By John H. Foote
Christmas for film critics is how I like to describe the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) though in fact it is so much more. Along with the festivals in Venice and Telluride, happening as we speak, this is the official beginning of awards season in the film industry, as the studios roll out the films they will champion for major film awards. Winning top prizes at the festivals is one thing, they hope to go on to win critics awards, Golden Globes and the most coveted prize, that golden man named Oscar. If there is a downside to awards season it is that it does go on too long, and by Oscar night we have a pretty good idea who is winning the awards, making the final night rather anti-climatic.
The upside, of course, is the films, the performances, the achievements in directing, cinematography, editing, sound, and writing. THE FILMS!!!!!!!
Here are my “most hopefuls” coming to the screens during TIFF. Some will go on to Oscar glory, some will crash and burn, but all will provide a unique excitement that happens nowhere else but here at TIFF. The eyes of Hollywood are on Toronto for ten days.
10. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Marielle Heller is back at Tiff with this film about the children’s entertainer and educator Mr. Rogers portrayed by two time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks. Heller guided Melissa McCarthy to a Best Actress nomination last year in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Hanks just might nab his first nomination since Cast Away (2000)! It seems impossible that Hanks was not nominated for Road to Perdition (2002), Captain Phillips (2013), Saving Mr. Banks (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015) and Sully (2016) but the Academy, after loving him through the nineties, seem to have forgotten about him. If he is as good as the trailer suggests he just might find himself back in the race looking for Oscar number three.
9. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Oscar nominee Edward Norton, who should have won for his searing neo-Nazi in American History X (1998) directs his second film, twenty years after the first, portraying a private investigator stricken with Tourette’s syndrome, a series of tics and outburst that are often jibberish. Out to solve the murder of his mentor, he finds nothing but obstacle after obstacle in his path, further made difficult by his Tourette’s because no one really takes him seriously. But beneath the outbursts and strange physical tics is a sharp mind slowly putting together the puzzle which will reach to the higher echelons of the city. Set in the fifties, the film possesses the look of a noir, and with the cast assembled will no doubt be an acting showcase, especially for Norton one of the finest actors working in movies. Bruce Willis has a supporting role said to be exceptional.
Kasi Lemmons directed and co-wrote this long overdue, long-awaited biography a slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman, portrayed in this film by Cynthia Erivo. After escaping slavery in the American South, Tubman became a warrior, helping hundreds of escaped slaves to freedom using the infamous Underground Railroad. Joe Alwyn co-stars with Janelle Monae, each giving the film further credibility, though Erivo is more than enough. Lemmons, best known perhaps as the best friend to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) had huge success with Eve’s Bayou (1997) more than twenty years ago at TIFF. If this film hits all the marks, it could be a major player come Oscar season. The Academy has proven time and time again how much they adore historical drama, and here they have one that solves two diversity issues, women and African American history.
7. WESTERN STARS
Springsteen. That name means rock and roll, well to his legions of fans it does. Count me among them. Bruce Springsteen is the greatest poet in rock and roll history, a blue-collar son, who sees the world as we see it, yet has the talent to write songs about it. Those songs have become ballads about us, anthems for us, rock and roll that means something, that speaks to generations about life, about America and what it means to be America, what it means to be alive. Springsteen co-directed this film which explores the creation of his new album Western Stars and deals with his evolution as an artist, always striving to go further than he has before, fearless to try new things. The film explores the creation of the new album while playing with an orchestra in a one-hundred-year-old barn for close friends, his new music, which again, reveals a piece of his soul. If there is a greater rock and roll artist, I do not know of them. He is music.
6. THE LAUNDROMAT
Based loosely on the book Secrecy World, which explored the investigations and revealing of the Panama Papers, no one knew what to expect until the trailer dropped last week. Remember the criminally underrated The Informant (2009) with Matt Damon in one of his best performances as a compulsive lying businessman playing games with the FBI? That film had a bouncy, jaunty feel to it, and Steven Soderbergh has given his new picture that sort of feel. Meryl Streep is Ellen Martin, a woman who loses everything and goes to try and find out why digging deep into the world of high finance and swindling and money laundering. With Streep you just expect genius and that is likely what we will get, she and Soderbergh should be a force to be reckoned with. Add Gary Oldman, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, James Cromwell, and The Big Bang Theory‘s Melissa Rauch and we might have a bonafide hit. Despite an Oscar for Best Director for Traffic (2000) in a year that saw him also nominated for Erin Brockovich (2000), Soderbergh still feels a well-kept secret.
