Officially, summer isn’t over. So starting to talk about the Academy Awards, which are handed out February 9, seems perverse. But as the Toronto International Film Festival wraps this weekend, virtually all the leading contenders are now in place. After Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride and Venice, TIFF is the final stop on the festival circuit of award-season primaries. It’s the all-you-can-eat buffet, presenting the best of the other festivals and a glut of Hollywood premieres to the ultimate test audience of North American media and civilian cinephiles. This year’s schedule was so congested with Oscar bait it was impossible to see all the movies that mattered. But of those I saw, I counted at least a dozen that we’ll still be talking about after Christmas.
They offer a curious portrait of the zeitgeist, with scenarios of despair, divorce, terminal cancer, mental illness, mass murder and bigotry. And there’s a striking gender imbalance. The majority of the Best Picture contenders are stories of guys relating to guys. The Best Actor field is exceptionally crowded, with many of the contenders locked in mano-a-mano duos that it’s often a toss-up as to who’s the lead and who’s supporting.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio set the bar for bromance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which lit up Cannes. Now there’s Matt Damon and Christian Bale bonding as race-car comrades in Ford v Ferrari. Michael B. Jordan tries to rescue Jamie Foxx from death row in Just Mercy. Jason Segal serves as Casey Affleck’s anchor as Affleck’s wife lies dying in The Friend; Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison drive each other mad in The Lighthouse. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Price finesse the first Vatican bromance in The Two Popes. And Tom Hanks gives Matthew Rhys a crash course in compassion as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
The male protagonists are generally cracking up, falling down, trading punches, or collapsing into each other’s arms. By contrast, the female leads tend to be solitary, strong-willed heroines venturing into parts unknown where men are accessories at best, including a scientist, a singer, a movie star, a stripper and several astronauts—respectively Rosamund Pike as a double Nobel-prize-winner (Radioactive), Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland (Judy), Kristin Stewart as Jean Seberg (Seberg), Jennifer Lopez as a brazen con artist in Hustlers, Eva Green as a single mother torn apart by the prospect of leaving earth (Proxima), and Natalie Portman as one who can’t adjust to coming back (Lucy in the Sky).
From what I saw in TIFF, here are the movies most likely to generate heat at the Academy Awards. I’ve left out three major contenders that didn’t play TIFF—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ad Astra (also starring Pitt) and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
Though predictions are folly at this early stage, on face value this moving and inspirational crowd-pleaser seems the most obvious favourite for Best Picture. Based on a true story, it’s about a stellar Harvard law graduate, Bryan Stephenson (Michael B. Jordan), who turns his back on a lucrative career to fight for the exoneration of wrongly convicted death row inmates in the South. The narrative focusses on the case of pulp worker Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was framed for the killing a white woman. This courthouse drama is set in the early 1990s, in Alabama’s Monroe County, home of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee—an irony that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton milks for all it’s worth. Just Mercy unfolds as a conventional contest between noble virtue and unmitigated evil, with no shades of grey. To that extent, it’s not unlike a superhero movie. But it tells an essential story with emotional power, and earns its place as landmark movie about African-American injustice, in the tradition of In the Heat of the Night, Hurricane, 12 Years a Slave and Selma.
Of all the contenders, Noah Baumbach’s searing divorce drama stands out as the only pure tale of love (and hate) between a man and a woman. And it’s one of the most enthralling movies about a failing marriage in recent memory. As the director of a New York theatre company and the actress who is both his wife and leading lady, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson generate a potent chemistry that runs the gamut, from tender melancholy to explosive rage. Rife with wry social commentary, this trenchant tragi-comedy is made for those who miss the kind of movies that Woody Allen made in his prime. But despite the prolific humour it’s no romcom. Baumbach doesn’t do gags and jokes. Directing with almost pointillist detail, he lets the drama weaponize the comedy, arming his actors with fragmentation bombs of witty dialogue in scenes of marital dissolution that swing for the theatrical fences without ever losing their naturalism. Both Driver and Johansson have never been better (despite Scarlett’s devoted tour of duty as Woody’s muse). Both are leading Oscar contenders. Baumbach has a lock on Screenplay. And Driver looks like the best candidate to challenge Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor.
