10 Biggest Winners and Losers at the Toronto Film Festival

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star in HUSTLERS
Courtesy of STXfilms

The Toronto Film Festival used to be an all-night event. Agents and producers would unveil their latest masterpieces, and then wait for the bids to come rolling in through sunrise. But the movie business has changed dramatically in the last five years. Many studios, burnt by costly acquisitions, are exercising more restraint at film festivals, opting to produce their indies internally.

And Toronto’s standing has changed too, as Telluride and Venice have eclipsed its position as the first stop on the awards season trail. Instead, rather than being a festival of discoveries, Toronto has become a destination to binge watch the latest fall movies that are about to explode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and many movies got a boost from screening in Canada. But it does mean that if you’re premiering a movie at the festival, it’s much harder to get noticed.

Here are some of the biggest winners and losers from the 2019 edition of Hollywood’s trip up north.

WINNER: Netflix
The streaming service dominated the festival, fielding a number of critical favorites such as “Marriage Story” and “The Two Popes” that seem destined to become serious Oscar contenders, as well as buzzy crowd-pleasers like “Dolemite is My Name,” starring Eddie Murphy. It’s a sign of how far Netflix has come in just a few years, when big directors still clung to the notion of theatrical releases in mass multiplexes. That narrative has changed as a result of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which scored 10 Oscar nominations last winter and cemented the studio’s reputation for being filmmaker-friendly. Even Meryl Streep, who stars in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” offered a glowing endorsement for why she’d starred in her first Netflix film.

LOSER: The Market
Bidding wars were few and far between at this year’s Toronto. The good news: Agents got to bed early. The bad news: Many filmmakers are still scrambling to find homes for their movies. Movies such as “The Friend” and “Gun Akimbo” were supposed to score big deals, but met with tepid reviews. There were a few sales, to be sure. Bryce Dallas Howard’s “Dads” went to Apple, Bleecker Street picked up “Military Wives,” and Fox Searchlight nabbed “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” But as the festival nears its final weekend, it’s been devoid of splashy sales. Is it a sign that after Sundance favorites such as “Late Night” and “Blinded by the Light” flopped, studios don’t want to overpay for indie movies?

WINNER: “Hustlers
Before Toronto, Lorene Scafaria’s drama starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu and Cardi B as dancers in a New York strip club was poised to be a fall crowdpleaser. But its world premiere at the festival, which was met with ecstatic reviews, quickly elevated its game. The conventional wisdom now is that “Hustlers” could land Lopez her first Oscar nomination. And the movie is likely to conquer the box office this weekend, as a much-needed hit for STX Entertainment.

LOSER: “The Goldfinch”
The big screen adaptation of Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel fell flat with audiences and critics. A common gripe was that the story, one that unfolds over several decades, was too sprawling to be a feature-length film and would have been better served as a miniseries. Warner Bros. had hoped to gin up Oscar buzz and enthusiasm for the prestige-hopeful, but instead it just exposed “The Goldfinch” for what it is — a narrative mess that’s unlikely to please fans of the book or awards voters.

WINNER: “Just Mercy”
But at least Warner Bros. looks like it has a strong best picture contender with “Just Mercy.” The drama chronicles the real-life story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer in Alabama who tries to save his client (Jamie Foxx) from death row after he was wrongfully convicted of murder. It also has an impressive advocate in Stevenson, who held audiences in thrall at the film’s premiere when he spoke movingly about the need to reform the criminal justice system.

The boutique label has a formidable fall season with three offerings that were all met with positive reviews out of Toronto. Adam Sandler could get his first Oscar nomination for “Uncut Gems,” a dazzling Rubik’s Cube of a story from the Safdie brothers. Trey Edward Shuts’ “Waves” was met with one of the loudest standing ovations for an epic saga about an upper-class family in Florida (think “Euphoria” meets John Steinbeck meets Terrence Malick). And coming off raves in Cannes, “The Lighthouse”–starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe–continued to gain steam before its theatrical release next month.

WINNER: Renee Zellweger
“Judy,” the biopic about Judy Garland starring Zellweger in the title role, quickly entered into the Oscar race at Telluride. But as the buzz continued to build out of Toronto, Zellweger now seems to be the clear frontrunner for the best actress statute. The Toronto audience showered her with a lengthy standing ovation, filled with tears and cheers. After taking a self-imposed break from Hollywood, Zellweger is back.

WINNER: Joaquin Phoenix
The “Joker” star may be the rare performer to pull off an Oscar win for a comic book movie. Even the film’s detractors — and there are many — had to admit that Phoenix’s go-for-broke portrait of psychosis is an acting tour-de-force. It’s one that arrives with the kind Method-y touches (Phoenix lost 55 lbs. and stormed off the set if the mood wasn’t right) that leave awards voters swooning. Plus, his emotional speech paying tribute to his brother, the late River Phoenix, was the highpoint of the Toronto Film Festival Tribute Gala. The film itself, which is a grim, unrelenting, and blood-soaked look at a homicidal maniac will almost certainly incite fierce debate about whether it glamorizes violence in an era of mass shootings. That could make it one of the fall’s most polarizing films. No matter what happens, Phoenix’s talent can’t be denied.

LOSER: “Lucy in the Sky”
Natalie Portman’s astronaut movie never achieved liftoff. The Fox Searchlight release has long been rumored to be a production in trouble and based on the scathing reviews that greeted it in Toronto, the scuttlebutt was all too true. Director Noah Hawley’s film aimed to put a feminist take on the story of Lisa Nowak (here fictionalized as Lucy Cola), a former NASA flight officer whose messy personal life and arrest for attempting to kidnap a romantic rival. Instead, critics say he missed the mark, delivering a muddled and pretentious film that will have a tough road to travel if it wants to find mainstream success.

WINNER: Tom Hanks
He won back-to-back Oscars for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia.” But Tom Hanks somehow hasn’t been nominated for an Academy Award in 19 years, since “Cast Away.” His portrait as Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” should change that. Hanks channels the beloved TV show host’s mannerisms, voice and puppeteering skills, but also gets to the heart of why Fred Rogers became America’s most trusted friend in the neighborhood.