By John H. Foote
There will be a profound sense of melancholy at this years Toronto International Film Festival, not because of the films or the celebration of the art form, but because it is the last festival with the great Piers Handling at the helm. The popular, intelligent zen master will step down after this year’s festival, leaving what I believe is a gaping chasm in leadership for the TIFF Group. Handling took over as CEO in 1994 and quickly made the moves to make Toronto a truly international film festival, a must stop for major films at the beginning of awards season, and the festival became a launching pad for some of the most remarkable films of our time. He did so quietly, but forcefully, never ruffling feathers, never making enemies. The little festival that could, which began in the late seventies became through the nineties the most important film festival on the planet. Quiet, but forcefully, Handling was the perfect choice to lead the festival in the nineties into the 21st century.
When Handling steps away, I expect the festival building will feel his absence, his presence is something very special, and though he wields great power within the film industry he wears it well, he is still an unassuming nice guy who will make a point of speaking on the street should he encounter you.
A huge thank you to Piers for what he has accomplished at TIFF, the Lightbox is forever his legacy. He turned the festival into the single most important cultural event in this country. I will miss knowing he is in charge, a class act.
So, friends have started asking, what should we see at the festival this year? What do you know, what have you heard? Each year I select ten films that I consider must-sees at TIFF, films that are earning Oscar talk right now long before their release, films that are directed by filmmakers I admire, or films that feature actors I greatly admire. The single greatest festival I attended was in 2007 where it seemed every film was a potential Oscar contender, and indeed come Oscar time, four of the five nominees for Best Picture, including the winner, had played TIFF.
This year, the following twelve are the ones I am most looking forward to seeing.
THE FILM I WANT TO SEE MOST!!!!!!! Features the great Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortenson as a tough guy driver, the bodyguard for a gifted concert pianist portrayed by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Mortenson is a tough guy from Brooklyn, sought out to protect and drive the musician through the South in the sixties where he knows they will encounter trouble. What is not expected is that the unlikely pair learns from each other and become good friends. Mortenson is a great actor, truly, and stunned the festival with his performance in Eastern Promises (2007) a few years ago, and it seems likely he will do again with this. Ali is a sly, gifted actor, the two of them should make beautiful music onscreen together. Robert Farrelly directs, yes you read that right, one-half of the Farrelly brothers are at the helm.
A STAR IS BORN
Though there have been three previous versions, the best being the Judy Garland version in 1954, the inside word on this remake directed by Bradley Cooper is off the charts. In fact, it is already an Oscar frontrunner after being seen by a few insiders. Lady Gaga is said to be astonishing as the discovered talent, and Cooper stars as the washed-up singer who finds her and wants the world to discover her. Cooper is a proven talent, a very good actor, and by all accounts a fine director. Lady Gaga proved her gifts as a singer a few years on the Oscars paying tribute to The Sound of Music, knocking it out of the park. Could be a major player come Oscar time.
In a clever switch of numbers, Michael Moore follows his scathing attack on President George W. Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) with this film, the numbers being the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. In the months that have followed, absolute chaos and madness has reigned in Washington as corruption runs rampant, the President has proven to be a master of deceit and lies, a vicious manipulator who cannot handle criticism of any kind, alienated the press, fired powerful people at will, and been accused of paying off women he had affairs with on the campaign trail and before. Is something rotten in Denmark? The Presidency is corrupt, and Moore takes aim. Cannot wait.
In 2016 after the first song and dance number in La La Land, the cynical and hardened film critic audience at TIFF, burst into applause, quite stunned by what we had just seen. Damien Chazelle had done something astonishing in that startling highway production number and the critics were instantly head over heels for the film, which won the young man an Oscar for Best Director. He is back with First Man, the biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. Armstrong was the model astronaut, but after returning he was forever haunted by the trip, by who he was, by the terrible burden of being the first. Portrayed by Ryan Gosling, the film has Oscars dancing around it. Any chance to watch Gosling act I will grab, Claire Foy is here as his wife, and Chazelle should become a major director with this, proving La La Land (2016) was no fluke. Did anyone really think it was?
With his first film after 12 Years a Slave (2013) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the ever-fascinating director Steve McQueen is back with a caper film with an edge and a twist. When the leader of a group of thieves is killed on a job, his wife brings together the other wives to pull the job off themselves, which is not without more than a little danger. Kind of like Oceans 8 (2018), released this past summer only with a dark edge, a great director and extraordinary cast. Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall are a trio of those involved, more than enough to get my attention.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Like McQueen, Barry Jenkins return s to TIFF after the glory of Moonlight (2016) which stunned the industry with its Best Picture win over La La Land (2016). Once again the African American director takes his cameras to the streets to explore life on the other side of the tracks among African Americans. With his gritty, yet poetic sense of realism, count on another show at the Oscars for Jenkins.
A week ago was a major player but rumblings out of Hollywood suggest it is not the masterpiece we hoped for. Based on the popular book, they have been trying to bring this to the screen for years. Finally, Steve Carrell stars as the distraught father trying to deal with his son’s addiction to meth. Timothee Chalamet, last year an Oscar nominee for Best Actor, portrays the son, and he is said to be exceptional but the film does not pack the wallop they had hoped for. Mind you this is based on me not having seen the film, so I will reserve judgement.
THE FRONT RUNNER
Jason Reitman returns to the festival where he launched his career with Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) with this true story about Presidential nominee Gary Hart, brought down in scandal while on the campaign trail. Hugh Jackman gets his best role since Les Miserables (2012) as Hart and could end up giving the performance of his lifetime, making the Oscar race. Reitman scored a triumph earlier this year with the mesmerizing Tully (2018) and could be in the race against himself.
There was a time when it believed homosexuality could be healed with religion, that it could be shamed out of you, like an exorcism. When a young man confesses to his parents he thinks of men, they ship him off to a fire and brimstone kind of camp where they attempt to terrorize his feelings out of him. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crower portray the parents, Lucas Hedges is the boy and director Joel Edgerton is the de-programmer. Could be a major Oscar player if it fires on all cylinders.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
A western, and I love me a western. Based on one of the best novels I have read in a long time, the film explores the lives of the Sisters Brothers, two hitmen for hire who travel the west raising hell. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are the hell-raising brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal as the man the brothers are hunting. Directed by Jacques Audiard, who also wrote the script, it could be the sleeper hit of the year and a player come Oscar time. Phoenix has been busy this year.
Offers Nicole Kidman her finest role in years, that challenge she might need to excel and head towards the Oscar circle once again. Cast as tough as nails, cynical badass cop Erin Bell, she knows her way around a murder scene, having seen one too many in her lifetime.s a previous one, and one that presents her with far too much pain to recall easily. Haunted by her past she nonetheless dives in anyway, and in doing so confronts her worst nightmares. Kidman is said to be astonishing, which is great because it has been a while since we could say that about the actress.
I like Ben Foster as an actor, I believe he might be among the finest we have. He reminds me a great deal like Sean Penn. In this film directed by actress turned filmmaker Melanie Laurent, Foster portrays a hitman for the local mob boss, portrayed by Beau Bridges. When a killing goes horribly wrong and he ends with a target on him, Foster hits the road with a young prostitute and her kid sister. Elle Fanning breaks the ethereal sort of mould she has been cast in as the tough hooker, who like Foster has a target on her back. For the acting alone, I am there.
And there are a lot more, some I will hit knowing what they are, some I will discover along the way.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.