As expected, Chloe Zhao’s Venice Golden Lion winner Nomadland took the often Oscar-predictive Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award announced this morning. Regina King’s One Night in Miami was second, and Beans was third in the slimmed down competition at the fest, which had about a sixth of the number of films in play than usual. That also meant far fewer Oscar hopefuls aiming to get this prize.
As the Fall Festival season, such as it is in the age of coronavirus, now continues on to the just started New York Film Festival, (which opened Thursday with Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, the 68-minute first installment of a series essentially of TV movies that was originally to have played Cannes) and then moves to London and the AFI Fest in October, the latter opening with streamer Amazon’s latest, a modern day film noir with an outstanding performance by Rachel Brosnahan in a movie called I’m Your Woman, this has indeed been a crazy kickoff to what is normally the beginning of the Oscar movie awards season. Actually it has proven to be anything but the normal awards season kickoff with only a mere handful, if that much, of genuine contenders promising to be remembered half a year from now when voting finally begins for the two-month delayed 2020 Oscars. Bottom line, despite what some eager beaver pundits would have you believe, this Oscar season, coming after the end of Emmy season tonight, will not get going in earnest until at least November after the election, and of course, even that cautious start date is dependent of where we are COVID-wise, Theatre-wise, and Content-wise.
The People’s Choice winner at TIFF, since a streak that started in 2011, has been guaranteed at the very least an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and in some cases like Green Book, Slumdog Millionaire, and others a Best Picture win. But when you look at the short list of even possible Best Picture nominees coming out of the Cannes and Telluride selections (not actually able to be shown though at those cancelled fests), along with what was offered up for typical Oscar bait at Venice and Toronto is there anything beyond Chloe Zhao’s minimalist but affecting Nomadland, King’s directing debut of Amazon’s One Night In Miami, and Francis Lee’s very British brooding female romance, Ammonite? Hardly. Those three ought to continue to have a presence as scores of other satellite festivals offer them up, and also because their respective distributors Fox Searchlight, Amazon, and reigning Best Picture champ NEON (Parasite) have proven they will seriously campaign if they think they have a shot. These three all used a festival strategy and are sticking with it, however virtually, to stay alive on the long road ahead to a year where Oscar is promising ten Best Picture nominees once again. As timing would have it, the Academy has ironically chosen a year that looks to be largely indie-driven as they expand the number of nominees for some more popular appeal. Timing is everything. By the way, Searchlight tells us this is their fifth TIFF audience award win and the first time the TIFF honor has matched the Golden Lion.
It is no surprise that Nomadland is taking on some early heat in a thin field so far. The TIFF honor will add to that as that film. Some performances likely to be considered also popped at Venice and/or TIFF with suggestions by Cannes and/or Telluride led of course by Frances McDormand in Nomadland where she proved she could pack Amazon boxes with the best of ’em, and Anthony Hopkins giving a career highlight turn as a man slipping into dementia in The Father, a role strong enough to likely be remembered all the way from its original Sundance 2019 debut right up to the April 25, 2021 Oscars. Kate Winslet has really been putting in the campaign work already for Ammonite racking up whatever award can be arranged for her by NEON strategists (ironically the Lesbian drama pales next to NEON’s similar entry last year, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire which was sadly completely ignored by AMPAS members).
There is also the Netflix factor and the pickup of the harrowing and brilliantly acted Pieces Of A Woman out of Venice and TIFF where Vanessa Kirby in lead actress and 88 year old Ellen Burstyn in support promise to land acting nominations IF Oscar voters can make it through the wrenchingly intense first 30 minutes before turning off their link. The film, as I said last week in predicting Kirby would be a strong bet for the Actress award at Venice (she won), is worth the effort, and though Netflix has pointedly decided to skip the festival circuit altogether this year in favor of a series of virtual debuts for their growing multitude of films beginning next week, now by virtue of that pickup does indeed find themselves at least partially on the fest circuit after all, and a beneficiary of the critical acclaim and quotes that come with it. The streamer’s big dollar TIFF pickups of Halle Berry’s Bruised, going back for more editing work, and the completely pandemic-produced Sam Levinson black and white film Malcolm & Marie with Zendaya and John David Washington are for next year, not this season (which now runs thru February 28, 2021 in terms of eligibility) I am told. Netflix is hoping the pandemic, during which Malcolm & Marie was made, will be reduced to such a point where they can give this one the full red carpet treatment insiders say it deserves.
As for Toronto’s hybrid of a live and virtual film festival this year, I have to say I thought in execution, and in availability of movies and panels through their Digital Pro viewing platform (so easy and professional) was a rousing success. Although I missed being in Canada this month, as I also missed Telluride and Cannes this year, I got used to casting to my big screen 85-inch TV screen this wide variety of far fewer films than normal. And I saw several worthy of pickups, and even a couple that definitely could be thrust into this Oscar season with the right handling and distributor. I have already praised the Naomi Watts/Andrew Lincoln film Penguin Bloom, and Endeavor/Content hopefully can find a home for that, as well as the stirring Concrete Cowboy with a very fine Idris Elba.
Beyond that, I had a great time with the wickedly dark comedy of I Care A Lot starring Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest and Peter Dinklage among others in a very funny and biting film about a nursing home scam run by Pike’s character that has so many twists and turns you will get whiplash. Pike would be a dead certainty in the Golden Globe comedy Actress lineup if they can get this qualified in time.
