Toronto Film Festival Recap


Low budget horror and VOD are all the rage while the Oscar race officially kicks into high gear

September is always a curious month when it comes to movie season. Box office receipts that were eye-popping in the summertime start to stagnate with tame opening weekends and a lot of throwaway titles. Although critically acclaimed films appear throughout the year, it is not until November, December, and January that the true Oscar contenders begin to pop up at your local theater. Sure, September is rightfully considered a “dead” month, but don’t tell that to the frantic, plentiful studio executives and stars that roamed Ontario, Canada, for the Toronto International Film Festival, which took place between September 5th and September 15th. The festival has been around since 1976 and was originally called the “Festival of Festivals” to assemble the best films from the neighboring film fests that year. But Hollywood types were reluctant to exhibit their shiny new films for the festival until the marketing campaigns for Oscar season became so cutthroat that studios had no choice but to promote their films at Toronto for the sake of generating buzz.

Since the 1990’s, T.I.F.F. has been considered by many pundits as the one of the most important (if not the most important) film festivals in the world. The Cannes Film Festival in France will always be the most prestigious and historic film festival in the eyes of many, and Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival has the longtime tag as the fest for indie films and the biggest film fest in the United States, but Toronto has the distinction of one key trait for movie execs, and that is timing. Sundance has brought along a lot of successful films for spring and summer releases, but it gets underway right after we bring in the new year and wraps up just in time for people to watch the NFL Playoffs. The Cannes Film Festival debuts a lot of great foreign films for a world audience, but it rolls out its red carpet in the month of May, and only one Cannes entry has gone on to win Best Picture in the past decade (2011’s The Artist).

Toronto’s festival takes place right at the time that studios are desperately in need of getting their movies out to audiences (whether it backfires or works out perfectly) either for distribution deals on their films or the biggest catch in Tinseltown, an Academy Award. Some examples of eventual Oscar winners that screened at Toronto include Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ray, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo. The stars are usually out for all three festivals, including Venice and Telluride’s film fests that take place in August and September, but Toronto’s star index has grown exponentially in the same way that San Diego’s Comic Con has. Unlike San Diego, however, it is not as easy for rabid fans to hitch a plane ride to Canada and find a ticket at the Bell Lightbox.

Although many films get admitted to the Toronto Film Festival with the effort of just finding a studio to acquire it and give it a release platform, many of the big pictures are there to capture the hearts and minds of salty, red-eyed critics in hopes that they bring back enthusiastic reviews for their upcoming features when they go back to the States. This year was no different as the opening film selected was The Fifth Estate, a biopic about the controversial WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange. It is directed by previous Oscar nominee Bill Condon, and although it is not the same story as 2010’s The Social Network, it does share a lot of similarities as a film about a closeted internet magician who struggles with success and the sacrifices that come with it.  Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, though, Assange (played by Benedict Cumberpatch) is running away from the law after exposing top secret military details with help from a colleague played by up and coming Daniel Bruhl. The movie received a rave review and Pete Hammond called it a news-gathering masterpiece in the same vein as All the President’s Men, while others were a little tamer. Cumbertpatch is definitely on the radar for a Best Actor award along with Bruhl and the screenplay written by Josh Singer. I think Assange’s still-evolving story (which the WikiLeaks leader himself has already slammed) might be slightly too off-kilter to make too much noise in the box office and a Best Picture win is not very likely, but then again, many said the same thing about Argo last year.

The Fifth Estate may have kicked off the festival, but one of the movies that critics were completely awestruck by was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The movie has been years in the making with a minimalistic but effects-heavy space drama produced by Warner Brothers starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts in severe distress. I already mentioned in my Comic Con Round-Up how stoked I am to see this film from a director who has not released a film since 2006’s Children of Men. Clooney shares top billing in the previews, but it is Bullock who truly carries the film and will be in line for winning what might be her second Oscar after winning Best Actress in 2009 for The Blind Side. Some critics were wary about how in love with visual effects and digital technology Gravity is, but the Hitchcock-like tension that builds throughout the space survival film is so well crafted that many critics looked past those worries. I expect this to be a player across the board in January when the Oscar nominations are announced. Another major release that premiered at Toronto only weeks before its release was Denis Villeneuve’s dark and unsettling Prisoners, which has already won over a lot of moviegoers in the box office and on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t see any Academy Award wins for this film, but it will garner some nominations and a tip of the cap to Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal for two of their best performances.

