By John H. Foote

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has long been the major launching pad of the year’s Oscar challengers, studios bring their films here in hopes of gaining that all important fall “buzz” that could lead them to that golden circle on the evening of the Academy Awards. 

Not this year though.

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

Many TIFF regulars have decided to skip the festival this year, perhaps because of COVID, the uncertainty of the border being open, or other reasons we are not aware of. It is not lost on me that this is happening just a few short years after the retirement of the great Piers Handling who took the festival from the upstart “Festival of Festivals” to a world class organization complete with its own towering building. Handling’s vision of TIFF came to pass, and with it The Bell Lightbox, which houses the festival’s operations offices, their magnificent Film Reference Library and several state-of-the-art cinemas to screen films year round. No longer a ten day event, TIFF runs the year round, bringing the best in world cinema to its hungry Toronto audiences. But has Handling’s departure weakened the festival’s relationship with the studios in the United States? 

When some of the filmmakers who have attended more than once with their films have decided to stay away this year, it certainly makes me wonder. 

Among the directors who have been here before but are not coming this year are the Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, Aaron Sorkin and George Clooney, all with films coming this fall, but absent from the TIFF line up. The festival as always has a great line up, but the absence of those names and their films is more than a bit noticeable. I had hoped Steven Spielberg might be here with West Side Story, but that is not happening unless there is a final announcement. And in fairness, the titles are not fully announced yet and any one of these films still might be coming. 

But I am doubtful.

Keep in mind one of the challenges of getting to TIFF is for a film to be completed, all the editing, sound mixing and scoring being finished in post-production. Many films awaiting release have been finished for more than a year!

So which films that seem to be headed for the Oscars are NOT coming to TIFF?

WEST SIDE STORY – Having been finished for a full year, I thought doing the festival route might help remind audiences of Spielberg’s remake of the film. The failure of In the Heights is alarming, but I believe this will do just fine being a Spielberg film and all. I still struggle with him remaking a film that won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, both supporting actor awards and six others, but is it so different than yet another version of the musical on stage? I have seen West Side Story on stage at least 15 times, once on Broadway in 2009 (not very good) and the productions are always bursting with energy. Why should we think anything from Spielberg will wrong step? The only thing going against the film is that it was pushed back a year due to COVID … otherwise expect a blockbuster and Oscar nominee. 

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH – The Coen Brothers have been here many times in the past, No Country for Old Men (2007) being the most notable of their work, moving on to win the Academy Award as Best Picture and for the brothers as Best Directors. This time Joel is on his own directing, Ethan sat it out. It will open New York’s festival but not screen here. The highly anticipated Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand starrer seems destined for the Oscars, and I mourn that it will not be here. 

TENDER BAR – George Clooney steps behind the camera again to bring us what could be one of the year’s best reviewed films, but we will not see it until close to its release date or streaming on Netflix. Clooney was here for Suburbicon (2017) a poorly received work with Matt Damon, and as an actor in his career best work, The Descendants (2011). I am surprised Netflix is taking the festival off too.

HOUSE OF GUCCI – Of all the films I want to see this year, I was hoping that Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci would be here. The film explores the events surrounding the hiring of a hitman to kill the grandson of the Gucci clan, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). Lady Gaga is back onscreen as the dangerous ex-wife of Gucci, and the woman who orchestrates the murder of her ex-husband. After knocking audiences (and me) out with her Oscar nominated performance in A Star is Born (2018) I think everyone who loves films is anxious to see her follow up work. Is she the real deal? OF COURSE SHE IS! Will this be the film that finally wins Ridley Scott a long overdue Academy Award? It just might be a multiple Oscar winner. Scott previously brought such films as Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2005) to our fair city. 

THE WAY OF THE WIND – If there is any director or film still mired in post-production, it would be the reclusive Terrence Malick and his version of the life of Christ, entitled, at this time, The Way of the Wind. Earlier it was known as The Last Planet and he might change it again, one just never knows with this filmmaker. Though seriously self-indulgent, one cannot deny the artistry behind his productions. He was here in 2019 with his superb film A Hidden Life, or rather the film was here, Malick was nowhere to be seen. Geza Rohing will portray Jesus Christ, Oscar winner Mark Rylance is cast as Satan, and among the other actors appearing in the film are Joseph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley. Well, I had hoped. Next year maybe?

SOGGY BOTTOM – Paul Thomas Anderson brought his unfinished masterpiece Boogie Nights here in 1997 and I was among the audience that saw the film that day, a full house. Needless to say we were stunned by what we saw, knowing a new star director had just been born, and we could not have been more correct. He was here again with Punch Drunk Love (2002), a strange love story that made clear Adam Sandler could indeed act. In 2012 he brought The Master here, dazzling audiences with his directing gifts and the performances of his two main actors, Joaquin Phoenix (never better) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It seemed likely Anderson would be here with his latest but again, nope. 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – Del Toro was here in 2017 with his Oscar winning Best Picture The Shape of Water, which also won him Best Director. That magical film, with a stunning performance from Sally Hawkins owed a debt to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) but managed to be a masterful work all on its own. Nightmare Alley would have been a red carpet dream with its array of stars, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Pearlman among the members of the cast. And Del Toro is such a jolly, good natured presence. The thriller should be among the years finest achievements. 

UNTITLED DAVID O. RUSSELL PROJECT – Russell brought Silver Linings Playbook here and launched an Oscar nominated film and the career of Jennifer Lawrence. While Lawrence had already become a major actress, this made her a bonafide superstar. The Fighter (2011) was here and also went on to Oscar nominations, and his early film I Heart Huckabees (2004) was programmed here as well. Not sure why he is not coming this year, although this one just might not be finished. 

CRY MACHO – Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010) was here and limped away from the festival with weak reviews and his White Hunter Black Heart (1990) had been a Gala presentation here. Eastwood likes to open his films late and join the Oscar race when it is in full bloom, but not this time. Cry Macho opens shortly after the festival closes and expect the actor to join the talk for Best Actor this time not Best Director. Twice a Best Actor nominee, three other nominations were much deserved but this could be the one for the 90-year-old director. As an over the hill rodeo rider, his boss asks him to go to Mexico and bring his son home from his estranged wife. 

BEING THE RICARDOS – One of the greatest writers in the history of television and the movies, Sorkin ventured into directing with his solid film Molly’s Game (2017) which was here with star Jessica Chastain. Sorkin was here again with his second directing job, The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), a major Academy Award nominee last year. But not this year? His Being the Ricardos seemed true festival bait, especially being produced by Netflix, Nicole Kidman is Lucille Ball, my greatest concern being her casting when both Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain were available and interested in portraying the TV legend. Has Kidman ever been funny? To Die For (1995) was a black comedy, as black as they come, and she was terrific but since any comedies she has attempted have flopped miserably. Javier Bardem is Desi Arnaz, and J. J. Simonds is William Frawley (Fred on the show), the latter casting pure genius. I have not one ounce of confidence in this film or Kidman at all. Sorry. 

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