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‘Arrival,’ ‘La La Land,’ ‘Moonlight’ and more: How the Toronto Film Festival movies will play with Oscar voters

The films forming the nucleus of the early awards season narrative are coming to the fore thanks to the 41st Toronto International Film Festival: “La La Land,” “Arrival,” “Moonlight,” “Jackie” and others are making their cases, with the final verdict coming with the Academy Awards next February. Here are early looks, exclusive interviews, videos and photo shoots from our film team.

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See which of your favorite stars stopped by our photo studio

Actor Mark Wahlberg, from the film "Deepwater Horizon."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Actor Bryan Cranston, from the film "Wakefield."
Actor Bryan Cranston, from the film “Wakefield.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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Is a repressive 19th century drama from a newbie director the most radical movie of the season?

Florence Pugh in Toronto International Film Festival sensation "Lady Macbeth."
(Toronto International Film Festival)

Ever since his “Lady Macbeth” — a 19th century re-imagining of a Russian novella about an arranged marriage — became one of ‎the conversation pieces at the Toronto International Film Festival, director William Oldroyd has found himself having an unusual conversation.

Filmgoers who’ve seen his movie and expected (or apparently don’t know much about) William Shakespeare have been wondering what happened to Duncan, Banquo and the rest of the gang.

“I know it sounds funny, but I’ve had people come up and say to me, ‘This isn’t anything like the play,’ ” Oldroyd recalled in an interview. “And I have to pause and think about what to say. I mean, it’s not an adaptation of the [Shostakovich] opera either. It’s not really anything traditional.”

The director isn’t kidding.

This is already shaping up as a film year of a particular trend: complex female characters reacting provocatively to sexual repression and assault. Movies such as “Elle,” with Isabelle Huppert, and “Una,” with Rooney Mara, both confound simple victim narratives in ways that are honest or dangerous, depending on your point of view.

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Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks peer over ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

Producer James L. Brooks and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, from the film "The Edge of Seventeen."
Producer James L. Brooks and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, from the film “The Edge of Seventeen.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

James L. Brooks apparently has an eye for debut talent. He has previously produced the first features for Cameron Crowe (1989’s “Say Anything”) and Wes Anderson (1996’s “Bottle Rocket”). Which makes it feel particularly meaningful that Brooks has now produced “The Edge of Seventeen,” the feature debut of writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig.

In the dramatically tinged coming-of-age comedy, high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a social misfit who is constantly combative with her single mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). When her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating Darian, Nadine goes into a tailspin. As she becomes more erratic and restless, she increasingly turns to a teacher (Woody Harrelson) for advice and leans more on a friendly boy, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who could become something more.

Brooks, 76, has one of the most storied careers in modern Hollywood. After a successful career as a writer and producer in television (he created both “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Taxi,” among others), he turned to writing and directing movies, including such films as “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News.” He is a three-time Oscar winner and remains an executive producer on “The Simpsons,” which sprung from “The Tracey Ullman Show” (which he also co-created).

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‘Moonlight’ director Barry Jenkins’ connection to a ‘weird’ Asian horror film

“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins talks about a “weird” Asian horror film that he formed a bond with, and somehow “brought him closer to something inside.”

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which played both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, is impressing audiences and critics alike. The Times’ Justin Chang says, “In Jenkins’ hands, the cold, mechanical apparatus of the camera becomes nothing less than a conduit for human empathy.”

The director mentions that foreign films were influencial to him on his path to becoming a filmmaker, and singles out a specific film called “301, 302.”

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Bryan Cranston brings his model look and art-directing skills to our photo studio

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Exclusive: For director Denis Villeneuve, the sci-fi ‘Arrival’ brings a new genre to smash

Amy Adams stars as a linguist trying to communicate with beings from outer space in "Arrival."
(Paramount Pictures)

After an early-career spate of dramas in his native language, the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has spent the past few years subverting seemingly every film genre he can get his hands on.

There was his spin on the child-abduction thriller (“Prisoners”); the new take on the Jekyll-and-Hyde trope (“Enemy”); a fresh look at the drug-cartel action flick (last year’s “Sicario”).

Villeneuve most recently has been seeking out a new world. Or, more accurately, a new universe.

The director’s “Arrival,” out from Paramount in November after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere Monday, finds him tackling the global alien-invasion thriller, but in the cerebral and intimate way fans have come to expect from what might be called Villeneuvalia.

