Toronto: A Massive Lineup Of Oscar Contenders, But Is There Another ‘Green Book’ Waiting To Surprise?

Toronto Film Festival
Stacey Newman/Shutterstock

After Venice and Telluride, the Fall Festival Trifecta continues with the Toronto International Film Festival, where the world premieres just keep on coming. It opens tonight with several of them competing for attention. Most awaited probably is tonight’s debut of The Personal History of David Copperfield from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, which also will open the London Film Festival next month. But distributor Fox Searchlight is holding its U.S. release until next year, so it is one of the rare top titles here with an eye on Oscar in 2021, not this year.

Pete Hammond Deadline

In terms of other TIFF debuts that didn’t pop up first at the other two fests, or earlier at Sundance or Cannes, the odds of most of them going all the way to the Academy Awards are not all that clear. But compare that to a heady 2018, when Green Book showed up on the sixth day of the fest — a time when most of the presumed front-runners already have played — and wowed the Canadians, who promptly put expectation and time slot aside and voted the Peter Farrelly sleeper the most popular film of the fest. It might have not all been a smooth ride after that due to dirty tricksters, but in the end Universal was triumphant with a Best Picture win at the one where it really counted. It all started at TIFF with that People’s Choice Award.

‘Green Book’s TIFF pemiere REXShutterstock

Is there a Green Book looming this year that will premiere as late as that film did? If so, it probably would be Harriet, the first theatrical film telling the story of Harriet Tubman, which also has a slot on TIFF’s sixth day (watch the trailer here). It’s from Focus Features, which initially had Green Book before one of its producers, Steven Spielberg, saw potential that required mother ship Universal to take over. But the company is pretty much keeping the historical movie starring Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo under wraps until its Tuesday premiere — like Green Book an unusually late-in-the-fest premiere when so many (including moi) will have headed home. The same would apply for Lucy in the Sky, Fox Searchlight’s Natalie Portman astronaut film, which has an even later world premiere on Wednesday. Both companies, aware of their late TIFF date, have special press screenings set for Thursday back in L.A. to catch those who missed them at TIFF. But as Green Book proved, don’t count anyone out at this festival, which has the gargantuan problem of trying to fit all this stuff in.

Cynthia Erivo in 'Harriet'
‘Harriet’ Focus Features

Among other movies to look for that haven’t premiered at other festivals, the hot Oscar season-hopeful titles include Warner Bros. death row drama Just Mercy, with Michael B. Jordan defending doomed prisoner Jamie Foxx for crimes DNA eventually says he could not have committed (trailer). Likely powerful movie and powerful performances make this a contender. Foxx goes for a Supporting Actor nod to stand with his previous Best Actor Oscar for Ray. Jordan will be in the conversation for sure, but the competition in the lead actor category is fierce, to say the least. Among other hopefuls and past winners like Foxx, you can count on Tom Hanks to enter the race as Mister Rogers, but in a supporting role in Sony’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (trailer).

Beyond these world premiere titles for TIFF, however, the sad fact is other festivals have gotten there first, at least at this point in the game. DreamWorks has Abominable, which is said to be a possible Animated Feature contender. Then there is Warner Bros again, which saved the motion picture adaptation of The Goldfinch for TIFF, albeit just days before its wide release. It premieres here Sunday and then will use the publicity off its splashy TIFF debut to further fuel its opening the following Friday.


The other world premiere awards-season titles with distribution in place this year are Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name from Netflix; Jennifer Lopez’s stripper flick Hustlers; writer-director Rian Johnson’s clever, all-star, old-fashioned murder mystery Knives Out; and Taika Waititi’s Fox Searchlight wild card Jojo Rabbit, featuring its director as an imaginary Adolf Hitler!. None of them necessarily screams OSCAR, but you never know, even though they would seem to be more commercial than anything else.

