Graham: ‘La La Land’ sings in Toronto, ‘Birth’ stalls
If much of the talk heading into the Toronto International Film Festival was centered on “The Birth of a Nation,” the conversation coming out of it is about “La La Land.”
“Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle’s glorious movie musical swept up everyone who saw it and is generating serious Best Actress talk for star Emma Stone.
And it may have a path to Best Picture as well, though in a hot button political year and coming off of last year’s all-white Oscars, the film’s lack of racial diversity or grand statements about today’s America could be its own roadblock.
The roadblock for “The Birth of a Nation” continues to be writer-director-star Nate Parker. The controversy surrounding his personal life and a recently uncovered 1999 rape charge is still hanging over Parker and the film, and at a press conference for it during the festival, he ensured it would continue to by avoiding an opportunity to address it and move forward.
“I don’t want to hijack this with my personal life,” he said, effectively doing just the opposite.
“The Birth of a Nation” has a much more complicated path to the Academy Awards, but it’s not the only shot at a diverse set of nominees at this year’s ceremony.
“Moonlight,” about an African-American man coming to terms with his sexuality, wowed festival audiences and could generate Oscar heat for any number of its stars, from Mahershala Ali, who plays a mentor to the lead character as a child, to Trevante Rhodes, who plays the man as a severely repressed adult. But its best chances are on Naomie Harris, who plays the character’s crack-addled mother, and gives the kind of heartbreaking performance that stands out to Academy voters.
Ruth Negga, who stars in “Loving” as a woman whose interracial marriage leads to a Supreme Court case, could find herself with an Oscar nomination for the role in Jeff Nichols’ understated film. She gives a quiet, sturdy performance that relies on her expressive eyes to do a lot of talking for her character, and it’s a lovely showcase of her talent.
Elsewhere “Lion,” starring “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel, moved crowds with its real-life tale of a boy separated from his family who later finds them using the wonders of Google Earth. It’s a rousing story and director Garth Davis delivers it with heart and guts, and it should be a hit with audiences as long as subtitles aren’t too much of a turn-off.
Another film emerging from Toronto with high hopes for Oscar is “Manchester by the Sea,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s story about a New England man with a tragic past, which could earn Casey Affleck his first Best Actor nomination (he was nominated before for Best Supporting Actor for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”).
Two more actresses generating awards buzz for their work are Natalie Portman and Amy Adams. Portman, who won Best Actress for “Black Swan,” earned raves for her work in “Jackie,” in which she plays Jackie Onassis. And Adams, a five-time nominee, could earn her sixth for “Arrival,” “Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve’s deeply lyrical story about an alien invasion in which Adams plays a language expert who reaches out to the foreign species.
Other films came to Toronto with big hopes and crashed and burned (“American Pastoral”), but no sense in focusing on those now. There’s plenty to look forward to this fall, and Toronto gave an invigorating glimpse of what’s to come.