It seems safe to predict that no movie this year will have as sensational an impact as this one, a movie that elicits our secret empathy for a twisted white male vigilante. After the long march of pristine superheroes from the Marvel universe, Joker lands like a splash of sulphuric acid. Despite the massive hype, it defies expectations. It doesn’t play like a comic book movie. Its gritty vision of Gotham city may echo The Dark Knight. But as an origin story devoted solely to a fragile, painfully human villain, it has no superheroes. Batman is still a young boy named Bruce Wayne. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill sad sack who lives with his ailing mother and ekes out a grim living as clown-for-hire while nurturing ambitions as a stand-up comic. With Robert De Niro cast as Fleck’s idol, a talk show host who exploits him as a freak, the DNA of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is hard to ignore. This is a vigilante revenge drama aimed at the one percent. Fleck is a victim of brutal trauma. Government cutbacks strip him of his meds and his therapist. He gets his first taste of homicide gunning down Wall Street bullies who attack him on the subway, inspiring an anarchic movement of clown-masked rioters. For Todd Phillips, who directed all three Hangover movies, Joker marks a serious upgrade in pedigree. But the movie belongs to Phoenix, who does more than fill the clown shoes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Turning the comic book genre inside out, he unleashes the year’s most complex performance as an anti-hero who incarnates America’s nightmare of the moment.
Another eccentric studio movie that is not what you’d expect. With Tom Hanks starring as Mr. Rogers, you’d expect a big honking biopic in which the actor would crack the enigma of TV’s legendary children’s entertainment, humanize him to a fault, and rebrand him as another Everyman icon in the Tom Hanks canon. But no. Mr. Rogers is not the main character. That would be Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an investigative journalist for Esquire, who is asked to write a short puff piece on Fred Rogers for a special issue on heroes. Insulted by the assignment, Vogel goes through the motions of the interview after enduring a brutal confrontation with his estranged father (Chris Cooper). With sweater-vest jujitsu, Mr. Rogers turns the tables on him, and starts acting as his therapist. In this deft and delightful work, director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me) comes no closer to demystifying the almost extra-terrestrial weirdness of a TV host whose signature move is changing his clothes at the start and end of every show. But she performs a brilliant parlour trick. While Mr. Rogers comes across as slyly strategic unemotional advocate of emotional expression who doesn’t express emotion. Meanwhile, Vogel is such a damaged cynic that he become a perfect surrogate for the audience. As Mr. Rogers wears him down to the breaking point, we surrender our defences and go with him, all the way.
We live in strange times when one of the year’s most entertaining and uplifting movies a story of delirious racism practised by Nazi youth in the Third Reich. Satirizing anti-Semitism is always tricky, and this film has already found critics who feel humour has no business fooling with history’s darkest horrors. But by lampooning Heil Hitler! hysteria and the ludicrous logic of bigotry, Jojo Rabbit honours and extends a noble tradition of anti-fascist mockery that runs from The Great Dictator to The Producers. In the title role of Jojo, a 10-year-old boy who is seduced by the zany fun and games of a Nazi youth camp, Roman Griffin Davis carries the entire movie with astonishing aplomb, while Sam Rockwell serves as his blithely shambolic scout master. Complications ensue when Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish woman in the house. With a palette of crayoned innocence reminiscent of Wes Anderson, New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) draws a child’s eye view of racist horror that is hilarious, instructive and sobering. He also stars as Jojo’s imaginary friend—Adolph Hitler as a whining bozo. It’s exciting to think that this astute, grown-up satire could also play as family entertainment. Amid a rising tide of white supremacy, it could be an invaluable anti-toxin.
Two popes walk into a bar . . . well that not exactly the premise. But this lavish Netflix production, starring Anthony Hopkins as the outgoing conservative Pope Benedict and Jonathan Price as his incoming successor, does more to humanize the inner sanctum of the Vatican than any movie ever made. Argentina director Fernando Mereilles (City of God) has created a sweeping yet intimate chamber piece that unfolds as a high-minded buddy picture. The first time we see them cross paths is in the men’s room, where Cardinal Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, is whistling ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” And the spirit of delightful iconoclasm never lets up. In 2013, the ailing Pope Benedict invites Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio, the future Pope Francis, to his summer palace, cagily setting up his hardest critic to fill his red slippers. The film unfolds with the rhapsodic visuals of a royal costume drama, but at its core it’s a theatrical dialogue between two brilliant thespians, riffing off a witty scripted loaded with epigrams. Hopkins makes a meal of his role as the crafty 86-year-old incumbent, who turns his residence into a piano bar in one scene, serenading his guest with a few flashes of virtuosity on the keyboard. And as the Jesuit with a cut-glass wit, Pryce acquires a profound gravitas as he wrestles with his guilt over failing to speak out against the Argentine dictatorship when his priests were being tortured. Both actors will be nominated and the film will be a front-runner for Best Picture. Lifestyles of the rich and righteous. The Vatican couldn’t buy better publicity.