“It’s not about choosing a specific genre; that’s not how I go about deciding what movies to make,” the director said, with a kind of verbal shrug when asked why he was ripping through established categories like a 2019-era Spinner.

Then, as if reconsidering the role that factor might play, he added, “But nothing is more fun than breaking the rules.”

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Here’s how the Toronto Film Festival movies will play with Oscar voters

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in "La La Land."
(Dale Robinette / Lionsgate)

“Oh, Lord, we’re going to 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 euphemism for volume. “It’s an accumulative kind of shout that will stick to you.”

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Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner and Mark Wahlberg stop by The Times’ photo studio

Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner, promoting their film “Wakefield,” and Mark Wahlberg, in support of his film “Deepwater Horizon,” were among the latest stars to visit the studio.

Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner
(Jay L. Clendinin / Los Angeles Times)
Jennifer Garner.
(Jay L. Clendinin / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Wahlberg.
(Jay L. Clendinin / Los Angeles Times)

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Isabelle Huppert has never been nominated for an Oscar — that may change this season

Isabelle Huppert in "Elle," one of three movies she has at the Toronto Film Festival.
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Isabelle Huppert has been nominated 15 times for the Césars, France’s national film award. No other actress has been recognized more.

And yet, she has never been nominated for an Oscar.

“It has crossed my mind,” Huppert said over tea at the Toronto International Film Festival, where she, prolific as ever, has three movies playing. “It’s a prestigious recognition. I think at some point it crosses everyone’s minds. But it has never happened.”

However, there has already been early talk in Toronto among voters in film critics circles about rewarding Huppert’s superb year.

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‘Barry,’ ‘Neruda’ and ‘A Quiet Passion’ put a fresh spin on biopic formula

Devon Terrell plays a young Barack Obama in the movie "Barry."
Devon Terrell plays a young Barack Obama in the movie “Barry.”
(TIFF)

A rare technical glitch briefly halted a Toronto press screening of Vikram Gandhi’s “Barry” on Sunday morning, muffling the film’s sound quality and rendering the dialogue mostly inaudible. Order and volume were happily restored in due course, though not until after the audience spent several minutes waiting in the dark — by which point a few viewers, either concerned about making their next screenings or taking advantage of a guilt-free bathroom break, made their way to the exits.

‘Barry’ is the rare biographical drama that, rather than giving us a bland recitation of accomplishments, takes the formation of identity as its very subject.

Justin Chang

“Let me know if he gets the girl,” one viewer joked to her screening companion as she departed. For of course, the outcome of the love story in “Barry” is no more in doubt than its title character’s ultimate destiny. Barry, played without a hint of affectation by the Australian actor Devon Terrell, is in fact a young, college-age version of Barack Obama, and “the girl” is Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), a fictionalized composite of three girlfriends that Obama had at Columbia, according to a post-screening Q&A.

In other words, “Barry,” which made its world premiere in the festival’s Special Presentations section, is the other Obama movie making its way into the spotlight mere months before the real Obama ends his presidency.

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Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and more ‘La La Land’ stars stop by The Times photo studio

Ryan Gosling
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Emma Stone
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
J.K. Simmons
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
John Legend
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Rosemarie DeWitt
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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Don’t compare Dev Patel’s ‘Lion’ to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Dev Patel walks the carpet for his new movie "Lion" at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Geoff Robins / AFP/Getty Images)

Dev Patel’s new movie “Lion” caused a theater packed with jaded industry types to break into full-blown sobs. The film is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, who got lost on the crowded streets of Kolkata when he was 5 years old. He ended up in an orphanage, where he was adopted by a well-off couple in Australia and eventually attended college in Melbourne.

It was there that he began to share his story with some classmates, one of whom suggested he try searching for his long-lost home on a then-primitive Google Earth.

“Lion” is already drawing comparisons to “Slumdog Millionaire” -- largely because the film features a young Indian boy fighting his way out of poverty. It’s a correlation that bothers Patel.

Everyone will pigeonhole you into, ‘Oh, he’s playing an Indian guy. The movie is kind of set of India and there’s poverty, so it’s like ‘Slumdog,’ It’s such a shame.

Dev Patel

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Ryan Gosling on the Los Angeles of ‘La La Land’: ‘There are still places in L.A. that are part of the golden years’

Ryan Gosling says “La La Land” was an opportunity to show an old but enduring Los Angeles, one that highlights local treasures like Grand Central Market, Angel’s Flight, and Watts Towers,

Ryan Gosling used to live in downtown Los Angeles, so he understands the city and the places that are depicted in the movie that he and Emma Stone star in -- “La La Land.”