While Hugh Jackman promoted Prisoners fresh off of playing The Wolverine for Marvel Films, another Marvel superstar graced Toronto. Chris Hemsworth, who will star in Thor: The Dark World this November, came down to debut Ron Howard’s latest film Rush, another fact-based drama about 1970’s Formula One racing rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Daniel Bruhl, who was already in Toronto for The Fifth Estate, plays Lauda as the car-driving foil to Hemsworth’s Hunt. The story is pretty obscure, but under the pen of brilliant screenwriter Peter Morgan, Rush really takes a life of its own with Howard directing the two youngsters in a movie with a fast pace and terrific dramatic balance. Howard and Brian Grazer are used to nabbing big names and reaching for the stars, but with a solid screenplay by Morgan and a tame $38 million budget, expectations are not in the vein of box office gold as it is Oscar gold, and critics really liked what they saw. Morgan’s last collaboration with Howard was the well-received Frost/Nixon, which was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2008. It’s too early to tell, but signs are encouraging for Rush, which is released nationwide this Friday.

Anyone who knows anything about Hollywood knows the gigantic impact the Weinstein brothers have had at their old home Miramax and their current studio, The Weinstein Company, when it comes to getting word of mouth going for their films. They got the job done quite recently with The King’s Speech and The Artist to win back-to-back Best Picture trophies, and they are at it again with August: Osage County. The film is based on a play written by Tracy Letts about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family who come together under tragic circumstances and try to settle their very many differences together. It has a similar storyline to one of the pioneers of Toronto that was re-screened this year, The Big Chill, but with a family system in place of a buddy system. The cast is pretty incredible with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberpatch (THERE’S THAT MAN AGAIN!), Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, and a host of others. It is almost a post-modern approach to ensemble acting in the way that the late Robert Altman was famous for doing, and this film won over many audiences, receiving the loudest and longest applause in the entire festival. Even if the subject matter is not too sexy (The director is John Wells, whose only other directorial effort was 2010’s The Company Men), the campaigning power behind it makes it a contender on its own. Along with the Weinstein’s, the movie is co-produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who also produced Argo to a Best Picture victory. That gives you the winning producers for Best Picture in the last three years all in on this movie. I like its chances.

The so-far consensus favorite for Oscar talk that screened at Toronto and had already swept critical approval at Telluride a week earlier is 12 Years a Slave. Some would snark at the fact that the movie is directed by a British man named Steve McQueen, but McQueen has already garnered a lot of good will with two films starring Michael Fassbender, the IRA-based Hunger and the shockingly candid Shame. 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s first big venture as a filmmaker and it is based on an autobiography by Solomon Northup, a black man who in the 1800’s was already declared a free man in New York before being kidnapped and forced into slavery at a Louisiana plantation. Fassbender is back with McQueen along with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the starring role, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, and newcomer Lupita Nyon’go. Quite the cast, I must say, and the film does not disappoint at all. It will be as sweeping of a historically based favorite as The King’s Speech was when it won over the Toronto audiences three years ago. Some execs have even boldly claimed that the Best Picture race is basically over, but then again, these are the same ones who thought the same thing about The Social Network. For the Pitt lovers, word is that his role is vital, but very limited, and Nyon’go really turned heads with her performance as a fellow slave at the plantation. That has “Best Supporting Actress” written all over it the same way it did for Mo’Nique in 2009 when T.I.F.F. screened Precious. I don’t want to get the cart ahead of the horse and call it the Best Picture favorite, but it is definitely a lead dog in the race.

When it comes to Oscar, another trend this year that continued at Toronto was the onrush of fantastic roles from African-American actors trying to get in the Best Actor running. Along with Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Toronto also showed Idris Alba (known by many as Stringer Bell in The Wire or Luther on the BBC) portraying Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The film was not universally praised, but Alba’s performance in the movie was. This is coming off the heels of Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station, which wowed many at Cannes, Chadwick Boseman in 42, Forest Whitaker in the box office hit Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Isaiah Washington in Blue Caprice, which was released earlier this month. Another performance that inspired critics was Matthew McConaughey as an HIV-positive man who smuggles alternative drugs from across the border in The Dallas Buyers Club. He will likely be nominated for Best Actor and there is a Best Supporting chance for Jared Leto, who amazed many as an HIV-afflicted transgender woman. McConaughey has been a busy man this year. Not only has he won many over with Dallas Buyers Club, he has also starred in the critical favorite Mud earlier this year, co-stars in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street this November, and will share top billing with Woody Harrellson in the upcoming HBO mini-series True Detective. The other shoo-in revealed at the festival is Judi Dench as Best Actress for her role in Stephen Frears’ Philomena. 