And I had an even greater time with the late breaking female-driven action flick called Shadow In The Cloud (winner of TIFF’s Midnite Madness prize earlier today) coming out of nowhere this week at TIFF, a real surprise, starring a never better Chloe Grace Moretz as a female WWII pilot on a secret mission on a plane with all men that turns into a nightmare thrill ride when she is confronted by a Gremlin-like creature attempting to wreak havoc on their flight, and to top it all off she has smuggled her newborn baby on board. It comes from New Zealand director Roseanne Liang. I was so buzzed about this that one I immediately emailed one of the producers, Fred Berger (La La Land) to exclaim it as a big hit (!) “Roseanne is a rising star,” he wrote back. That is an understatement after this non-stop action picture that, to tell the truth, features Moretz in, yes, an absurd but knockout turn that is the most impressive work I saw from an actress (well, maybe Kirby too) on this year’s fest circuit so far. But don’t worry. This movie is in a genre the Academy usually snubs, and though quickly picked up for distribution by Vertical, it is for a theatrical run next summer where it ought to become a certified sleeper smash.
Another movie that blew me away at TIFF already came with real cred as the Silver Lion award winner at Venice a week earlier. Michel Franco’s devastating New Order, a film so remarkably timely considering the protests in the streets of this country currently, is set in an unrest-riddled Mexico City setting up a battle between the haves and the have nots. For its sheer importance and incredibly prescient storyline this film should have actually been knocked up a notch by the Venice jury and given the top Golden Lion (that went to Nomadland), but I suspect that when, and if, it is selected as the official Mexican entry for Oscar’s Best International Film it will become a major contender. It is universal, and considering what is going especially in America now, and (hopefully not) after the November 3rd election when some are predicting even more intense unrest and violence, it is positively scary and believable that what is just a movie in New Order is very plausibly what could happen for real. This is a WOW, and an urgent warning. Franco, who I interview In Cannes five years ago when he was in competition with the Tim Roth starrer Chronic another very disturbing film, is the real deal.
I caught up with a couple of official 2020 Cannes Competition entries that made their way to Toronto for North American Premieres. Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (Danish title: Druk) stars Mads Mikkelsen in another fine performance as a high school teacher who joins with three other male colleagues in an experiment to drink their way their greater happiness. It felt oddly like a Danish Husbands, the John Cassavetes movie with Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes, but I doubt had it been able to actually play Cannes that it would have won any prizes there. I also saw Francois Ozon’s latest, a return to the feel of some of his earlier work, and a nostalgia-laden male love story called Summer Of ’85. It might not be one of the prolific director’s top-drawer items but was a worthy choice for both Cannes and TIFF, and nicely evocative of the pre-AIDs era of the 80’s.
Mark Wahlberg has never been better than in another TIFF World Premiere I saw based on a tragic true-life story called Good Joe Bell. Walhberg plays a father who sets out on a two-year journey to walk from Idaho to New York City in order to bring attention to his quest to stop bullying against gays, something that personally affected his own son played here memorably by newcomer Reid Miller. It is probably best if you aren’t aware of the actual facts in the case, in order to appreciate the twist near the 40 minute mark, but director Reinaldo Marcus Green might want to take another whack in the editing room with this one due to a complicated and confusing structure that diminishes what should be an overwhelming emotional experience watching this very sad but important movie. I was so confused that I looked up the real Joe Bell on Wikipedia at that point (you can do that when watching on your couch) to try and clarify things. As my Deadline colleague Mike Fleming Jr. reported exclusively Friday, Good Joe Bell just sold to Solstice Studios (Unhinged) for a theatrical release this awards season and Oscar run. Certainly Wahlberg and Miller are deserving but the film, for me at least, just misses, but it could be improved and find an appreciative audience if Solstice gives it the right push. The appeal of Wahlberg’s name as a draw and his heartfelt and moving performance is certainly is a high water mark in his career. This is another TIFF entry that has a very worthy message behind it. Right now, it sits a little underwater with a 55% Rotten Tomatoes score, just under the “fresh” threshold.
In some ways, as I was recently reminded in talking to director Roger Michell this week on the occasion of this weekend’s opening of his very fine film Blackbird that maybe premiering virtually rather than in person at the Toronto International Film Festival does indeed have its advantages. I attended the Blackbird World Premiere at TIFF exactly one year ago at a packed house at the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall. The film stars Susan Sarandon as a woman choosing Euthanasia in order to die with dignity on her own terms rather than let ALS slowly destroy her body and all its functions. SPOILER ALERT: Just as the film was getting to a crucial scene near the end when she is drinking the formula that will end her life, a voice was heard somewhere in the theater yelling, “Doctor! Doctor!” It appears there was someone in need of help, and the film was stopped suddenly, frozen in time. Because of the nature of the movie, I don’t think I was alone in wondering if maybe this was someone viscerally reacting to the film. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t serious; the person exited, and the film resumed. I was curious how a filmmaker would react to such an interruption at the premiere of his movie at a major film festival like this. I got my answer.
“We were in this enormous theater, over a thousand people. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was so into the movie,” recalled Michell, who was still smarting from the experience. “And then this wretched person started having some kind of episode in the front row. I wanted him to die, actually. Either die or be removed from the theater, but the worst possible thing happened. They stopped the movie; they stopped the movie and brought the lights up. This person eventually got up and wandered out. It was a terrible a thing to happen. You know, I work in theater a lot and very occasionally these things happen in live theatre, but you really don’t expect your film to be interrupted in that way by a medical episode. I don’t know really if it was prompted by the content of the film, but it was deeply regrettable.”
You never know what can happen, but I have to think if the premiere were virtual as was the case for many this year, Michell and his cast could have avoided an incident that still stings a year later. Maybe there is a bright side to all this after all.
Thanks, TIFF, for the most unusual Toronto ever. Now on to New York in the long and winding road to Oscar.
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