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TIFF 2018 offers old favorites, new faces, and reminders of home

Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun, includes some scenes shot in Dayton.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

This year marks a decade that I’ve been attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and as I began my highly anticipated annual process of constructing the perfect screening mixtape, I discovered a creative coincidence. The 2018 edition of this celebrated festival has captured a collection of talented visionaries returning to the scene of their greatest hits, with more than a few tricks up their sleeves, narrative treats with bold impulses—whether personally introspective or bold stylistic departures from their previous highlights.

A couple of years ago, the talk of the festival was a pair of films from young upstarts. The press and industry lines were abuzz with chatter about either Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land, which featured the third pairing of stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, or Moonlight, the dramatic knockout from Barry Jenkins, which was only his second full-length film. Generally speaking, critics are supposed to maintain a level of objectivity in such cases, but I had been a fan of Jenkins’s first film (Medicine for Melancholy) and a side project—the episode “Remigration” from the Futurestates TV series—and had been connected with him via social media during the long interlude between feature projects. When I heard about Moonlight’s selection for the TIFF slate, I sent him a congratulatory tweet.

Little did any of us realize how intertwined these two filmmakers would become during the awards season of 2016. Each earned coveted nominations and the final botched announcement of the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty on center stage—it was La La Land, no it was Moonlight—would forever bind Chazelle and Jenkins together, but they graciously showed as how two mature and sensible creative types could handle the situation.

It is fitting then that Chazelle and Jenkins would arrive, once again, at TIFF with films that could wind up in contention for top prizes this year. Chazelle’s First Man finds him reteaming with Gosling to capture Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk. Jenkins pursues another kind of cultural marker with his adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, a passion project that likely would not have been possible without the Best Picture cachet he earned with Moonlight.

Another Best Picture winner, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, which commanded all of the attention during its run at TIFF back in 2013), re-emerges with Widows, a re-imagining of a British crime series transplanted to Chicago with Academy Award-winner Viola Davis leading a powerhouse cast. The story focuses on the wives of four career criminals killed during a job, who come together to complete the assignment and avenge their husbands, while also taking charge of their own destinies. Thus far, McQueen has operated in a more art-driven visual realm, so it will be fascinating to see what he brings to this potentially topical crime thriller.

Of course, TIFF provides an opportunity for new stars to shine, which means all eyes will certainly be locked on the latest version of A Star Is Born, from multi-hyphenate Bradley Cooper (the movie star making waves here as much for his efforts as a co-screenwriter and director as his presence in front of the camera). Expect Cooper to be overshadowed though by his co-star Lady Gaga as the young singer/actress who finds fame, thanks to assistance from an aging alcoholic mentor/lover (Cooper) plunging downward in blazing fashion. Festivals thrive on these kinds of celebrity transitions and transformations. A huge coming out party for Lady Gaga this time out will set her up for a triumphant return in the not-so distant future.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the now seemingly annual presence of regional fare claiming the spotlight up north. Last year, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Tali Shalom-Ezer’s My Days of Mercy offered reflections of Ohio for all the world to see and appreciate.

This time out, there’s another double feature of note. David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun warmly illuminates the true story of Forrest Tucker (played with roguish charm by Robert Redford, in what has been announced as his last acting role) who, as legend has it, escaped from San Quentin at age 70 and embarked on a string of bank robberies that made him a folk hero of sorts. Redford, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, and crew were in Dayton for a few days in May 2017 filming scenes around downtown.

The Public—from writer, director, star, and producer Emilio Estevez of Dayton’s Sheen/Estevez lineage—tackles a host of contemporary social issues as a group of homeless citizens in downtown Cincinnati stage a lock-in at the public library during a harsh winter storm. Both films illustrate how the region has proven itself to be a filmmaking destination of note, able to draw in top talent and secure coveted recognition on the festival landscape.