Not all the films that debuted at Toronto were met with overwhelming praise, however. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a disguised alien who preys on lonely men, seems like the polarizing flick that people will fall in love with when it plays at midnight on IFC in five years. Glazer is used to the torn emotions, though, after making Sexy Beast and the highly controversial Birth. Devil’s Knot is a Hollywood take on the West Memphis Three after we have seen a slew of great documentaries about them, but based on response, Atom Egoyan really fell flat with this rendition. I really enjoyed the melancholy tone of Kelly Reichardt’s previous two films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, but her newest film Night Moves went quietly into the night, it seems. It looks like Zac Efron has gone 0 for 2 at Toronto after last year’s awful The Paperboy and this year’s JFK assassination-based Parkland, which received a unanimous average grade. The last film scheduled was the Jennifer Aniston crime comedy Life of Crime, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, who died last month, and reviews were favorable, so we shall see about that one. Mike Myers strangely made a documentary about Shep Gordon called Supermensch. Jim Jarmusch is a truly independent filmmaker, but after going to Cannes and Toronto, the reaction to Only Lovers Left Alive was a big ole “Meh.” And don’t get me started about Matthew Weiner, whose Mad Men is my favorite TV drama of all time, taking time off to make You Are Here, which got panned by even the nicest of writers.

One Toronto Film Festival poster boy came back with an unveiling, as well. Director Jason Reitman, who really put Toronto on the map after premiering Juno there in 2007 right before its mega success. He also brought over a favorite of mine, Up in the Air, a couple years later, and now he has a new film starring Kate Winslet titled Labor Day. While his last three films have been set in the present day, this one takes place in 1987 and is about a divorced mother with a son who spontaneously take in an escaped convict played by Josh Brolin. Winslet’s name alone usually brings in the critics, but even though she makes bold choices for her projects, her recent string like Carnage and Mildred Pierce have been hit or miss. Hopefully, this one hits, but critics at Toronto and Telluride, where it debuted, were lukewarm to it. Reitman is still loved in Toronto, but the reaction was not overwhelming this year. Two other Toronto alumni, the Coen Brothers and Alexander Payne, have two new films of their own in Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska, respectively, but they decided to skip out this year. Documentary extraordinaire Alex Gibney, whose movies about Enron and Hunter S. Thompson are two of my favorites in any category, also brought over his latest film, The Armstrong Lie, based on the disgraceful fall of the famous cyclist. But the documentary that many were anticipating was Shane Salerno’s expose on reclusive author J.D. Salinger, which is now in limited release and accompanied by an already best-selling book.

Along with Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska, there are plenty of other eventual forces in the Oscar race that either skipped out on Toronto or could not be completed in time to roll them out for the festival. Tom Hanks will be heard from twice over as a kidnapped ship captain in the Somali pirate story Captain Phillips and as Walt Disney himself in Saving Mr. Banks. Redford turns heads as a Best Actor possibility with a solitary role in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, but they decided to forego Toronto. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, another fact-based film about an eccentric billionaire who murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, was just given a release date in time for awards season but is not ready yet. Clooney and Heslov were already represented at Toronto with August: Osage County but are still working on Clooney’s latest turn as a director, the World War II-set The Monuments Men. We will have to wait to see Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which all come out in December. Then there is the battle of princess biopics that was absent this year as The Weinsteins’ Grace of Monaco, played by Nicole Kidman, faces off with Diana, played by fellow Aussie Naomi Watts.

