"Oh lord, we're gonna be crying," Octavia Spencer said, putting an arm around Taraji P. Henson as the two started talking about their upcoming historical drama, "Hidden Figures," at the Toronto International Film Festival.
They weren't the only ones tearing up in Toronto. You could have filled Lake Ontario with the amount of waterworks coming from the filmmakers, actors and audience members at this year's festival. And for good reason. The movies playing at Toronto this year featured storytelling that was empathetic, generous and tender.
And if that sounds a bit gooey, consider the words of "Loving" star Joel Edgerton, who, talking about his civil rights drama, told me: "I'm amazed when people talk about how quiet and silent this movie is. I think this movie is as loud as …," and he went on, using a colorful adjective for volume. "It's an accumulative kind of shout that will stick to you."
That it does.The best movies playing at the festival this year — the movies so exceptional that they can't help but go deep into the awards season — made profound connections between the filmmakers and the audience. A Q&A session following Barry Jenkins' moving coming-of-age drama "Moonlight" prompted tears throughout the house, the artists breaking down while describing how much the movie meant to them and festival-goers responding in kind. The depth of emotion surpassed anything I've ever seen following a screening. It was, in Edgerton's words, "loud as ..."
Of course, film festivals like Toronto are their own little bubbles, where standing ovations are the rule and seldom is heard the discouraging word. (Canadians aren't animals like those audiences at Cannes.) Academy voters have been following the buzz here. Now the question is: Will they respond in kind?
Here's a look at some of the movies that played at the Toronto, Telluride and Venice film festivals, ranked in order of their likely success at the Oscars.
"La La Land": Ambitious, risky and absolutely exhilarating, Damien Chazelle used the goodwill he won from his Oscar-nominated "Whiplash" to create an irresistible movie musical that will break every romantic's heart. (More tears!) Aside from the style and skill on display, "La La Land" sports numerous references to vintage Hollywood musicals and, especially, to Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort." Academy cinephiles will be in heaven.
Look for the nominations to reach double figures, including nods for picture, director, lead actress Emma Stone and, possibly, her costar Ryan Gosling. Both actors are wonderful, but Stone's emotionally alive performance (those eyes!) will likely draw the most love. She took the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival last weekend.
"Manchester By the Sea": Kenneth Lonergan's finely observed drama about a man living (barely) with tragedy offers a vision of grief unlike any prior movie. (And there has been a lot of grieving over the years.) The film's Canadian premiere left its audience emotionally wrecked, just as it did at Sundance nine months ago. A best picture nomination seems assured and, of course, star Casey Affleck will be among the lead actor front-runners for his subdued, affecting turn.
"Loving": Richard and Mildred Loving married in Washington, D.C., in 1958 and then drove home to Virginia — where they were soon arrested for violating the state's laws that criminalized interracial marriage. They could have avoided jail time, but they'd have to leave their home and their families. They couldn't stay in Virginia. Jeff Nichols' film makes a strong case for this ordinary couple as civil rights superheroes that anyone can identify with. Edgerton gives a fine, inward performance, while co-star Ruth Negga superbly carries the story's emotional weight. It's easy to see Focus Features earning several nominations for this wonderful movie.
"Moonlight": "I cry so much, sometimes I feel I'm gonna turn into drops." (I know. I know. Enough with the tears.) But the words of "Moonlight's" protagonist, Chiron, capture the loneliness of the character, a young gay black man growing up in a culture where being a homosexual means you're damaged and defective. The movie takes place over three key chapters in Chiron's life. Its characters are richly drawn, always with an eye toward understanding. The filmmaking is intimate, potent and pointed toward hope, a place where it might be possible to learn to love yourself for who you are.
Distributor A24 landed a best picture nomination last year for "Room," and I believe this movie will follow the same trajectory, including nominations for Barry Jenkins as a director and writer. (He adapted the screenplay from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.") Naomie Harris, playing Chiron's drug-addicted mother, and Mahershala Ali, as his surrogate father, should receive strong consideration in the supporting acting categories as well.
