The long road to the Oscars begins to heat up in the glamorous surrounds of the French Riviera with the Cannes Film Festival in May. The world’s biggest marketplace for new movies, it attracts distributors from all corners of the globe hoping to snap up early contenders for awards season.
After that, the next biggest influencers are the increasingly prominent Telluride Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which overlap each other, spanning late August to mid-September, annually fighting to nab the biggest world premieres.
Consequently, the first weekend of TIFF is packed with celebrities pushing their latest movies, surrounded by an army of publicists and excitable fans searching for selfies. The focus has shifted away from major acquisitions towards Oscar glory, though there are still plenty of wallet-open industry figures around — and still plenty of films looking to find a distributor.
With north of 300 movies hailing from 88 countries, the TIFF line-up is overwhelming, but a few biggies were dead certs to get bums on seats.
Joker went to Venice first, and sent shockwaves through TIFF’s opening weekend crowd when it unexpectedly nabbed the top prize there. Though reviewers were split, Joaquin Phoenix‘s frighteningly committed turn solidified his Oscar campaign.
Renée Zellweger, whose film Judy also debuted elsewhere (Telluride) was another talking point at TIFF, with the actor widely tipped for an Oscar nomination for her performance as Judy Garland.
But it was far from a washout in Toronto when it came to world premieres and star moments. TIFF scooped the world premiere of the much-anticipated big screen adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, starring Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort.
There was also palpable excitement for the return of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Variety flagging it as her “Erin Brockovich moment”.
Scarlett Johansson also appeared at TIFF, for Jojo Rabbit, the latest from everyone’s favourite Hawaiian twin set-wearing director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok; Hunt for the Wilderpeople); Kristen Stewart turned up for the political thriller Seberg, by Australian expat director Benedict Andrews; and Natalie Portman walked the red carpet for the premiere of astronaut love-triangle drama Lucy in the Sky, loosely based on real-life astronaut Lisa Nowak.
And whodunnit Knives Out boasted a ridiculously starry line-up, including Daniel Craig, Toni Colette and Jamie Lee Curtis, corralled by director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
So much for star power. But how did the films stack up?
The much-coveted $15,000 People’s Choice Award — considered a predictor of Oscar nominations — went to Jojo Rabbit, by New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi.
It narrowly pipped Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America) and also starring Scarlett Johansson, alongside Adam Driver.
Bong Joon-ho‘s Cannes-acclaimed dark comedy Parasite came third.
Jojo Rabbit was undoubtedly one of the best-received global premieres at TIFF, but it also raised eyebrows — and not because of controversy-prone star Johansson.
Loosely based on New Zealand novelist Christine Leunens’s heart-breaking and hilarious Caging Skies, Jojo casts Johansson as a German mother who is part of the resistance against Hitler.
Unfortunately, her son Jojo (English actor Roman Griffin Davis) is a Hitler Youth fanatic whose imaginary friend happens to be the Fuhrer (played by Waititi, a Jewish man of colour). Things are further complicated when Jojo discovers a Jewish girl (New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls like Anne Frank.
At the premiere, Waititi dedicated Jojo Rabbit to his single mum, and to all mothers. He noted that her mangled remembrance of the book’s plot played into his alternate take on it.
Some reviewers took issue with Jojo’s less-than-maniacal representation of the Nazis, particularly Sam Rockwell’s captain. The Los Angeles Times said the film “smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice”.
But like German film Downfall, I think there is real power in showing Nazis as normal humans who do monstrous things. Waititi’s film offers a child’s-eye view warped by propaganda. And there is aching beauty as that poison is extracted, and Jojo falls for a girl who has been demonised.
Jojo Rabbit will debut in Australia in October as part of the Jewish International Film Festival before a national release on Boxing Day.
Ones to watch
The TIFF audience also garlanded Spanish class war dystopia The Platform, directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, with the Midnight Madness Award for genre favourites.
The Cave, championing the female doctors risking their lives to save patients in war-torn Syria while also tackling sexism, secured the Documentary Award for Feras Fayyad.
Elsewhere, American-British comedy How to Build a Girl, based on Caitlin Moran’s not-so-loosely autobiographical debut novel, took out the FIPRESCI (film critics’) jury’s Special Presentations prize, a surprisingly fun pick. British director Coky Giedroyc guides rising star Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart; Lady Bird) as a teenage girl breaking into the boys’ club of British rock criticism.
In the Discovery stream, the FIPRESCI award went to Heather Young‘s searing debut feature Murmurs, centred on a breathtaking performance by non-professional actor Shan MacDonald, playing an addict who finds solace in an abandoned dog.
Italian director Pietro Marcello took home the Platform Prize for period drama Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s turn-of-last-century novel about a sailor (Luca Marinelli) pursuing political theory and philosophy in order to woo his wealthy love interest (Jessica Cressy).
Canadian movies lauded by the TIFF jury included Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone (“an electrifying piece of cinema”) and Matthew Rankin‘s debut feature The Twentieth Century (“superb in its imaginative wildness”).
The comeback queens
In a strong year for women in front of and behind the camera, audiences and critics alike lapped up the return of two cinematic queens hard done by in recent years.
She may have graced Telluride first, but that did not dent the enthusiasm at TIFF for Zellweger’s bittersweet channelling of the late great Garland in Rupert Goold’s Judy, paving the Yellow Brick Road towards the Oscars.
Set in Garland’s final year, as she tries to turn her luck around in London, Judy hinges on Zellweger’s stellar performance, which extends to belting out the big numbers without resorting to mimicry. A non-stop standing ovation left the star, wearing a Dorothy-like shade of baby blue, in tears. Variety’s Jenelle Riley tweeted she had never seen a response like it.
