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TIFF TIFF 2019: The biggest breakouts, surprises and disappointments of Toronto film festival’s first weekend

Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, confirmed the hype from its Venice Film Festival world premiere.

Courtesy of TIFF

It only takes a weekend. Entering Day 4 of the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s already clear which films will leave TIFF blazing a road to potential Academy Awards (and even box-office) glory – and which will exit Toronto with only a free can of Bubly sparkling water to their name, any and all Oscar dreams stomped on by the thirsty crowds of King Street.

Typically, it would be prudent to wait until TIFF was at least halfway done before proclaiming winners and losers. But the festival’s hothouse environment – where every premiere is a chance to rewrite the narrative – has no time for patience. That, and the opening weekend of this year’s festival was so ridiculously jam-packed with presumed sure-things that a survey of the landscape is now necessary, if only to clear the way for the rest of the week’s many (so very many) other contenders.

TIFF 2019: Updated – The Globe’s latest ratings and reviews of movies screening at the festival

First, there’s the if-there-is-justice-in-this-world champion of the festival so far: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. The Kramer vs. Kramer-esque dramedy starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson premiered early Sunday night and confirmed the hype from its Venice Film Festival world premiere: This is one of the strongest American movies of the year, and the second-best feature ever produced by Netflix (after last year’s TIFF phenomenon, Roma). Balancing furiously zippy comedy with rip-your-heart-out melodrama and anchored with frighteningly committed lead performances, Marriage Story is a rare commodity in modern Hollywood: a film made for adults, a film made without compromise and a film that envelopes you completely.

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Also making their marks were the world premieres of Just Mercy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Hustlers. The first, a legal thriller starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, brought the Elgin Theatre to its feet several times on Friday night. It’s the kind of easy people-pleaser that, when the film’s characters applaud, the audience joins in. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s based-on-a-true-story film seems a near-lock for the coveted Oscars bellwether the People’s Choice Award, but it will need to rely heavily on the charms of its stars to carry it through the fall season, given its style is more procedural than profound.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood charmed as many expected on Saturday, with Tom Hanks’s performance as children’s TV host Fred Rogers the best actor-character fit of the festival. Director Marielle Heller’s film is quietly delicate, though, in its quest to jerk tears, making it a great movie, but perhaps too subtle a work compared with the emotional jackhammering typically favoured by the Academy.

Tom Hanks’s performance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as children’s TV host Fred Rogers is the best actor-character fit of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Courtesy of TIFF

Hustlers, meanwhile, proved the Jennifer Lopez comeback that started bubbling with last year’s rom-com Second Act is just beginning. A massive coterie of critics was dazzled by the crime drama about a crew of strippers who turn the tables on the Wall Street bros who treat them like disposable commodities. While the film works hard, sometimes too hard, for its audience’s pleasure, there’s no doubt it’s Ms. Lopez who stands out. At the moment, the best supporting actress Oscar is hers to lose.

And then there’s the come-from-nowhere sensation that is Waves. Trey Edward Shults’s drama screened for members of the press and industry on Friday afternoon, and spawned one of the longest lines I’ve ever seen at TIFF (anyone who didn’t show up at least 45 minutes ahead of time was left standing despondent on John Street). The intense and overwhelming film, which chronicles the downfall and possible redemption of an ambitious black family in South Florida, accomplished the impossible by gluing a theatre’s worth of jaded reporters and impatient sales agents to their seats for its full 135 minutes. Maybe half a dozen people took bathroom breaks. Absolutely no one dared peek at their phone.

Not everyone left Waves in love – reaction is divided among critics, which is to be expected given the operatic tone Mr. Shults is going for – but going into Monday, everyone was still talking about it.

The same can’t be said for The Goldfinch. Well, people might be talking about it, but for the wrong reasons: The Ansel Elgort-led adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the biggest misfire of the festival, a dramatically inert retelling that strips away everything that made Ms. Tartt’s novel so propulsive and polarizing.

It’s an open question as to whether The Goldfinch’s thud might be matched by Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. The “anti-hate” satire screened late Sunday (too late for this column’s deadline) and is one of the biggest remaining question marks of TIFF, given its emphasis on a suspect genre that I’m going to call Triple H (Heil Hitler Humour).

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All this, and still to come Monday and beyond are the Meryl Streep comedy The Laundromat from Steven Soderbergh, the Matt Damon-Christian Bale vehicle (sorry) Ford v Ferrari, Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s crime thriller Motherless Brooklyn, the Natalie Portman-starring NASA drama Lucy in the Sky and the Joaquin Phoenix-led Joker.

The latter is arriving in Toronto on Monday night hot off winning the Venice Film Festival, promising enough debate and discourse (and bad “send in the clown” jokes) to dominate the duration of TIFF.

The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 15 (tiff.net).

The Joaquin Phoenix-led Joker is hot off winning the Venice Film Festival.

Courtesy of TIFF

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