The Toronto International Film Festival is an essential Oscar-season stop, now with its own awards

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While there is no official start date to Hollywood’s awards season, it certainly feels as if something has begun. And on Thursday the Toronto International Film Festival will kick that feeling into high gear by gathering heavily buzzed about titles from earlier festivals ranging from Sundance to Venice, and adding a whole new crop of contenders to the mix.

Expect big star turns from Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and Eddie Murphy as cult comedy icon Rudy Ray Moore in Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” classy literary adaptations like John Crowley’s “The Goldfinch” with Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort, and moving historical dramas including the Harriet Tubman bio pic “Harriet” with Cynthia Erivo and the social justice saga “Just Mercy” with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

But Toronto also offers some exciting wildcards including Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu; Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” a satire in which the director appears as Adolf Hitler alongside Scarlett Johansson; Noah Hawley’s “Lucy in the Sky,” with Natalie Portman as an astronaut eager to get back into space; and Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” a playful mystery whodunit with a large cast including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis.

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Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” are among the titles headed north after their-well received world premieres in Venice, while James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” and Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” lead the way from Telluride.

Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.”

Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.”

(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

It’s pretty much assured that the list of titles above includes several future Oscar nominees. Six of the last seven best pictures winners have played in Toronto, including “Green Book,” a world-premiere title last year. “Green Book” also took TIFF’s audience award, which since 2008 has gone to a future best picture nominee all but once.

The competition for awards-season bragging rights among fall festivals has become especially fierce, as Venice has premiered three of the last five best picture winners, while in the past decade Telluride has played seven films that went on to Oscar’s top prize.

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But this year, for the first time, Toronto is raising the stakes with an awards tribute gala all its own, intended as a fundraiser for the larger TIFF organization in support of its year-round programs. As previously announced, acting honors will go to Meryl Streep, at the festival with Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix romp “The Laundromat,” as well as “Joker” star Joaquin Phoenix.

Waititi will receive a directing award for “Jojo Rabbit.” Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot “The Goldfinch,” will receive an artisan award. Jeff Skoll and David Linde of Participant Media will be recognized for social impact. Actress and filmmaker Mati Diop, at the festival with Netflix’s supernatural romance “Atlantics,” will receive an award for emerging female talent named for Mary Pickford, who was born in Toronto. Music producer and songwriter David Foster, subject of the documentary “David Foster: Off the Record,” will receive a special tribute.

As Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of TIFF, put it, “From Mati Diop to Meryl Streep is a nice selection.”

This is the first year at the festival for Joana Vicente as executive director and co-head of TIFF alongside Bailey. A longtime independent film producer — she’s had 12 films play in the festival over the years — she was most recently executive director of the New York City-based Independent Filmmaker Project, the organization behind the Gotham Awards.

For Vicente, the TIFF gala was a natural opportunity to remind people that TIFF is a year-round organization, bring together industry figures and recognize talent from the festival selection.

“Once we started putting it into place, it all just made sense,” Vicente said. “And so we feel like we see something that we can all do every year and it has a sustainable model. At the same time, we have an opportunity for everyone to be in the same room, not just for one film, but really celebrating a number of talented people in film.”

The official relationship between any given festival and the larger ecosystem of awards season has often been a coy flirtation, with festivals not wanting to seem too eager for their films to garner awards recognition elsewhere, but happy for the attention it might bring them back in return. So to watch Toronto step forward with its own awards event feels significant, even as it will remain to be seen if the gala has any influence as a precursor or conversation starter.

“My take is that we can’t start from awards. We start from the films, the quality of the films and the quality of the artistry we see in front of us on screen,” said Bailey. “With our tribute gala, we really wanted to recognize both films that are current this year in our lineup, but also just a body of work. And so when we’re talking about Meryl Streep or Joaquin Phoenix or Roger Deakins or even Mati Diop, it’s not just this year’s film — it’s recognizing people who are remarkable artists who’ve already contributed a lot.”

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Bailey added, “If the people that we’re honoring on the Monday of the festival go on to collect armloads more awards, that would be a great thing. It’s not why we’re doing it, but we would be beyond pleased if that happened.”

Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone in “The Laundromat.”

Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone in “The Laundromat.”

(Claudette Barius / Netflix)

Last year “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” director Heller was in Toronto for all of eight hours with her movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” because she started shooting on her Mister Rogers project the very next day.

While “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” went on to three Oscar nominations, Heller is finding that because her new film features two-time Oscar winner Hanks in the role of beloved American figure Fred Rogers, the movie is being met by a whole new set of heightened expectations.

“I have not thought very much about the expectation until I was done with it, truthfully,” Heller said. “But I guess I have been acutely aware recently of the fact that my first two movies sort of had no expectations going into them. They were like classic underdogs where nobody really thought much of them or of me before they came out. And that was great.

“And this movie is different. People feel so connected to Mister Rogers and so many people feel ownership of him in such a personal way. And so that does feel like a lot of responsibility. But I think we made a beautiful movie … and I feel like it’s a movie that the world needs right now. I feel really happy about it. But we’ll see. You can’t control how the world takes your art once you put it out there.”

This year’s festival features some 333 titles, including features, shorts and series, from 84 countries with 36% directed, co-directed or created by women. The festival signed a gender parity pledge last year to compile data about gender inclusion efforts. The festival has also made efforts to diversify the press corps that covers it.

