Cannes sensation Cold War which also won serious applause at both Telluride and Toronto and is a sure bet to land one of the five spots for Poland and Ida Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski in the Foreign Language race, and perhaps for its stunning black and white cinematography. Usually great filmmaker Mike Leigh’s endless epic, Peterloo may be his most expensive film to date, but it is also one of his most minor and didn’t seem to drum up any interest despite hitting the Fall fest trifecta of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. Over and out. Amazon saved two biggies for TIFF and drew enthusiastic standing ovations for both. Beautiful Boy drew mostly good reviews and Oscar buzz, especially for Steve Carell in Best Actor and Timothee Chalamet in supporting. It continued its triumph with a packed SAG screening in Westwood Thursday night and another standing O. This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman brought a bit of that multigeneration format to his TIFF debut, Life Itself and scored a five minute standing ovation for the movie, even though critics were oddly (and WRONGLY) down on it. Guess they didn’t get it, but audiences seem to. So far any awards talk, despite some ace performances from a wonderful ensemble cast, is muted. It opens Friday and Amazon will have to gauge where they go from here. It is a film that deserves to be seen and considered.
The Jacques Audiard western, and English language debut, The Sisters Brothers won him Best Director in Venice and acclaim in Toronto for its star trio of John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal. It admirably revived the gritty western format on the screen but Oscar prospects seem of the longer shot variety. Maybe it is just the genre. Nicole Kidman’s dynamite and risky performance as an L.A. cop in Destroyer electrified Telluride and Toronto, but awards prospects could be held back due to a more mixed reception for the brutal movie itself. The company will have to screen it extensively to overcome a late limited Christmas Day release or hope for early attention from critics groups. Kidman has never been better and that is saying a lot. Best fest reception for Annapurna went to Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar winning Moonlight, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, which had a smash TIFF World Premiere a week ago, and took the first runner-up position for the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award in Toronto. That bodes well for its future when it opens November 30. The big question regarding the newly aggressive Annapurna’s overall Oscar prospects is its still unseen Dick Cheney film, not officially titled but names like Backseat and Vice have been thrown around. This is currently rumored for a key slot at November’s AFI Fest but will get its first outing this Monday night while everyone else – including me – is at the Emmys. The company is taking it out for a research screening at my local multiplex in L.A. area. I was (unknowingly) recruited for it when attending that theatre Saturday night. The flyer only identifies it by subject matter, stars (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell), and director Adam McKay. Interestingly there is an age limit requirement for attendance. You have to be between 21 and 54. Hmmmm. The flyer also requires attendees to observe a cone of silence in every way about what they see. Guess we have to wait and see the verdict on that one for later in the season.
This new company fronted by distribution veteran David Dinerstein, was a last minute entry into the Fall fest game with their November 2nd release, director Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, the story of war journalist Marie Colvin with an award-worthy performance by Rosamund Pike in that role. Jamie Dornan also has a nice change of pace in this movie which premiered Friday night at TIFF and will need a hefty financial push to put it squarely in the race with the big spenders out there this year. Pike is deserving of being in the Best Actress race, but it’s getting very crowded.
The overdue Willem Dafoe got a big Oscar boost at Venice by taking Best Actor as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, which skipped Telluride and Toronto and will next appear at the New York Film Festival to try and keep momentum for its star en route to a mid-November opening. It is still one I haven’t seen, but Dafoe got raves. How much support CBS Films can give it in the post-Moonves era will also be key to its eventual awards fate. DaFoe is coming off the single nomination last year for The Florida Project and was thought a front runner until Sam Rockwell derailed him.
This company started off the year with a Sundance debut for films Collette with Keira Knightley, and the Alzheimer’s drama What They Had starring Hillary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon, and Robert Forster, with both returning to hit the Fall Fest circuit in Toronto where they were well received, as they should be. In my opinion, they are two of the best films I have seen this year with great performances across the board. Forster will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor if there is any justice. The company has two earlier releases, equally good, in the game as well with Disobedience and Leave No Trace, so hopefully, there is enough in the campaign coffers for all of them. They also debuted Weinstein Company castoff, Hotel Mumbai in Toronto, but with two hours of non-stop carnage, it hardly screams Oscar.
Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, a gay conversion drama, with excellent performances from Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman stuck its flag in the Oscar race at both Telluride and Toronto to great effect with all three stars deserving serious consideration, but it was the only new entry on the fall fest rounds from the company’s large slate this year that includes upcoming and unseen films, Mary Queen Of Scots, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg origin story, On The Basis Of Sex. They also took their Cannes opening night film, Everybody Knows from Ashgar Farhadi with stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem to Toronto, however, it came right on the heels of news that it failed to become Spain’s entry in the Foreign Language Film race. They have high hopes for it at the Golden Globes. The company originally also had Peter Farrelly’s TIFF People’s Choice prize winner, Green Book but that has now been taken over by the mothership, Universal.
FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
This perennial awards magnet saved their three biggies for the Fall Fest circuit — as usual — and scored with each of them. Perhaps their top title, Oscar-wise, is bound to be Yorgas Lanthimo’s dazzling costume drama, The Favourite with a trio of award-worthy stars in Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman. It won the Grand Prize at Venice, got great word of mouth in Telluride, skipping Toronto, and will open NYFF. A major Oscar player. The big surprise out of Tellruride, then TIFF, for me was Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of writer Lee Israel who wound up forging letters from dead celebrities in order to make a buck. Melissa McCarthy has to be nominated for this dramatic turn, as does supporting actor Richard E. Grant, and maybe the film itself. It is that good. By announcing The Old Man And The Gun will be his last acting gig, Robert Redford made himself an instant contender in this Telluride and Toronto premiere. But as a charming bank robber, he probably could count on Best Actor attention even without that pronouncement. He’s terrific, and so is Sissy Spacek in support.
