- By Charles Ealy Special to the American-Statesman
The awards season gets into full swing this week as North America gets its first look at many Oscar contenders. It’s happening at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts Sept. 7 and traditionally kicks off the late-year jockeying for Academy Awards.
This year, the lineup appears to be as strong as ever, with such acclaimed directors as Guillermo del Toro and Darren Aronofsky unveiling new features.
Inspirational stories, which have always done well in Toronto, also pack the lineup. They include the polio drama “Breathe” and the Boston Marathon bombing comeback tale “Stronger.”
Unlike Cannes and other major festivals, Toronto doesn’t award a grand prize that’s bestowed by a jury. Instead, it has the People’s Choice Award, which is voted on by festival attendees. In recent years these winners have included “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave,” all of which went on to win the Oscar for best picture.
Other recent movies that played in Toronto before going on to awards glory include “No Country for Old Men,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Artist” and “Argo.”
Toronto has faced growing competition in recent years from festivals in Telluride and Venice. And then there’s the September genre festival in Austin, Fantastic Fest. But festival organizers have put together a solid lineup. Here’s a look at 20 of the top titles playing in Toronto.
“The Shape of Water.” This is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated titles of the festival. Directed by del Toro, it takes place during the Cold War and focuses on a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who helps clean a secret government laboratory with a friend, played by Octavia Spencer. They discover a secret experiment involving a creature that looks like it’s from the black lagoon. But it’s intelligent and has feelings.
“Battle of the Sexes.” Emma Stone stars as Billie Jean King, who takes on the odious Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in the famous 1973 tennis match. It’s based on a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
“Borg/McEnroe.” If tennis fans aren’t satisfied with “Battle of the Sexes,” then there’s this drama based on the 1980s rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Borg is played by little-known Sverrir Gudnason. McEnroe is played by someone rather notorious: Shia LaBeouf.
“I, Tonya.” Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) takes on the story of ice skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), whose career goes south after her ex-husband conspires to hurt the chances of a rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).
“Stronger.” Austin director David Gordon Green directs this drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, about his struggle back to a full life. The trailer is inspirational, and that leads to yet another tale of inspiration amid adversity:
“Breathe.” Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, who refuses to give up when polio leaves him paralyzed. It’s also a love story, with Claire Foy playing his strong wife, Diana. And it’s notable as the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, the actor known for his performance capture roles in series such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes.”
“The Current War.” Laredo native Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directs this historical drama about the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to market electricity to the nation. The movie is set for a December release and has great buzz. One reason: The director’s previous movie was the underrated “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl.”
“Mother!” For some reason, the official title has a lowercase “m,” which is irritating to some editor types. But that would be a silly reason to not be looking forward to the latest from director Aronofsky. Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer star in this terrifying tale of dealing with uninvited guests. The trailer has a “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe.
“Darkest Hour.” Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill, who is drafted to be Britain’s prime minister during the darkest days of World War II, when the nation was on the verge of falling to the Nazis and there was pressure to negotiate with the Germans. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Clementine Churchill. Sounds like a timely film for 2017 and beyond.
“The Mountain Between Us.” This looks like one of those classic tales about struggling to survive. Kate Winslet and Idris Elba star as strangers who charter a private plane, only to crash in the snow-covered mountains and face a perilous journey back to safety.
“I Love You, Daddy.” This black and white film was shot on 35 mm by comedian Louis C.K. And it was shot in secret. The website IMDB.com has almost no information, except that it features such folks as Edie Falco and John Malkovich.
“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” Annette Bening stars as aging actress Gloria Grahame, who develops a relationship with a young man, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). It is based, in part, on a memoir by Turner. The weird thing: Grahame did indeed have a scandalous marriage to a younger man, Anthony Ray, who was the son of her second husband, Nicholas Ray, from another marriage. But this is apparently a different romantic interlude.
“Molly’s Game.” This stylish-looking drama is based on the true story of a world-class skier, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who eventually ends up running an exclusive, high-stakes poker game. Elba co-stars as her lawyer, after the FBI intervenes. The director? Aaron Sorkin, writer of such recent hits as “Steve Jobs” and “The Social Network.”
“Woman Walks Ahead.” Chastain also stars in this film about Catherine Weldon, who leaves her home in Brooklyn to go to the Dakotas, where she plans to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. But while there, she becomes embroiled in a dispute over the rights of the Lakotas to their land. Sam Rockwell co-stars, along with Michael Greyeyes, who plays Sitting Bull.
“Hostiles.” Scott Cooper had his breakout as a director with 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer. This time, he’s focusing on an Army captain, Joseph J. Blocker, who agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory. Christian Bale stars.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Frances McDormand plays a mother who’s extremely frustrated about the months that have passed without any solution as to who murdered her daughter. So she pays for three billboards leading into her hometown, challenging the popular police chief (Woody Harrelson). This sets up a knock-down, drag-out fight between a bitter mom and small-town police. Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) directs. The film also will open Fantastic Fest.
“Suburbicon.” This one features a great cast and crew. George Clooney directs the tale of what happens when a quiet town deals with a home invasion. Joel and Ethan Coen pitched in on the screenwriting. The cast? Matt Damon, Oscar Isaac, Julianne Moore.
“Lady Bird.” This has nothing to do with the late and beloved Austinite Lady Bird Johnson. Instead, it focuses on the life of a young woman in northern California. Greta Gerwig directs.
“Kings.” This one sounds timely. It deals with a foster family living in South Central L.A., just before the riots that followed the 1992 verdict in the Rodney King case. It stars Halle Berry and Daniel Craig.
“Mary Shelley.” Elle Fanning stars as the 19th-century author of “Frankenstein” who meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and runs off to a Swiss chateau for a summer of debauchery that leads to the creation of her horror novel.