After six years out of the movies, Renee Zellweger returns in this biography which explores the last year in the life of icon Judy Garland. Rundown by to much work, too many pills to get her to sleep and bring her up, Garland is clearly a wreck until there is a microphone in her hands at which point she comes alive to sing. Think what you want of her, the lady was born to sing, and when she does, her soul comes alive. Imagine having to capture that on film? Apparently Zellweger does just that and if she is as great as they are saying, she will be among the final five come Oscar night. Doing her own singing, looking uncannily like Garland, can she surpass the performance Judy Davis gave for television as Garland? Some Venice critics stated the film is weak, but Zellweger elevates it to something very special with her miraculous performance. We will see.
4. JO JO RABBIT
They say when you set out to make a black comedy, go as dark as you can and remain that way right through to the end. This is what the greatest black comedies, Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Trainspotting (1996) have done, which is what makes them classics. In this film, directed and written by Taika Waititi (who also has a supporting role) a child has an imaginary friend, but in this case, that imaginary friend is… Adolf Hitler????? And a bouncing, energetic, gleeful, teasing Hitler who is very aware of what the world says about him. The boy must come to terms with his own Nationalism and conscience when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl from the Nazis. Straight up this could go two ways, the film could be brilliant or it could be an irresponsible, offensive film that should never have been made. Scarlett Johansson (again), and Sam Rockwell star, with the film’s director, Waititi as an idiotic Hitler. The trailer looks compelling, and the idea is very bold, crazy enough to be something very special…or not.
3. MARRIAGE STORY
Films about divorce have been in abundance for years now, but authentic, honest ones are hard to come by. Certainly, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is among the best of them, and The Squid and the Whale (2005) towers in this category, directed and written by New Yorker Noah Baumbach. Like a darker version of Woody Allen, Baumbach is back at TIFF with Marriage Story, which has been very well received in Venice and Telluride for its brutal honesty in depicting the failure of a marriage and the agony brought on by divorce. Scarlett Johansson, so long in the world of Marvel, is back with a performance that could define her as a major actress opposite the great Adam Driver, fast becoming considered the finest actor under forty currently in movies. The scorching pain is captured to perfection I understand, as we will watch two people who adored each other, tear apart any love they had for each other. Baumbach based the film on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, so expect horrific emotional pain to be seen on screen.
2. A HIDDEN LIFE
After the success of his film The Tree of Life (2011) a sometimes breathtaking, confusing tone poem about life and death and the power of family, Terence Malick the legendary, however reclusive filmmaker seemed to lose touch with his audiences. A master filmmaker in the seventies, responsible for the superb Badlands (1974) and Days of Heaven (1978), he slipped out of film for twenty years, doing some script work, but not directing again until the WWII epic The Thin Red Line (1998) in which every actor in Hollywood wanted in on, some agreeing to work for scale, or less! Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the film announced Malick’s return and was followed by the breathtaking The New World (2005), an adult take on the John Smith/ Pocahontas legend. The Tree of Life (2011) and further Oscar nominations followed, with Malick’s films exploring individual transcendence, nature, reason, and instinct, were possessed of both philosophical and spiritual overtones, and containing meditative monologues as voice overs. But after The Tree of Life (2011), he gave us a curious trio of bizarre films that were hugely self-indulgent and must be considered artistic masturbation. To the Wonder (2013), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2016) met with divisive reviews from critics, some downright savage, attacking the films for self-indulgence and no regard for the audience. Each film made several ten worst lists for their respective years. Truth be told, I had given up on Malick, feeling he was lost in his own head.
His new film, A Hidden Life explores the life of conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, who refused to take part in the Second World War, refused to become a Nazi in Hitler’s massive army. For his refusal, he was put to death by the Nazis at the age of thirty-six.
Malick explores his life in his new film, which judging by the glorious trailer will be stunning to look at, with high hopes that there is a narrative for the actors. This could be the best film of the year.
With rave reviews, shocking;y great reviews. coming out of Venice and Telluride, critics hailing Joaquin Phoenix as the actor to beat for the Academy Award, this film jumped a few spots in the last few days. An origin film, this time about a villain in the DC Universe, the painted faced Joker, previously portrayed by Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger in an Oscar-winning performance, voiced by Mark Hamill on the animated TV series, and finally portrayed by Jared Leto, this character is the most popular villain in all of the comic book world. Like Hamlet and Macbeth, various actors have brought their own unique take to the character, Nicholson and Ledger the finest, perhaps until now. The reviews coming out of both Venice and Telluride suggest that Joaquin Phoenix has given the performance of his lifetime, no small feat considering The Master (2012) or Her (2013) as the clown who slips into madness and homicidal insanity. The film has the look and feels of no less than Taxi Driver (1976) and Phoenix throws himself completely into the character so that by the end the Joker is poised to go where Heath Ledger took him in The Dark Knight (2008). Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy co-star but apparently this is a showcase for the gifts, the staggering gifts of Mr. Phoenix. Does Oscar await? This sounds like it might the finest comic book adaptation since The Dark Knight (2008)!
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”