Although they bought new films Red Joan with Judi Dench , and Donnybrook with Jamie Bell at the festival for release in 2019, IFC continues the push for their awards contender Wildlife in Toronto , after earlier unveilings at Sundance and Cannes. They have high hopes for a Best Actress bid by Carey Mulligan, excellent in a different , and highly dramatic role.
They’ve got the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters from Hirokazu Koreada and took it out to Telluride and Toronto for further acclaim. It’s sensational and is Japan’s entry. If it is it will be a formidable contender, even against Roma.
Neon , which came roaring out of TIFF last year acquiring a major Oscar player (as it turned out) in I, Tonya , got the musical bug this year by acquiring the absolutely wonderful feel-good country music drama, Wild Rose with a breakout performance from Jessie Buckley as a Glasgow single mother longing to be a Nashville country singing star. It could certainly compete on the awards scene but I hear it will be held for sometime in 2019. They also bought the wild Brady Corbet, Sia music project Vox Lux which has a decidedly different musical score, and a swing-for-the-fences performance from Natalie Portman as a school shooting survivor who becomes a major rock star. She could go in lead or support but as of now, there is no announcement that NEON plans to go for this year or hold it. The company also has powerful Sundance acquisition, Monsters & Men which also turned up at Toronto and marks the emergence of a promising new director in Reinaldo Marcus Green, and they have the Cannes winning Swedish Oscar entry, Border in the mix, with the latter causing a stir at TIFF as it has everywhere else.
Roma is the name of the game for Netflix. It won the Golden Lion at Venice for director Alfonso Cuaron’s very personal journey to his hometown of Mexico City circa 1971, and it came in as second runner-up for Toronto’s People’s Choice Award. It also played like gangbusters in Telluride and will next hit NYFF. This film is clearly the streamer’s first real shot at a Best Picture Oscar nomination and they are using this Fall Fest very successful launch to go for it in a big way. Of course, a black and white Spanish language movie with no stars is not exactly what the Academy had in mind in a year where they are worried about getting “popular” movies in the race more than arthouse films, but this could be irresistible to voters anyway. How the Netflix day and date release factor affects things is anybody’s guess, but they have several other movies that have popped up on the fest circuit this fall including Paul Greengrass’ bleak but effective film of the Norway teen camp mass slaughter, 22 July, Nicole Holofcener’s The Land Of Steady Habits, and others but as I have said before, the Telluride and Venice debut of Orson Welles’ last, and long-gestating work, The Other Side Of The Wind ought to be considered, not just as a last nod to Welles, but also to a sterling cast including John Huston, Lili Palmer, and Edmund O’Brien, all long gone but still worthy of being remembered.
One top exhibitor told me Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project starring Jesse Eisenberg, Salma Hayek, and Alexander Skargard was the best movie he had seen in Toronto this year. The Orchard nabbed it but it will be for next year. That leaves their Foreign Language contenders from Cannes, Birds Of Passage and El Angel to keep making noise on the Fall fest circuit as they did in Toronto.
They made a big splash on the first weekend of Toronto bringing in star Julia Roberts to launch their holiday release, the stunner of an addiction drama Ben Is Back with Lucas Hedges in the title role. Coming to TIFF did the trick and won the film very strong reviews and Oscar buzz for its stars. Now they just have to keep it going.
The major studio stumbled last year by bringing their Denzel Washington drama, Roman J. Israel, Esq to a special Toronto Film Festival liftoff before it was ready. After going back into the editing room and shaving 12 minutes, Washington did land an Oscar nomination. This year they brought both White Boy Rick with Matthew McConaughey and Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner with Hugh Jackman as failed Presidential candidate Gary Hart to both Telluride and Toronto with an eye toward Oscar. Performance-wise both these films are still on track with McConaughey being pushed in support and Jackman in lead for two of their best performances. The festival play probably helped both lift their gravitas, even if White Boy Rick opened somewhat mildly at the box office this weekend.
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
As usual Sony Pictures Classics aims for a big presence in the Foreign Language Film race, and they really scored with the Venice, and particularly Toronto debut of Never Look Away, the German entry from Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Even at three hours and eight minutes, the afternoon screening at the Ryerson that I attended had one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I have yet seen at any TIFF. It went on and on. SPC’s Michael Barker tells me he will open the film for a week in December to qualify it also in other categories including Cinematography for five-time nominee Caleb Deschanel’s sterling work here. SPC also brought to TIFF their Cannes Jury Prize winner, and my favorite from that fest, Lebanon’s Capernaum which should also be formidable in the foreign category this year.
If any major has reason to celebrate their presence on the Fall Fest circuit this year, it’s Universal. Not only did Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong moon landing epic, First Man draw raves at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, they also took over Peter Farrelly’s fantastic feel-good Green Book from specialty unit Focus (it was actually produced by Participant Media which also backed Roma) and rode it to the top prize – and major prognosticator of Oscar success – Grolsch People’s Choice Award after a raucous TIFF premiere Tuesday night that drew three standing ovations for the film that stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The studio and its Oscar hopefuls used the fall fests as a launch pad and they took off like a rocket.
Not to be outdone by their Valley neighbor, Warner Bros sent their big Oscar hope, A Star Is Born out with a strategy that included a Venice premiere, and a Toronto North American Premiere, and both (despite an unplanned intermission in Venice) went through the roof. Like Green Book, the Bradley Cooper directorial debut in which he stars with Lady Gaga got three, count ’em, three standing ovations at its TIFF Elgin Theatre debut, drawing instant predictions of numerous Oscar nominations for the fourth version of this classic Hollywood story.
And so we move on.