Great performances but no clear winner at Toronto International Film Festival

Robert Downey Jr good performance could not save The Judge
Robert Downey Jr good performance could not save The Judge

In the last 10 days, hundreds of thousands of film fans and experts descended on Toronto charged with great expectations and hopes to discover next year’s potential Best Picture Oscar winner. Armed with their precious tickets, they stood patiently for hours in long lines in the sweltering heat, longing to witness film history again.

On its first day, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) unspooled the highly anticipated David Dobkin drama “The Judge,” about a lawyer (Robert Downey Junior) who have to confront his past and his relationship with his family when he returns to his hometown to defend his father judge (Robert Duvall), who has been accused of murder.

In spite of impressive performances from Robert Downey Junior and Robert Duvall, the film failed to meet the expectation of  festival goers, who swiftly pushed it out of the way and went scurrying around looking for magic elsewhere. The lukewarm reception of The Judge represented a setback for TIFF, considering that just a week earlier the opener of Venice Film Festival, The Birdman, had the industry and the press salivating and showering it with praise and Oscars predictions.

Nonetheless, hope was still alight at TIFF. After all, last year’s opener “The Fifth State,” was an abysmal failure, sinking into oblivion as soon as the final credits rolled out, but it was quickly followed by masterpieces such as “12 Years A Slave,” “Gravity,” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” which injected a new life into the festival and infused its attendees with a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. This year, however, the pervading mood was a sense of disappointment and a longing for something unique and special that could ignite the engine for this year’s awards race.

Indeed, there hasn’t been an outstanding best picture contender, but there has been so many Oscar-worthy male performances that

Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

rendered best picture debate almost irrelevant. Instead, fans and experts were embroiled in a discussion about next year’s Academy winner in the best lead actor category.

What makes these performances so captivating is the fact that they are drawn from real life and bring to life real people, both dead and alive, with uncanny authenticity.  Some are so equally compelling that it’s virtually impossible to choose a winner among them. But judging from past Award winners, British actor Eddie Redmayne has a decent chance of snatching an Oscar this year for inhabiting the famed disabled physicist, Stephen Hawking, in Oscar-winning James Marsh “The Theory of Everything,” which, based on the book of Hawking’s wife, Jane, follows the physicist’s race against time and a cruel disease to unlock the mystery of the universe. Felicity Jones also delivers a poignant performance, portraying Jane Hawking whose undying love for her husband kept him alive and lead him to glory.

Another British genius, mathematician Alan Turing, who broke the German enigma code during WWII, which led the allies to victory over Germany, was brought to life in “The Imitation Game” by Benedict Cumberbatch, who, in one of the best works of his career, leads us in the emotional journey of Turing as he saves his country from a certain defeat, only to be later condemned and indicted by the same country for being homosexual.

In “Foxcatcher,” Steve Carell, who is known for making us laugh, instills fear and awe in the hearts of the festival audiences, in his portrayal of the dark, self-obsessed, John Du Pont,  one of the richest men in the US and the heir of the Du Pont family, who invites an Olympic wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), to his estate to train for the Wrestling World Championship, providing all their needs, but behind his altruistic veneer there is a self-destructive motive that leads to a horrific tragedy.

There were other impressive performances that kept the festival on its toes, including Bill Murray in the comedy “St Vincent,” Jack Gyllenhaal in the thriller “Night Crawler,” J.K Simmons in the music drama and Sundance Winner “Whiplash,” and Cannes’ winner Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.”

Steve Carell may get the Oscar for inhabiting John Du Pont in Foxcatcher
Steve Carell may get the Oscar for inhabiting John Du Pont in Foxcatcher

The question on people’s lips was: where are the ladies? Indeed there has been a dearth of outstanding performances from women. Even those whose name were dropped in conversations, such as the aforementioned Felicity Jones, Reese Witherspoon in “Wild” and Cannes winner Julianne Moore in “Maps to the Stars,” and “Still Alice” were not on par with their male counterparts. The hope is that other actresses will shine in upcoming releases and ignite the talk of best actress Oscar contenders.

No doubt TIFF is feeling the heat from other competing festivals, who are also trying to be relevant in the awards race. TIFF’s recent attempt to dissuade filmmakers from opening their films in Venice and Telluride film festivals, both held a week earlier, by disallowing their film from being screened in the first 4 coveted days, before the press and the industry leave the city, has backfired. Many important films, that had opened in other festivals, were jammed in a very tight schedule and others such as the solid Oscar contender, Birdman, have  skipped Toronto altogether and headed directly to The New York Film Festival.

That said, TIFF is not only about predicting awards, it’s about film commerce too, where movies are sold and projects are financed. Setting a record, Chris Rock’s “Top Five” sold to Paramount for $12.5 million. This kind of figure is an anomaly, for the rest of the deals averaged around $3 million. Among them was John Travolta’s heist movie “The Forger,” and Michael Douglas’s “The Reach”  for $2 million each. Clearly big star names don’t yield big money in the age of Hollywood blockbusters.

As TIFF wraps up its activities without providing clear runaways, eyes will be shifting to New York, where the festival will open this month with David Fincher’s  highly anticipated “Gone Girl”, and will also premiere Paul Thomas Anderson “Inherent Vice.”