TIFF Reactions: What People Are Saying About ‘Just Mercy,’ ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ ‘Knives Out,’ And More

Well, folks, it’s time. We’re finally in the thick of it. With Venice and Telluride now firmly behind us, it’s time to turn our gaze North, as the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival begins to wind down, and we have a moment to slow down, reflect, and parse the information gifted to us from those in attendance. Thanks to a wide following ranging across both Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes-certified critics, I’ve managed to whittle down the information for you all, in the hopes that we may use it to determine what films are great, what films have Oscar potential, and what films whiffed it hard!

Let’s start with the most popular films emerging from the festivals, shall we? Widely hailed as one of the better TIFFs in recent memory, there were lots of films soaking up praise. However, far and away the most popular film at Toronto this year was Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to Looper, Breaking Bad, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A throwback to the classic murder mysteries of Agatha Christie, Murder, She Wrote, and more, Johnson’s film was praised across the board as a great mystery, a great comedy, and a great film altogether. The cast includes the likes of Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, LaKeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, and Christopher Plummer, with each actor getting a stand-out scene and credit. Craig in particular has enjoyed some of the finest notices of his career, although Collette is closest behind him. Audiences went gaga over the film’s blending of social satire, creative comedy, and thrilling mystery, and it’s likely to become a big hit in the months to come. Also wowing critics was Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s cross between The Big Short, Goodfellas, and Magic Mike. Centered on a group of New York strippers who, having lost everything in the 2008 crash, decide to con the Wall Street types who caused it and swindle them for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the film has been heralded as an audience favorite. It’s been called smart, sexy, thrilling, and funny, and could be a dark horse Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, beyond all that, the film has a larger narrative at play: Jennifer Lopez. Dubbed the film’s architect thanks to her role as producer, Lopez’s performance has been hailed by critics all over, thanks to her street-smart acting style, athletic dance abilities, and the subtle talent she’s always possessed and yet wasted on romantic comedies for two decades. Make no mistake: the Jennifer Lopez Best Supporting Actress campaign is in full force, and when it comes to the nomination…I think she’s gonna get it, folks.

Of course, TIFF is not only about the newest films to grace the screen – it’s also a chance for favorites from other festivals to test out a new audience before going wide. And no film is a better example of this than Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. In my ten years of studying Toronto, and my three years writing about it, I have never seen a reaction to a film quite like Parasite. After premiering in Cannes earlier this year and winning the Palme d’Or, Parasite made the move to Telluride, where it consistently sold out screenings and had to turn away major industry and Academy viewers. And just this week at Toronto, the film yet again made headlines as it set TIFF records in terms of lines for screenings. It is consistently getting great word of mouth, with the word “masterpiece” not-too-casually thrown around to describe it. In fact, I will tell you all now that the buzz has become so deafening surrounding this film that in my next round of Oscar predictions, you will not only be seeing this film in Best International Feature, but Best Picture and Director as well. It may be the real deal, folks. Meanwhile, Telluride favorite Waves also had a successful showing, albeit not quite as successful as Telluride. It’s a little challenging to discern the audience’s appreciation for Trey Edward Shultz’s Great American Epic – the buzz was less high and slightly more critical than Telluride, but it also received the loudest applause of any film at Toronto (including Parasite). I think we’ll know a little bit more when the awards are announced on Sunday and folks have had a chance to think about it. And as was to be expected, Marriage Story and Ford v Ferrari continue to position themselves at the front of the Oscar race. Marriage Story is still unanimously loved across the board, thanks to its acting, writing, and directing, while Ford v Ferrari has established itself as that rare crossover between art and pop that made The Shawshank Redemption, Dunkirk, Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity, and more critical and commercial hits over the years. Expect big things from these films, critically and laudatorily.

