Toronto International Film Festival looks at US politics, race, gender equality – and alien invasion

From Arrival to Snowden, American Pastoral to Loving, and The Magnificent Seven to The Handmaiden, the Oscars bellwether this year presents nearly 400 shorts and features, making it the largest film event in North America

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 8:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 8:16am

The race for the Oscars intensifies this week at the Toronto film festival, where a spotlight will be shone on American politics, youth radicalisation, racism, feminism and alien arrivals.

Nearly 400 feature and short films from 83 countries will be screened at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, the largest such event in North America, which opens on Thursday and runs until September 18.

The event is crucial for Oscars-conscious studios and distributors, attracting hundreds of filmmakers and actors to the red carpet in Canada’s largest city.

In previous years, films such as 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire took the Toronto festival’s audience prize for best picture and went on to win the top honour at the Oscars.

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Last year, audience favourite Spotlight beat all predictions to win best picture at the Academy Awards, while Brie Larson – who is back again this year in Free Fire and The Headhunter’s Calling – received a nod for her performance in Room, which also screened first in Toronto.

“I don’t think anyone last year thought that Spotlight would go all the way to best picture or that Room would break out and become the kind of phenomenon that it did,” says festival co-director Piers Handling.

Films in the running for accolades this year include the new Denis Villeneuve sci-fi movie Arrival, and Oliver Stone’s Snowden, about former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s massive 2013 leak revealing the extent of government snooping on private data.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s performances as a jazz musician and an aspiring actress who fall in love in the bewitching musical La La Land, which opened the Venice film festival before coming to Toronto, has also stirred up a frenzy.

American Pastoral, which looks at an ideal American family torn apart by the upheavals of the 1960s, and Garth Davis’s Lion, the true story of a boy separated from his family who searches for home 25 years later, are also generating tremendous buzz.

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American Pastoral marks Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, and its cast includes Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning.

“These films are getting serious attention and we’ll see how that shakes down in the coming months,” Handling says.

Several directors this year have brought historical political figures to life on the silver screen, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, played by Natalie Portman in Jackie, and former US president Lyndon B. Johnson in LBJ, starring Woody Harrelson.

As US President Barack Obama’s term draws to a close, the film Barry reflects on his college days in New York.

“I don’t know if it’s coincidental, with this year’s presidential election, that people are looking back,” says Handling. “But there’s tremendous interest in dealing with historic subjects, trying to understand what these moments in history meant and in some way tie them in to the present.”

The festival’s opening film, a remake of the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun and Peter Sarsgaard, “is an interesting metaphor for what’s going on in American right now”, Handling says.

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“Westerns have always spoken directly to what is going on in present-day America even though it’s dealing with its history,” he continues. “This one certainly speaks to contemporary America. It’s about a community under extreme pressure, and the people that come together to defend this community are representative of American society. It’s an obvious metaphor for what America is going through these days.”

Similarly, true stories Loving, about an interracial couple’s long struggle for marriage equality, and A United Kingdom, about an African royal who marries an Englishwoman, offer insights into race relations. Loving premiered at Cannes before coming to Toronto and is also in the Oscar running.

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Ripped from the headlines, youth radicalisation features in several films from Canada, Europe and Africa, including Nocturama, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, Layla M., Heaven Will Wait and Foreign Body.

Heeding a call from women in Hollywood, the Toronto film festival this year is also promoting more female directors and “female stories”. Almost 30 per cent of the films on offer were made by women, and several more “deal with subjects through the eyes of women”, says Handling.

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They include The Handmaiden , Queen of Katwe, Elle, Toni Erdmann, Lady Macbeth, Anatomy of Violence, and Strange Weather.