The Big Winners of Toronto

Love ‘American Fiction,’ though the new Alexander Payne movie is overrated. Also, check out the Netflix deals for Anna Kendrick and Richard Linklater!

The Toronto International Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, handing out its Oscar-prognosticating People’s Choice Award to Cord Jefferson’s blistering social satire American Fiction. The sour comedy, based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, stars Jeffrey Wright as a cynical novelist who stumbles into mainstream success when his prankish riff on black stereotypes becomes a bestseller. Its coronation as the winner of TIFF’s ever-genial audience-voted prize makes it an instantly approachable movie and a must-see on the award-season calendar, as well as a serious contender for both Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

American Fiction
Jeffrey Wright in Cord Jefferson’s ‘American Fiction.’

Second-best was 1st runner-up prize recipient The Holdovers, Alexander Payne’s slavishly reverential ode to Seventies moviemaking—right down to the pushed-grain cinematography, fake period-era logos for co-distributors Focus Features and Miramax, and phony 1971 copyright in the opening credits. Paul Giamatti plays a lazy-eyed crank teacher at all-boys prep school Barton Academy, tasked with supervising students stuck on campus during Christmas break. Bitterness begets personal epiphanies in this Grinch-with-a-golden-heart misfire, exactly the kind of sentimental trifle that Me-Decade auteurs like Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby spent their entire careers puncturing. Audiences and an admiring AMPAS could be more generous, though, towards the two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker.

Edgier choices naturally played in the late-night slot, and the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award went to that sidebar’s raunchy Opening Night selection, Dicks: The Musical. Sassy comics Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson star in Larry Charles’ big-screen adaptation of their cult off-off-Broadway two-man show Fucking Identical Twins, a hilariously surreal gay riff on the Parent Trap. The duo play broheim assholes who discover they’re secretly separated siblings and repressed homosexuals. Nathan Lane is their once-closeted boozy dad raising a pair of trolls called the Sewer Boys; Megan Mullally is the batty wheelchair-bound mom whose vagina fell off. Daffy hijinks ensue, as do some oddly touching songs, plus Megan Thee Stallion as a fierce ladyboss and Bowen Yang as God in shiny silver hot pants.

The biggest winners got actual prize money, though, as Netflix swooped in and dropped bank for the year’s two most lucrative TIFF deals. First was Anna Kendrick’s impressive directing debut Woman of the Hour, which chronicled the real-life appearance of a serial killer as a contestant on cheesy-sleazy TV show The Dating Game. The nail-biting thriller is a remarkable blend of true-crime genre tropes and smart cultural commentary, and it cost Netflix $11 million in the first major deal of the festival.

And just yesterday came news of a post-fest mega-deal for Richard Linklater’s buzzy comedy-romance thriller Hit Man. Netflix dropped $20 million to secure the rights to the Glen Powell vehicle, an identity-shifting charmer about a mild-mannered teacher who moonlights as various fake assassins for undercover police sting operations.

The disruptive streamer might have picked up a few more titles, but they also came into TIFF with a slew of content. Splashiest was the Emily Blunt star vehicle Pain Hustlers, David Yates’ harrowingly funny look at Big Pharma’s heady push to sell opioids to the masses. But most prestigious was George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, featuring Colman Domingo in a ferociously heartbreaking performance as neglected gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. The slyly entertaining film chronicles his herculean behind-the-scenes efforts to cajole Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP into realizing the 1963 March on Washington.

But TIFF always has a firehose of films, and even more gems await distribution. Among the actor-driven standouts is Memory, Michel Franco’s boldly unconventional romance starring Jessica Chastain as a survivor of sexual trauma and Peter Sarsgaard as a man suffering from dementia who holds a key to her past. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival only days earlier, where it nabbed Best Actor for Sarsgaard. And last week, Chastain announced that she and Franco has already quietly filmed another movie together.

The best showcase by far for ensemble acting at TIFF was Azazel Jacob’s family drama His Three Daughters, a heartbreakingly beautiful look at children brought together for their father’s imminent death. Carrie Coon riles as the uptight firstborn and Elizabeth Olsen plays the deadhead peacemaker with wide-eyed aplomb. But Natasha Lyonne is the secret weapon, a stunned, stay-at-home stoner completely rattled by her sisters and struggling to come to terms with the imminent loss of the only family member who really mattered to her. The modest production, which takes place almost entirely in one apartment, is an emotional epic. Here’s hoping the TIFF launch helps this domestic sturm und drang find the right home.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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