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    Reflecting on the 48th Toronto International Film Festival: A Festival of Resilience and Surprises

    A comprehensive analysis of the 48th TIFF, showcasing its resilience amid challenges and highlighting potential award season contenders.

    The 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which I recently attended, officially spans until Sunday. However, by this juncture, nearly every film featured in the festival’s illustrious lineup has graced the screen at least once. In this moment of reflection, I aim to share my impressions of this year’s festival, shed light on noteworthy awards hopefuls, and speculate on which film may emerge as the victor of the coveted TIFF Audience Award when the festival’s winners are announced on Sunday.

    Despite the ongoing strikes involving actors and writers, the festival’s red carpets and pre-screening introductions exuded a lesser star-studded aura compared to previous years. Concerns loomed that this, coupled with the conspicuous absence of many highly anticipated award season contenders, could potentially result in reduced attendance. Such a scenario might have posed a significant challenge to the festival, especially in the wake of the disheartening news of losing its principal sponsor since 1995, the telecommunications giant Bell, which had a prominent association with the TIFF Bell Lightbox venue.

    However, during a fortuitous encounter with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey at a festival reception, he shared encouraging news that festival attendance had actually increased year-over-year. While I lack independent verification of this claim, there is no reason to doubt Bailey’s assertion. It is possible that the prior year’s attendance figures were impacted by lingering COVID-19 concerns, setting the stage for a rebound. The resilience of TIFF, an event I have covered since 2007, is a testament to its enduring appeal and significance in the world of cinema.

    Remarkably, despite the strikes, the festival still managed to attract several prominent figures from the realm of entertainment. The enticement for many of them was the opportunity to be honored at the TIFF Tribute Awards, a gala dinner that serves as a fundraiser for TIFF’s philanthropic endeavors. This year’s honorees included Spike Lee, although he did not present a film at the festival, and a cohort of individuals who did: Pedro Almodóvar, writer/director of the Sony Classics short film “Strange Way of Life”; Patricia Arquette, director of the sales title “Gonzo Girl”; Colman Domingo, star of the sales title “Sing Sing,” recently acquired by A24, and also featured in Netflix’s “Rustin”; Vicki Krieps, star of the sales title “The Dead Don’t Hurt”; Łukasz Żal, the cinematographer behind A24’s “The Zone of Interest”; and Shawn Levy, director of the Netflix limited series “All the Light We Cannot See.”

    Furthermore, many of the presenters at the Tribute Awards had ties to projects showcased at the festival. Barry Jenkins, presumably accompanying his partner Lulu Wang, director of the Amazon limited series “Expats”; Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone, stars of Arquette’s film; Taika Waititi, director of the Searchlight film “Next Goal Wins”; and Viggo Mortensen, director of Krieps’ film, all graced the festival with their presence.

    In addition to these luminaries, several other stars attended TIFF solely to partake in the premieres of films, thanks to waivers or unique circumstances. Among them were Nicolas Cage, star of A24’s “Dream Scenario”; Christian Friedel, featured in “The Zone of Interest”; Elliot Page, star of the sales title “Backspot”; and Neve Campbell, executive producer of the documentary “Swan Song.”

    But what were the festival’s highest-profile world premieres?

    Remarkably, a vast majority of the films with aspirations for awards recognition that descended upon TIFF had already made appearances at other renowned film festivals. They hailed from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, and Venice, having traversed a multitude of cinematic landscapes before reaching Toronto. This presented an intriguing dynamic for TIFF, as few of the highly anticipated award season contenders chose to premiere at the festival. Nevertheless, this year’s festival showcased resilience, and a few films managed to garner attention.

    Among these, Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” (Amazon/MGM) and Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario” (A24) stood out as compelling social satires, leaving an indelible mark. Their unexpected acclaim positions them as potential contenders in the categories of lead acting (Jeffrey Wright and Nicolas Cage, respectively), screenplay (Jefferson for adapted and Borgli for original), and perhaps even in the best picture and directing categories.

    Two studio films, Sony’s “Dumb Money” and Apple’s “Flora and Son,” emerged as entertaining options for audiences. “Dumb Money,” directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Paul Dano, dramatizes the COVID-era GameStop saga and could vie for recognition in the adapted screenplay category and possibly the best ensemble SAG Award race. Meanwhile, “Flora and Son,” reminiscent of John Carney’s previous music-centric dramedies, has the potential to make waves in the original song category, with “Meet in the Middle” as a standout composition integral to the film’s narrative.

    In the realm of documentaries, Netflix’s “Stamped from the Beginning,” directed by the prolific Roger Ross Williams, delves into the history of racism in America. Its profound exploration positions it as a potential contender in the best documentary feature category, with Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor possibly earning a Best Actress nomination for her role.

    Lastly, certain films generated pre-festival awards buzz but leaned more toward commercial appeal. Searchlight’s “Next Goal Wins,” a comedy reminiscent of “Cool Runnings,” features Michael Fassbender and may find its strength in the adapted screenplay category. Amazon/MGM’s dramedy “The Burial,” starring Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, showcased potential but leaned toward commercial appeal.

    What about films with distribution deals in the works?

    Several films sparked enthusiasm among distributors, with “Hit Man” particularly commanding attention. This film reunites director Richard Linklater with Glen Powell, an actor familiar with their previous collaborations in “Fast Food Nation” and “Everybody Wants Some!!.” Its potential for acquisition, most likely by a streaming platform, is palpable.

    Another film of note is James Hawes’ “One Life,” which dramatizes the life of Holocaust hero Nicholas Winton. Although the film is not without its imperfections, distributors are intrigued by the portrayal of Winton as an older man by two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, who could become a contender in the supporting actor race.

    Lastly, “Ezra,” directed by Tony Goldwyn, resonates with its heartfelt narrative of a father (Bobby Cannavale) and his autistic son (William Fitzgerald). The film boasts a talented cast, including Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, and Goldwyn’s “Ghost” co-star Whoopi Goldberg. With the right support, it could emulate the success of “CODA” and connect with a broad audience.

    The Burning Question: Who Will Win the Audience Award?

    Over the past 16 years, TIFF’s audience award has proven to be a reliable indicator of films that go on to secure nominations for the Best Picture Oscar. Notably, five of those audience award winners ultimately claimed the coveted Oscar statue, underscoring the award’s prestige. However, predicting the recipient of the TIFF audience award remains a challenging endeavor due to the unique voting process.

    Voting is conducted online, and TIFF employs measures to ensure fairness, such as adjusting scores based on screening venue size and frequency. Nevertheless, predicting the victor relies on one’s impressions of the films and the festival’s overall buzz, which can be unpredictable.

    Informed speculation suggests that “American Fiction” may emerge victorious. Alternatively, “Dream Scenario,” “Sing Sing,” “Dumb Money,” “Rustin,” “Nyad,” “The Holdovers,” or “Origin” could also stake their claim. While “Hit Man” cannot be ruled out entirely, it’s worth noting that a film without U.S. distribution rarely secures the audience award.

    As the festival culminates with the announcement of its award winners, film enthusiasts around the world eagerly await to see which cinematic gems will captivate the hearts of Toronto’s diverse and discerning audience.

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