Fall is when the movies aiming for awards glory — and success with discerning audiences — begin their releases.
The season begins when film-lovers start gathering for the premiere slate of international film festivals — Venice (the 73rd edition runs Aug. 31-Sept. 10), Telluride (the 43rd event is Sept. 2-5), Toronto (the 41st installment unspools Sept. 8-18) and New York (the 54th edition takes place Sept. 30-Oct. 16). Over the past five years, these festivals have engaged in a heated competition seeking to establish the dominant position as the exclusive launch pad for awards-season films.
Festival programmers and marketing teams hope for the international or North American debut of the Academy Award Best Picture nominee/winner. These badges of honor speak to the desire for credibility among festivals in this rather crowded field.
As a credentialed Toronto critic, I got my first look at eventual Academy Award Best Picture winners 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Spotlight (2015) and sat in quiet awe, spellbound, at the inevitable Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto from Dallas Buyers Club in 2013. For a regional critic, attendance at major festival events like these guarantees that I have the opportunity to take part in basking in the initial glow of these works and add my voice to the critical buzz that can potentially usher Queen City audiences to these important films.
Here’s a sneak peek at a sample of the Toronto titles on my advance radar for the 2016 prestige season, with names of their directors and tentative U.S. fall release dates. I will be writing about my Toronto experiences in upcoming September issues of CityBeat.
The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker) —This labor of love from actor Parker features a shift to behind-the-scenes action. Stepping in as writer-director for the first time on a feature, Parker also stars as Nat Turner, the historic slave and preacher who leads an uprising in the antebellum South. Seen by many film writers and cultural critics as a direct response to last year’s hashtag movement (#OscarsSoWhite) at the Academy Awards, The Birth of a Nationseized two top prizes at Sundance (the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize). But it now faces concerns due to the ongoing fallout from a controversial court case from Parker’s past. This developing narrative may make it difficult for audiences to judge the film on its own merits. (Oct. 7)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) — Far from being a household (or even a major indie) name, Jenkins enjoys a potential spoiler role this year as a rising star. With only one previous feature under his belt (the lovely morning-after-a-one-night-stand romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy), he returns with Moonlight, the dynamic story of an African-American man. It spans three distinct phases of the character’s life — struggling to survive in the dangerous drug-infested streets of Miami, seeking love and seeing the possibility for personal redemption. Advance word spotlights the performances of Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, but I will be looking for signs of Jenkins’ brand of melancholy in this Moonlight. (Oct. 21)
Loving (Jeff Nichols) — It’s not often that a filmmaker sets himself or herself up for a double-feature year, but Nichols has already graced us with Midnight Special, an adventurous sci-fi drama that merged Spielbergian storytelling with his own deep-seated indie sensibilities. But it is Loving that seems ready to truly elevate Nichols into the kind of filmmaker who transcends labels. He’s tackling the true story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), the couple who, in 1958, sparked the challenge to legalize interracial marriage in the United States. (Nov. 4)
Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) — Like a number of films on this list, Manchester By the Sea got a fast start out of the gate thanks to its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Lonergan is a known talent, having previously garnered Oscar nominations for screenwriting (his directorial debut You Can Count on Me in 2001 and a shared credit for Gangs of New York in 2003), and Manchester boasts a slow-burn performance from Casey Affleck as a New England recluse forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies. (Nov. 18)
A United Kingdom (Amma Asante) — When Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of Botswana falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white woman from London, he upsets the international community of the late 1940s. Their courtship and marriage forms the basis of A United Kingdom, the latest release from Asante, the director who in 2013 explored questions of mixed-race identity in Belle. On the heels of his stunning embodiment of Martin Luther King in Selma, Oyelowo might finally push his way into the Best Actor discussion. (November)
Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford) — After an impressive feature film debut like A Single Man, in which Colin Firth earned a Best Actor nomination, fashion designer Ford again sets his sights on the screen by adapting the novel Tony and Susan by the late Austin Wright (a professor emeritus of English at the University of Cincinnati). He taps Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams for the complex story-within-a-story narrative. Ford displayed a strong eye for cinematic frame construction and a stark formalism in A Single Man, and those traits seem perfectly suited for upping the anxiety in this far more layered literary tale. (Dec. 9)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle) — Back in 2014, I settled down for a buzz-heavy Toronto screening of Whiplash and walked out impressed with the steady hand of writer-director Damien Chazelle. While no one will ever forget the dominating performance of eventual Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons, for me it was Chazelle’s whip-smart sensibilities and love of music that drove the narrative. And now he’s back, grooving to a new beat in La La Land, the story of a Jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) who falls for an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) in Los Angeles. The movie musical is an unforgiving genre (that I usually can’t quite embrace), but I’m willing to put my faith in Chazelle’s ability to create an alternative remix. (Dec. 16) ©