It’s been a good few months for Toronto. Our fair neighbors to the north have hosted the Pan-Am Games, seen the Blue Jays jump ahead of the storied Yankees and The Weeknd hold the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts for three consecutive weeks, and bore witness to Drake’s thorough annihilation of Meek Mill—a beef so deliciously contentious that local politicians got in on the fun. Also, poutine. Always and forever.
Enter the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF, running from September 10-20, is the most formidable film fest in the world, with this year’s edition boasting some half a million attendees and 289 feature films hailing from 71 countries. Most notably, the behemoth is seen as a springboard for Oscar hopefuls, placing said prestige pictures in the choppy waters of awards season and aiming them towards the Dolby Theatre stage. Over the years, films ranging from American Beauty and Crash to Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech have all premiered at TIFF, and the ’14 edition saw eventual Oscar winners The Theory of Everything (Best Actor), Still Alice (Best Actress), and The Imitation Game (Best Adapted Screenplay) debut there—along with other critically lauded films like Wild, Beyond the Lights, Nightcrawler, and Love and Mercy, to name a few.
This year’s TIFF was, all things considered, even more impressive than last year’s, providing a platform for a number of Oscar bait films while exposing other seemingly splashy ones’ flaws. Without further ado, here are the highlights of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish GirlOscar Odds: Lock
Yes, Tom Hooper’s latest is very Tom Hooper, replete with a cornucopia of wide-angle lensing, off-center framing, Alexandre Desplat’s cloying ivories, and actors set against paint-splattered walls. Thankfully, the swooping cameras of Les Miserables have taken a backseat here, allowing us to take in Eddie Redmayne’s delicate, sensuous turn as Lili Elbe—a 1920s Danish transgender woman and one of the very first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Redmayne’s effeminate features—thin frame, pouty lips, high cheekbones—make Elbe’s transition seem all the more necessary, while his sparkling eyes signal hope and inner strength. Like his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, it’s a highly calibrated, highly disciplined performance capturing the tension between the mind, body, and spirit, and should earn the Brit his second straight Oscar nomination.
Brie Larson, RoomOscar Odds: Lock
Lenny Abrahamson’s semi-faithful adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel is both a fascinating meditation on growing up and a testament to the human spirit. Ma (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) have been held captive in “Room”—a soundproof garden shed—since his birth, and, during its gripping opener, she keeps her sheltered child entertained by breathing life into a series of mundane tasks, from games to reading. It’s here, in particular, that Larson excels, imbuing her Ma with loving strength and fortitude, like a more tortured Kimmy Schmidt. Much like her Oscar-worthy turn as a counselor/surrogate mother to at-risk teens in Short Term 12, Larson possesses a unique ability to penetrate the protective shields of troubled kids, and, through her sheer force of good will, access their humanity. When the two are released, she navigates the stages of PTSD to harrowing effect. Not a single person was shocked when Room took home the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF.
Matt Damon, The MartianOscar Odds: Solid
Is there a more reliable actor in Hollywood than Matt Damon? But consistency is the enemy of enterprise, and Damon has often, with the notable exception of Behind the Candelabra, failed to stretch himself. He does just that in The Martian, delivering the most charismatic and confident performance of his career as Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who’s left for dead on Mars by his crew. Unlike his jarring, thinly-drawn marooned asshole in Interstellar, Damon is a total revelation here. That the first half-hour of the film—consisting of Watney struggling with the elements, and attempting to grow plants—is its most compelling speaks volumes. The Martian is Ridley Scott’s monument to Damon’s charm and likability, and is every bit as good a turn as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity.
Emily Blunt, SicarioOscar Odds: Deserving, But Iffy
Though she first made a name for herself as a series of manipulative psychopaths in films like My Summer of Love and The Devil Wears Prada, Emily Blunt is at her best when she summons a mixture of strength and vulnerability—her disinterested eyes belying inner fear and trepidation—as in The Young Victoria. Her Kate Macer, an FBI agent and leader of an elite kidnap-response team along the Mexican border who gets roped into an interagency war with the drug cartels, is equal parts Clarice Starling and Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya, a beacon of nobility in a deeply corrupt, masculine world. From the film’s early scenes of Kate trapped in a caravan heading into the hellscape of Juarez, the camera in tight on her panic-stricken face, to its brilliant final shot, Blunt allows us to experience the terror and moral ambiguity of the drug war in all its devastation.
Johnny Depp, Black MassOscar Odds: Very Iffy
Johnny Depp loves to transform, which usually means heaps of makeup. It can be terribly effective, e.g. his ethereal scar-faced albino in Edward Scissorhands, or terribly vexing, like his Michael Jackson-on-speed impersonation in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here, he’s turned notorious South Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger into a vampire, replete with pale skin, icy-blue eyes, balding scalp, and rotted teeth. Narrative issues aside, it’s a menacing performance by Depp, with his Bulger prone to sudden fits of violence and chilling monologues. But this is a mediocre, disjointed gangster film—more Gangster Squad than L.A. Confidential—that should have positioned Bulger, since he’s so sinister and largely impermeable, as a supporting character instead of the lead.
Anomalisa Oscar Odds: Lock
I don’t want to give too much away about Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s latest masterpiece. But if you thought Pixar’s dazzling Inside Out was a lock for the Best Animated Oscar prize, well, think again. Co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Nelson, and adapted from Kaufman’s 2005 play of the same name, this stop motion animated film tells the story of a struggling author (voiced by David Thewlis) who, while on a routine business trip, finds his life’s been given meaning again when he crosses paths with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a dynamic stranger. Kaufman’s film is every bit as inventive and captivating as his previous triumphs Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York, and is a must-see.