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Welcome to TIFF, a Guide to This Year’s Oscars Lightning Rods

The Toronto International Film Festival has accurately predicted the controversial awards season movie for three consecutive years. Why is that, and with ‘Joker’ on the horizon, can the festival make it four years in a row?

Ringer illustration

“I really loved that, did you?” asked the woman sitting beside me at a sold-out mid-afternoon screening of Green Book toward the end of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Before the film began, she told me that she had been seeing two movies a day for a week straight; she booked the time off of work and picked what to see based on which films sounded like they “had a good story.” Having lived in Toronto for my entire life and attended the festival for the last 21 years, I recognized her as a very common TIFF type, a genial movie enthusiast happy to pony up to see Oscar contenders a couple of weeks early. I also knew that it would be more painless to lie a little bit than to sully her happy mood. “Viggo was really good,” I told her, moving toward the exit. “I’ll bet that this movie wins some awards.”

This is a true story, including the part about Viggo Mortensen being really good: I have too much pride to try and retcon the fact that I didn’t totally hate Green Book, a movie that tried so hard to be on the right side of history that it rendered a true story unforgivably phony, and which upon reflection deserves its status as a cultural punch line. It is, surely, one of the most egregious Best Picture winners of all time, a list that I’d say tilts heavily toward the 21st century. Two years ago, exiting a screening of The Shape of Water, I tweeted that Guillermo Del Toro’s sentimental fairy tale “deserve[d] to join the ranks of Best Picture winners like Argo, Birdman and Spotlight. Because sarcasm doesn’t always translate to the printed word, I got a number of earnest, excited responses. But most of my friends knew what I meant, which was that the movie was not actually very good, and that its flaws were the flaws of a film carefully calibrated for Oscar glory: It pandered to and flattered an audience hungry for socially conscious themes but also complacent with clichés. The African American musician embraces his reformed-racist chauffeur, and we are relieved; the mute janitor and her amphibious lover defeat the fascist, discriminatory Trump doppelgänger and live happily ever after under the sea (while, I guess, the upheavals of the 1960s happen to everybody else).

That the Toronto-shot The Shape of Water didn’t win TIFF’s annual People’s Choice Award in 2017 was a bit of a surprise. It was upset by Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which offered a slightly edgier variation on the aforementioned crowd-pleasing formula: politically incorrect jokes to go along with a redneck redemption story. Along with 2016’s People’s Choice winner—that’d be La La Land—and Green Book, Three Billboards slots into an unholy trinity of films whose initially positive reception curdled closer to their wide release and eventual success during awards season. The common denominator between these backlashes, with Green Book’s being the most severe, was the perception of problematic racial politics and representation—issues that had either eluded or been ignored by enthusiastic Toronto audiences.

On the surface, the story told by the victories of La La Land, Three Billboards, and Green Book, is that TIFF is more than pulling its weight as an Oscar bellwether: that the optimistic and self-fulfilling prophecy of investing in fall prestige pictures keeps paying off. Beneath the good vibes, though, lies something fascinating and discordant. Toronto is a city that—rightly—prides itself on its multicultural image, and TIFF, as a government-supported, civically minded arts organization, has worked overtime on multiple fronts to set and exercise a progressive mandate. Looking through the list of movies that play every year, it’s easy to see and appreciate the cosmopolitan makeup of the festival’s overall programming and its commitment—newly enhanced and duly advertised—to working toward directorial gender parity and diversifying the press corps accredited for coverage.

On the whole, though, TIFF still leans into its awards-season power-player brand, and the media tends to go with the same narrative. So what does it say that the festival has recently been emblematized by films quite passionately disparaged for being, to varying degrees, blinkered white-savior fantasies? On the one hand, the packed houses and standing ovations for Green Book are exactly what TIFF’s public-facing populism is meant to represent: a festival more for the people than the industry (like Sundance), the tastemakers (Cannes), or the cultural elite (New York). On the other, it’s not exactly a good look to be seen as the launching pad for Nick Vallelonga.