Jojo Rabbit
Fox Searchlight

There are some like Roadside Attractions’ splendid Hope Gap with a real and heartbreaking portrayal of a wife in denial delivered by a career-best Annette Bening and equaled by Bill Nighy in this pointedly low-key British drama of a marriage in crisis. The same goes for Bleecker Street’s world premiere of Ordinary Love, in which Liam Neeson must deal with his wife Lesley Manville’s devastating breast cancer diagnosis; The latter two films would be deserving in any year in the Best Actress category for Bening or Manville, but indications are that after TIFF, and maybe London, these two films will be pitched with an Oscar campaign eyeing next year instead. Bening also will be visible here in Amazon’s powerful The Report, which has played the fest circuit already from Sundance to Telluride. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the never-Oscared star could have a real shot finally in the Supporting Actress category for her role opposite Adam Driver.


From other festivals come a slew of titles and awards hopefuls in a way that justifies the idea that maybe Toronto should have hung on to its original name as the Festival of Festivals. A whopping 300 movies show here every year, and it’s impossible to separate the contenders from the pretenders — a line I used over the weekend to describe Telluride, but it really applies here in Canada. Among those movies hopefully getting another big shot of adrenaline here are Ford v. Ferrari (trailer), a huge hit in Telluride, where it debuted over the weekend; Venice sensations Joker (trailer) and Marriage Story (trailer), the latter traveling just about everywhere. The biggest pop out of T-Ride, at least as far as I can tell, was the enormously loved Netflix sleeper The Two Popes (trailer), with Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in simply superb performances. As one honcho in Telluride said, “this is the movie we desperately need now.” That, my friends, is the kind of talk that translates into a Best Picture winner, as well as a potential Audience Award winner here at TIFF. The Two Popes is likely the one movie coming in at this point that has the most to gain from another great festival showing. It has its “international” premiere here on Monday.

Amazon Studios

There are many others that first got exposure on screens outside of Canada, but it seems unlikely that such titles as Honey Boy (trailer), The Climb, The Lighthouse (trailer), A24’s Waves (trailer) — hoping to become another Moonlight for the distributor — Seberg, The Aeronauts (trailer), Judy (trailer) featuring a sensation turn from Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in her final months, Uncut Gems, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn (trailer), Clemency with the great Alfre Woodard, Fox Searchlight Cannes pickup A Hidden Life and Steven Soderbergh’s political comedy The Laundromat (trailer) will figure seriously into the Best Picture race. But each of them might be able to pick up added momentum from a great showing here, especially in other races.

Foreign films and documentaries will be in strong supply over the next 10 days or so, as you might expect. This also is a festival that wears Cannes envy on its sleeve, thus we have such imports from the South of France’s famous fest as Sorry We Missed You, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Traitor, Palme d’Or winner Parasite, Les Miserables, La Belle Epoque, Bacarau, Beanpool, Atlantiques and many more.


Because I had seen so many contenders previously, I actually have time to watch some new stuff that also will be looking for distribution from its TIFF debut, but will any of them be a late comer to the Oscar race? The Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman is highly entertaining and fits right in with the new trend toward music biopics. Bad Education, a compelling and offbeat true story, has Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney as two real-life school professionals who get caught up in criminal activity involving millions of dollars. Both stars are at the top of their game.

Among others I got an early sneak preview on are the Russian hockey team docu Red Penguins, Gabe Polsky’s sequel to Red Army, where this time the Russkies are going all American on us. It’s a remarkable — and funny — docu that seems ripe for a quick pickup and entry into this year’s docu feature race. Sony Pictures Classics released the first one and co-President Tom Bernard is a massive hockey fan so… The Netherlands Oscar entry, Instinct, starring an excellent Carice Van Houten as a therapist making bad decisions in a sex-offender facility, is certain to be controversial in the #MeToo era, and that could affect its chances in the Foreign Film competition. Telluride debut Lyrebird from director Dan Friedkin is a terrific specialty item about an art dealer accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Director Max Winkler’s Jungleland features a trio of great performances from Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell, and Jessica Barden in a searing character study reminiscent of ’70s classics like The Last Detail. The always watchable Kelly MacDonald and Garrett Hedlund are terrific in the compelling Australian romantic drama, Dirt Music, and the list goes on and on for potential breakouts.

Time will tell on the fate of all these films as the Toronto International Film Festival starts once again to make its mark and give us an early take on Oscar season. It runs through September 15.

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