"Hidden Figures": Fox took the unusual step of coming to Toronto not with a finished film, but just several scenes from Ted Melfi's movie about three black female math geniuses who helped NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962. Melfi wasn't there; he's in an editing room, probably being fueled by coffee slipped through a slot in a locked steel door.
If the finished film pops as strongly as the scenes shown, Fox will have a huge commercial hit and a possible Oscar contender. The nimble crowd-pleaser is slated for release on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January, but several sources connected to the movie confirm that it will receive an Oscar-qualifying release before the end of the year. That could benefit any one of the movie's three leading women — Henson, Spencer and Janelle Monae.
Henson is more concerned about making Katherine Johnson, the woman she portrayed, proud.
"People come up to me and they're like, 'Oh, Oscars!'" Henson says. "I don't accept that pressure — I'll let y'all say it — but what I was most concerned about is if Katherine would be proud. She's still alive. This is her story. Whether the Oscars love it, whoever else … would she be happy?"
"Lion": The Weinstein Co.'s first unveiled Oscar contender is an involving, true-story weeper (what else?) about an Indian man (Dev Patel) trying to find the family he lost as a boy. Nicole Kidman has several fine scenes as his supportive adoptive mother, and there's a social issue component about Indian street children that will likely be emphasized.
It's a sturdy movie, certainly a best picture possibility, though it'll be interesting to see how the cash-strapped company balances it with its two December releases, the Ray Kroc biopic "The Founder" and the buzzy Steven Gaghan thriller "Gold." Those are longer shots for picture, but could provide nice opportunities for leads Michael Keaton and Matthew McConaughey, respectively.
"Nocturnal Animals": Tom Ford's acidic thriller divided critics and audiences. Amy Adams plays an L.A. art gallery curator forced to confront the ghosts of her past when her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a lurid manuscript. Some reviewers found it stylish, taut and superbly structured; others complained that it was too cruel and cynical. No doubt the divisiveness pleases Ford, but Focus Features might have to content itself with a supporting actor campaign for Michael Shannon, terrifically funny as a Texas lawman.
"Arrival": Toronto has been a fine host to space-set studio films recently, helping launch the Oscar campaigns of "Gravity" and "The Martian." "Arrival" is another Adams showcase, with her playing a linguist enlisted to find a way to communicate with alien visitors. It could wow voters with its spectacle. Tech nominations are a given. But as refreshing as it is to see a woman at the center of a story like this, the plot itself doesn't hold up under close inspection. Mostly, it'll just prompt many academy members to watch and appreciate "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" again.
"The Birth of a Nation": Fox Searchlight stuck with its game plan, screening Nate Parker's historical drama about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, even after new details about Parker's 1999 rape case came to light. There were two screenings of "Birth" on Friday an hour apart. The theaters were packed with a mix of the film's financial backers and friends and festival-goers. The audience stood and applauded when the credits rolled. The next day, during a news conference, Parker deflected questions about his past. Studio publicists cut short junket TV interviews if the line of questioning veered off-script.
"Birth" is a solid feature from a first-time filmmaker, heavy-handed in approach but provocative and powerful all the same in its attempt to grapple with the repercussions of America's history of slavery. The controversy surrounding Parker — and his seeming initial lack of empathy and understanding when addressing his past and his actions — will make it difficult for the movie to succeed with academy voters. Not impossible. Just very challenging.
"Jackie": Searchlight did emerge from Toronto with an awards season backup plan, buying Pablo Larrain's daring look at Jackie Kennedy in the days before and after her husband's assassination. It's an extraordinary character study, likely to divide audiences with its cool, loopy approach to its iconic subject. Maybe not a best picture candidate, but Natalie Portman's remarkably complex performance will almost certainly land her a nomination for lead actress.