If the Academy Awards have not been much on our minds for the past few months, TIFF has changed that in an instant. As the Toronto International Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday with a screening of Agnes Varda’s sublime Faces Places, and after 10 days of scurrying from screening to screening, it is safe to say the Oscar race is now ounderway. Sure, Sundance, Cannes, Telluride and Venice gave us a few hints, but for the hundreds upon hundreds of press and industry that attended TIFF it was a chance to see most of the significant films in a single lineup to assess the current state of the race.
Here are the five movies that came away as the biggest winners of the 42nd edition of the fest and seem destined for the Oscars.
1) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s harrowingly comic film won the coveted People’s Choice Award, whose narrative and tonal jumps made for a challenging and engaging experience. Its reception bodes well for a interesting Oscar trajectory. It’s been more than 20 years since Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo, and she’s back again in fine form as a serious contender. Playing Mildred, a woman who draws battle lines with a small town’s local police department by buying three billboards demanding the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) re-open her raped and murdered daughter’s case, McDormand is fiercely hilarious. Forget about Marvel’s heroes; she’s a legitimate Avenger. While British writer-director McDonagh, a theater-seasoned director, showed incredible promise with In Bruges and especially 2012’s underseen Seven Psychopaths, it’s safe to say that Three Billboards is his best movie yet. Going back and forth between comedy and drama, this is an unpredictable ride accompanied by some of the most complex characters you’ll see on-screen this movie year. Aside from the formidable McDormand, Sam Rockwell should be another Oscar contender, as the devious deputy sheriff of the town. Oh, and be prepared for one of the best endings of any movie this decade.
2) Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s masterful “Call Me By Your Name” screened at Sundance in January, and it continues to garner ecstatic reviews. Despite having only two public screenings, it was runner-up for the festival’s top award. A love story between a seventeen-year-old Italian lad named Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and an American summer guest Oliver (Armie Hammer) staying at his parents’ cliffside mansion, Guadagnino’s film is regarded by many as the best of the year. Sensual, witty, and touching, it’s a film simply told that packs a wallop. It’s filled with intense emotions as Gudagnino lingers on the sheen of sweat that shimmers in an southern Italian summer filled with first love. Armie Hammer’s performance is a career-peak and merits every award destined to come his way this season. Ditto newcomer Chalamet. This is an erotic and mesmerizing movie that exemplifies cinematic artistry in scope, theme and tone.
3) I, Tonya
Given the incredible word of mouth from TIFF, it’s a no-brainer decision to have Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya released this year for potential awards. The film is a play-by-play account of what happened during the 1994 U.S. figure skating championship when Tonya Harding and her dead-beat loser of a husband hired a white-trash goon to break the leg of her arch nemesis Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie plays Harding in all her blue-collar, low-rent glory. Harding was the outsider, a figure skater that lacked the class needed in a sport whose judges look for competitors to be elegantly poised. De-glamming to play a person that most of America found easy to hate in the winter of 1994, it’s not at all far fetched to wonder if Robbie could be rewarded with a nomination come next January ditto Allison Janney as her foul-mouther, chain-smoking, bird-loving mother from hell. It’s not just the actors, Gillespie borrows from Scorsese by furthering his narrative with music, especially songs from the 70s and 80s, and the ice-skating scenes are shot with virtuoso style in incredibly impressive one-takes.
4) The Shape of Water
Guillermo Del Toro’s film, the toast of Venice, came to TIFF with the highest of expectations that were admirably fulfilled. It’s a visual masterwork that will most likely receive the backing of critics nationwide. This festival bow felt like a homecoming for Del Toro, a permanent resident of Toronto, who’s easily made his best film since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is a genre exercise that works wonders as a beautifully realized fairy tale of the highest order. Just like Pan’s Labyrinth, the visuals are hypnotically enchanting. In the midst of Cold War 1963, a shy night-shift custodian named Eliza (the brilliant Sally Hawkins) falls for creature locked up in the secret government laboratory where she works. The cast is aces, from her next-door neighbor and best friend (Richard Jenkins), to her chatty co-worker (Octavia Spencer), to a sympathetic Russian scientist trying to save the creature (Michael Stuhlbarg), to the nasty villain of the film (Michael Shannon), this is one of the best ensembles of any film this year. The Toronto crowd went wild for the scenes which were filmed at Toronto’s famous Elgin theater. Eliza lives atop the cinema in the movie, which is also, unsurprisingly, where the film had its rollicking Ontario premiere.
5) Lady Bird
There isn’t a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird,” which lasts for more than two minutes and each vignette is a gem. This episodic and effortlessly realized film is a coming-of-age-classic that blooms before one’s eyes. Christine McPherson (the amazing Saoirse Ronan) is a high school teenager who demands that everyone refers to her as Lady Bird. She wants to move to the liberal-minded northeast and leave her suburban Sacramento neighborhood. Cosmopolitan culture is what she wants and she feels New York is the ideal location. We all know how a similar path ended for Gerwig, who’s become a Manhattan cinematic fixture for millennials. Laurie Metcalf plays Lady Bird’s affectionate mother, working double shifts as a nurse; please nominate this woman for an Oscar. There is plenty of Gerwig signature charm and wit in the film, which she has refined to rose-gold perfection in films like Frances Ha and Greenberg.