Universal is riding high at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Not only does it have the major Oscar contender First Man here, with its local premiere Monday night after smash showings at Venice and Telluride, it also has snatched the world premiere of the terrific drama Green Book, which debuts here Tuesday and promises to be the awards season sleeper that will upend the race. At least that is what I think after getting an early look at it a few weeks ago on the Universal lot.
When I saw it then, the film still had the Focus Features label on the beginning, but the Focus execs tell me they were overloaded this season. So mothership Universal, perhaps like the cat sensing he can eat the canary, kindly agreed to take over the Participant Media production with Dreamworks. All in the family, right? Exactly, except that this film is not only a feel-good crowd-pleaser guaranteed to rack up a substantial gross for Universal but also a real sleeper this Oscar season that virtually no one — at least the pundits who make a living this way — saw coming at all. All that should change after tonight’s TIFF premiere.
Green Book, directed by none other than Peter Farrelly working way out of the zone we expect, is that rare gem of a film that seems certain to connect with audiences — and, likely, Academy voters once they get a load of this moving true story. Universal has chosen November 21 to unleash the movie in the States; that’s just one day after The Blind Side struck against a blockbuster Twilight sequel in 2009, stunning the industry with a ripe opening weekend and eventually topping $300 million in worldwide gross, a substantial hit that also earned star Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar and the film a Best Picture nomination. You can expect Green Book, which just concluded its first public screening here at TIFF, to follow that kind of trajectory, perhaps even earning dual Best Actor noms for stars Viggo Mortensen as a small-time mob confidant and Mahershala Ali as the world-famous classical pianist he agrees to drive on a concert tour across the South. You can bet it is a life-changing journey for all involved, and a real eye-opener about the way black people continue to be treated in some of the least sophisticated regions of the country. Still. To put it simply, this is just a great film, tailor made for Oscar season and a certain commercial box office hit. I would bet money on it. It is basically a cross of Driving Miss Daisy, In the Heat of the Night, The Help, The Blind Side, Hidden Figures and others that all went on to either win or be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
This film with humor, strong emotion, humanity and understanding among all races measures up to those films in every way but also finds its own unique voice. Mortensen, with the showier role, and Ali both deliver — and then some — and if there’s any real justice, both should earn Best Actor nominations. Campaigners usually don’t like to have their stars competing against each other in the same category, and my inclination is to urge those in charge to not try and squeeze any one of them into the Supporting category but it appears likely that may happen in the case of Ali , already a supporting winner for Moonlight two years ago, returning to the same category this year. Still they both are leads and equally magnificent to see in this rewarding and special film that just made the Oscar race a little more interesting.
Universal is using the Toronto festival to pack a one-two punch, and that it has done with Monday’s premiere of the Damien Chazelle Neil Armstrong moon-landing epic First Man, which proves beyond a doubt that Chazelle is pretty much capable of any genre of film. He recently accompanied the Ryan Gosling-starring movie to a big Venice debut, followed immediately by Telluride and now Toronto. He did the same grueling trajectory for La La Land, which went on to win six Academy Awards. At the film’s Patria afterparty, Chazelle confessed that this has been more tiring than the La La trip. “We hadn’t finished the movie until two days before it had to go [to Venice], so there was a lot of stress,” said the filmmaker, who added that the pressure to finish made it all the more difficult. But there wasn’t a hitch, and the film is well on its way to an October 12 opening. “Oh yeah, that is all we have to do now, just open the movie, ” laughed the Oscar-winning director.
Universal was in the race last year with Get Out. I am guessing it will be back this year with two — count ’em, two — major Best Picture contenders. That is, if Toronto reaction is worth its salt at all, and I believe it is.