"How was your TIFF?" Even though the Toronto International Film Festival isn't over until Sunday evening, I've encountered this question so many times over the past 24 hours that it's easy to think of the fest as all but a distant memory. That's because – with the exception of an unusual amount of buzz for the closing-night film The Edge of Seventeen – TIFF is indeed over for the industry. The big films and their stakeholders have come and gone, and are now either on the road to Oscar glory or on the path to becoming historical footnotes. With that in mind, here's a look at how the big seven films of TIFF – all movies that went into Toronto with their own unique expectations – have fared.
La La Land: Damien Chazelle's love letter to Hollywood came into TIFF with more heat than any other film: It infatuated audiences at the Venice Film Festival, where Emma Stone won a best actress award, and continued to wrap North American critics around its lithe little finger in Toronto. Although the knives have already come out from certain corners – unfavourable comparisons to The Artist are the go-to line of attack, though that film hasn't aged nearly as badly as some like to think – the odds are in Chazelle's favour. If the wildly romantic, utterly charming musical doesn't win TIFF's People's Choice Award (itself a harbinger of Academy Award success), then I will eat my hat – after tap-dancing on it a bit, of course.
Arrival: Another Venice selection (which surely must be hurting TIFF, as early overseas reactions blunt Toronto's all-important sense of "discovery"), Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi drama might come out of Toronto a little worse for wear. The film is beautiful and brilliant, but its ending is also just cerebral enough to confuse less-savvy moviegoers who prefer pat endings with their popcorn. Star Amy Adams, playing a linguist tasked with making first contact with an alien race, deserves an Oscar nomination (and, finally, a win) for her subtle, devastating turn, but voters might also support her more brash role in Tom Ford's intolerably loud Nocturnal Animals, which might cancel her out altogether.
The Birth of a Nation: Eight months ago, Nate Parker's slave-revolt drama was looking like a surefire contender for awards success. Now, after the director-producer-writer-star has been tasked with explaining a past acquittal for sexual assault – and doing a mostly horrible job – the film looks like it may shuffle out of the spotlight. It wouldn't be surprising if studio Fox Searchlight decided to put its weight behind Jackie, its big TIFF acquisition, instead of trying to manage any more Parker-related damage control. And speaking of Jackie ...
Jackie: Pablo Larrain's biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy – focusing on the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination – is another Venice alum, and carried its overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth across the Atlantic to Toronto. Fox Searchlight bought it, and immediately gave it a prime Dec. 9 release date, perfect for launching a best-actress campaign for star Natalie Portman.
Moonlight: In purely crass terms, Barry Jenkins's drama is being positioned as the new The Birth of a Nation – a come-from-nowhere black-focused film that could go the distance in the awards race, and thus proving that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy remains a thing of the past. But while Jenkins's drama, which follows one black man's life as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, earned critical raves and a strong audience reaction in Toronto (one particularly emotional post-screening Q&A featured co-star Mahershala Ali wiping away tears), the film's art-house sensibilities may be too refined for Academy voters, who might have once favoured the big, blunt message of Parker's historical epic. In a perfect world, Moonlight's diversity-driven odds wouldn't even be up for discussion – it simply would get to the top of the awards race on merit alone. But try telling that to the Academy, which historically sees things only in black and white.
Lion: The buzz was small and cautious surrounding Garth Davis's feel-good drama as it entered TIFF. On the one hand, it boasted a deep roster of Academy-favourite talent, including stars Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and Dev Patel (who earned his big break back at TIFF in 2008). On the other, its ripped-from-the-headlines plot (a man searches for the family he lost as a child via Google Earth) seemed a bit too cute, and Kidman hasn't had a high-profile success in years. But the film's first press and industry screening went spectacularly well and suddenly Lion was on the tip of every critic's tongue. The real question is how aggressively its distributor, Weinstein Co., will be able to market it, given that the company has its own financial troubles to contend with – plus two other potential contenders in Michael Keaton's The Founder and Matthew McConaughey's Gold, both of which might warrant (costly) awards campaigns.
Nocturnal Animals: Tom Ford's dark drama (yet another Venice player) came out of Europe looking like an automatic winner, yet hit a few snags at TIFF. Critics either love the film – I've heard of at least five people who made a point of seeing it twice – or loathe it. I'm proud to count myself in the latter camp, as the movie, which follows an art dealer (Amy Adams), her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the fictional characters within his manuscript, is intolerably stuffy and unintentionally hilarious. It will be fascinating to see how general audiences react either way to Ford's undeniably aggressive style.
Finally, there's the matter of the festival itself – will this year's TIFF be fondly remembered for years to come, or is everyone too busy walking up the Scotiabank Theatre's comically high set of stairs to care?
Well, despite the festival's escalator issues, its newfound fondness for "demand-based" ticket pricing, the curtailing of its Fan Zone, its knack for front-loading its first few days of programming, its chronic deference to shallow Hollywood product, and its … well, yes, there can be a lot to complain about. Still, from the genuine highs of La La Land and Moonlight to the smaller surprises such as Anne Hathaway's delightfully bizarre Colossal, TIFF16 will go down as a much-needed respite from an otherwise dire year at the box office – a critical reminder that Hollywood is still capable of producing original, beguiling works of art. No matter how many flights of stairs you need to climb to see them.