Toronto: 9 Standout Performances From Natalie Portman to Emma Stone

Jackie Venice
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

From newcomers to movie stars, many films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival provided showcases for actors looking to make a career U-turn. Some earning buzz from this year’s gathering, such as Emma Stone in “La La Land” and Natalie Portman in “Jackie,” are already household names who are now sure bets for Oscars nominations. Others, like Sunny Pawar in “Lion,” barely have a film credit on their resumes. But all leave Canada with a professional boost, as the industry heads into the fall movie season. Here’s a look at nine breakout performances that galvanized Toronto.

(1) Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
Portman has been nominated for two Oscars before — for “Closer” and “Black Swan,” for which she won best actress — but nothing prepared me for her performance in “Jackie.” In portraying the iconic first lady in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Portman takes an elusive historical figure and channels shades of Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.” It’s a bold, mesmerizing portrait, all the more impressive by the revelation from director Pablo Larrain that one-third of the scenes in the movie were caught with just one take. In an election year, “Jackie,” which distributor Fox Searchlight picked up out of Toronto, feels like a must-see triumph. -Ramin Setoodeh

(2) Naomie Harris, “Moonlight” 
Playing Paula, the crack-addicted mother of a sensitive boy struggling with his sexual orientation, Harris is both enraging and deeply sympathetic. Viewers may be shocked by how as her descent into addiction causes her to ignore her son’s emotional issues, but the actress is too skillful to simply make her character a monster. She’s a victim too, and a survivor — a woman who maintains a reservoir of love for her child, one that the drugs may mask, but won’t extinguish. Her final monologue, to her now adult son, is a master class of acting, overflowing with regret and pain. It’s heartbreaking work. -Brent Lang

(3) Sasha Lane, “American Honey”
As Star, the protagonist nomad in Andrea Arnold’s road trip drama, Sasha Lane lives up to the prophecy of her character’s name. Although she had never acted before — or even taken an acting class — when she was discovered on spring break by the director of “Fish Tank,” Lane carries almost every scene in “American Honey” with a movie-star glow that makes this coming-of-age story feel alive. -R.S.

(4) Emma Stone, “La La Land” 
With a husky voice that cracks ever so slightly, Stone can sure sell a song. Her performance in “La La Land,” as Mia, an aspiring actress who falls in love with a troubled jazz musician, belongs with Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles and Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in the top ranks of movie musical heroines. She’s both strong and vulnerable, never more so than during a showboat number that sees her auditioning for a dream role. Like Minnelli and Streisand, who both captured Oscars for their work in “Cabaret” and “Funny Girl,” respectively, Stone’s performance could earn her a golden guy of her own. -B.L.

(5) Lucas Hedges, “Manchester By the Sea”
At Sundance, Kenneth Lonergan’s dramatic tour-de-force starring Casey Affleck as a lonely janitor who moves home to Gloucester, Mass., sold for $10 million to Amazon Studios and officially kicked off the 2016 Oscar race. The Toronto version of the movie was just as potent, but funnier, thanks to a slightly tweaked edit that played up some of the one-liners between Affleck and his nephew. As played by Lucas Hedges, Patrick is an antidote to all the darkness in the film; he just wants to get laid and work on his dad’s boat. But it’s the scene where Hedges breaks down that serves as one of the most haunting moments in “Manchester By the Sea,” and announces the arrival of a great character actor. -R.S.

(6) Sunny Pawar, “Lion”
It’s almost too frightening to imagine: A five-year old boy separated from his family, sleeping on the streets, and hopelessly lost in the slums of Calcutta. So begins “Lion,” a true-life tale that, for its first hour, rests entirely on the shoulders of Pawar. Despite having no prior film credits, this newcomer commands the screen. With the wrong direction, child actors can be cloying and mannered, but Pawar is a natural. He lets the camera in, showing his character’s fear and also his resolve. There’s never a false movement, something actors three or four times his age would be lucky to pull off. A star is born. -B.L

(7) Felicity Jones, “A Monster Calls”
At first glance, Felicity Jones, 32, might seem too young to play a grown boy’s mum — particularly because she was so good at projecting college-age innocence in “Like Crazy” and the first half of “The Theory of Everything.” But as you settle into this allegory about loss, starring Lewis MacDougall as a British adolescent who befriends a monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it’s Jones’ performance that quietly sneaks up on you. Not since “Brokeback Mountain” has there been such a big collective sob session in Toronto.  -R.S.

(8) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Nocturnal Animals”
Movie-star good looks have made Taylor-Johnson the face of tentpoles like “Kick-Ass,” “Godzilla” and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” But director Tom Ford pulled off a casting coup by turning him into a bad guy. With a Texas drawl and goatee, he’s unrecognizable as the menace who pulls up to Jake Gyllenhaal’s car and initiates a vengeful kidnapping. It’s thrilling, and terrifying, to watch Taylor-Johnson’s descent into the dark side. -R.S.

(9) Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals” 
The second breakout performance of “Nocturnal Animals” belongs to Michael Shannon. Bobby Andes doesn’t play things by the book. The lawman with a hacking cough and a hard stare thinks nothing of beating up suspects or skipping the whole Miranda rights thing. It’s an indelible performance by Shannon, one that gives “Nocturnal Animals,” a pulp-lish yarn that unfolds as a story within a story, a jolt of electricity. -B.L.