Some of those are in danger of being closed down or shut down, so it’s nice that we have them all in one film.

Ryan Gosling

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The new ‘Blair Witch’ sequel pairs well with the Midnight Madness audience of Toronto

The "Blair Witch" team, from left: writer Simon Barrett, actors James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, director Adam Wingard, actors Wes Robinson, Corbin Reid and Valorie Curry -- at Sunday's premiere in Toronto.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

If a pairing between movie and audience could be engineered in a lab, Sunday night’s Midnight Madness screening of “Blair Witch” might be the result

Before the screening, the festival’s Midnight Madness programmer, Colin Geddes, ran down the festival’s history with director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Their first collaboration, “A Horrible Way to Die,” played a different section of the festival in 2010. While at the festival, they were so into the midnight crowds that they made “You’re Next” with that audience in mind. Their next film, “The Guest,” played the festival’s midnight section as well.

Wingard and Barrett came out to briefly introduce the film.

“I’m really excited to watch this movie with you guys,” Wingard said, “because when you make a horror movie, you make it to watch it with an audience.”

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‘Moonlight’ director Barry Jenkins recalls the industry insiders who believed in him

They believed in director Barry Jenkins when no one else would. He’s never forgotten.

Barry Jenkins’ new film “Moonlight” is one of the most acclaimed titles at TIFF, but he hasn’t forgotten those who supported him when he was just starting out in the business, as he reveals in this exclusive interview that puts him on the other side of the camera.

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Taraji P. Henson brings tears to TIFF

Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

If I knew about these women [growing up], maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist. Sorry I’m so emotional. My makeup is running. I should have done an Alicia Keys and taken it off.

Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures”

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See which actors, actresses and filmmakers visited the L.A. Times photo studio

Celebrities and filmmakers visit Jay L. Clendenin in the Los Angeles Times photo studio at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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At TIFF, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley talk bringing real-life stories to the big screen

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The 2016 edition of the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and among the competing movies building awards season buzz are two star-powered nonfiction pictures, “Jackie” and “Snowden.” The films’ stars sat down with The Times to discuss their roles inspired by headlines and recent history.

“Snowden” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt admits that while working with director Oliver Stone was a big draw, he didn’t really know that much about the film’s infamous subject.

Shailene Woodley, Gordon-Levitt’s costar in “Snowden,” remembers how jokes about early smartphones being used as tools for espionage turned all too real several years later.

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Miles Teller, Rebecca Hall and other stars visit The L.A. Times photo studio

Miles Teller of "Bleed for This."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
"Christine" star Rebecca Hall.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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Sigourney Weaver of "A Monster Calls."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Nick Cannon of "King of the Dancehall."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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With their original musical ‘La La Land,’ Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle dance into Toronto

Actress Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival last month. “La La Land” will premiere Monday for a wider audience at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Ettore Ferrari / Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata)

In their new musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform a six-minute, single-take, tap-dance number while their characters search for a parked Toyota Prius atop a hill in Griffith Park, the sun setting behind them, the Prius key fob occasionally beeping in time with the music.

It’s a moment infused with nostalgia for classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” but informed by the youthful spirit of its stars and 31-year-old writer-director, Damien Chazelle.

“They figured something out in the older musicals in terms of how to shoot dance and we’ve unlearned it,” Chazelle said in an interview with Stone as “La La Land” screened for enthusiastic Telluride Film Festival audiences over Labor Day weekend after receiving an equally warm reception in Venice. “People talk about shorter attention spans these days and maybe that’s why dance isn’t filmed the same way. I find it a lot more involving when I can see something that’s real and not tinkered with… That is how the sky looks. That is Ryan and Emma dancing. Those are their voices, their feet.”

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Natalie Portman on playing Jackie Kennedy: ‘It was nice to approach her as a person rather than as an icon’

Most know Jackie Kennedy as an icon. Natalie Portman wanted to approach her first as a person.

Natalie Portman’s initial knowledge of Jackie Kennedy was, as she says, a “superficial understanding of her as a fashion plate.” Through playing her in “Jackie,” Portman seemingly gained a deeper understanding of the former first lady.

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Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae make a case for feel-good seriousness with ‘Hidden Figures’

A shot from the movie "Hidden Figures."
(20th Centrury Fox)

Five years ago, “The Help” became both a box-office phenomenon and an Oscar best picture nominee by toeing the line between lighthearted camaraderie and social seriousness among Southern women of color.

