The first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival is typically a make-or-break stretch. It is when the biggest studios unveil their shiniest offerings, and when the hot-house celebrity atmosphere reaches its fever point. By Monday morning, really Sunday afternoon, it becomes clear which movies are leaving TIFF bound for Oscar glory, and which are destined to be forgotten at the bottom of your streaming queue.
The TIFF buzz is harder to gauge this year, of course. The absence of lineup chatter and cocktail gossip has dealt a severe blow to figuring out just who is on top, and to ensuring hidden surprises don’t leave Toronto unnoticed. But there are still virtual breadcrumbs to follow.
Nomadland, for instance, is easily the top movie ricocheting across the Film Twitter echo chamber. Chloé Zhao’s road-tripping drama, based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, received universal acclaim after it premiered simultaneously for both TIFF and Venice Film Festival press on Friday. Starring Frances McDormand as a headstrong widow making her way across the American West in her camper van circa 2012, Zhao’s film is indeed a tremendous achievement.
Thanks to McDormand’s disappearing-act performance and the script’s potent look at the ruins of extreme capitalism, Nomadland would have been a top contender even if the film industry weren’t currently experiencing a prestige-movie drought. Having won the top prize at Venice on Saturday night, it would be no surprise if Nomadland walked away with Toronto’s coveted People’s Choice Award next weekend, too.
Yet after Nomadland’s easy-to-see breakout, things get hazier. Regina King’s powerful and delightful drama One Night in Miami, which fictionalizes a 1964 get-together between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, has been rightfully impressing critics, with Variety calling it “the first solid Oscar contender to drop in the fall festival circuit.” (This was published, though, before Nomadland’s premiere.)
Also winning hearts and minds: Pieces of a Woman, another Venice winner just bought by Netflix that centres on a knock-out lead performance from Vanessa Kirby as a high-powered executive who loses her baby during childbirth; the Sundance-certified The Father, which is anchored by a never-better Anthony Hopkins as a patriarch slowly losing his grasp on reality; and Halle Berry’s mixed-martial arts drama Bruised, which Netflix is also reportedly circling in one of the biggest deals of this or any other TIFF. I’m completely unsure of that latter film’s quality, though, as it’s curiously being screened in Toronto as a “work-in-progress,” which resulted in zero press and industry viewings.
Meanwhile, Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a 19th-century same-sex romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, was met with more online shrugs than hoped for after its Friday night premiere. While the film was tipped by some (ahem) as one of the most anticipated premieres of the year, let alone TIFF, it often feels too polite, too removed, to fully embrace. Winslet is wonderful as a lonely paleontologist who’s been burned by love before, but Ronan isn’t given much of a character to work with.
Yet for all the excitable talk about Oscar contenders and market activity (“Movies are back, baby!”), all the TIFF action is set against one of Hollywood’s worst weeks all year (“Movies are not back, baby!”). On Friday, Warner Bros. announced that it was delaying, again, its superhero epic Wonder Woman 1984 until December, when presumably theatres in the U.S. will be back at full strength. That announcement sent a chill through the air, with Universal Pictures then punting its anticipated Candyman horror reboot from October to 2021, and other release-date dominoes expected to fall, as well.
This can all be presumably traced to the performance of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Late last month, the Warner Bros. thriller became the first major studio film to be released in the pandemic and, based on the studio’s unprecedented decision to reportedly play hide-and-seek with its box-office numbers, the film’s release is likely giving other studios major pause about how the rest of 2020 will play out. There are now only a handful of major Hollywood movies set for release between today and December: Death on the Nile in October and No Time to Die, Black Widow and Soul in November. This might all change tomorrow, too.
Combine this uncertainty with a year’s worth of Hollywood crisis-management PR stuffed into a single week – from the many controversies of Disney’s Mulan to the Academy Awards' new and entirely confusing diversity requirements to Netflix’s awakening of QAnon fanatics over its disastrous marketing for Cuties – and you have what my colleague Richard Rushfield over at the industry newsletter The Ankler calls “the week that movies died.”
Alright, that is a bit extreme for my tastes. But the sentiment holds. This weekend, TIFF proved that there is much to love about and cheer for in the movie business. But not even Frances McDormand can stop a pandemic. Not yet, anyway.
The 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sept. 19 (tiff.net)
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