The Toronto International Film Festival, which has long introduced the top Oscar contenders to North American audiences, kicks off Sept. 6 and features one of the most interesting, buzzy matchups of recent years: Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Fresh from the Venice Film Festival, “First Man” will have a gala presentation in Toronto on Sept. 9, with Canada’s Ryan Gosling starring as Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, back in the summer of 1969. “First Man” will be eligible for the People’s Choice Award, which is voted on by the festival’s audience, just like Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land.” In case you forgot, that unconventional musical went on to win that award in 2016 and was one of the leading Oscar contenders in 2017.
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” meanwhile, is also getting a special presentation in Toronto. Based on an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, it stars KiKi Layne, Stephan James and Regina King in a drama about a pregnant woman’s quest to prove the innocence of her fiancé in a crime. It will also be eligible for the People’s Choice Award, unlike Jenkins’ 2016 film, “Moonlight,” which also played in Toronto but got much less buzz. And just in case you forgot, “Moonlight” became the biggest rival of “La La Land” in the 2017 Oscar race, eventually winning three awards, including best picture.
The Chazelle/Jenkins competition is just one of many big storylines coming up in Toronto. Here are 10 of the most interesting films/trends, based on buzz and artistic interest.
1. “A Star Is Born.” Some are saying this looks great, with Bradley Cooper directing and starring as an alcoholic musician who helps a younger singer, played by Lady Gaga, on her rise to the top. It’s intriguing because Cooper is showing his singing chops. But let’s face it: Everyone who’s a Gaga fan won’t pay much attention to Cooper’s croons. A big question looms among some moviegoers, and it goes something like this: Why are we getting yet another remake of this film, which is scheduled for release Oct. 5, in obvious hopes of staking an early claim for a place in year-end awards? Back in 1976, we had Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand giving their interpretation. In 1954, it was Judy Garland and James Mason, and their version, directed by George Cukor, earned six Oscar nominations. And in 1937, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March originated the roles on the big screen. The answer to why we’re getting this remake might be relatively simple: Lady Gaga is seeing whether she can make the move to the movies. Stay tuned.
2. “Old Man & the Gun.” David Lowery, a Dallasite and regular on the Texas film scene, directs Robert Redford and Texas native Sissy Spacek in the tale of a 70-year-old who escapes San Quentin and starts a string of bank robberies that some people think are downright polite. Casey Affleck, who won the 2017 best actor Oscar for “Manchester by the Sea,” plays the detective in pursuit. Spacek plays Jewel, who becomes enchanted with Redford’s Forest Tucker, despite his dangerous profession. Expect a late September or early October release. Notable subplot: This film marks Redford’s retirement from acting, or so the actor has said.
3. Timothee Chalamet was one of the more interesting storylines of 2017, starring in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” as well as in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name,” for which he was nominated for a best actor Oscar. He lost to Gary Oldman, who played Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” This year, Chalamet returns as Nic Sheff in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the memoirs of a family that struggles through years of meth addiction. That doesn’t sound like a thrilling viewing experience, but this is one of those “Acting” vehicles that could turn out to be great or head-scratching. Steve Carell stars as the father, under the direction of Felix Van Groeningen of Belgium.
4. “Widows,” from British director Steve McQueen, has one of this year’s most crazy-talented casts: Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya and Liam Neeson. It centers on a group of women in contemporary Chicago whose dead husbands have left them in big-time debt, so they decide to take matters into their own hands. The screenplay is written by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, adapted from “Widows” by Lynda La Plante. McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” rocked Toronto in 2013. Can he do it again?
5. Director Nicole Holofcener has been making solid independent films for years – “Enough Said,” “Please Give” — but she hasn’t had a breakout hit. This year, she has a chance with “The Land of Steady Habits.” It stars one of America’s most underappreciated actors, Ben Mendelsohn, as Anders Hill, who feels trapped in his wealthy Connecticut home and leaves his wife (Edie Falco) and son (Thomas Mann) and starts living recklessly by befriending a teen druggie (Charlie Tahan). It might capture that “American Beauty” feeling and be one of the festival’s pleasant surprises.
6. When Melissa McCarthy gets the right vehicle, she can be great. In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” she plays biographer Lee Israel, who discovers that folks no longer want to read what she writes. So she takes a different tack: She starts selling letters that she has forged to look like they were written by famous actors, playwrights and others. But when questions are raised about the letters’ authenticity, she moves on to another scheme: Stealing real letters from libraries. It’s directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and based on a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.
7. The creator of the TV hit “This Is Us,” Dan Fogelman, brings his savvy to the big screen with “Life Itself,” starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde as a couple who go through all the permutations of romance, marriage and the building of a family. It’s an ensemble piece, like “This Is Us,” and also stars Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart.
8. Lucas Hedges is one of our most talented young actors, and that is why “Ben Is Back” makes this list. He plays a troubled son who returns home to his mother (Julia Roberts), who loves him but worries about what’s ahead for her family. Hedges is best known for “Manchester by the Sea,” which earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination. But he was great as the boyfriend in “Lady Bird” and as the bemused son of Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” He also stars in the upcoming “Boy Erased.” Peter Hedges, who is Lucas’ father, directs “Ben Is Back.” He also directed “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”
9. Keira Knightley takes on one of her biggest acting challenges: Playing a French novelist in “Colette.” Many literary fans know the story. Colette ghostwrites a racy novel about an adventurous young woman named Claudine, but under the name of her husband, played by Dominic West. When the novel becomes a huge success, she begins to wonder why she isn’t getting more credit. Trouble ensues. Wash Westmoreland, who got a brilliant performance from Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” directs.
10. One of the biggest stories in international film has been the rise of Mexican directors, or what could arguably be called the Mexican Renaissance. Just look at the recent Oscar-winning directors: Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water,” Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity,” and Alejandro G. Iñárittu, for his back-to-back wins for “The Revenant” and “Birdman.” This year, Cuarón is bringing his latest to Toronto. It’s called “Roma,” and the black-and-white cinematography looks Fellini-esque and gorgeous. It deals with a year in the life of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City — a politically explosive period. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas will be screening “Our Time,” or “Nuestro Tiempo,” about a couple who raise fighting bulls and face marriage problems when one of them strays. Reygadas’ previous films include the high-art “Post Tenebras Lux” and “Silent Light.” Three other Mexican films look especially interesting. They are “The Good Girls,” which deals with a socialite coping with the 1982 Mexican economic crisis, directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella; “Museo,” about a group of art thieves, starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios; and “The Chambermaid,” a drama about a woman who cleans a glass high-rise tower and discovers she is its invisible prisoner, directed by buzzy newcomer Lila Aviles.