Now, TIFF is known for one thing, and one thing only: as an Oscar-Maker. So what did critics have to say about this year’s batch of Oscar contenders? Well, let’s start with the biggest name of the bunch, Just Mercy. Just Mercy had just about as average an Oscar debut as you ever could want – dubbed a VERY conventional version of a 90s courtroom thriller, the film was well-received despite most critics noting that it’s exactly what you expect it to be. Comparisons were drawn to To Kill A Mockingbird and A Time To Kill, while credit was given to Michael B. Jordan’s commanding lead and Brie Larson’s Holly Hunter-esque supporting performance. However, while both actors were praised, most attention was given to the supporting performances of Rob Morgan and especially Jamie Foxx, who turns in his best work since Collateral. The direction by Destin Daniel Cretton was considered rather basic, but the film’s heart is ultimately in the right place, taking a strong stand against both racism AND the death penalty as a whole. And honestly, an average debut crossed with heavy promotion (Jordan and Foxx were on Fallon before the week was over) is really all you need to earn yourself a Best Picture award. Of course, Mercy did find itself overwhelmed by a different kind of feel-good Oscar contender: the Mr. Rogers film A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Beautiful Day has become one of those rare films that no one dislikes. That’s not to say everyone thinks it’s a masterpiece – it has been noted as a conventional biopic through and through. But no one dislikes it, thanks to director Marielle Heller’s risky, smart direction and strong sense of heart. And of course, at the center of it all is Tom Hanks, giving one of the best performances of his career as Mr. Rogers. Two interesting details emerging from TIFF about Hanks’ performance: first, it is above all an interpretation, not an impression. Much like how Michael Fassbender doesn’t look like Steve Jobs, but managed to embody him through soul, Hanks embodies Rogers’ goodness more than his actual looks or mannerisms. And second, Hanks is not the lead of the film – he is more a facet of goodness appearing in Matthew Rhys’ character’s life. This makes Hanks a Best Supporting Actor frontrunner, and should provide an interesting angle on the film.

Of course, even if an Oscar contender doesn’t receive raves, that doesn’t mean it can’t earn some acclaim and launch an Oscar campaign. For example, Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name was a simple crowd-pleaser, drawing comparisons to Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist. While the film wasn’t heralded as a masterpiece in any way, there were plenty of great notices not only for Murphy’s award-worthy performance, but for Ruth E. Carter’s costumes as well. Should Netflix continue to push the film for Oscars, it could make a decent upset down the way. Similarly, the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet didn’t change the game in any way, shape or form – it was marked down as “average” and “conventional” much more than other biopics in attendance. But everyone stands firm in appreciation of Cynthia Erivo’s terrific performance. Like Judy (which we’ll talk about in a minute), the film was hailed as an awards piece for it’s lead more than a film as a whole. That being said, Erivo’s original song during the credits, “Stand Up,” really wowed audiences, and is an early frontrunner for Best Original Song. And Janelle Monáe turns in a strong supporting performance that, in a weak year like this one, could propel her to the Oscar stage. We’ll have to see going forward. As for those films that premiered at Telluride and beyond, the strongest name of the bunch is far and away Judy. While Telluride loved Renée Zellweger’s performance and not much else, Toronto loved the film as a whole. They praised everything from the costumes to the direction to the predictable screenplay. They loved it so much, Zellweger was shocked to the point of tears onstage. She’s slowly inching her way to the Oscar frontrunner position, and who knows? When a film is this well liked, even if it is pretty conventional, it could very well sneak into the Oscar race.

Speaking of films that had better premieres this time around, Adam Sandler’s outing with the avant-garde Safdie Brothers was all around stronger, with more fans “getting” the movie than the snobby mountains of Telluride. Audiences were more on board for the crazy journey, and Sandler earned stronger notices than even Telluride (and they gave him really strong notices). I’m not sure how much this is going to move the needle – more Oscar voters attend Telluride than Toronto. But it’s still worth mentioning. The Telluride smash The Two Popes had another successful outing at Canada, thanks to its fantastic performances, but the response felt a bit more muted than the Colorado premiere. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just worthy of note. And finally, there’s my beloved The Report. I’ve been beating the drum for The Report since Sundance, assuming it would ride goodwill and strong messaging all the way to Oscar glory. However, thanks to a terrible Amazon Oscar campaign and a wealth of uncertainty around the project, it has failed to connect time and time again. Toronto was perhaps its best outing yet, with several critics pleasantly surprised with how much they loved the film and its performances. But while this confirms the film as a fantastic Top Ten contender, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that this film may just not have the juice for the Oscar race.

