The Toronto International Film Festival, one of the key early stops on the awards season train for many a contender, returned to its full glory this year after two pandemic-altered editions. The buzz was back on the city’s King Street West as glitzy casts gathered on step and repeats, Steven Spielberg debuted his latest, The Fabelmans, and Harry Styles mania descended on the town. (Styles, fresh off a tense Venice Film Festival was there for My Policeman—the other, less controversial, movie he is in this year after Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. The frenzy was palpable, although the film was underwhelming.)
While TIFF isn’t entirely about the Oscar race, it does offer a good primer of what to expect in the months to come. After about a week of movie viewing, we now have a good sense of what’s in the running for Best Picture, which actors will be battling it out, and even what might win Best Documentary.
Here are five key takeaways.
Steven Spielberg Is Once Again a Major Oscar Contender
The big Oscar story out of this year’s TIFF was the debut of Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, his glorious memoir of a movie about his early infatuation with cinema and his parents’ divorce. The loosely veiled autobiography, co-written with Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s stand-in, who views the breakdown of his parents’ marriage through his 8mm camera. Michelle Williams is magnetic as Sammy’s mother Mitzi, a figure of joy and exuberance, masking a deep sadness. Her performance is the crux of the project and she became the Best Supporting Actress frontrunner immediately following the premiere. But everyone is wonderful, from Paul Dano as Sammy’s reserved father to Seth Rogen as his parents’ charming friend. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that the Academy won’t fall in love with this mission statement from one of the all-time greats.
It will possibly have competition, however, from another movie about the movies: Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, which came into TIFF riding the buzz from the Telluride Film Festival. Set in early 1980s Britain, the film stars Olivia Colman as a reserved, lonely employee at a seaside cinema, who falls in love with her new coworker, a younger Black man, played by Micheal Ward. Colman is great—when is she not?—and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stunning, but Mendes is out of his depth when it comes to tackling racism and mental health. What starts as a swooning romance is complicated as Colman’s character’s illness recurs, and Thatcher era hatred spreads across the country.
Brendan Fraser and Colin Farrell Are Shoo-Ins for Best Actor Nods
It’s hard to deny the appeal of the Brendan Fraser narrative that started with his emotional reaction to the standing ovation he received at the premiere for his new movie The Whale in Venice. The ’90s goofball hunk and star of Encino Man has been open about his struggles in Hollywood—from the physical deterioration he endured to a sexual assault—and now he has a role that can show the breadth of his talent. The lovefest continued at TIFF, where he received a Tribute Award, but the movie is divisive, and will probably continue to be the subject of discourse as more people see it. Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of a play by Samuel D. Hunter features Fraser as Charlie, an English teacher on the verge of eating himself to death while mourning his deceased lover. Wearing extensive prosthetics to convey Charlie’s obesity, Fraser is warm and sorrowful, but the material is tough in a variety of ways. The women who orbit Charlie—including his daughter played by Sadie Sink—are rendered as harsh and unforgiving, and Aronofsky treats Charlie’s binge eating like a horror movie, complete with an overbearing score.
Fraser isn’t alone in the Oscar race. Colin Farrell won Venice’s Best Actor prize before his film The Banshees of Inisherin headed to Canada. Reuniting with Martin McDonagh, who also directed him in In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Farrell plays a simple man on a tiny Irish island in 1923 whose world is thrown into turmoil when his best friend (Brendan Gleeson) decides he doesn’t want to hang out anymore. It sounds simple enough, but Farrell is incredible in a challenging role that could easily fall into parody.
Also potentially in the mix is Hugh Jackman, who stars in Florian Zeller’s follow up to The Father, which won Anthony Hopkins an Oscar in 2021. The Son, in which Jackman plays the dad of a depressed teen, is much blunter than its predecessor and Jackman’s performance isn’t on the level of Hopkins’, but voters have shown they are in Zeller’s camp.
The Knives Out Sequel, Glass Onion, Is an Absolute Blast
Whether or not the Academy latches onto the fabulously entertaining Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, it sure is fun. Perhaps too fun for Oscar voters. But its vast cast brought a welcome dose of glamour to TIFF and will surely do so throughout the awards season. (Kate Hudson walking into a movie premiere carrying popcorn and what appeared to be a plastic cup of white wine? Iconic.)
Rian Johnson takes a new tact with this whodunnit, which strands Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc on a private Grecian island with a bunch of, in the parlance of one of the protagonists, “shitheads.” They’ve all gathered on the request of their friend and benefactor, an ostentatious tech titan portrayed by Edward Norton. Without giving too much away, it takes a second for the movie to find its rhythms, but once it does it’s completely gleeful, and Janelle Monáe once again proves she’s an all star actress.
It’s a Good Year for Female Ensemble Casts
Two of the most thrilling films out of this year’s TIFF feature domineering ensembles of female performers. Tonally, they are vastly different. The Woman King is a spectacular period action epic starring Viola Davis as an African general. Her warriors include Shelia Atim, Lashana Lynch, and Thuso Mbedu, all doing powerful work. Then there’s Women Talking, an adaptation of a 2018 novel about a group of Mennonite women who have all been raped by the men in their community gathering in a barn to discussion their next course of action. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley are all standouts as they represent the varying viewpoints of the afflicted. It’s a solemn, talky piece that hits extraordinarily hard.
Both films are proof that if you turn over your storytelling to women, you get amazing results. Whether you are looking for a badass blockbuster or a quiet drama, this season’s ladies have you covered.
We Have a Frontrunner for Best Documentary
The documentary category may not be the splashiest one to watch, but you’d be wise to place your bets on Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. It’s an astounding portrait of the photographer Nan Goldin, which looks at her life and her work through the prism of her radical existence and activism during the AIDS and opioid crises. Using Goldin’s slideshows as well as newly captured footage of her protests, Poitras has made something gutting and enervating.