The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped its mostly virtual festivities on Sunday, September 20, and despite a downsized slate of digital screenings and drive-in events, it remains the premier curtain riser of the awards season — even a strange one playing out amid a global pandemic. The organizers behind the Telluride Film Festival opted to sit this year out, and the folks behind the Venice Film Festival instead put on a socially distant event with limited attendees, but TIFF and its sister September festivals were in agreement on one thing: Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is an awards contender. Telluride, though canceled, did partner with Fox Searchlight for an A-list drive-in screening at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, and for the first time, both Venice and TIFF chose the same film for their top prize. Never before has the Venice Golden Lion matched the TIFF Audience Award winner; with both seen as a strong indication of a films’ Best Picture chances, Nomadland now heads into the season sitting comfortably in the frontrunner seat.
Last year at TIFF, Taika Waititi’s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit rebounded from a mixed initial critical reception to win the Grolsch People’s Choice Award on its way to a Best Picture nomination alongside 2019’s Golden Lion winner and Best Picture nominee, Todd Phillips’ Joker. This year, however, with limited options and only a handful of contenders with calendar dates, Nomadland and the TIFF Audience Award runner-up, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, will likely ride a wave of momentum into 2021. No matter how many titles are currently in contention, the season has begun, so here are our key awards takeaways from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Despite a skinnier slate, TIFF remained committed to diversity and inclusion in their selections, with 33% of the feature film Gala presentations directed by women, two of which emerged as the big winners of the weekend. Neither Nomadland nor Oscar-winner Regina King’s feature directorial debut One Night in Miami were short on buzz prior to their Toronto premieres. After stunning receptions, Audience Award accolades, and a pair of 98% Tomatometer scores, they are now the films to beat heading into the heart of the season. Critics were effusive with praise for both, with Robert Daniels of 812FilmReviews calling One Night in Miami “a blistering feature debut replete with visceral performances,” while Anne Brodie of What She Said dubbed Nomadland “indescribably enveloping.” King and Zhao would be considered underdogs in a season expected to include previous Oscar nominees Wes Anderson and David Fincher and prior winners Aaron Sorkin and Stephen Speilberg, but the chances of one or both making it to Oscar night are high.
Elsewhere, Halle Berry’s directorial debut was picked up by Netflix, and Pieces of a Woman generated a lot of conversation, both for Vanessa Kirby’s (The Crown) turn in it and for its harrowing, heart-stopping 20-minute opening scene. Dianne West and Rosamund Pike also enjoyed positive reviews for their biting comedy I Care A Lot, and indigenous filmmaker Tracey Deer’s second runner up Audience Award for Beans made it a clean sweep of female filmmakers for TIFF’s most coveted prize. Considering the results, it appears a helpful bi-product of this unconventional season is providing discovery films from female filmmakers the chance to capture the attention of audiences and voters.
While many narrative productions were paused or pushed due to restrictions from COVID-19, documentary filmmaking carried on mostly unaffected by the “pandemic pause.” By the very nature of their productions, documentary films seem the medium most equipped to navigate our new normal. Talking head interviews, archival footage, and post-production editing can all continue largely uninterrupted, which is why this fall sees a crop of exceptional documentaries with Oscar shortlist aspirations. Nathan Grossman’s doc on Greta Thunberg’s crusade to combat climate change, I Am Greta, was well-received, with Rubin Safaya of Cinemalogue calling it “a profile in courage.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s harassment and surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI is chronicled with disturbing detail for MLK/FBI, a timely documentary about activism and government that strikes an all too familiar chord. However, the most timely bit of non-fiction storytelling from the TIFF slate was 76 Days, which dives behind the COVID-19 lockdown headlines in Wuhan, China to examine the staff of one hospital for isolated patients. A moving piece with moments of quiet heroism, 76 days looks good for a deep run in 2021 alongside Spike Lee’s (if deemed eligible) David Byrne concert doc Utopia, which David Ehrlich of Indiewire wrote was “one of the best since Stop Making Sense.”
This time of year, the close of every festival typically provides some clarification about the awards season, and while we have new glimmers of hope courtesy of One Night in Miami and Nomadland, TIFF still leaves a lot of niggling questions unanswered. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a likely Oscar favorite, has been pulled from the release schedule, and films like Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story and the Tom Hanks-led News of the World are still in jeopardy of vacating their December dates if theaters are not widely open and operating by then. The disastrous North American release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet over Labor Day weekend quickly humbled studios, with several marquee names like Wonder Woman 1984 fleeing to later dates, presumably with Black Widow and Soul to follow. A24’s Zola, The Green Knight, and Minari are not expected to pull in hundreds of millions at the box office, but with no end to the pandemic in sight and audiences clearly not ready to head back to theaters, it is unclear which films will actually commit to 2020/2021 Oscar eligibility.
Suppose we readjust the schedule to take into account the Academy’s extended season; the end of September lines up perfectly with the end of June for a normal year. This time last year leaving Cannes, The Lighthouse, Once Upon a Time in Hollylwood, and Bong Joon-ho’s Palme D’or- and eventual Best Picture-winning Parasite were the buzziest titles. In contrast, eventual Oscar nominees like The Irishman, Joker, Marriage Story, and 1917 had yet to be screened. Therefore, perhaps we should reserve judgment until we get closer to the new Academy deadline of February 2021 before we raise alarms. It is true that we typically know more around this time, but as with so many other things, the 20/21 season is anything but typical.
For a season of digital premieres and modest box office totals, the streaming giant Netflix’s absence at TIFF and the other fall festivals further muddied an already murky season. If the festival calendar strives to pull the contenders into sharper focus, Netflix’s decision to skip the festival circuit places significant pieces of the awards landscape out of frame. Netflix picked up Pieces of A Woman during TIFF, as well as Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s quarantine-filmed Malcolm & Marie just prior to the festival start, adding the pair to their already crowded roster of nearly 20 films set to compete in 2021.
Previously released films like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are very much in the thick of contention for several categories, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Sundance winner Radha Blank’s The 40-Year-Old Version are scheduled to hit the platform soon. However, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, David Fincher’s Mank, and George Clooney’s Midnight Sky are still in post-production and remain undated. A-list casts acting in “awards-friendly” source material is precisely what Oscar voters flock to, but a sizable anti-Netflix contingent is still very prominent within AMPAS, and until those movies screen, it is unclear if one or more of them will be able to overcome that bias to take home the Best Picture prize.
However, with a handful of strong candidates unbeholden to box office receipts, Netflix can carefully plot out their release schedule to drum up timely buzz as often as possible. The recent tragic death of Chadwick Boseman will likely have a significant impact on the release of Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but the August Wilson adaptation is still expected to join the titles mentioned above in what could be a Netflix vs. Netflix race for several categories. Until the rest of the heavy hitters from Netflix’s slate debut and other studios’ Oscar hopefuls commit to a release date, this season is less like educated guesswork and more like blindly groping for statues in a darkened room.