They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don’t They?
Toronto Adds to Oscar Intrigue
By J. Don Birnam
September 16, 2016

No, kids, don't do the Dirty Dancing move in the middle of the street

As expected, the Toronto International Film Festival did not drastically alter the congealing Oscar race. For a number of reasons, mostly having to do with the distribution schedule of the festival contenders this year, TIFF this year served more as a confirmation than a revelation, as has been the case for the past few years now. The last two Best Picture winners, Spotlight and Birdman, both premiered before Telluride before making it to Canada. Expect that pattern to hold in the future

TIFF: The Additions (and Subtractions) to the Race

Given that most of the films with Best Picture potential premiered at Venice and Telluride, we expected TIFF to not seriously alter the Oscar race. That has proven mostly true.

A movie that got some critical buzz for Best Picture is the Nicole Kidman/Dev Patel story about the Indian boy who is lost and then adopted by a Tasmanian Family, Lion. Don’t ask me why. The movie is a mostly muddled mess about an otherwise moving story. It’s disjointed in its acts and in explaining the emotional motivations of the main character. But it has the Weinstein’s behind it so I suppose anything is possible.

The other major new contender was Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, about the devastated First Lady in the days after the assassination of JFK. Starring a magnificent Natalie Portman, the movie found quick distribution at TIFF by Oscar-expert Fox Searchlight. Targeting a December release, Natalie will surely vie for a second statuette even though she will do it against a currently prohibitive favorite, Emma Stone.

TIFF arguably shone more for the films that premiered there that will not be Oscar contenders. Ewan McGregor’s first film, American Pastoral, did not receive warm critical reception. It’s a very uneven mess. The same goes for Denial, showcasing Rachel Weisz as a woman who goes toe to toe with a Holocaust denier. The narrative chops are just not there even though the gravitas of the subject matter is. And finally, Oliver Stone’s drama Snowden also did not do well. This will be the second time that Joseph Gordon Levitt stars as the subject of a dramatized film based on an Oscar-winning documentary—and gets panned. Third time’s the charm?

It seems clear as if TIFF made those choices not because of their quality, but because of their star-wattage and/or appeal to the broad masses. I mean they showed Blair Witch, for Pete’s sake. I wonder if they know their audiences that well or if there audience is just that disperse/diverse.

TIFF: The Solidification of Support

The most significant contribution from Toronto was to confirm which movies were popular and would play well. As expected, La La Land benefited the most from TIFF, particularly given that a favorite son, Ryan Gosling, was the headliner. The movie was a complete sell out and garnered several additional viewings. It without question won all three festivals at least in terms of word of mouth.

Moonlight, the drama of the African American gay youth, also played very well. Word on the street was high for it. Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, by contrast, played later in the festival relatively speaking, so were a tad less notable even if just slightly so.

Meanwhile, Tom Ford’s new psycho sexual drama Nocturnal Animals, also starring Amy Adams, played well after skipping Telluride on its way from North American from Venice. I don’t see it now as a major awards player—it’s too stylized—but it certainly has a shot at a bunch of technical nominations.

If all holds, though, this could be a sweeps year.

What it means for TIFF’s Future

The interesting question is whether it’s trouble in paradise or whether all is well in Toronto. Do they care that they don’t have the world premieres of the eventual winners? Probably not that much—the audiences are still showing up in droves (how many of them are going to go to Venice or Telluride, realistically), and they can still be heralded as TIFF selections. Moreover, if the People’s Choice award this year—undoubtedly going to La La Land does prevail, they can also count that.

In addition to that, they can still bring in the big name premieres with fancy celebrities to fill up the red carpet. The people behind something like The Magnificent Seven are more likely to attract gawkers than, say, the cast of Spotlight.

But this cake and eating it too will have a price—why would dedicated festival goers even believe in TIFF’s premium choices as anything other than Hollywood fluff? The risk of being the “people’s festival” is precisely that—the aura of exclusivity or originality that they could claim before no longer applies, and can be ceded quickly and dangerously to someone else willing to step in. New York, for example, is very close in time and space.

It’s not to say that festivals like Telluride don’t sell out—obviously they sell out too, as they did this year for Sully. But that remains the exception in Colorado, and is quickly becoming the norm for Toronto.

It will be interesting to see where Toronto goes from here. Attendance seems solid and the lineup was nothing to sneeze out—helped of course by the strong year of movies. But it is still relevant to ask whether they will retain an aura of prestige as opposed to devolve into the “pop culture” film festival. That may not be a bad outcome in terms of attendance, ratings, etc., but the more snobbier fans may wrinkle their noses.

What is Next?

The next major film festival is the New York Film Festival, though they’re showcasing most of the movies we are talking about, with the exception of the documentary The 13th by Ava DuVarney. And NYFF sometimes shows a surprise premiere mid-festival. If that happens, look to Scorsese’s Silence as a possible contender (he has done so before there, with Hugo), or Ang Lee, whose last film Life of Pi opened in New York, with his Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Aside from those two, people are talking about Mel Gibson’s new film, which was seen at Venice but not the other festivals, as a potential contender. Fences, with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, have potential, as does Hidden Figures, the story of the black women who played a big role in NASA, is also one to look out for. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s gun lobby drama Miss Sloane could be a player at least in the acting race.

So, there is still some stuff to look forward to—and of course the public’s reactions to all of these films still has to be factored in. But the question remains, have we already seen, like in so many of the past years, the eventual Best Picture winner in these festivals?

If you believe that the answer is yes, than the good money is on La La Land being that film.

We will be back after Sunday’s announcement of the People’s Choice Award to see whether we were right and what that means for the Oscar race.

Thoughts? Twitter: @jdonbirnam
Instagram: @awards_predix