Oscar season kicks into high gear at Toronto Film Festival

Are you ready for red carpet season?

Awards chatter starts in earnest this week, with filmmakers touching down Thursday in Canada to show off their latest endeavors at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 8 to 18 and showcases more than 300 movies.

The run-up to Oscar nominations is stocked with hot tickets like La La Land, which earned pre-TIFF raves at the Venice and Telluride film festivals last week, and A Monster Calls, which makes its debut Saturday in Toronto.

The success of Whiplash paved the way for Damien Chazelle’s dance-driven musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. “La La Land was kind of this dream project that I was nursing for a while, really out of a love for old musicals and the cinema,” the director says.

Early reaction to the tearjerker A Monster Calls is so positive that it's getting an awards-friendly Christmas week theatrical run. “It’s a really strong potential Oscar contender,” says IndieWire Oscar watcher Anne Thompson.

Director J.A. Bayona, who last directed The Impossible (and will next helm the Jurassic World sequel) says the young-adult story got under his skin. “From the moment I read the book, I wanted to do this film,” says Bayona, who cast Felicity Jones as an ailing mother whose bullied 12-year-old son imagines a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) at his window.

Toronto is always a mix of blue-chip offerings and sleeper hits, and this year's notable dramas include Amy Adams' sci-fi mystery Arrival; Oliver Stone’s Snowden, about the National Security Agency whistleblower (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut American Pastoral (he also stars), based on the Philip Roth novel. “I’ve spent 23, 24 years being introduced onto the stage by a director from the wings at film festivals. And I’ll be doing the introduction this time, which I’m very proud about,” McGregor says.

To play Snowden, Gordon-Levitt scored rare face time in Moscow with the polarizing ex-contractor. "We talked for four hours,” the actor says. More recently, “family members of his have seen the trailer and said that I sounded like him. The family seal of approval is the best.”

The festival gets a glossy opening Thursday night with director Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, a remake of the 1960 classic Western, this time starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.

“That’s not an awards movie, but it’s a big commercial movie with huge stars,” says Pete Hammond, awards columnist for the industry website Deadline.com, who predicts a positive launch for the shoot-'em-up film. “That’s a good way to turn around the jinx of the opening night,” past suffered by such disappointments as Demolition and The Judge.

The pressure is on to deliver not just good films, but great ones.

Over the next week, Rachel Weisz will be seen as a Jewish scholar who goes up against a Holocaust denier in Denial; Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel co-star as a mother and her adopted son in the hotly anticipated Lion; and Woody Harrelson steps into the Oval Office in Rob Reiner’s biopic LBJ. “Wait until you see what he does. It’s so good," says Reiner, promising "a more complete picture of LBJ as a human being."

Representation from female directors is strong, with eyes on Lone Scherfig's Their Finest, starring Gemma Arterton; Rebecca Zlotowski's Planetarium, starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp; Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe, starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o; and Kelly Fremon Craig's closing-night film The Edge of Seventeen, starring Harrelson and Hailee Steinfeld.

Festival programmers also kept an eye on diversity. Essential viewing includes Moonlight, the story of an African-American boy growing up on Miami's drug-plagued streets (Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae star), and A United Kingdom, a drama from Amma Asante that examines the racial politics that resulted when the King of Botswana (Oyelowo) fell in love with a London office worker (Rosamund Pike) in 1947. “I loved the idea of two people fighting to be together, whatever color they happen to be,” Asante says.

But the big question remains: Can the festival prove redemptive for The Birth of A Nation, the record-breaking Sundance hit about the rise of slave-turned-preacher Nat Turner?

Birth remains mired in controversy after recent revelations that director/star Nate Parker and co-screenwriter Jean Celestin were tried for rape in college more than 15 years ago. (Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted, but the charge was later overturned.)

“It was considered to be a front-runner for Oscar and now it’s not," Thompson says. "Frankly, Toronto is basically its last chance to recover some ground."


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