At this point, you may be wondering to yourself, “Wait, we’ve already gone through both the Best Films AND the Oscar Contenders, and we still haven’t talked about the highly anticipated Jojo Rabbit. What’s up with that?” Well…about that…Taika Waititi’s much touted WWII satire featuring a brainwashed young boy with Hitler as an imaginary friend who realizes the atrocities of the Nazi party had an interesting premiere last Sunday. Despite high expectations and a perceived cakewalk to the Audience Award, the premiere itself proved to be rather disastrous. The film was incredibly divisive, receiving rapturous applause from industry folks and some critics, while others called it everything from “dangerous” to “lazy.” Now, some of these reviews were a bit overzealous (I read one that I consider the worst piece of criticism I have ever encountered), but that doesn’t change the fact that several intelligent, highly respectable critics loathed the film, including Variety’s Owen Gleiberman and the LA Times’ Justin Chang. And even when it comes to the good reviews, it’s die-hard fans even came up short at pinpointing what it was they specifically loved. It seemed they were more interested in the idea rather than the film itself, leaving it defenseless from some of the harsher attacks. Now, granted, many of those early critics certainly had blood in their eyes, or were hoping to avoid the backlash they received last year after unanimously praising Green Book, or were unaware of what they were expecting – the shockingly low Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores have both risen exponentially since the early hours of September 9th. But even if the film recovers fully and hits 80% by its premiere, I’m not sure it’s enough to mount an awards campaign on. Jojo Rabbit may make my Top Ten list at the end of the year, but I may have been premature on its Oscar chances.

Still, it could be worse – Jojo could have been in the same conversation as The Goldfinch. Every year, there’s one stinker at TIFF – a film everyone rather universally realizes is quite bad, and a studio most likely paid extra to get it into contention. The Fifth Estate, Life Itself…the list goes on. The Goldfinch has joined this list. Many called it “one of the worst of the year,” and others claimed that it was completely unwatchable in spite of Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Now, I have seen this film, and I will say that it isn’t quite as bad as all that (not as bad as Life Itself, anyway), but make no mistake: it’s not very good, either. Thankfully, it’s opening the same weekend as Hustlers (this weekend!), so at least you’ll know how to spend your money. Meanwhile, the lukewarm reception for The Laundromat at Venice seems to be the kindest reviews it’s going to get – Steven Soderbergh’s comedic interpretation of The Panama Papers has bombed heavily, angering audiences in all the wrong ways. But despite all the criticisms and failings of the films I’ve just listed, at least they aren’t Noah Hawley’s Lucy In The Sky. The story of the female astronaut cut from the team by a commanding officer she had dated and who cheated on her, and ultimately drives across the country to kidnap the duo, Hawley’s film has been called everything from “shallow” to “dumb” to “not great.” It also received a swift mocking on Twitter when it turned out they cut the most interesting part of the story: that she drove across the country in a diaper so she didn’t have to stop on her mission. It’s a pretty safe bet you won’t be seeing Hawley or Natalie Portman in this year’s Oscar conversation.

So that’s where we’re at out of Toronto! This marks the end of the major festivals this year – with the exception of a few major films, everything at New York and AFI will have already been seen at these festivals. But for now, we can use this information to determine what’s good, what’s great, and what’s got Oscar potential. I’ll be back on Sunday with the announcement of the Audience Choice Award that has gone to a Best Picture nominee 9/10 times in the last decade, including last year’s winner Green Book. My guess is that the shortlist includes Knives Out, Hustlers, Marriage Story, Ford v Ferrari, Parasite, Waves, and, if they feel like watching the world burn, Jojo Rabbit or Joker (which opened to much of the same as Venice). I’ll see you all then. I’ve got some Oscar predictions to update.

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