Art and Experience: The Toronto International Film Festival sounded the opening bell of Oscar season on Tuesday, unveiling a list of high profile films that will use the annual gathering to launch their awards campaigns. Major releases that will be looking to make a splash and score with critics include Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller “Arrival,” Peter Berg’s disaster drama “Deepwater Horizon,” and Rob Reiner’s historical biopic “LBJ.”
The film festival will kick off on Sept. 8 with the world premiere of “The Magnificent Seven,” a remake of the John Sturges classic that was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” It stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt as gunslingers who are enlisted to protect a small town, while marking director Antoine Fuqua’s third time at the festival. He previously screened “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” at Toronto. Sony and MGM will release the film stateside on Sept. 23.
“I can’t think of a better place or crowd for the film’s world premiere,” Fuqua said in a brief video statement that accompanied a press conference announcing the lineup.
Jonathan Demme, Oliver Stone, and Mira Nair are just a few of the notable directors who will be bringing their latest films north of the border. Demme will offer up “JT and the Tennessee Kids,” which promises to pull back the curtain on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour. The “Silence of the Lambs” filmmaker has previously shot documentaries about musicians such as the Talking Heads and Neil Young. Stone will be on hand with another piece of political provocation, “Snowden,” a look at NSA leaker Edward Snowden that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and was originally supposed to open last spring. Nair is fielding “Queen of Katwe,” an inspirational drama about a chess prodigy that stars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.
One film that will likely draw a lot of interest from Oscar-ologists is “Lion,” a drama about a young man (Dev Patel) who reunites with his long-lost parents using Google Earth. The Weinstein Company, which has struggled at the box office of late and sat out last year’s best picture Oscar race for the first time since 2008, is hoping that the film will propel the studio back into the thick of things.
After setting off a bidding war at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for his screenplay, Tom Ford will debut “Nocturnal Animals.” The twisty story of a woman whose life begins to mirror the manuscript of her ex-husband’s first novel stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Though best known as a fashion designer, Ford impressed critics with “A Single Man,” his 2009 Oscar-nominated feature film directing debut.
Along with Ford, Damien Chazelle will try to prove that his initial brush with success wasn’t a fluke. The indie director turned heads in 2014 with “Whiplash,” his portrait of an ambitious drummer and an abusive instructor. He’s back at the festival with “La La Land,” a musical that will try to prove that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling can hoof it with the best of them and carry a tune.
In past years, Oscar-winners or contenders such as “Spotlight,” “The Martian,” or “The Theory of Everything” have used Toronto to propel themselves forward in the race for awards glory and commercial success. The Canadian festival is seen as a must-stop on most major awards campaigns.
However, even as the competition for gold statues intensifies, so too has the rivalry between festivals. To that end, Toronto has seen its prominence threatened by the Telluride Film Festival, which has the advantage of appearing earlier in the year, and boasts a more casual and relaxed vibe that some filmmakers find appealing. They’ve also lost out on several prominent fall releases to the New York Film Festival, which last year snagged the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and also nabbed the debut of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” in 2014.
At various points, Toronto brass have hit back at the competition, denying opening weekend slots to films that screened at other festivals. Although last year they loosened those restrictions, simply denying them access to their biggest venues.
There are risks to offering up films for public consumption before they hit theaters. Last year, the gay rights drama “Freeheld” and the crime thriller “Legend” both saw their Oscar chances snuffed out and their box office prospects dimmed when they got a lackluster response from Toronto audiences.
This year’s gathering unfolds as society is grappling with a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, mass shootings around the globe, and a divisive U.S. presidential election. But the festival’s leadership said that while movies screening at Toronto will grapple with a host of social and political issues, there isn’t a connective tissue linking all of the work thematically.
“We are living in complex and really unpredictable times, and the wonderful thing about cinema is it’s both entertainment and it’s also an art form, and it always reflects the times that we are living in,” said Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director.
This year’s festival will also include several films that have appeared at Cannes or the Sundande Film Festival. It’s a list that includes Nate Parker’s slave revolt drama “The Birth of a Nation,” Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama “Manchester by the Sea,” Andrea Arnold’s shaggy road trip odyssey “American Honey,” Jim Jarmusch’s slice-of-life portrait of a bus driver in “Paterson,” and Jeff Nichols’ civil rights drama “Loving.”
