Toronto International Film Festival 2017 highlights: The Shape of Water, Molly’s Game

As the Oscars approach, the film festival in Canada offers a preview of potential awards season success. Hopefuls include Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and two second world war films

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 9:01am

Mayor John Tory had just introduced Guillermo del Toro’s lush monster love story The Shape of Water at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, ending with a couple of sentences in stilted Spanish, which Del Toro, taking the stage, translated for the audience: “He said, ‘Guillermo del Toro has gonorrhoea.’” Del Toro paused for the laughter. “That is not true.”

It wasn’t the only time Del Toro used Toronto’s mayor for comic effect. Bounding back on the Elgin Theatre’s stage (the film uses the historic venue to fine effect in a couple of key scenes), Del Toro told the adoring audience after the premiere: “As the mayor said, ‘Vote early and often.’”

Del Toro was referring to the Toronto festival’s top prize – the People’s Choice Award – which audiences determine by dropping their tickets in ballot boxes held by volunteers at the exits.

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But the cinematic showman could well be directing his sales pitch in the coming months to Oscar voters, who have been taking in the buzz from the Toronto, Telluride and Venice festivals in the past week and making mental notes about which films to prioritise this awards season.

As has been the case for the past few years, Toronto offered a confirmation of the acclaim audiences had bestowed on films that have already played at Telluride and Venice.

Two world premieres – The Current War, a lifeless drama about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, and the rambling Denzel Washington legal thriller Roman J. Israel, Esq. – met with tepid response. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Edison in The Current War, seemed to sense as much, noting the rather ironic failure of his microphone during a Q&A that began after most people had left the building.

Other Toronto premieres will likely do better, evolving into showcases for their leads and filling out the slates in the acting races.

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Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, stars Jessica Chastain as a real-life underground “poker princess,” giving the two-time Oscar nominee her best role since Zero Dark Thirty. If voters count words delivered per minute, Chastain’s a shoo-in this year.

Two other fact-based dramas drew decent notices for their casts too. David Gordon Green’s Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, neatly sidesteps many of the recovery genre’s tropes.

Craig Gillespie’s tragic-comic Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, manages to generate empathy for the infamous figure skater within the first five minutes, no small feat. Margot Robbie looks nothing like Harding, but she gives it her all, and Allison Janney is properly monstrous as Harding’s abusive redneck mom. You never bet against Janney in any awards race.

I, Tonya sold to Neon midway through the festival, turning it into a hot ticket. One film flying under the radar, at least until its Sunday premiere, was Cannes sensation The Florida Project, an unforgettable, immersive film about itinerant families (particularly their mischievous children) living in the cheap motels in Disney World’s shadow.

Willem Dafoe, who anchors this beautiful film as the big-hearted manager of one of the budget motels, told me people at the sprawling InStyle/HFPA party kept asking him why he was in Toronto.

“They’re like Aquaman? Murder on the Orient Express? Nobody had heard of The Florida Project,” says Dafoe.

That undoubtedly changed after its Sunday premiere. Of course, many in the industry already knew how special Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is.

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“When I saw it, nobody wanted to leave after it was done,” says South by Southwest film director Janet Pierson. “It’s so engaging ... you don’t want to leave and break the spell.”

A24 Films – the company behind last year’s best picture winner Moonlight – bought The Florida Project at Cannes. It’s an unconventional awards season film, starring two pint-sized girls – seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto, who is six.

But Moonlight, with its micro-budget and restrained storytelling, defied the conventions of what a best picture winner (and nominee) can be. Who’s to say The Florida Project won’t do the same?

A24 has another remarkable film in contention. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a coming-of-age tale about a freethinking high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) looking to escape Sacramento (or as she calls it “the Midwest of California”), earned raves at Toronto following a rousing Telluride debut. At a party following the premiere, Gerwig says she sees Lady Bird as a love story between a strong-willed mother (impeccably played by Laurie Metcalf) and her equally fierce-minded daughter.

That mother-daughter relationship is one of the many sharply drawn aspects of Lady Bird that is winning audiences’ hearts. Gerwig has talked to scores of women after screenings who have told her they have been that mother or that daughter depicted in the film or that they hope their daughters do a better job of raising their girls than they did.

“I just want to hug everybody ... and I do,” she says, laughing. “I probably hug more people than is appropriate.”

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Certainly, that’s life in the film festival bubble. At the Shape of Water premiere, Del Toro apologised for repeatedly cursing, saying it’s not very Canadian of him to do so.

“But I’m really emotional right now,” added the Mexican-born director, who has lived in Toronto for the past few years.

The Shape of Water, a romantic fantasy about the relationship between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) and a creature straight out of a B-movie, recently won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival. That prize isn’t much of an Oscar bellwether, and the academy has even less of a track record about recognising films featuring a merman in a prominent role.

But Del Toro’s extravagantly mounted fairy tale also possesses the kind of deep love for cinema – in this case, Golden Age musicals, ’50s horror, big biblical dramas – that Oscar voters adore.

“I believe there’s art and beauty and power in the images of fantasy and parable,” says Del Toro.

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Who would argue with that? There’s plenty of room at the inn for this year’s Oscar best picture race, the most wide-open contest in years. Contenders include films that tell two sides of the same slice of history ( Dunkirk and Darkest Hour), an achingly intense story of first love (Call Me by Your Name), another love story in which one of the participants spends most of the time in a coma (The Big Sick) and a stinging horror film that confronts race with humour and fury ( Get Out ).

It’s a mixed bag, in the best possible sense of the term.

And that’s just what’s been unveiled.

“I love this time of year,” says Gerwig.