The upcoming “Hidden Figures” — a fact-based 1960s-set film about barely known NASA women whose calculations helped put Americans on the moon — diverges in plenty of ways from that Tate Taylor smash. But it’s hard to avoid the similarities — tonally, thematically and Octavia Spencer-ishly. (She brings her arid wit to each.) Tears and laughter are meant to commingle in each film; they’re stories of unity in times of segregation.

On Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, 20th Century Fox took the wraps off several key scenes from the Theodore Melfi movie, which counts Pharrell as its producer and musical contributor. It also brought out three of its leading ladies — Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe — to talk up the movie’s importance.

Or, in Henson’s case, just to tear up.

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Writer-director Adam Leon’s ‘Tramps’ steals a little romance

Grace Van Patten, Adam Leon, standing, and Callum Turner, from the film "Tramps, in the L.A. Times photo studio at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Saturday afternoon saw the world premiere of “Tramps” at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is the latest from writer-director Adam Leon, whose 2012 debut “Gimme The Loot” won the grand jury prize at the South by Southwest film festival and earned Leon an Independent Spirit award and a Gotham Award.

The new film feels like both an extension and a maturation from “Gimme The Loot,” as it has the same rambunctious, roustabout energy and sharp eye for atmosphere and character, but also feels slightly more ruminative and sensitive.

“Tramps” scampers in and around New York City as Danny (Callum Turner) steps in as bagman on some shady exchange of a briefcase when his hustler older brother lands in jail. This puts him in contact with the driver, Ellie (Grace Van Patten), but when the hand-off goes awry, the two of them have to get the case back. The movie also features a supporting role by comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia as the sad-sack heavy who sets the deal in motion.

The film playfully flirts with whether it wants to be a romance, as Ellie and Danny both seem wary of the idea that someone else may like them for anything other than their immediate use value.

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Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ makes the case for quiet eloquence

A shotl from the movie "Moonlight."
(David Bornfriend / A24)

Chiron, the lonely young black man we see growing up before our eyes in “Moonlight,” doesn’t say much. Yet everything about him — his sad, downcast eyes, his drooping posture, his visible discomfort in the presence of others — seems to summon forth and express an entire world of feeling. This extraordinarily intimate movie, beautifully directed by Barry Jenkins (making his first feature since 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy”), works in much the same way. It observes Chiron’s silence, respects it and to some degree absorbs it. In Jenkins’ hands, the cold, mechanical apparatus of the camera becomes nothing less than a conduit for human empathy.

Loosely adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play “Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins’ film is a character study in three acts that immerses us in Chiron’s tough upbringing on the sunny, crooked streets of Miami. Over the course of more than a decade, this quiet kid will be neglected, abused, chased, bullied and at one point incarcerated, but also blessed by gestures of kindness and generosity from unexpected sources. He will experience a powerful, forbidden moment of sexual awakening that will be suddenly, cruelly turned on its head — and then revisited, years later, with infinite patience and tenderness.

Chiron is played by a different actor in each of the film’s three acts (they are Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), which makes the continuity of feeling all the more remarkable. The actors don’t bear an especially close physical resemblance to one another — partly due to a decisive physical transformation that the character experiences at one key juncture — but they’re all of a soulful, taciturn piece nonetheless. That’s very much to Jenkins’ point. He’s made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within.

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At ‘Birth of a Nation’ forum, Nate Parker deflects questions about sexual assault allegations

Nate Parker, director of the film "The Birth of a Nation," at the CinemaCon 2016 Big Screen Achievement Awards in Las Vegas.
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

Two days into the official Oscar tour for “The Birth of a Nation,” the elephant in the room was finally acknowledged, though it remained for the most part undisturbed.

After a pair of Toronto International Film Festival screenings Friday that saw no mention of Nate Parker’s past sexual assault trial, and a news conference Sunday morning largely devoted to the themes of the film, Parker was finally asked about the subject.

The first question involved his response to those filmgoers who said they wouldn’t see Parker’s Nat Turner slave-revolt film because of the resurfaced allegations stemming from the 1999 incident at Penn State University. He replied by turning attention to his fellow actors, nearly 10 of whom sat on the podium with him.