Like A Beautiful Day, this is another movie based on an Esquire magazine story, the deeply affecting drama of an ungainly domestic triangle. Dane (Jason Segal) moves in with his two best friends from college, journalist Matthew (Casey Affleck) and his wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dane deserts a dead-end job and a dim romantic future to help them and their two children through their crisis. It sounds terribly depressing. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite—making her second dramatic feature after her award-winning documentary Blackfish—draws us into the characters with remarkable finesse. She tells the story in a non-linear fashion, toggling between pre- and post-diagnosis scenes over a span of many years. With a detailed eye, she nails the odd rhythms of alienation and profound engagement that anyone who has experienced palliative care will recognize. The Friend is a tear-jerker where you don’t feel jerked around. Sadness surfaces through layers of nuance, disarming us until we’re quietly overtaken by tears. Casey Affleck’s Oscar chances will likely be limited by lingering #MeToo allegations. But Segal, who rules the movie with warm affection and deadpan wit, should get a nomination.
This solid period piece about the Ford Motor Company’s campaign to challenge Ferrari’s supremacy on the racetrack is as middle-of-the-road as Ford itself. But it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar Best Picture nominee—a story powered by high-octane chase scenes, a culture war pitting white-bread America against snotty Europeans, and a pair of blue-chip stars in Matt Damon and Christian Bale, cast as real-life race-car legends Caroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Shelby is former champion who leads the Ford team, chafing under corporate misdirection, and Miles is the Brit hothead who drives the car beyond its limits. For better or worse, the formula works. The races make for a good thrill ride. It’s refreshing to see Bale speaking his native Cockney accent for once, and Damon’s cruise-control charm is infallible. But in this year’s crowded Best Actor race, they may have trouble breaking through the pack.
After a six-year hiatus from the big screen, an almost unrecognizable Renée Zellweger makes sensational comeback in the role of Judy Garland making her own desperate comeback. Squinting through the spotlight, Zellweger sings, dances and acts up a storm as she portrays Garland struggling through the last year of her life. Directed by Rupert Gould, the film is an adaptation of the stage play End of the Rainbow, and never quite escapes its stagy confines. Devoted to the sad and lonely last stretch of a career that ended with an overdose of barbiturates, this not the kind of grand and bloated biopic that tends to win Best Picture. Zellweger’s performance overwhelms everything around her. It’s as isolated as her character. The rest of the cast seem to be just watching from the wings. But as a meta-fairy tale the movie is the kind of magic trick the Academy may find irresistible: reviving her career as tragic legend who attempting the same thing with less success, she gives the kind of bravura performance that has Oscar written all over it.
Another movie about a show-business martyr. Kristin Stewart is note-perfect as Jean Seberg, the Hollywood star who became a poster-girl for the avant-garde with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and was persecuted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panther party. The film shows Seberg unravelling under the voyeuristic gaze of FBI agents who record her every move and demolish her girl-next-door image by exposing her extra-marital affair with an African American activist. The film, plainly directed by Australian director Benedict Andrews, may be too modest in scale to win much traction with Oscar voters. But its heroine, whose death in 1979 was ruled a probable suicide, is ripe for redemption. And Stewart, who endured her own share of rude scrutiny as the star of Twilight, inhabits the character with passion, gravitas and unwavering authenticity, not to mention glamour. She may be too young to win—especially against Zellweger—but in a relatively thin Best Actress field, she’s guaranteed a nomination.
For many critics, myself included, this was the year’s strangest and most electrifying film. It’s a gonzo horror story, which makes it an unlikely Oscar candidate. But it elevates horror to high art on every front. Written and directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), it’s a 19th century tale of two men confined to a lighthouse on a remote Atlantic island. Ephrain (Robert Pattinson) has been dispatched for a month-long stint assisting the lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), a crazed Captain Ahab, who enslaves him with back-breaking work. Fuelled by alcohol, the men descend into a vortex of hellish conflict. Shot in stark black-and-white with an almost square framing, The Lighthouse is as gorgeous as it is harrowing. And looming through the spectral images and raging soundscape is a titanic performance from Dafoe, as he delivers reams of arcanely accented dialogue with Shakespearean force. Next to this, his Oscar-nominated turn as Van Gogh in Eternity’s Gate is an idle watercolour.
The Oscars may be the biggest awards show on the planet, but with rare exceptions, they’re really the English-language film awards. Roma and Cold War escaped ghettoization in the most recent slate of nominees. And let’s hope the trend continues. If so, look out for these three titles, which should all be competing for Best Foreign Language Film, and deserve to be recognized at the grown-up table of major categories.
Dark Horse candidates: Three movies about over-achieving women and one about a dirtbag jewel merchant could draw acting nominations—Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Rosamund Pike (Radioactive), Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky) and Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems).
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