Although many big time winter releases were not at T.I.F.F. this year, it did not deter the Toronto audiences and critics from enjoying a bevy of films on the slate this year in all forms. Nicholas Cage really surprised audiences with a return to form in David Gordon Green’s Joe as did Clive Owen in the school drama Words and Pictures. Three foreign films that generated some buzz were a Japanese revamp of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, a film from Iceland called Metalhead, and the Swedish punk rock film We Are the Best! Two of the big winners at Cannes, France’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Japan’s Like Father, Like Son (which won the Palme d’Or), also made waves at Toronto to rave reviews. If you are unsure how good those movies are, the head of the jury at Cannes that awarded those two films was Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg has already optioned Like Father, Like Son for an American adaptation. Two other foreign films that received praise at Cannes before screening for T.I.F.F. were The Past from Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar in 2011 for A Separation, and the violent Chinese crime film A Touch of Sin. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which is about a lesbian romance, made news recently after getting slapped with an NC-17 rating for “explicit sexual content.” The movie was renamed Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, and in a twist of fate, another relationship film with two chapters was screened at Toronto.

The Disapperance of Eleanor Rigsby: Him and Her will encompass two films, one mainly about the man, played by James McAvoy, and the other about the woman, played by Jessica Chastain. The Weinstein Company snagged both of them for $3 million. The negotiation and acquisition game at these film festivals is the other key cog along with the awards campaigning, dubbed by Hollywood execs as all-nighters. Along with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby, TWC picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman drama The Railway Man for $2 million. But the biggest buy by the Weinstein’s was John Carney’s follow-up to Once called Can a Song Save Your Life? starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Buzz on that movie was so high that the final selling price by the end of the night reached $7 million. That number was only matched by Focus Features for Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words, starring himself as a man who uses a loophole to compete in children’s spelling bees. The other big deal was Millenium doling out $2 million to pick up John Turturro’s Finding Gigolo, which features Woody Allen as, of all things, a pimp. There was a lot of talk to pick up McCanik, the last film Glee’s Cory Montieth made before he tragically died this summer.

One big trend you see in a lot of these smaller deals at Toronto and many festivals involve VOD (Video On Demand) “day and date” releases for independent films thanks to the stunning success of Arbitrage, Margin Call, and Bachelorette with that business model in the past two years. What was once considered financial suicide a decade ago (releasing a movie so that it could be downloaded or seen at home instead of theaters) has now boomed in the movie business. Digital accessibility and nifty grassroots marketing helped make Arbitrage $14 million last year, which would have been almost impossible for a film like that to do without the VOD option. We have already seen the trend this summer with films like Only God Forgives and Drinking Buddies already making their costs back on digital platforms while making close to nothing at the box office. One of the movies that will be a VOD release is the horror film Foreclosure by Virgil Films. Foreclosure was one of many horror entries in this year’s Toronto Film Festival, so many that they have a featured slate for tales of the weird called Midnight Madness. These off-the-grid, mostly horror-style films have also become very popular at the South By Southwest Festiival in Austin, TX, and in many fantasy fests.

One of the films to come out of Midnight Madness in 2010 was Insidious, which became an instant hit and turned Splat Pak alumnus James Wan into the new box office king of horror. Now guys like Wan, Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), James DeMonaco (The Purge), and Eli Roth have inspired plenty of creative minds to make innovative horror genre films on low budgets with the potential of profitable returns. Because of this onrush of execs hunting down the next cheap scare fest or found footage film, there were plenty of movies to choose from like Eli Roth’s cannibalistic The Green Inferno, Ti West’s Jonesboro-inspired The Sacrament, All Cheerleaders Die, the haunted house flick OCULUS, the body snatcher film Almost Human, and a found footage vampire film called Afflicted that was so intense that an audience member almost passed out before leaving the theater. Clearly, the new available platforms to distribute movies to go along with the quick turnaround on small budgets has sparked a small renaissance of genre filmmaking, and there will be more tightly-packed thrillers to come in the next year judging by what we have seen in Toronto this year.

Although the festival gave out token awards to 12 Years a Slave, Philomena, Prisoners, and the Japanese Midnight Madness film Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, there were plenty of filmmakers, stars, producers, and moviegoers that were more than happy with what they saw at Toronto this year. The spending this year to acquire films (or, as movie execs call it, the “prestige market”) has increased mightily since the economic collapse in 2008, and the increased diversity in number of studios and options for a film to find its way to the public have raised the stakes for indie fare to go along with the hundreds of millions of dollars already being spent in the race to win at the Academy Awards. If this year’s festival is any indication of what studios have in store for the winter and the first half of 2014, get ready for some fascinating films at the cinemas, or on your online device, in the coming months, because the real fun has just begun.