“I would say: ‘You know I’ve addressed it; I’m sure in future forums I will address it more. There’s no one person who makes a film.’” he said to reporters, continuing a weekend posture in which the filmmaker has sought to turn attention to some degree away from himself. “There are so many people away from their families, they spent time in post until this very moment. … Everyone who sweat and bled for their work should be rewarded.”

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Young and dislocated, Devon Terrell on playing a young and dislocated Barack Obama

Devon Terrell plays a young Barack Obama in the movie "Barry."
Devon Terrell plays a young Barack Obama in the movie “Barry.”
(TIFF)

Devon Terrell had spent the previous 24 hours in epic transit — from Australia to Abu Dhabi to New York and, finally, to Toronto — but fatigue is never an impediment to a good Barack Obama impersonation.

“My grandmother, Toot,” he said, launching into perfect Obamacadence of a bit from the not-yet-politcian’s 1995 book-tour stop.

“I’ll do them all the time,” Terrell said, back in his native Australian accent as he finally relaxed, sans drink, at a Toronto hotel bar late Friday. “No matter who asks. Literally anyone on the street. No amount of times is too much.”

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The cast of ‘Message from the King’ and ‘Colossal,’ along with other stars, take over the L.A. Times photo studio

Fabrice Du Welz, left, Teresa Palmer and Chadwick Boseman of "Message from the King."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Anne Hathaway, left, and Jason Sudeikis of "Colossal."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The cast of "Carrie Pilby," from left: William Moseley, Vanessa Bayer, Bel Powley, Susan Johnson, Jason Ritter and Kara Holden.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Anne Heche, left, and Sandra Oh of "Catfight."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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With ‘A United Kingdom’ and ‘Queen of Katwe,’ David Oyelowo continues his mission of inclusion

David Oyelowo attends the premiere of "A United Kingdom" at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

David Oyelowo had been, as he puts it, “sick with nerves,” all day.

The movie he had spent six years shepherding to completion, “A United Kingdom,” was about to have its first public screening at the Toronto Film Festival. He’d only seen it on a laptop — never with an audience. And now nearly 2,000 people were filing into the cavernous Roy Thompson Hall to watch this true-life love story about Prince Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of Botswana, who in 1947 married a London office worker, causing a diplomatic earthquake that shook South Africa, Britain and his home country.

Shortly after the movie, over dinner, Oyelowo exhales and smiles. The reviews had broken, and they were great (British outlets were particularly appreciative) and the film had received an enthusiastic ovation that brought tears to the eyes of Oyelowo and the film’s director, Amma Asante.

“Six years and many disappointments and rejections and hurdles,” Oyelowo says. “It’s very emotional. You take a moment. It hit us hard.”

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‘Arrival,’ ‘Nocturnal Animals’ and the Amy Adams effect

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie "Arrival" directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie “Arrival” directed by Denis Villeneuve.
(Paramount Pictures / TNS)

A remarkably cohesive double bill was screened for journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday morning. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” landing here after its screenings in Venice, Italy, and Telluride, Colo., is a science-fiction thriller that plays like an intimate psychological drama. Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” which debuted at Venice, is an intimate psychological drama whose odder moments feel like science-fiction (specifically, one set in that garish, moneyed alternate universe known as Los Angeles).

Both pictures are immaculate in their craftsmanship, precisely directed to a fault and rigged with intricate surprises. Both, too, have the good fortune to star Amy Adams, in each case playing an emotionally guarded, fiercely intelligent woman whose sad, solitary life is interrupted by something — a revelatory manuscript in “Nocturnal Animals,” an extraterrestrial invasion in “Arrival” — that seriously throws off her sleep cycle and leads her toward a powerful reckoning with past wounds.

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Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Oscar tour gets off to a surrealistically uneventful start in Toronto

Director Nate Parker arrives for the screening of his film "The Birth of a Nation" at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9.
(Chris Young / Canadian Press)

For “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker, the past month has been one of the most turbulent an Oscar contender has ever faced. New details involving Parker’s 15-year-old sexual-assault trial have spurred a flood of op-ed pieces — including our own, by “Birth” actress Gabrielle Union — along with questions about the Oscar race, not to mention his character.

But if such tribulations were on Parker’s — or audiences’ — minds Friday night, you wouldn’t know it from what unfolded. In two high-profile screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaker and his ensemble faced audiences with all of the spirit they possessed before the scandal, and none of the questions since.

“Nina Simone has this quote where she says the artist’s job is to reflect the times, and I think as artists we all got together and understood the possibility that could come from a film like this, and then we all worked hard to make it happen,” Parker said, one of several triumphant comments amid a very enthusiastic reception.