I’ve been covering TIFF as journalist long enough to know that I’m part of the problem, both in terms of jumping at the opportunity to access big-ticket titles and, in the process, underselling the variety on display at North America’s largest film festival. And that’s despite the fact that my taste runs much closer, for the most part, to the more esoteric reaches of the TIFF selection, like its perennially excellent Wavelengths program, which showcases experimental and avant-garde filmmaking and has been a safe haven for brilliant directors like Pedro Costa, Angela Schanelec, and Apichatpong Weerasathakul. Scan through the massive Contemporary World Cinema catalog (overseen this year by Kiva Reardon, the founder of the sadly departed Canadian feminist film journal cléo) and you’ll find a broader range of international features (especially from underrepresented cinemas in Africa and the Middle East); the Discovery section is specifically dedicated to unearthing new talent.

There have been times when TIFF has attempted to cross the streams between its carefully regimented sections, like placing Claire Denis’s wild, uncompromising outer-space art film High Life in its glitzy Gala section last fall, which resulted in the director and Robert Pattinson presenting their cinematic UFO in front of a bewildered audience at the cavernous, 3,000-seat Roy Thomson Hall. For the most part, though, the logic of supply and demand reigns supreme, with the biggest venues allotted for the highest-profile movies, effectively rigging the aforementioned People’s Choice Award in favor of Hollywood product.

Because TIFF wants to be all things to all people, it has also cultivated a Cannes-like competition section called Platform devoted to the artier end of the spectrum: Its proudest representative was Moonlight in 2016, even though a jury featuring Brian De Palma opted to award Pablo Larrain’s Jackie instead. (De Palma is great, but nobody’s perfect.) The hope seems to be that with time and precedent, Platform will compel the same excitement as Cannes’ battle for the Palme D’or, which is fair enough, but in the meantime, the festival’s emphasis on Hollywood is unmistakable. This year brings the inaugural “TIFF Tribute Awards Gala”, held in honor of visiting VIPs like Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, and Roger Deakins, all of whom are, to say the least, pretty good at what they do but are not exactly in need of additional exposure. Meanwhile, the first TIFF Ebert Director Award will go to Taika Waititi, ostensibly in honor of his upcoming, Disney executive-spooking “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit (in which the filmmaker also stars, Charlie Chaplin-style, as Adolf Hitler) but which comes with its own set of implications. In the same fall that Todd Phillips’s Joker is being feted in Venice (and added as a special attraction at the New York Film Festival in addition to TIFF), the intersection of the film festival and comic book universes bears scrutiny.

Obviously, Joker will be one of the movies that defines this year’s festival, and if the reactions out of Venice are to believed, it’s a potential—and potentially problematic—People’s Choice Award winner. Early reviews have implied, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, that it’s a game changer of sorts, and also that its portrait of the character as a disaffected, beta-male outcast turned avenging icon could prove dangerous in the same manner as historically incendiary movies like A Clockwork Orange, Do the Right Thing, or Fight Club. Indiewire’s David Ehrlich’s anxious, yet cautiously even-handed assessment of Joker sees it as “pointing towards a grim future,” in which “even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they’re at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property.” What’s being proposed here is something truly diabolical, and which, ideally, a savvy, culturally responsible festival like TIFF would provide a bulwark against instead of literally rolling out the red carpet, regardless of the film’s quality (which I have no opinion on yet—watch this space).

Of course I’ll be reviewing Joker out of TIFF for The Ringer, and most of the other “the Oscar race starts here” titles: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver suffering through a divorce (and also Driver supposedly performing, in its entirety, a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Company); the Safdie brothers’ Good Time follow-up Uncut Gems, featuring Adam Sandler as an unscrupulous New York jeweler whose clients include Kevin Garnett (playing himself); Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers docudrama The Laundromat; the Eddie Murphy–as–Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite is My Name; the Tom Hanks–as–Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; the Jim Carrey–as–Rick Carlisle biopic Maverick (I made that last one up). I’ll also try to talk about some movies that are currently flying a little lower under the radar, including Canadian ones if I’m allowed (it’s hard to know if the Raptors being defending NBA champions means more or less latitude for a Toronto-based writer). But I’ll also be waiting to see what this festival’s audience deems worth celebrating and why, and wondering if the strange chemistry of TIFF’s all-things-at-once experiment will once again combust and propel a controversial—and questionably qualified—title toward months of heated discussion. Be back soon.