At the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival, from which I have just returned after nine days, orange shirt-wearing volunteers lurked near theater exits to collect votes from audience members for their favorite films. There is a rising curiosity within the industry, specifically among the Academy Award prognosticators, regarding the opinions of the TIFF crowds. For instance, last year’s People’s Choice winner, Room, went on to earn a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress Oscar for Brie Larson. Going back to 1999, four such winners (American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave) also snagged the top prize at the Academy Awards. In that same period, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Precious, Silver Linings Playbook and The Imitation Game joined Room as People’s Choice favorites and eventual Best Picture nominees.
That bodes well for writer-director Damien Chazelle’s modern-day homage to the Hollywood musicals of old, La La Land, which claimed the award at this year’s 41st Toronto International Film Festival. The Garth Davis-directed film Lion came in second, followed by Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe. La La Land, the romantic tale of a struggling Jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone), had already earned Stone the Best Actress prize at the recent Venice Film Festival, which I suppose makes it — and her — the early favorite in the fall awards-season horse race.
Late in the festival, following a special press and industry screening, I was asked by a critic from a major daily newspaper about La La Land and shared my strong affinity for the film. I loved, in particular, how I felt walking out. I was humming its melodies and stepping lightly, as if at any moment I might start to dance on air. But I also recognized that, in the end, it was merely a pleasant film.
“It didn’t cure cancer,” my colleague said, and I nodded in agreement. That’s the problem with the heightened expectations that result from all this tight-quarters collective chatter, especially when critics and audiences fall into lockstep with one another.
Over the course of my nine days in Toronto, I attended 34 screenings, with the primary aim of scouting titles likely to become key players in the upcoming awards season. From a critical standpoint, I always find that I am a bit behind the curve, since many of the critical darlings have already been unveiled at other festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Telluride). But once the lights go down during that initial screening on the first Thursday morning of the festival, I push aside all of the advance buzz and settle in.
And this year, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea was the very first film I saw, and it became the gold standard by which almost every other selection would be compared. Casey Affleck’s brooding melancholy at having to come home to take care of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), once his older brother (Kyle Chandler) dies, is unforgettable.
My first runner-up is another examination into quiet desperation. Moonlight, from director Barry Jenkins, sketches the story of a young black man’s maturation in Miami over three distinct periods — early childhood, mid-teens and young adulthood — and allows audiences to see how emotionally fraught his road to manhood is. I was startled by Vikram Gandhi’s Barry, the second feature this year to spotlight the early life-defining experiences of President Barack Obama. This zeroes in on his first year as a transfer student at Columbia University. Australian newcomer Devon Terrell plays the young Obama as he wanders the dangerous minefield of cultural and racial identity in the early 1980s.
It is a coming-of-age drama that skillfully avoids the trap of tipping its hand. We know who Barry will become, but Gandhi’s film never looks too far ahead. Its eyes are on the immediate prize of simply living in the moment.
That’s a good reminder for filmgoers during the awards season. Just buy your tickets, sit back and enjoy the movies headed your way soon from Toronto.