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‘Snowden’ stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley discuss taking risky roles and spying through technology

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was warned that portraying Edward Snowden was risky. He took the role anyway.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was warned that portraying Edward Snowden was risky. He took the role anyway.

Shailene Woodley used to joke about spying when the iPhone first came out. For her, those concerns now seem eerie — and validated.

Shailene Woodley used to joke about spying when the iPhone first came out. For her, those concerns now seem eerie — and validated.

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Q&A: ‘Best in Show’s’ Christopher Guest on ‘Mascots,’ shoelaces and why he hates the word ‘mockumentary’

Filmmaker Christopher Guest's "Mascots" has its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Filmmaker Christopher Guest’s “Mascots” has its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Christina House / For The Times)

No one makes movies quite like Christopher Guest. His deadpan explorations of unusual cultural corners take the form of documentaries and feature improvised dialogue to give them a hybrid, high-wire energy. From his work in “This Is Spinal Tap,” directed by Rob Reiner, to the films Guest has made on his own, including “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind,” he has crafted an ongoing, warmhearted celebration of human enthusiasms and failures.

His new film “Mascots,” his first since 2006’s look at ego and awards season with “For Your Consideration,” has its world premiere Saturday as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. Co-written by Guest and Jim Piddock, the new film, as the name implies, is a look at the world of sports mascots centered around a worldwide competition.

The film’s examinations of the characters’ lives out of costume have Guest’s signature mix of sweetness and melancholy, while the actual competition performances are inventively hilarious. The cast features many returning performers from Guest’s earlier films, including Parker Posey, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr. and Bob Balaban. Chris O’Dowd, Sarah Baker, Zach Woods and Susan Yeagley all make spirited contributions as relative newcomers to the fold. “Mascots” will be in theaters and on Netflix beginning on Oct. 13.

Guest recently took some time to sit down in Santa Monica for a conversation just ahead of the film’s premiere in Toronto to talk about filmmaking, what draws him to his subjects and, surprisingly, shoelaces. (Just don’t use the term “mockumentary.”)

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Now that DiCaprio has one, it’s Amy Adams’ turn to win an Oscar, right?

Amy Adams has two high-profile films opening in November.
Amy Adams has two high-profile films opening in November.
(Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty Images)

This time last year, we were still a couple of months away from watching Leonardo DiCaprio battle, bludgeon or, if you’re Matt Drudge, mate with that angry mama bear in “The Revenant.” And yet, most awards pundits already had DiCaprio winning the lead actor Oscar, by the sheer pedigree of the movie’s Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as well as the demanding nature of the frontiersman character he was playing.

Just as important, DiCaprio, a four-time nominee, was seen as being due his moment on the podium. And, with the Oscars, timing is often just as important as the work itself.

Which brings us to another accomplished actor, one who has earned five Oscar nominations over the course of her distinguished career: Amy Adams.

Adams has two major films playing at Toronto this week — Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama, “Arrival,” and Tom Ford’s dark, nasty thriller “Nocturnal Animals.” Both films open in theaters in November.

Is it Adams’ turn to finally win an Oscar?

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The wildly unpredictable ‘Free Fire’ has a fittingly raucous midnight-movie premiere

Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, director Ben Wheatley, Brie Larson, Sam Riley, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Sharlto Copley and Enzo Cilenti attend the "Free Fire" premiere screening party Thursday in Toronto.
(Todd Williamson / Getty Images for Brilliant Consulting)

Not many movies call for a “bespoke weapon recording” credit, but that’s not the only unusual signal “Free Fire” is a relentless and wildly unpredictable film. The latest from British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote and co-edited the film with Amy Jump, the movie had its world premiere on the opening night of the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The scene Thursday night at the Ryerson Auditorium was particularly raucous before the movie began, even by the standards of Midnight Madness. Balloons bounced about the room above the audience’s heads and there seemed to be at least two air horns somewhere in the house, giving the room a pre-hockey game vibe. And that was before the room broke into coordinated clapping during pre-show festival credits.

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival

“Free Fire” did not let that energy drop. In introducing the film, Wheatley brought out a big chunk of the film’s cast, including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti and Babou Ceesay. (Only Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor were not in attendance from the film’s major cast members. Executive producer Martin Scorsese was also not present.)

“No one has seen this movie,” said Wheatley, “So this is it, this is the birth of this film and I can’t think of a better audience than the Midnight Madness.”

