There are a lot of prizes to be won at the Toronto International Film Festival, but the gold medal, so to speak, is the People’s Choice Award, which is dished out to the single best film each year.
Some people don’t place a whole lot of stock in film festivals, and it’s true that they don’t always wind up focusing on the same titles that have broad appeal at the box office or clout during awards season. However, there’s an argument to be made in favor of the predictive power of the TIFF, even by comparison to some other major festivals. It’s certainly one event where critical and popular appeal seem to mesh with regard to the top films. The festival goers (reporters and critics, namely) often end up choosing a People’s Choice winner that winds up being in the conversation for top Oscars, Golden Globes, etc. Just consider a few examples from recent years.
In 2015, it was the underdog literary adaptation, Room, that took home the top prize. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson in a breakout role, this wasn’t on anybody’s radar but the most plugged in of entertainment writers and critics — at least before TIFF. But it won the People’s Choice award and later on, after its wide release, was in the conversation for most of the top honors of awards season. The film earned Larson an Oscar for Best Actress.
In 2013, 12 Years A Slave was the project that captured the People’s Choice, and swiftly became a heavyweight. The film featured a both a breathtaking central role for Chiwetel Ejiofor and served as the breakout work that made Lupita Nyong’o a star. It was also one of the more effectively rendered historical settings in recent memory, the film was somewhat magnetic toward accompanying awards shows.
And back in 2012 it was the ultimate critical darling, Silver Linings Playbook, that earned the highest distinction at TIFF. A surprise Best Picture nominee the following year, it was also the project that launched Jennifer Lawrence to new heights of stardom, as even before awards season she was given the likeliest chance of winning Best Actress ahead of more veteran actresses like Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts. She won the award and is now seen by many as Hollywood’s biggest female star.
The list could go on and on, but this is all to say that favorites and People’s Choice winners at TIFF do matter a great deal. Not every festival is a worthwhile event in terms of predictive power or long-term relevance, but in Toronto the toast of the town often brings in the hardware. With that in mind, let’s take an early look at some of the entries that would appear to be favorites for consideration this time around.
La La Land
If you had to pick one film generating significant buzz heading toward the mid-September festival it would probably be this one. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (who, incidentally, were terrific together in Crazy, Stupid Love) and directed by Damien Chapelle (Whiplash), it’s a musical adaptation about a jazz musician and an actress who fall in love. We recently posted the trailer.
The Magnificent Seven
This intriguing title has already been announced as the opening night film for the festival, which is a sort of honor in and of itself. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Southpaw), it’s actually a remake of the John Sturges film that starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson, which was itself a remake of a Kurosawa film. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke will star in what promises to be a gripping Western. The title is a little bit inconvenient in that it reminds one of recent films like The Hateful Eight or the Netflix spoof The Ridiculous Six; but if it’s successful in Toronto, that won’t matter.
The Edge Of Seventeen
Without looking the part of a major awards contender, The Edge Of Seventeen is an interesting pick for the closing night film. Written and directed by relative newcomer Kelly Fremon, it appears to be a fairly straightforward coming of age story about a teenage girl (played by Hailee Steinfeld). Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick will also star in a film that might be attempting to pull off a Juno.
Legendary director Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men) is back at TIFF with this biopic of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It may not be the biggest crowd pleaser at the event but it looks like a heavy-hitting historical drama with a potentially impactful performance by Woody Harrelson in the central role.
Manchester By The Sea
Having been hailed as the best film at Sundance already, Manchester By The Sea will enter TIFF with a pretty serious reputation already. The film was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who wrote Gangs Of New York and Analyze This), and features Casey Affleck as an uncle who has to take over raising his nephew when the boy’s father dies. Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, and Matthew Broderick will also appear as parts of a loaded cast.
The Birth Of A Nation
Finally, we have The Birth Of A Nation, which is arguably the most buzzed about film of 2016. This is the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker, who also wrote and directed), the slave who started a revolt in the American South. There’s a great deal of pressure for this film to meet expectations, but it may just be a Best Picture favorite at the Oscars already.
Many more films will be shown at TIFF, but these are certainly among the titles to keep an eye on.