With today’s initial announcement of Gala and Special Presentations at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, we get the first major burst of clues to the race for the 92nd annual Academy Awards. On paper, and mostly sight unseen, I spot at least 20 films that might be considered hopefuls for the Oscar race among the many world premieres, international, Canadian, and North American premieres in TIFF’s lineup — always the biggest of any festival. Inevitably there will more added, but this is the bulk of it.
Some will be seen first at Venice (which announces its schedule on Thursday), with likely titles such as Todd Phillip’s Joker, with what looks like a ripe performance from Joaquin Phoenix; Steven Soderbergh’s politically charged dark comedy Laundromat; and Noah Baumbach’s highly personal Marriage Story, At least one of those (if you go by the designations on TIFF’s press release, which give obvious clues) also will be at Telluride, but a hefty 15 or so will be world premieres — making this TIFF a particularly fertile field for Oscar watchers beyond the other two early fall fests.
TIFF often is a must-stop on the way to the Dolby and currently has bragging rights for this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. Green Book, which snuck in on the fest’s sixth day last fall (a particularly late berth for a major Oscar contender at TIFF), won huge ovations and then took the very important and often Oscar-predictive People’s Choice prize. It rode it all the way to glory. Is there something like that on tap this year? Who knows?
There is plenty of room in the race at this point, since awards-level films (other than animation and documentaries) have been pretty scarce. Just two, both from A24, are in that league in my opinion: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which should figure heavily in some critics’ awards and Indie Spirits (read my review here), and The Farewell, which is getting the kind of early critical and audience reception that suggests a real shot at a Best Picture nomination (review here). Disney/Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame obviously will get a push, especially since it just became the all-time box office champ over the weekend, but the Academy has not shown a lot of love for Avengers: Anygame in the past. Quentin Tarantino’s Friday opener Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the potential to be a real Oscar juggernaut, in my opinion, but again it is only July so it has to have staying power. It was even better the second time for me at last night’s rollicking Hollywood premiere. The main event, though, starts in about five weeks when the Fall Festival Trifecta gets underway.
Among the TIFF world premieres that seem to have some awards potential would be Sony’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, particularly for Tom Hanks’ turn as children’s host Mister Rogers. It could be in either the lead or supporting category, depending on how much screen time he actually has in the story that focuses on Matthew Rhys’ journalist character, from what I hear. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx would appear to be contenders in Warner Bros Christmas Day release Just Mercy, a true story set in the criminal justice system, which the studio recently moved into the season following successful test screenings. Warners will be unveiling the film adaptation of best seller The Goldfinch at TIFF, also as a world premiere, so all eyes will be on that too if only for its pedigree.
Considering its director, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, with Ben Whishaw and Dev Patel among others, would seem to have potential, especially since it also will open the London Film Festival a month after TIFF. Focus Features’ Harriet, starring Tony winning Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the heroic woman who led a charge to free slaves in the Civil War era, is directed by Kasi Lemmons and looks to be a potential powerhouse right up Oscar’s alley. Hugh Jackman is said to be very strong in a role against type in Bad Education, a school embezzlement story in which he co-stars with recent Oscar winner Allison Janney.
Eddie Murphy has a role tailor made for his talents as comedian Rudy Ray Moore in the true story Dolemite Is My Name. The longtime passion project for Murphy is one of a whopping four Netflix titles (also Marriage Story, Two Popes, Laundromat) announced for TIFF so far but the only one that actually will premiere there. The 800-pound gorilla in the Netflix lineup, Martin Scorsese’s much-awaited The Irishman, looks to be AWOL at the Fall Festival Trifecta, however (look for a NYFF debut?)
Fox Searchlight, which always is a steady presence on the fest circuit, says it specifically chose TIFF for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a satire involving Hitler (!) starring Scarlett Johansson (also in Marriage Story) and Sam Rockwell. The distributor wanted to launch it at a large festival in a “more urban cosmopolitan city” to reach a “global audience of film lovers” for what Searchlight believes will be a big crowd pleaser, I was told by a source at the company. Whether it is an Academy pleaser remains to be seen. I am particularly intrigued by Lionsgate’s Thanksgiving release, an Agatha Christie-style all-star mystery called Knives Out from director Rian Johnson. I hear great things on this TIFF world premiere (watch the trailer here). And using a Toronto world premiere to thrust itself into the Animated Feature Oscar race is DreamWorks and Pearl Studio’s Abominable, a tactic tried by Universal (which now distributes DWA films) a couple of years ago for its Illumination movie Sing, though it failed to get the nomination it so deserved.
Other Oscar-y titles I spotted on this list that aren’t world premieres include the increasingly buzzed about drama from Fox/Disney James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari pitting Matt Damon v Christian Bale and looking like it will head first to the Rockies; Judy, with Renee Zellweger in a juicy role as Judy Garland that deals with the final months of the great star’s life, as well as Josh Sadfie’s and Benny Sadfie’s Uncut Gems, which offers Adam Sandler an offbeat role outside of the comfort zone of his dumb commercial comedies.
As usual TIFF will be offering some highlights from previous fests such as a trio of award winners from Cannes including Palme d’Or winner Parasite from South Korea’s Boon Joon-ho; Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, with Cannes Best Actor Antonio Banderas; and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the Cannes Screenplay winner that’s just one of the entries from female directors at TIFF, who constitute a record-breaking 50% of the whole selection to date. Those three will likely figure mightily in Oscar’s Best International (formerly known as Foreign) Film race, among other categories.
Also hot from Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes is the North American premiere of much-acclaimed Robert Eggers film The Lighthouse, with two Oscar-buzzed performances from Robert Pattinson and Academy perennial Willem Dafoe. Out of Sundance, Canadian audiences will get to see Alfre Woodard’s highly acclaimed work in Clemency, as well as Amazon’s The Report, which features Annette Bening and Adam Driver — the latter a recent Tony and Oscar nominee who is also starring in Netflix’s Marriage Story suggesting this could be another very big year for him. The wheels already are in motion to make his Oscar streams come true. Look for a tribute to AD at one of these fests, and then of course another reminder of his versatility at Christmas time as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The season is starting to shape up with TIFF and the other early fall fests proving more important than ever this year since the Oscar show itself has been moved up two weeks earlier than normal to February 9. Voting for nominations happens the earliest ever with a short window from January 2-7, making it imperative to get as many contenders as possible in front of Academy eyes as early as possible. That’s a real problem for December releases such as Universal’s Cats and its Sam Mendes epic 1917, which apparently both won’t be ready until end of November and rely heavily on being seen in a theatrical setting. That would make them last-minute views for early critics groups and the Golden Globe nominations, not to mention Academy voters who don’t have enough time in a normal year, much less this one. Of course the AFI Fest, which runs November 14-21 this year, is a good place for stragglers to land. It might be a destination to find a December release like Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes film, which is said to have killer turns from Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow.
The early fall festivals set the table, but there’s still more to come in a race that is just getting underway.