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The cast of ‘Snowden,’ and other stars, take over The L.A. Times photo studio

Melissa Leo, center, gets a group hug.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Shailene Woodley
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Zachary Quinto
Zachary Quinto
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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‘The Magnificent Seven’ starts off TIFF with star power on the red carpet

“The Magnificent Seven” opened the Toronto Internation Film Festival, and two of Hollywood’s most popular leading men -- Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt -- were on hand to walk the red carpet for the premiere at Roy Thomson Hall.

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Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt bring ‘Magnificent Seven’ to Toronto -- but don’t call it a remake

Chris Pratt, left, and Denzel Washinton participate in “The Magnificent Seven” press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday.
(Evan Agostini / Invision / Associated Press)

For many film fans, memories of a John Sturges classic are the reason they’ll take note of — if not buy a ticket for — Denzel Washington’s upcoming film “The Magnificent Seven.”

You wouldn’t know it from those who made the new picture, though.

In fact, Chris Pratt, who plays the swaggering Josh Faraday, doubled down on the idea a few minutes later.

Noting that the number of film titles out there was as circumscribed as the number of baby names, he said, “If I have a son named Chad, is he a remake? I mean, I’m not going to name him Schnarp.”

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“The Magnificent Seven” trailer.

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‘Nocturama,’ about simultaneous bombing attacks around Paris, has a ripped-from-the-headlines sense of urgency

Hamza Meziani in Bertrand Bonello's "Nocturama."
(Toronto International Film Festival)

Though the official opening night film is the big-budget Hollywood remake of “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington, there are actually many other movies also screening Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Among them is the international premiere of French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama,” which has already garnered much attention and controversy. Through its story of simultaneous bombing attacks around Paris has a ripped-from-the-headlines sense of urgency, Bonello pointedly avoids speech-making, polemics or easy answers.

Rather, the film creates a hypnotic, trance-like atmosphere to build a disorienting sense of momentum as viewers follow a group of young people moving through the streets and Metro of Paris, gradually getting a sense of their connection and common purpose.

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30 must-see movies at TIFF

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Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker star in “Arrival.”

“Arrival.” The prospect of a brainy science-fiction thriller coupled with the muscular filmmaking prowess of Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) would be a considerable lure even without the presence of Amy Adams in the lead role.

“Austerlitz.” A master of the hands-off, long-take documentary, Sergei Loznitsa trains his camera on tourists paying their respects (or not) at the sites of former Nazi death camps. Sounds like people-watching at its most perversely revealing.

“Colossal.” Nacho Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes” and “Open Windows” have established him as a gifted and idiosyncratic genre specialist. And eight years after “Rachel Getting Married,” it’ll be nice to see Anne Hathaway playing a crazed alcoholic again.

“Daguerrotype.” It’s not every day that the Japanese horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa shoots a movie in France, let alone with actors as good as Olivier Gourmet, Tahar Rahim and Mathieu Amalric.

“Harmonium.” Another Japanese-directed title, this one actually set in Japan, Koji Fukada’s family drama was one of the best-reviewed under-the-radar titles at Cannes.

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This year’s festival will be socially charged

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off Thursday with “The Magnificent Seven,” Antoine Fuqua’s inclusive remake of John Sturges’ classic 1960 Western, with people of color behind and in front of the camera. From left, Vincent D'Onofrio, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Byung-hun Lee.

In an awards season shaping up as the most socially charged in recent memory, the annual cinema gathering will contain a different feel this year. Movies about racial politics and identity will fill the streets of the Canadian city, injecting Hollywood into a cultural debate — and kicking off a period of Oscar movies that could both inform and reveal a continent’s racial attitudes.

There’s a whole new mix of films and people that involves race and, equally important, I think there’s an appetite for them.

Cameron Bailey, festival’s artistic director

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Why the Toronto International Film Festival matters

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Toronto is one of North America’s largest festivals and, with key post-Labor Day positioning, one of its most influential. The arrival of the festival marks the end of the summer tent-pole season and begins Hollywood’s all-important fall movie-going period.

Thanks to its place on the calendar, Toronto strongly sets the Oscar agenda to follow. A number of films with awards hopes could see their fates determined by their receptions north of the border.

“We’re lucky to be placed in the fall, at a point when audiences want substantial, high-quality films after the summer popcorn season,” Toronto artistic programmer Cameron Bailey said in an interview. That this summer’s popcorn has tasted stale to some viewers will increase the anticipation for, and pressure on, the 2016 Toronto slate.

