Beautiful day in the Oscarhood: Academy Award hopes of TIFF

The Toronto film festival features several movies that could be in the discussion for this year’s top movie awards, Jay Stone writes

By Jay Stone


TORONTO — The Toronto film festival is known as a launching pad for Oscar movies. Here are a few of the early contenders.


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The re-evaluation of Fred Rogers — from figure of fun in a thousand parodies of his children’s program to American hero in a famous Esquire magazine article to secular sainthood in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — continues in this movie that’s actually based on that Esquire article. Tom Junod, an investigative journalist, was assigned in 1998 to do a short profile of Rogers (Tom Hanks) and emerged with a 10,000-word cover story that painted him as an unexpected wise man, a life coach whose simple wisdom could heal fractures of the heart. It was as if Being There had come to life as a puppet show for children.


In this film, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) the journalist is named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an angry cynic who has never forgiven his father (Chris Cooper) for abandoning his ailing wife. But Rogers turns the tables on the journalist, and his message to children — the value of being who they are, the acceptance of their feelings — becomes a guidepost to the man who needs to overcome a broken heart.


The movie teeters on the edge of treacly sentiment, but Hanks’ performance, which goes past impersonation and finds deeper wells of decency, gives it an irresistible heart. A scene where a New York subway car serenades Mr. Rogers with his theme song is one of the festival’s indelible moments.


(Oscar hopes: Best Picture, Best Actor)


Judy: Renee Zellweger is sensational in this biopic that looks at a few weeks in 1968 when singer Judy Garland performed in London, trying to rescue her fading career and her collapsing life. Zellweger lacks Garland’s magical voice, but she has the drawn look, the druggy tics and the frightened eyes. Unfortunately, she sometimes also has the chipmunk squinch that reminds you that this is Renee Zellweger.


There’s not much plot, but Garland’s life was such a train wreck that the drama is built in. We see Judy as an abused child star being starved and drugged by MGM studios during the making of Wizard of Oz, and the results of her dysfunctional youth: insomnia, addiction, alcoholism, frequent emotional collapses. Director Rupert Goold, adapting the stage play Over The Rainbow, is wise enough to give the stage over to Zellweger for several musical numbers, and she stops the show with galvanizing performances, especially her version of By Myself. She’s no Judy, but she can sell it.


(Oscar hopes: Best Actress)


Pain and Glory: Pedro Almodovar’s self-reflective drama is a triumphant film about a filmmaker named Salvador (Antonio Banderas, who was named best actor at Cannes) who has stopped working because of various physical ailments — he mentioned a tender sciatic nerve just around the time I was squirming in my theatre seat — and the fact that he hasn’t properly mourned the death of his mother.


Salvador looks back on some of his cinematic successes and also on his youth in a small Spanish village where his feisty mom (Penelope Cruz) pampers him and encourages his education. Young Salvador teaches a local workman to read and write, and lingers happily in the idyllic, sunbaked life of a bookish boy with a book.


In the present day — alive with the rich greens, blues, oranges and yellows of Almodovar’s incomparable colour palette — Salvador faces his health problems by seeking out old collaborators and also getting himself addicted to heroin. In Almodovar’s telling, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.


It seems semi-autobiographical, but at a comic remove. At one stage, in the present day, Salvador’s mother reminisces about village life, then suddenly says, “I don’t want you putting any of this in your films.”


(Oscar hopes: Best Foreign Film, Best Actor)


Hustlers: A movie about a strip club — with the attendant allure of sex and danger — that takes a different tack. Based on a true story (and also inspired by a magazine article), this is the story of a group of pole dancers who quit the club that is taking advantage of them and go into business on their own. The business they choose is seducing Wall Street big shots and then drugging them and stealing their credit card information. They’re still selling sex, but now they’re self-employed.


It’s not exactly the work of criminal masterminds, but Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scarfaria, gives it a lively treatment and finds, behind the sleek and sexy heroines, the everyday problems of single mothers and aging sex goddesses who have to settle for minimum-age jobs when their pole dancing careers are over.


The dynamics among the women are the most interesting part of the film, Jennifer Lopez stars as Ramona, a battle-hardened stripper whose introduction, twerking in a torrent of thrown dollar bills, is a stunning moment of corrupted eroticism. Ramona befriends new stripper Destiny (Constance Wu) and teaches her the ins and outs of lap dancing, as it were. They form the core of the sexy gang that gives the smarmy bankers their comeuppance.


The movie doesn’t have the ironic intelligence of similar films about louche capitalism, such as Wolf of Wall Street, but Lopez gives it a feminist angle of its own.


(Oscar hopes: Best Actress)


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