As Toronto 2017 Comes to a Close, Which Films Have Left a Mark?

by Husam Asi September 15, 2017
Scenes from some TIFF films: The Shape of Water, Stronger, Molly's Game and Lady Bird

Clockwise from top left: Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game; Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water; Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird; Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger.

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With the Venice and Telluride film festivals failing to produce a La La Land, a Birdman or a 12 Years A Slave this year, the pressure was on Toronto International Film festival (TIFF) to come up with frontrunners for the Fall season. Festivalgoers and film critics flocked to the multitude of screenings, searching for that elusive picture like gold diggers.

On its first day, the festival unspooled the highly anticipated tennis drama from Danish director Janus Metz, Borg McEnroe, which revolves around the rivalry between two 70s iconic tennis players, John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) and Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason). While the film was met with warm applause and positive reviews, it failed to keep the momentum and quickly ebbed away from the conversation, just like other previous TIFF openers.

Eyes were quickly turned to other potential contenders such as Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain in the lead role of Molly Bloom, who becomes entangled in a legal battle with the FBI for forming an underground poker empire for the world’s rich and famous. With its fiery and rapid dialogue and two-hour- and- twenty-minutes runtime, the film was challenging to follow for the audience, but Chastain’s delivery renders it a pleasure to watch, so the buzz was about her performance rather than the film itself.

 

Scenes from some TIFF films: The Current War, Roman J Israel, Esq and The Death of Stalin

Top: Jason Isaacs and Jeffrey tambor in The Death of Stalin; Bottom: Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in The Current War, and Denzel Washington as Roman J Israel, Esq.

IFC films, Sony, TWC

 

Other highly anticipated movies were met with tepid reaction. Among them was the Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, which explores the battle between the two 19th-century great inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over the dominance in the use of tidal and direct electrical currents, and Dan Gilroy’s legal drama Roman J. Israel, Eq, in which Denzel Washington plays an introverted attorney whose integrity is tested when he joins a cutthroat law firm.

Other world-premiered titles drew interest and even praise for the performances of their talent, such as Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Stronger, Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin, Rachel Weisz’s and Rachel McAdam's lesbian drama Disobedience and Margot Robbie's starrer I, Tonya, but none of them was able to rise above the foray and take the lead for the upcoming season.

Ironically, it was the news of Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water scooping the Venice’s Golden Lion that heated the award conversation in Toronto. The movie’s premiere instantly became the hottest ticket in Toronto, attended by the city’s mayor, who showered Del Toro with praise at his introductory speech. The audience exploded with rapturous applause when the Mexican director took to the stage. The question is: will this warmth translate into winning the coveted Audience Award? Because such triumph would cement its position as this year’s frontrunner.

The film shares some of the ingredients that propelled La La Land to the front of last year’s awards race. As one would expect from Del Toro, there is a monster at the heart of the story, but instead of horror, he gives us a heartwarming romance in the vein of Beauty and the Beast. The beauty here is a mute, cleaning lady who rescues the monster from his captors, the US secret service, takes him home, and gradually falls in love with him. 

While The Shape of Water could potentially emerge to be the Fall leader this year, Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age drama Lady Bird could be the sleeper hit,  like Moonlight did last year. Just like Moonlight, Lady Bird has been receiving enthusiastic praise since its premiere at Telluride and continued to impress at TIFF.  And if it maintains this momentum, it could be the next overachieving underdog.