Breaking Down TIFF’s Best Moments, From Lil Nas X’s Triumph to ‘American Fiction’ Oscar Buzz

It’s been a Toronto Film Festival like few others. The writers and actors strikes meant that many A-listers opted not to touch down in Canada this year, depriving the gathering of film lovers of the star-studded red carpets and Q&As that make Toronto so memorable. Even if this year’s festival was starved for glamour, it was still a good opportunity to get a clearer picture of the awards race — and to check the pulse of Hollywood at a tumultuous time for the industry.

1. ) Venice and Telluride Stole Some Thunder

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Toronto, which has the misfortune of appearing last on the calendar, is in danger of being seriously overshadowed by the other late summer and early fall festivals. Between them, Venice and Telluride played host to “Ferrari,” “Poor Things,” “The Bikeriders” and “Priscilla” — which emerged as likely Oscar contenders. But these films opted to skip Toronto, preventing it from playing a bigger role in shaping the contours of the race for those golden statuettes.

2.)…And Yet, TIFF Hosted Some Awards Contenders of its Own

Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” a trenchant look at race and media, dazzled critics and could lead to a first-ever Oscar nomination for the criminally overlooked Jeffrey Wright. Elsewhere, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” served as a reminder of the animation legend’s masterful ability to conjure up boldly imaginative worlds. It could land in the middle of the best animated feature contest. And “Dumb Money,” a “Big Short”-like look at the GameStop saga, was wickedly funny and might be a contender for its whip-smart screenplay.

3.) Music Takes Center Stage

Top actors may have stayed home, but that left an opening that was filled by some of the biggest names in pop, rock and rap. A bomb threat couldn’t keep the crowds away from the premiere of “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” a fresh and funny look at the chart-topper’s first global concert tour. And if Lil Nas X represents the music business’s future, TIFF also paid tribute to its past with the premiere of Alex Gibney’s sprawling “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” a look at the six-decade career of the man who wrote everything from “The Sound of Silence” to “Graceland.” Oh, and for good measure, Talking Heads reunited for a special screening of “Stop Making Sense.” On this score, TIFF hit all the right notes.

4.) A Strong Year for Actors Turned Directors

Ethan Hawke, Viggo Mortensen, Patricia Arquette, Michael Keaton and Anna Kendrick translated their experience in front of the camera into compelling visions etched behind it. Hawke, directing daughter Maya Hawke, took audiences on a kaleidoscopic tour of the work of Flannery O’Connor in “Wildcat.” Mortensen impressed with “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” a look at a couple separated by the trauma of the Civil War that features a fascinating turn by Vicky Krieps as a pioneer woman. And Arquette went on one of the festival’s wildest rides with “Gonzo Girl,” the story of a young woman enlisted to be the personal assistant to a Hunter S. Thompson-like writer, played with rakish charm by Willem Dafoe. The film dramatizes the author’s drug-fueled highs and fuck-the-establishment charm — but it also shows the pain of thwarted artistic ambition and the darkness that can overtake a once-blazing talent when the fire burns out. Then there’s Keaton, who offered up “Knox Goes Away,” a thriller about a hit man struggling with memory loss that Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman hailed as “one of the best dramas about dementia I’ve ever seen.” Of course, this one has a much higher body count than, say, “The Father.” As for Kendrick, Hollywood showed her the money after Netflix shelled out a reported $11 million for the rights to ““Woman of the Hour,” her ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. The streamer originally had the rights to the film before jettisoning the project in a wave of cost-cutting. The mega-deal Kendrick scored made for a very lucrative homecoming.

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