TIFF Was a Dizzying Oscars-Race Appetizer

TIFF Was a Dizzying Oscars-Race Appetizer

From pop operas starring Oscar winners to pop stars building Oscars buzz, the Toronto Film Festival had it all.

From pop operas starring Oscar winners to pop stars building Oscars buzz, the Toronto Film Festival had it all.

Text: Greg Krelenstein

The 2018 Toronto Film Festival, which wrapped this past Friday, will likely be remembered for hosting the North American premiere of A Star is Born. Despite this awards season shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent film history, not to mention the sky-high expectations that followed its splashy Venice world premiere, A Star is Born received a thunderous ovation from the TIFF community, sealing stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s perch atop Oscars predictions lists .Cooper, who also directed the film, grounds it in a naturalism that distinguishes it from its previous incarnations (this is the fourth A Star is Born) while Lady Gaga dazzles from the first moment we meet her, performing "La Vie En Rose" in a drag bar, so immersed in character that your forget you’re watching Mother Monster.

But Star wasn’t the only pop spectacle at the fest. This was the year of beloved actresses stepping out in experimental roles that paid off big time. Namely, Natalie Portman’s turn as Celeste in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, was a go-for-broke performance that was my favorite of the festival. The film is part social commentary, part pop opera. But it’s also darkly funny, exposing the nasty sides of celebrity, juxtaposed with two mass shootings that elevate the film to something that’s beyond the trappings of just a “lonely at the top” celebrity tale. With original songs by Sia sung by Portman, the final act of the film is a concert, clearly inspired by the spectacle of Britney Spears, yet Portman plays the character with the same discipline that danced the Black Swan in her Oscar-winning performance. Who knew Portman had this in her?

Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell is anchored by a ferocious performance by Elizabeth Moss as the leader of a '90s punk girl band. Anyone who grew up in the riot grrl alt-rock 120 minutes generation will recognize Courtney Love in Moss’s characterization, but in the Q&A, Perry said the Gallagher Brothers and Guns N Roses were just as influential. Unwound by a decade of drug addiction, Moss and her bandmates (played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin) must yield to a new generation of girl power, led by supermodel Cara Delevingne in her strongest film role to date. Interestingly, both Vox Lux and Her Smell are organized by acts, giving each film a Shakespearean tempo.

The sweetest of the musical spectacles, Teen Spirit, stars Elle Fanning, and also marks the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella. Fanning’s character Violet dreams of pop stardom while living on a farm with her religious Polish mother in the Isle of Wight.  She passes time singing in dive bars until an American Idol-esque contest comes to town. Fanning has an incredible voice and tears through the hits of Robyn, Ellie Goulding and Annie Lennox as if the songs were written for her. The film is the special type of indie, feel-good fantasy that you can’t help but root for.

Portman also appears in Xavier Dolan’s The Life and Death of John F Donovan, which isn’t a musical, but Dolan loads the film with musical cues (from Adele’s "Rolling In the Deep" to The Verve’s "Bittersweet Symphony") that suggest he has one up his sleeve. The director’s English-language debut touches Dolan tropes like dynamics between sons and mothers, as well as closeted homosexuality in Hollywood (perhaps a commentary on the director's own relationship with the media). A sprawling drama that relies heavily on music, the film recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Magnolia, following a young actor (Ben Schnetzer) who has recently published early letters he wrote to his childhood idol, played by Kit Harrington (letters based on an exchange that the real-life Dolan had with Leonardi DiCaprio). Elsewhere in the sometimes complicated, time-jumping narrative, Portman and Susan Sarandon play complicated mothers, Kathy Bates is a tough-as-nails manager, and Chris Zylka plays a sweet male love interest. With its ambitious, highly personal premise and jam-packed cast, it’s little wonder Dolan took two years editing it.

What A Star Is BornVox LuxHer SmellTeen Spirit, and The Life and Death of John F Donovan share in common is the dream of escapism from ordinary life, which is perhaps an answer to the current news cycle. But each stands individually as extremely satisfying films complete with soundtracks I can’t wait to own.

Other actor-driven standouts include Viola Davis’ take-no-prisoners performance in Steve McQueen’s commercial heist thriller Widows and Keira Knightley’s feminist biopic on celebrated French author Collette. A Faithful Man, directed by actor Louis Garrel which co-stars two generations of Chanel muses, Laetita Costa and Lily Rose Depp, Jonah Hill’s nostalgic Mid 90s, a portrait of pre-Supreme L.A. skate culture, and Justin Kelly’s Terminator Jeremiah Leroy, an adaptation of a Savannah Knoop memoir, better known as the avatar of Laura Albert’s fictional character, all deliver memorable ensembles and nostalgia-driven visuals. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins's follow-up to Moonlight and Hollywood’s first James Baldwin adaptation, and Boy Erased, which stars Nicole Kidman as the mother of a victim of gay conversion therapy, are two vastly different yet equally memorable literary adaptations. And the unstoppable Kidman was on double-feature duty, also appearing in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, sparking more awards chatter.

Here’s a compiled soundtrack mash up featuring songs heard in all of above.

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