The curtain closed on the 44th Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend, and while several crucial pieces of the awards season puzzle are still missing, we can just about decipher the image, and it is looking glorious. Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit rebounded from a mixed initial critical reception to win the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, while previous festival favorites Marriage Story and Cannes Palme d’Or winner Parasite were the first and second runners-up, respectively. A few notable contenders were missing from Toronto’s screens this year, including James Gray’s Ad Astra, the yet-to-be-completed Little Women starring Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep, the Fox News sexual harassment tale Bombshell, and the Martin Scorsese gangster epic The Irishman, featuring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci.
As the unofficial end of the festival season’s opening act, the Toronto International Film Festival remains an essential stop on the way to Oscar glory, and the Grolsch People’s Choice Award has become an increasingly prescient indicator of Best Picture chances — nine of the last 10 winners of the former have earned nominations for the latter, including last year’s eventual Best Picture-winner, Green Book. As we move into the heart of awards season, it will take more than just star power and reputation to take home that golden statuette, but with such heavyweights as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo Dicaprio, Laura Dern, and Brad Pitt in the mix, competition will be fierce. Here are our key takeaways from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Waves, Uncut Gems, Marriage Story, and Ford v. Ferrari each left Telluride on a wave of momentum and have continued to ride high praise into Toronto. Adam Sandler, whose performance in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems earned him his best reviews since Punch Drunk Love, was beyond pleased with the reception when we spoke to him. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with [the Safdies] — they’re pretty fresh.” Fresh is right: at 93% on the Tomatometer, the film’s sterling reception proved to be the best birthday present the SNL alum could have asked for (Sandler turned 53 the night of the TIFF premiere).
Uncut Gems wasn’t the only A24 title that fared well with audiences and critics, though. Waves, the third effort from Trey Edward Shults, continued to earn praise for the Texas-born director and star Sterling K. Brown, who many now think is a serious threat in the Best Supporting Actor race. The family drama about love and loss is a brilliant and quiet examination of perspective and familial expectations. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse also impressed critics at 94% on the Tomatometer, while the other Cannes Film Festival winners, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite, shone brighter. Echoing the general consensus on the latter, Brian Tallerico from RogerEbert.com said, “It’s unquestionably one of the best films of the year.” The Korean socio-political thriller topped our TIFF Scorecard and tops our list of the year’s best films, and it remains Certified Fresh at 100%.
Meanwhile, Noah Baumbach’s Netflix drama Marriage Story firmly cemented its lead actor Adam Driver in the lead for the Best Actor race. “A stirring performance with raw emotion that towers over everything else this season,” says Dustin Chase of Texas Art & Film. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker may have the flashier performance, but Baumbach’s heartbreaking script, Stephen Sondheim (when you see the film, you’ll know what we mean), and an upcoming worldwide promotional tour for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker give the Juilliard-trained actor a slight edge.
Without question, the buzziest title of the festival was Todd Phillips’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. As most of the Toronto attendees packed their bags for the festival, word broke that the DC standalone title had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The achievement quieted many doubters, and if the star-studded premiere at Toronto was any indication, even A-listers are anxious to see what the three-time Oscar nominee can do with The Dark Knight’s oldest foe. Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper (who also served as producer) were all expected at the film’s TIFF premiere, but the likes of Jon Hamm, Luke Wilson, Finn Wittrock, Charlie Hunnam, and countless others also made their way to the Princess of Wales theater to see the ultra-violent King of Comedy-meets-Batman mashup. Still faring well on the Tomatometer at 77%, the film’s long-term Oscar hopes are still questionable, but just about everyone agrees that what Phoenix does on-screen is going to resonate with voters. The Times UK staff writes that Phoenix is “febrile and wiry, the focus of all attention, and delivers an easy Best Actor Oscar nomination, if not a win.”
Of all the performances that screened last week, perhaps none shocked more than Allison Janney, Wesley Snipes, and Jennifer Lopez. For Lopez, who plays the acrobatic and deadly stripper-turned-“mini mob boss” in Hustlers, the hardest obstacle she faces this awards season isn’t the four-inch heels she wore for the production, but getting everyone to recognize how exceptional she is in the role. After the film’s impressive $33 million debut, people are taking notice, and we’re hoping word of mouth will continue to circulate that Hustlers is not just the actress/singer’s best performance since Out of Sight, but possibly her best ever. Meanwhile, fresh off her win for I, Tonya, Allison Janney is also back in the conversation, starring alongside Hugh Jackman in the drama based on the New York school embezzlement scandal, Bad Education, while Wesley Snipes reminded everyone just how hilarious he could be as the campy D’Urville Martin in Dolemite is My Name. Craig Brewer’s biopic of the underground comedian and blaxploitation star is a story of hustle and determination, and despite acting alongside the likes of Eddie Murphy, Mike Epps, and Tituss Burgess, Snipes manages to steal every scene.
The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson premiered his new mystery movie Knives Out at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it did not disappoint. After multiple breaks for applause during its first screening and an extended standing ovation at the end, the star-studded whodunnit is Fresh at an impressive 98% on the Tomatometer. Everyone agrees Johnson’s return to his murder mystery roots is a welcome one, and critics raved about the stellar ensemble cast, the side-splittingly hilarious performances, and the inventive story, which doesn’t give anything away until the climax. But it remains to be seen if the film can also impress voting groups, and it’s still unclear where it fits among more traditional Oscar films like Marriage Story, Parasite, and Ford v Ferrari. Maybe Knives Out can push itself into the conversation on reviews alone, but if it pulls off an impressive box office haul to match its first wave of reviews, we would not count Knives (yes, we really had to do this) Out.
The morning after Taika Waititi’s latest, the World War II satire Jojo Rabbit, premiered in Toronto, things didn’t look so bright. A few critics found its balance of humor and tragedy jarringly difficult to reconcile: “There are brief flashes of something worthwhile… but it takes so long to get there,” said Hannah Woodhead of Little White Lies. A low-ish early Tomatometer score seemed to belie the brilliance of the talented cast and the hilarious script, but by the end of the festival, things had righted themselves, and the comedy now rests happily Fresh at 74%, with critics like Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out saying, “In its precision, Jojo Rabbit may remind you of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, another comedy in which clownish forces of fascism squared off against love, humor and elegance.” Coupling that turn-around with a Grolsch’s People Choice Award win, Jojo Rabbit rebounded from a lukewarm reception signaling the end of its Oscar hopes to becoming a serious contender for a Best Picture nomination. With Marriage Story and Parasite as the Grolsch People’s Choice runners-up, history suggests that at least two of the three — if not all of them — will be nominated for Best Picture, as has been the case for the past four years.