Not every film is a prestige play grappling with weighty issues. The lineup boasts a mixture of more commercially minded fare, such as “Sing,” an animated musical comedy from the makers of “Despicable Me,” as well as romantic comedies such as Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” or road trip yarns like Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait.” The festival’s closing night film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” seems like a homage to John Hughes’ high school dramedies. It stars Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, and Kyra Sedgwick, as well as marks the feature film directing debut from Kelly Fremon Craig.
Most of the major titles already have distribution, but Toronto is a market, as well as a festival. “LBJ,” which stars Harrelson as President Lyndon Johnson, Jim Sheridan’s “The Secret Scripture” with a cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Theo James, and “The Headhunter’s Calling” with Gerard Butler, are among the films that are likely to attract attention from buyers.
The lineup also reflects the changing face of the film business. It’s an industry that is no longer dominated exclusively by Hollywood players. Amazon has moved aggressively into the indie space, partnering with the likes of Woody Allen and Spike Lee on projects. It will be a presence at Toronto, screening films such as “Paterson” and “The Handmaiden,” an erotic thriller from Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook.
The festival said it will add to its initial list of 68 films in the weeks leading up to the festival. The gathering will close on Sept. 18.
Here’s a list of galas and special presentations:
“Arrival” (Denis Villeneuve)
“Deepwater Horizon” (Peter Berg)
“The Headhunter’s Calling” (Mark Williams)
“The Journey is the Destination” (Bronwen Hughes)
“JT + The Tennessee Kids” (Jonathan Demme)
“LBJ” (Rob Reiner)
“Lion” (Garth Davis)
“Loving” (Jeff Nichols)
“A Monster Calls” (J.A. Bayona)
“Planetarium” (Rebecca Zlotowski)
“Queen of Katwe” (Mira Nair)
“The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America” (Paul Dugdale)
“The Secret Scripture” (Jim Sheridan)
“Snowden” (Oliver Stone)
“Strange Weather” (Katherine Dieckmann)
“Their Finest” (Lone Scherfig)
“A United Kingdom”(Amma Asante)
“The Age of Shadows (Miljeong)” (Kim Jee woon)
“All I See Is You” (Marc Forster)
“American Honey” (Andrea Arnold)
“American Pastoral” (Ewan McGregor)
“Asura: The City of Madness” (Kim Sung-soo)
“Barakah Meets Barakah (Barakah yoqabil Barakah)” (Mahmoud Sabbagh)
“Barry” (Vikram Gandhi)
“Birth of the Dragon” (George Nolfi)
“The Birth of a Nation”(Nate Parker)
“Bleed for This” (Ben Younger)
“Blue Jay” (Alex Lehmann)
“Brimstone” (Martin Koolhoven)
“BrOTHERHOOD” (Noel Clarke)
“Carrie Pilby”(Susan Johnson)
“Catfight” (Onur Tukel)
“City of Tiny Lights”(Pete Travis)
“The Commune (Kollektivet)” (Thomas Vinterberg)
“Daguerrotype (Le Secret de la chambre noire)” (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
“A Death in the Gunj” (Konkona Sensharma)
“Denial” (Mick Jackson)
“Elle” (Paul Verhoeven)
“Foreign Body (Jassad Gharib, Corps Etranger) Raja Amari, Tunisia/France
“Frantz” (François Ozon)
“The Handmaiden (Agassi)” (Park Chan-wook)
“Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)” (Kôji Fukada)
“I Am Not Madame Bovary” (Feng Xiaogang)
“The Journey” (Nick Hamm)
“King of the Dancehall” (Nick Cannon)
“La La Land” (Damien Chazelle)
“The Limehouse Golem” (Juan Carlos Medina)
“Manchester by the Sea” (Kenneth Lonergan)
“Maudie” (Aisling Walsh)
“Neruda” (Pablo Larraín)
“Nocturnal Animals” (Tom Ford)
“The Oath” (Baltasar Kormákur)
“Orphan (Orpheline)” (Arnaud des Pallières)
“Paris Can Wait” (Eleanor Coppola)
“Paterson” (Jim Jarmusch)
“The Salesman” (Asghar Farhadi)
“Salt and Fire” (Werner Herzog)
“Sing” (Garth Jennings)
“Souvenir” (Bavo Defurne)
“Things to Come (L’Avenir)” (Mia Hansen-Løve)
“Toni Erdmann” (Maren Ade)
“Trespass Against Us” (Adam Smith)
“Una” (Benedict Andrews)
“Unless” (Alan Gilsenan)
“The Wasted Times (Luo Man Di Ke Xiao Wang Shi)” (Cheng Er)