Taking Toronto’s Pulse: Fuzzy Awards Picture, More Politics

The Toronto Film Fest has offered plenty of A-list talent, including appearances from George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence. But the fest approaches its midpoint with no blockbuster film sales or clear-cut best picture contender. From the looming presence of Trump to meaty female-driven projects, here are five takeaways from the Canadian gathering.

Lack of Awards Season Favorites
Downsizing,” “The Shape of Water,” “Mudbound” and “The Upside” all have their fierce partisans but also a fair share of detractors. Other films, such as “The Current War,” were met with a tepid response when they debuted over the weekend. The result is that this year’s festival has yet to host the kind of unadulterated best picture Oscar front-runner that past gatherings have spotlighted. So far, there’s no “La La Land” or “Moonlight” or “Spotlight” that festival-goers can know for certain is going to be getting a ticket to the Academy Awards.

‘Dunkirk’ Now Looking Stronger 
Christopher Nolan’s war epic roared back into focus with a special screening at Toronto tied to Imax’s 50th anniversary. Reading between the lines, it was hard not to see Nolan’s trek up north for a post-show Q&A as anything other than an effort to reintroduce the film to awards season voters. With many fall Oscar hopefuls faltering, “Dunkirk” appears to have the wind at its back. Will Nolan finally bag a gold statue for his directing?

Politics Bubbles Up 
There’s a raft of politically charged films hitting Toronto this year, many of which seem to be commenting directly or indirectly on the partisan divides in the country. “The Final Year,” a documentary about former President Obama’s sober and serious-minded foreign policy team, draws stark contrasts with President Trump’s more rococo approach to management. “Suburbicon,” George Clooney’s crime drama, is also an examination of racial tensions that takes on a fresh charge in the wake of the Charlottesville protests. “Battle of the Sexes” looks at the issue of gender equity by re-creating Billie Jean King’s standoff with Bobby Riggs. In interviews, “The Death of Stalin” director Armando Iannucci made it plain that he sees clear parallels between the Soviet dictator and the current White House resident.

Women Take Center Stage 
Female directors continue to be woefully underrepresented in Hollywood, comprising just 7% of filmmakers on the 250 highest-grossing movies. It’s a different situation at Toronto, where a third of the films are made by women, including many of the buzziest titles.

Angelina Jolie was on hand with Netflix’s “First They Killed My Father,” a passion project about the Cambodian genocide. Greta Gerwig dazzled audiences with her wry coming-of-age tale “Lady Bird.” Valerie Faris earned some of the festival’s strongest reviews for co-directing “Battle of the Sexes” with her husband, Jonathan Dayton. And Dee Rees has a chance of becoming the first African-American woman to earn a best director Oscar nod for her work on “Mudbound.” That’s to say nothing of a best actress category that’s looking positively stacked, with the likes of Emma Stone (“Battle of the Sexes”), Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound”), Judi Dench (“Victoria & Abdul”), Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) all trying to elbow into the race.

Studios Leave Their Checkbooks at Home 
Films like “Hostiles” have drawn interest from studios looking to bolster their slates, but a lot of directors and producers who came to Canada looking for distribution seem destined to go home empty-handed. The constant gripe is that in the streaming era, a film has to be enormously compelling to convince people to hit the theaters. These films appear to lack the necessary sizzle. Also, recent flops such as “Patti Cake$” and “Brigsby Bear,” both of which were warmly received at Sundance, have made companies wary of succumbing to festival fever.

The biggest surprise is how aggressive Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios has been. The former comedian and journalist seems determined to become a full-fledged movie mogul. He shelled out a combined $8 million for the rights to “Replicas,” a Keanu Reeves thriller, and “Chappaquiddick,” a political drama. Other buyers, like Amazon, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Netflix was more active, picking up rights to titles including Andy Kaufman documentary “Jim & Andy” and road trip movie “Kodachrome.”

The Orchard picked up Louis C.K.’s black and white “I Love You, Daddy” for $5 million, while Neon/30West also paid in the $5 million area for “I, Tonya” starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.

Meanwhile, A24 picked up “The Children Act,” starring Emma Thompson and “Hot Summer Nights” with Timothee Chalamet.

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