Of the past nine best picture winners, eight have played Toronto.

“I don’t think there’s a formula anymore for a movie to go on to award success,” Bailey said. “We just want to program the best films and bring the public, the media and the industry together in a way I don’t think you see at any other festival.”

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AFI canceled ‘Birth of a Nation’ screening amid Nate Parker controversy, but TIFF still plans to show the film

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Watch the trailer for "The Birth of a Nation.”

With “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker in the headlines over his 2001 rape trial, the American Film Institute decided to step away from the period tale, raising questions about the film’s larger marketing campaign and ultimate viability as an Oscar contender.

So far, the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie will screen several times, has remained on board; there will be post-screening Q&As and studio Fox Searchlight will conduct a junket in a local hotel. (In keeping with the pattern for most movies that premiered elsewhere, there will not be a press conference for the film.)

Unlike other controversies, the scandal puts at loggerheads several disenfranchised groups. “Birth” was seen as a savior of sorts for critics who believe that stories about African Americans have not been sufficiently represented in Hollywood. But the controversy over Parker has also enraged victims-rights groups, who see a systemic attempt by powerful interests to sweep away individuals’ concerns.

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TIFF 2016 will spotlight female directors and people of color

Mira Nair's Ugandan chess tale "Queen of Katwe," starring Lupita Nyong'o, will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Mira Nair’s Ugandan chess tale “Queen of Katwe,” starring Lupita Nyong’o, will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

A movie awards season that’s shaping up to be about diversity will get a fitting kickoff at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The early Oscar bellwether will feature a number of stories by and about underrepresented voices. Most notably that means women, with seven of its 19 galas directed by female filmmakers, a festival record.

This includes the world premieres of:

The Magnificent Seven, Antoine’s Fuqua’s remake of the John Sturges classic that now stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke (and opens the festival).

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“The Magnificent Seven” trailer.

Mira Nair’s Ugandan chess tale, “Queen of Katwe,” starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.

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Watch the trailer for Disney’s “Queen of Katwe.”

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‘Snowden,’ ‘Denial,’ and ‘Deepwater Horizon’ among this year’s newsy films at TIFF

Films about charged modern news events along the lines of last year’s Toronto breakout “Spotlight” are on the docket again this year. They include world premieres of:

Oliver Stone’s much-anticipated “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the controversial National Security Agency contractor.

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The trailer for Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

"Denial,” Mick Jackson’s look at the fight between historian Deborah Lipstadt and Holocaust denier David Irving.

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Rachel Weisz, Andrew Scott and Timothy Spall star in “Denial.”

Pete Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” about the corporate intrigue behind the 2010 oil spill disaster.

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Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson star in “Deepwater Horizon.”

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Toronto’s documentaries include ‘Amanda Knox’ and Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Turning Point’

An image from the documentary "Amanda Knox."
An image from the documentary “Amanda Knox.”
(Netflix)

Toronto’s documentary section is one of the best-regarded on the global festival circuit. The 2016 edition will focus on a mix of social topics and boldfaced personalities, with many movies seeking to offer a measure of timely clarity.

  • Among the most intriguing is “The Turning Point.” The film has Leonardo DiCaprio and actor-director Fisher Stevens offering a kind of “Inconvenient Truth” for a new age, with DiCaprio touring the world interviewing global leaders and other well-known figures on the subject of the environment. The film is notable both for its celebrity interviewer — DiCaprio is not often seen on camera outside his acting roles — and its potential to engage viewers on more wonky matters of policy. The star has been working on the film for years and reportedly can be seen in the film conducting some of the interviews while still wearing his “The Revenant” beard.
  • A different hot-button issue comes to the fore with “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” Steve James’ look at the 2008 financial crisis through the prosecution of a bank in New York’s Chinatown. The director, who has had an eclectic career with films as diverse as “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself,” focuses on the roiling waters of urban enclaves, as he did in his 2011 Chicago-set “The Interrupters.”
  • In “The Ivory Game,” from Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, the filmmakers use a dense narrative and thriller conventions to go undercover and tell of the ivory cartels that traffic in African elephants.
  • With “Amanda Knox,” Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst examine the incidents that led to both the Italian conviction and ultimate acquittal for an alleged murder by the title subject. The film is likely to engender passions, and possibly even competing viewpoints, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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TIFF flashback!

Go inside The Times’ photo studio at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to see moody photos of filmmakers and stars.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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