Toronto Film Festival: Spielberg’s “Fabelmans” and Aronofsky’s “Whale” Float to Top

Look for Billy Eichner to land a Golden Globe nomination for his starring turn in ”Bros,” too
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The energy of the pre-pandemic days returned to King Street this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, which boasted a bevy of Oscar contenders, including the world premiere of what looks to be this year’s undisputed frontrunner, The Fabelmans.

The festival crowd went wild for Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie, which drew special kudos for stars Michelle Williams and, in a one-scene cameo, veteran actor Judd Hirsch. Meanwhile, several major acting award contenders bolstered their campaigns, from Brendan Fraser in The Whale to Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.

If there was one awards contender that found a less-than-warm reception in Toronto, it was Sarah Polley’s drama Women Talking, which is proving divisive, particularly along gender lines. It also, sadly, was the only female-directed movie that I saw during the entire festival.

In addition to The Fabelmans, Universal brought Billy Eichner’s hilarious LGBTQ+ comedy Bros to Toronto, where Eichner established himself as a solid bet for a Golden Globe nomination with his raucous but heartfelt performance. I didn’t attend the world premiere of The Fabelmans, but I did manage to get into the world premiere of Bros, which was a wild screening with the kind of energy you rarely see outside of the midnight movies.

Elsewhere on the studio side, Searchlight Pictures presented The Menu and The Banshees of Inisherin in addition to Sam Mendes’ romantic drama Empire of Light. Colman, per usual, shines in Empire of Light as a movie theater staffer who is struggling with schizophrenia and enjoying a new romance with a young co-worker, played by rising star Micheal Ward. It’s a fearless turn, and kudos are also due to Banshees star Colin Farrell, who actually beat Fraser for the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Not to be outdone, Sony brought its historical epics The Woman King and Devotion to Toronto, though only one made much of a dent. That would be The Woman King, which is said to feature Viola Davis’ very best performances. Devotion, on the other hand, suffered a failure to launch. While the film following U.S. Navy wingmen during the Korean War does pick up towards the end, its 140-minute runtime and leisurely second act do it no favors.

And finally, in addition to The Whale, which I’ll discuss in further detail below, A24 offered up The Inspection and Ti West‘s midnight movie Pearl, which serves as a prequel to his horror film X. A third entry is now in the works, making it A24’s first franchise.

The Banshees of Inisherin
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin/Searchlight Pictures

The Banshees of Inisherin

Speaking of midnight movies, the late-night section programmed by Peter Kaplowsky was a huge hit this year between the Finnish film Sisu, John Hyams’ home invasion movie Sick, and the Funny or Die-produced biopic parody Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which features a committed performance from Daniel Radcliffe. The lineup also included the latest chapter in the V/H/S franchise, in which Johannes Roberts (The Strangers: Prey at Night) delivered the standout segment, as well as the X prequel, Pearl, and the horror-comedy The Blackening, which struck out with most critics I spoke with but will certainly find its audience.

In terms of new directors, studios and streamers should probably be paying attention to Daniel Goldhaber, whose eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline marks an impressive directorial debut, even though Goldhaber is one of four to share the “a film by” credit on the feature, which was acquired by Neon during the festival. The film follows eight young people looking to disrupt the flow of oil by engaging in the sabotage of property, and the young ensemble cast includes Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Lukas Gage (The White Lotus).

I also strongly believe that Sisu director Jalmari Helander is ready to make the studio leap, and could do some very cool things with a big budget, as his film plays like Inglorious Basterds if there was only one guy taking on a legion of Nazis.

Finally, Elegance Bratton proves himself a natural filmmaker with his military drama The Inspection, which features a star-making performance from Jeremy Pope, who is probably best known to Broadway fans. Pope really should be in the conversation for an Oscar nod this year along with performers from another gay-themed film, My Policeman, which was my favorite film that played the fest. Yes, Harry Styles is getting all the headlines, and he acquits himself quite well in the title role, but there’s no question in my mind that David Dawson was the standout as his tortured lover.

My Policeman is an Amazon title, and Prime Video was hardly the only streamer to trot out its wares in Toronto, where Netflix also lifted the veil on Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. While I was left disappointed, your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoyed the first film. Apple, for its part, popped the lid on Peter Farrelly‘s Vietnam War movie The Greatest Beer Run Ever starring Zac Efron, as well as Raymond and Ray, which stars Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke as grieving brothers.

The Whale
Brendan Fraser in The Whale/A24

The Whale

Circling back to The Whale, it is Darren Aronofsky‘s best film in years, and like My Policeman, it left me in a puddle of tears. Fraser plays a teacher who abandoned his family, including his young daughter, to pursue a relationship with a male student. Nearly a decade later, his now-teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) comes back into his life, which is in danger due to his failing health.

Some folks assume that makeup and prosthetics often do the heavy lifting in terms of an actor’s transformation — here, Frasier plays an obese man — but there are times when I think such enhancements actually make it harder for the actor, because they have to perform from beneath these layers that serve to hide them, in a sense. Acting is all about truth. But Fraser doesn’t just rely on the makeup/prosthetics/CGI, his expressive eyes do much of the work here, and you can see the pain and the fear in them as well as the strength.

Fraser is certainly the Best Actor frontrunner coming out of TIFF. Here’s a look at who else came through this season with a performance worth talking about.

Awards Locks:
Brendan Fraser (Best Actor, The Whale)
Michelle Williams (Best Actress, The Fabelmans — unless Universal opts for Supporting)
Olivia Colman (Best Actress, Empire of Light)

Awards Hopefuls:
Colin Farrell (Best Actor, The Banshees of Inisherin)
Judd Hirsch (Best Supporting Actor, The Fabelmans)
Jeremy Pope (Best Actor, The Inspection)
Brendan Gleeson (Best Supporting Actor, The Banshees of Inisherin)
Kerry Condon (Best Supporting Actress, The Banshees of Inisherin)
Hong Chau (Best Supporting Actress, The Whale)
David Dawson (Best Supporting Actor, My Policeman)
Gina McKee (Best Supporting Actress, My Policeman)
Emma Corrin (Best Supporting Actress, My Policeman)
Billy Eichner (Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, Bros)
Daniel Radcliffe (Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, Weird)
Sadie Sink (Best Supporting Actress, The Whale)
Jonathan Majors (Best Actor, Devotion)
Ralph Fiennes (Best Supporting Actor, The Menu)
Micheal Ward (Best Supporting Actor, Empire of Light)
Bokeem Woodbine (Best Supporting Actor, The Inspection)
Jessie Buckley (Best Supporting Actress, Women Talking)
Claire Foy (Best Supporting Actress, Women Talking)
Gabriel LaBelle (Best Actor, The Fabelmans)
Luke Macfarlane (Best Supporting Actor, Bros)

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