Highlights from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival: Another Jenkins/Chazelle face-off?


This was my ninth year in a row attending the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s been an exceptional five days. My greatest disappointment was missing perhaps the most anticipated film at the festival, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is being hailed as a masterpiece. (Actually, I was one of the last people let into the theatre, but only front-row seats were available—a painful vantage point, since the Scotiabank screens are huge. Suffering for art has its limits.)

On the upside, missing Roma enabled me to catch Green Book, one of the festival’s unexpected delights. Peter Farrelly of the onetime boundary-pushing Farrelly Brothers directed this odd-couple road comedy, based on the relationship of brilliant jazz musician/aesthete Don Shirley and his driver, Bronx loudmouth Tony Vallelonga. Shirley hires Vallelonga, a laid-off Copacabana bouncer, to be his chauffeur and muscle when he decides to tour the Deep South with the two white musicians who complete his trio. A big surprise here is the irresistible comic performances of the two leads: Viggo Mortensen, packing on the pounds and pulling off a convincing Italian-American tough guy, and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as the uptight artiste who calls the shots until Tony loosens him up. Behind the comedy is a most serious backdrop: the indignities of “traveling while black” in the segregated ’60s. (The Green Book of the title refers to a guide to accommodations for black motorists in the Southern United States.) Both central characters are full of surprises and make great company in this crowd-pleaser with a vital social message.

A more sobering approach to race can be found in one of the festival’s standouts: If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, it’s the story of 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo (Stephan James), whose swoony romantic idyll is halted when Alonzo is falsely accused of the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. When Tish learns she is pregnant, her mother Sharon and father Joe (Regina King and Colman Domingo) are surprisingly supportive; the same can’t be said for Alonzo’s Bible-thumping mother (Aunjanue Ellis).  Jenkins moves back and forth in time between the smitten young couple pre-arrest and the creeping desperation of their struggle to prove Alonzo’s innocence. A high point is Sharon’s journey to Puerto Rico to confront her future son-in-law’s accuser; the great Regina King may score an Oscar nomination to accompany her two Emmy Awards. Throughout, filmmaker Jenkins proves that the gorgeous, slow-simmer style that enraptured viewers of Moonlight was no fluke.

One of the most notorious moments in Oscar history was the Moonlight/La La Land Best Picture screw-up, and it seems likely Barry Jenkins and La La Land director Damien Chazelle will be facing off in the 2018 Oscar Best Picture race. Chazelle’s very different project this time around is First Man, a technically dazzling depiction of the career of Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the Moon. The script by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) focuses just as much on Armstrong’s family as it does on his NASA colleagues, placing great emphasis on the emotional impact of the loss of his young daughter to cancer. Thus, the true awards-bait performance is that of Claire Foy (“The Crown”), superb as Neil’s fierce wife, Jan. At the Toronto premiere screening, Neil Armstrong’s two sons revealed that Jan herself died of cancer just three months ago and praised the film and Foy’s work as a moving tribute to their mom. As Neil, Ryan Gosling makes a taciturn hero, but he finds subtle shadings in his interpretation of this brave American pioneer. And the film, with its claustrophobic depictions of the space capsules and palpable reminders of the dangers of space exploration, succeeds in Chazelle’s own mission: “It’s easy to forget how insane it seemed at times,” he told the Toronto audience.

(The biggest gasp that night came from astronaut and onetime Moon walker Al Worden, who praised First Man’s realism but decried most movie depictions of space travel, calling Gravity “the worst movie ever made.” Let’s hope that diss never found its way back to Alfonso Cuarón.)

More Toronto highlights in the coming days, including Rashida Jones’ immensely entertaining tribute to her music-legend father, Quincy; Jason Reitman’s Altmanesque account of presidential candidate Gary Hart’s rise and fall, The Front Runner, and Werner Herzog’s encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev.