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George Clooney, Johnny Depp and 'The Martian': Six questions raised by the Toronto film festival

 George Clooney, Johnny Depp and 'The Martian': Six questions raised by the Toronto film festival
Actor George Clooney speaks onstage during the "Our Brand Is Crisis" press conference at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

The Toronto International Film Festival that winds down this weekend offers the first broad look at the new film crop—and helps separate wheat from chaff. Movies thought certain Oscar contenders fade like a Canadian summer; movies few remembered existed are snapped up with the vigor of an NHL captain.

This year brought no shortage of films and fall narratives to the fore. And while little was definitively resolved, the confab threw many of the main issues into relief. Here are six questions the movie world is asking now that the festival is nearly done.

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Can "Room" earn money? Its awards bona fides are certain. Director Lenny Abrahamson will garner attention for his handling of the most difficult of subject matter, about a young woman and her son held captive in a shed. And both lead actors--Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay--will be attracting plenty of attention for their performances. But how far can the movie go at the box office when indie A24 releases it in mid-October? Emma Donoghue's book is a bestseller, and the author is heavily involved here, adapting her own work. The buzz will be strong. Still, every awards season brings a movie or two that must overcome the "it sounds great but maybe something lighter this Saturday night?" reaction, and "Room" will almost certainly be among them.

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Can "Martian" earn awards? The flip side of the previous question. It's becoming increasingly clear that "The Martian," Ridley Scott's look at a man (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars, will make a lot of money, what with a crowd-pleasing film, strong reviews and a compelling marketing campaign. Will awards voters cotton to the film too? On the one hand are those arguing that it's fun and entertaining, factors that actually hurt a contender at the more serious-minded Oscars. On the other hand, well, there's "Gravity." One of the more intriguing award-season narratives will kick off when the movie opens in a couple weeks.

How far can "Spotlight" go? It was the choice of many as the most powerful film here. Is Tom McCarthy's examination of the Roman Catholic Church sex scandals of the early 2000s via a group of Boston Globe reporters simply a favorite of the writers it heralds or will it be the favorite among academy tastemakers as well? The movie is a propulsive procedural that subtly conceals its bigger issues--an approach that can boost its Oscar chances (hugely watchable and thematically nuanced) or hurt them (it's a procedural, and it doesn't scream its themes from the rooftop).

Whither the actors? Every year there are Toronto debuts that don't garner universal love but feature a standout performance, the question then becoming whether an actor can transcend the filmic ambivalence (or could even be helped by it, since it's what those looking for virtues will zero in on). On that list this year is Tom Hardy's "Legend," in which the British actor plays both sides of the British Kray brothers in a period gangster movie, and Tom Hiddleston's "I Saw the Light," in which the British actor plays Hank Williams in a midcentury biopic. And then there's this wild card--political thriller "Our Brand Is Crisis," which stars one Oscar winner (Sandra Bullock) and is produced by another (George Clooney).

What of Johnny Depp? All the performance talk raises a key question: Where will Johnny Depp land for his turn as "Whitey" Bulger in "Black Mass"? Depp scored three lead actor nominations in a frenetic period between 2003 and 2007, but hasn't earned one since--and has never won. This could be the year, with a meaty fact-based performance, that some of those streaks end; Hollywood does love a comeback. But he'll have to compete with a lot of other comebacks, actor-wise and otherwise. To wit...

And the Charlie Kaufman comeback? "Anomalisa" was an under-the-radar contender coming in to the late-summer festivals, a movie made by Kaufman and some young associates deeply independently. Then it won the Grand Jury prize in Venice and earned near-universal acclaim, breathing life into the "Charlie Kaufman is back" narrative. Kaufman's movie, a stop-motion film about an emotionally lost man in a Midwestern hotel, is striking in all sorts of ways. And it received a huge boost when Paramount Pictures became the surprise 11th-hour winner to acquire it, beating out solid prestige players like an A24 or Fox Searchlight. Paramount will release the movie Dec. 30--taking a big holiday swing, and making "Anomalisa" one of the biggest X-factors of the coming award season. As if the fall weren't rich enough, it's now Kaufmanian rich.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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