A resurgent J-Lo set the red carpet alight in a plunging marigold number, before unveiling her magnetic performance as a strip club scam artist in Lorene Scafaria’s gloriously sex-positive female empowerment winner Hustlers, co-starring Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), Lizzo, and Cardi B. The Washington Post said “Lopez rules with seductive, triumphant authority”.
Hustlers and Judy both get a national release in Australia on October 10.
Another comeback queen, Curtis, continued to carve out the next chapter of her career in Knives Out, following her star turn in the rebooted Halloween.
Riotously funny, Rian Johnson‘s film embraces Agatha Christie vibes as a rich patriarch is found dead in his huge mansion and the finger is pointed at his greedy family — but laces this with constant quick wit. I adored it, and so did the Hollywood Reporter, dubbing it “a treat from start to finish”.
Knives Out is released in Australia on November 28.
Conversely, the Hollywood Reporter did not love Portman‘s astronaut-on-the-edge drama Lucy in the Sky (from Fargo TV series helmer Noah Hawley), saying it “starts cosmically big and gradually becomes narrower and more conventional as it goes along”.
Variety was into Twilight alumni Kristen Stewart as French New Wave queen Jean in Seberg, but was not so hot on the movie around her. As good as her performance is, and as riveting the expose of the FBI’s systemic racism, the decision to focus on a white lead over African-American star Anthony Mackie and Joker’s Zazie Beetz is questionable.
Dream team Australia
TIFF 2019 delivered the usual Australian A-listers disguised as Americans, but Kidman got more love on social media for hugging an adorable rescue pup than she did for her star turn in The Goldfinch.
Ostensibly a big score for TIFF, the overlong, emotionally cold and perplexingly plot-holed movie bombed with audiences and critics alike, hobbling its Oscars run.
Hugh Jackman was not present, but fared way better in reviews for director Cory Finley‘s Bad Education, heralded by Vanity Fair as a “tidy and engrossing corruption drama”.
Jackman leans into then throws out his squeaky-clean image, delivering a career-best performance as a slick school superintendent caught up in the true-crime story of a little white lie that unveils a staggering deception. It is a ripper.
This was a huge year for Australian filmmakers at TIFF: four world premieres joined searing Adam Goodes documentary The Australian Dream and Ben Lawrence’s refugee drama Hearts and Bones, both fresh from the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) led the pack with his exhilarating and decidedly queer take on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang, the best of the bunch
Kurzel’s film hangs on an electric turn by British actor George MacKay, who shares the role of Irish-bred outlaw turned bushranger Ned Kelly with young Orlando Schwerdt. Like a caged animal, Ned fights to define his own story. A lithely creepy Nicholas Hoult, commandingly matriarchal Essie Davis (The Babadook) and rising Kiwi star Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit; Leave No Trace) are also brilliant.
Kurzel said he had returned home to Australia to reconnect after losing his way in Hollywood with Assassin’s Creed, and True History sees him back in fine form.
If ever there was time for this re-examination of Australia’s myths around national identity and masculinity, this is it.
Gregor Jordan (Two Hands), meanwhile, wrestles with another great Australian poetic novelist in his adaptation of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.
Against the raw beauty of Western Australia’s remotest locations, the story’s love triangle plays out in a flip of the Hollywood model: David Wenham retains his local accent while Scotswoman Kelly Macdonald and American Garrett Hedlund fake Australian as star-crossed lovers nursing broken spirits.
Blazing an upward career curve, Tilda Cobham-Hervey (52 Tuesdays; Hotel Mumbai) is great as famous feminist focal point Helen Reddy in crowd-pleasing biopic I Am Woman, directed by South Korean-Australian director Unjoo Moon.
Melbourne-born Reddy flew to the US in 1966 on the promise of what turned out to be a bogus record contract — but determined to succeed, she carved a path to stardom nonetheless.
The Hollywood Reporter pegged Cobham-Hervey’s “emphatic” performance a breakout moment.
There was also some justifiable home pride for stellar Newcastle (NSW) export Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers), who does brilliant work as a tenacious student reporter alongside Jackman in Bad Education, and as an American teenage Muslim girl resisting an arranged marriage in Minhal Baig’s seriously impressive Hala. IndieWire dubbed the latter performance “extraordinary”.
It is a shame, however, that we seem to keep losing our bright young stars to the States.
On the small screen, Blackfella Films founder Rachel Perkins impressed with gripping ABC TV showcase Black Bitch, programmed in TIFF’s Primetime stream. The six-part political drama, starring Deborah Mailman as a new senator alongside Rachel Griffiths’s prime minister, has been retitled Total Control after backlash on social media.
Sound and vision
Riz Ahmed seems bound for awards-season glory with his deeply internal performance in Sound of Metal (snapped up by Amazon Studios), playing a heavy metal drummer teetering on the edge of re-addiction after losing his hearing. Special mention must be made of the incredible sound design, which takes viewers inside the protagonist’s sensory experience.
The sound design (and swirling camerawork) are also outstanding in Trey Edward Shults‘s powerful family drama Waves, one of the unexpected breakout hits at TIFF, securing repeat screenings off the back of festival buzz.
A gripping family drama that fractures due to brutal violence, it is heart-stopping stuff thanks to top-notch performances by its diverse young cast, including Kelvin Harrison Jr, Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) and Taylor Russell. Studio A24 had a good festival: besides Waves, it drew positive receptions for Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler, and The Lighthouse, co-starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
No matter how hard you research, the all-in nature of a big beast like TIFF means at least one stinker lurks amongst your carefully curated schedule.
French auteur Olivier Assayas delivered career highlights back-to-back with Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, so there were high hopes for his new film, Wasp Network. But this two-hour true-story sucks the life out of a Cold War drama set between Miami and Cuba. And squandering Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez and Gael Garcia Bernal is frankly criminal.