For Kasi Lemmons, director and co-writer of “Harriet,” such efforts are necessary and vital changes. Given the context of the industry’s historical precedents, she said it’s not that surprising that a story as seemingly important and urgent as Tubman’s is only now being given the big-screen biopic treatment.

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“It obviously wasn’t quite important enough for people that they had the sense this is something that they absolutely had to make. We had to do that,” Lemmons said. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it by any other names, it could be show business. I think that it’s always been difficult getting together any movies with a female protagonist, not to mention black female historical protagonists.

“I’m very hopeful right now that we are on the brink of the future and that this is what cinema is going to look like. It makes sense to me. And that now that the world and America and Hollywood is ready to open those doors, it’s become inescapable. But it does take festivals like Toronto and producers and distributors and everybody working together to say, ‘OK, this is obvious. Let’s get on this boat.’”

Kristen Stewart as actress Jean Seberg in “Seberg.”

Kristen Stewart as actress Jean Seberg in “Seberg.”

(TIFF)

Producer Fred Berger, an Oscar nominee for “La La Land,” has three films playing in this year’s festival. “Seberg,” starring Kristen Stewart as actress and activist Jean Seberg, recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival. “Honey Boy,” directed by Alma Har’el, premiered earlier this year at Sundance and stars Shia LaBeouf in a story he wrote based on his own experiences as a child star.

“Bad Education,” directed by Cory Finley, stars Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in a fact-based story about embezzlement from a Long Island public school district. The film comes into the festival looking for distribution and with hopes of possibly launching itself into this year’s awards conversation much as “I, Tonya” did two years ago, winning an Oscar for Janney.

Berger acknowledged that it can be difficult for movies to find audiences in the current environment, whether on streaming platforms or in theaters. For a movie like “La La Land” to have made nearly $450 million worldwide only three years ago feels like a distant memory of another time.

“There’s no question that the theatrical independent distribution landscape has changed drastically. I don’t think anyone would argue that,” said Berger. “We all just have to be much more vigilant and mindful before we set out to make a film: ‘Where does it live now and where is it best to experience for an audience?’”

He added, “I think awards movies still have a life. And the tricky thing is if you try and you miss at the accolade circuit, you miss hard, much harder than in previous years. And so the allure of it has created a lot of fallen soldiers. But I still believe that many movies this year are going to have a really beautiful commercial fall theatrically. And that still excites me because that is a way that audiences around the world still discover movies.”

“Knives Out”

From left to right. Richard (Don Johnson), Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Ransom (Chris Evans) Great Nana (K Callan), Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), Walt (Michael Shannon), Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher), Donna (Riki Lindholm), Joni (Toni Collette) and Meg (Katherine Langford) in “Knives Out.”

(Claire Folger / Lionsgate)

For writer-director Rian Johnson, the world premiere of “Knives Out” — his first film since “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — will bring him back to the festival where he has been twice before, with “The Brothers Bloom” in 2008 and the 2012 opening-night selection, “Looper.”

“The thing that I think any filmmaker will tell you is just the crowds,” Johnson said of the festival’s appeal. “And that’s the main thing that I am so excited about, just sitting down with that crowd and feeling that energy in the room. Everyone who is there seeing it in the theater, you get the feeling that nobody is sitting there with their noses turned up or anything, nobody has their arms crossed. Everyone who’s there is a movie lover.”

“Knives Out” is a mystery whodunit about the murder of a crime novelist played by Christopher Plummer. Alongside Craig, Evans and Curtis, the cast also includes Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield and Frank Oz. Yet the director sees the festival premiere as a way to get the film in front of an energetic audience ahead of its U.S opening in November, not to launch an awards campaign.

“In my mind, it’s not necessarily the kind of party we’re throwing,” Johnson said of whether the film has any awards intentions. “But you throw this many amazing actors into the mix and if any of them gets traction and that ends up happening, I would be absolutely thrilled. Definitely. But that wasn’t the thing that we had our sights set upon.”

Besides attending the premiere of “Knives Out,” Johnson will also introduce a screening of 1973’s “The Last of Sheila,” a star-studded mystery directed by Herbert Ross and written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Rather than some sort of clue for what audiences can expect from his own film, Johnson said he selected the film because, “mostly it’s just a movie that I really wanted to see with a crowd.”

Eddie Murphy as Dolemite

Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite Is My Name.”

(Francois Duhamel / Netflix)

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski will be at the festival with another Netflix title, “Dolemite Is My Name,” which features a much-anticipated performance by Eddie Murphy as actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore. The pair have written any number of biopics about unconventional figures including “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon.”

Having tried for many years to get their Rudy Ray Moore project off the ground, it was only after the tremendous success of the Emmy-winning FX limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” that they were finally able to make it happen.

Karaszewski, noting that this will be his first time going through an awards season since he became a vice president of the motion picture academy, added, “When Scott and I were in college watching Rudy Ray Moore movies on VHS, we never thought that it would ever lead to this. The idea of a big premiere at a major festival, one of the biggest actors of all time starring in it, we are amazingly proud of the movie. We’ve made good movies, we’ve made bad movies, this movie puts a smile on our face in a big way.”

Summing up their attitude to awards season, Alexander said, “I mean, it’s nice when the good movies are also really entertaining movies.”

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