Toronto Film Fest report: It’s OK to cry, and other lessons learned at showcase for autumn movies

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
Displayed with permission from Tribune Content Agency

This time of year, anyone with a studio email address or an undergrad film-studies class under his or her belt will tell you about the movie that will rock your world, “Boyhood”-style

But there are crystal balls and there are crystal balls. For true portents of where the movie globe is spinning — at least the movie world that isn’t sequels and superheroes — the Toronto International Film Festival is downright clairvoyant.

TIFF is where many big fall releases make a stop — the occasional New York Film Festival or other premiere notwithstanding. And it’s where, over the last 10 days or so, some trends have been asserting themselves. We break down the notables.


It’s been one of the big themes to emerge from the festival: Crying is back. What has seemed like the stuff of a “Terms of Endearment” past — blame irony and meta storytelling — is now very much of the moment. We’re talking big, puffy-eyed, old-fashioned blubbering.

Three of the better received movies at TIFF all trade in such sentiment: Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi-oriented “Arrival,” J.A. Bayona’s fairy-tale-ish “A Monster Calls” and Garth Davis’ dislocated-child tale “Lion.” All deal with loss and separation, and all will pretty much have you running to the restroom so friends don’t see those puffy eyes. Will they appeal to modern audiences? Too early to say. But after all these years of genre tricks and postmodernism, filmmakers are doubling down on an age-old bet: You want to walk out of the theater moved to tears.


Maybe it’s the alliteration. Or maybe we’re tempted to group them together because they’re the two biggest breakouts at TIFF — not to mention the movies that sat atop the People’s Choice Award balloting. “La La,” Damien Chazelle’s Southland-set ode to classic American and French musicals, won the top prize. And “Lion,” a fact-based look at a child separated from his home in India — and the big Harvey Weinstein Oscar hopeful — was first runner-up.

The battle is just beginning for the films. For “La La,” the goal now is to keep the momentum going and avoid the Oscar front-runner curse. (Many a Toronto standout, from Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” to the Weinstein Co.’s own “The Imitation Game,” has been felled by it.) For “Lion” and its newly energized distributor, it’s how to transform from awards-season upstart to real player — with the help of the time-honored Weinstein weapons of global awareness and a real-life hero.

Then again, it may not just be about winning best picture. Sometimes, a strong Toronto reaction can mean other benefits, whether commercially or at the awards podium. As TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview, “There are many finish lines. For us, we just like to see people freak out.”


Toronto is a tough place for documentaries, what with all the glittery Oscar features calling out for attention. Yet it’s been a pretty heady time for the form.

Most high-profile at TIFF was “Before the Flood,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s attempt at a pseudo-sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which the actor hopscotches around the world highlighting climate-change problems and (occasionally) offering solutions.

“We have ignored the predictions of the scientific community for way too long,” DiCaprio said at the hoopla-y TIFF premiere.

But social action is hardly the only mode for docs. Among the others making a name for themselves was “Gringo,” Nanette Burstein’s fearless take on eccentric software magnate John McAfee, who had a recent series of high-profile legal disputes in Central America. Burstein’s movie looks at one of the most polarizing tech moguls of our time — and gets in the face of some very explosive people. Also on the list are “Abacus” and “I Am Not Your Negro” — the former is Steve James’ look at a Chinese-owned bank caught up in the 2008 financial crisis, and the latter is Raoul Peck’s meditative take on the racial challenges of today via the late James Baldwin. Those films garnered some love — Peck’s won the People’s Choice Award, and James’ was a runner-up.


Is there a realm more over-fished than the coming-of-age tale? And yet, just when it seems filmmakers can’t do anything more, along comes a “Boyhood.” This year, the breakouts continue. There’s writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen,” in which Hailee Steinfeld plays the kind of outsider who’s offbeat, but not in the endearingly quirky way — rather, there is real pain and consequences. James L. Brooks, who produced the movie, called Fremon Craig “an important new voice” before the screening, and it’s easy to see why.

Then there’s Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” An unusual tripartite structure — childhood, adolescence, adulthood — allows for a kind of epic scope in an indie film — not to mention a cinematically underseen character of a young gay black man.

“I think it’s important people see themselves in film,” Jenkins said in an interview. “But it’s even more important they see people they maybe don’t know as well.”


Acquisitions are never big at Toronto; that’s more Sundance’s bag. But every couple of years, a movie comes in and plays to effusive reactions, prompting buyers to open their wallets. So it went with Julianne Moore’s “Still Alice” a couple years back. And so it went with a few titles this year.

One, “Lady Macbeth,” is a firecracker of a period piece that netted first-time director William Oldroyd a deal with Roadside Attractions.

Another is Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” a piece looking at Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of the JFK assassination. Fox Searchlight bought the movie and hopes to build a campaign around star Natalie Portman, as it did for the actress with “Black Swan” — a bid that netted her an Oscar. With “Jackie,” the pressure for Searchlight to make Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” a major contenders also lessens. Which brings us to …


There are few movies with the kind of trajectory of “Birth.” Heralded out of Sundance as a best-picture favorite, it was then brought down just as hard this summer by the resurfacing of Parker’s decades-old sexual-assault case. At Toronto, Parker and Searchlight tried to stabilize the ship. It didn’t always work as planned — talking about the movie, as Parker did at screenings and a news conference, may eliminate the possibility of a misstep, but it also can make for some media awkwardness — though the furor seems to have quieted down.

Still, the tests lie ahead. First up is the commercial release — the movie opens in just a little over two weeks. How it fares can be a cue to award voters on how seriously to take it in the months to follow. So far, the film is tracking at about $10 million — hardly a barn-burner but not a terrible number for an embattled awards contender either.

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