On Monday night, at the storied Winter Garden Theatre in Downtown Toronto, a packed house twice burst into mid-film applause for the TIFF premiere of Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story. The first instance arrived courtesy of supporting star Laura Dern for a broadly comic monologue delivered with gusto; the second was for male lead Adam Driver, after he wrenchingly performed the Sondheim song “Being Alive” — the showstopper of the film.
Marriage Story had already debuted last week at Telluride to universal acclaim, and as the dust settled at TIFF — perhaps the most important showcase of the year for incoming awards contenders — it maintained its place as the critical darling of fall-festival season. Reception out of Toronto was no less rapturous than at its unveiling in the Rockies. Dern and Driver proved that they have the big moments that could take them all the way; Baumbach ought to compete across Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay; and leading lady Scarlett Johansson is firmly in the Best Actress conversation.
This is the kind of positioning that gets clarified out of TIFF — one of the world’s largest film festivals, where many campaigns truly begin and others quietly fade away. With TIFF’s opening weekend behind us, the race has come into considerably clearer focus. Just a few anticipated hopefuls now wait in the wings.
Along with Marriage Story’s success, Monday night delivered what may be the season’s biggest disappointment so far. Despite the heat behind it, Taika Waititi’s ambitious tragicomedy Jojo Rabbit has a lot to overcome to emerge as a significant Oscar player. It has passionate advocates and, on the surface, enthralled audiences during its late-night debut in Canada. But for a film juggling fine-line satire and surrealistic touches, the critical support simply isn’t there. The movie scored a 47 on Metacritic out of Toronto; over the past decade, the only Best Picture nominees to generate such mixed-to-negative reviews were Bohemian Rhapsody and The Blind Side, huge mainstream hits that grossed over $250 million apiece domestically, as well as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which shares similarities with Jojo — a superb child performance at its center, a creeping earnestness — but is without its polarizing comic elements. Safe to say this was not the response those behind Jojo were hoping for.
As for other seeming contenders that probably won’t go the distance: Netflix’s The Laundromat is a disjointed Big Short-esque exposé of the Panama Papers scandal that, despite a stacked cast fronted by Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman, didn’t impress either in Venice, where it launched, or Toronto. And The Goldfinch, a blockbuster literary adaptation that has prestige written all over it, did not play well at TIFF and has effectively fallen out of the mix. Its theatrical release in September, early for fall contenders, won’t help matters.
If one Best Picture nominee was birthed in Toronto, look to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The Marielle Heller-directed tearjerker was kept tightly under wraps before its first TIFF screening; by the end, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the theater, and reviews were better than expected. It’s a feel-good movie with just enough bite and ingenuity to avoid being labeled as mere fluff, and the timeliness of the movie’s decency narrative sells itself. Matthew Rhys will have a tough go in a crowded lead actor field (more on that in a minute), but Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers should have a supporting nod locked down, and will go for the gold.
Other big TIFF premieres staked more of a claim in specific categories: While Hustlers earned respect across the board, the real campaign will go toward Jennifer Lopez’s career-best performance (in supporting). Biopics Harriet and Just Mercy feel a little too familiar to sneak into in the Best Picture field — though the advocacy behind the movies could give them an extra push — but Cynthia Erivo’s star-making portrayal of the Underground Railroad pioneer and Jamie Foxx’s electric supporting work as an innocent man on Death Row, respectively, cannot be denied. (TIFF’s programmers were sure to note at the latter’s first screening that Foxx also launched Ray at the festival.) Eddie Murphy makes good on his fans’ comeback hopes in the riotous Dolemite Is My Name, and Wesley Snipes is a compelling secondary candidate there; Long Island school fraud drama Bad Education feels like the year’s I, Tonya, still without a U.S. distributor but featuring a knockout lead performance (this time from Hugh Jackman) and a magnificent Allison Janney right behind.
Lots of names, and still a lot to see (The Irishman and Little Women, to name the two most anticipated). And still more that effectively built on their Telluride/Venice openings, like Ford v Ferrari — a muscular and involving racing drama that, alongside the meditative and distinctive Marriage Story, is the biggest awards breakout out of the early September haze — and The Two Popes, a Netflix sleeper with a never-better Jonathan Pryce. The witty, talky nature of it feels tailor-made for Academy voters.
Finally, there’s the Joker of it all: Todd Phillips’ incendiary pic is only gaining steam off that surprise Golden Lion victory out in Venice and Joaquin Phoenix’s special honoring at TIFF but continues to court backlash. (In her review for EW, Leah Greenblatt wrote, “A movie with the message this one hammers home again and again…feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in America almost every day.”) Between Phoenix, Driver, Murphy, Pryce, Ford’s Christian Bale, Uncut Gems’ Adam Sandler, and Pain and Glory’s Antonio Banderas, Best Actor options are overflowing in Toronto alone. Best Actress, meanwhile, is still taking shape, with Renée Zellweger (Judy) leading the pack so far.
Last September, an under-the-radar world premiere at TIFF by the name of Green Book won the event’s prestigious People’s Choice Award: a prize voted on by all attendees, and a reasonably good Oscar prognosticator — in 2018, especially good. Once again this year, it should set the tone. (The festival wraps Sept. 15.) Is A Beautiful Day really the movie we need right now? Can the Two Popes talk their way to the finish line? Will Joker’s artful nihilism receive yet another embrace? One thing’s for sure: We’re off to the races.