Graham: ‘Spotlight’ shines in and on Toronto

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Toronto – “Spotlight” could be headed for the Oscar spotlight.

That is one of the major takeaways thus far from the Toronto International Film Festival, which has taken over the streets of this friendly Canadian city since Sept. 10. The fest wraps Sunday, with repeats of some of the fest’s best screening throughout the weekend.

“Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy’s spot-on journalism drama about a team of Boston Globe reporters who uncover a massive child molestation scandal inside the Catholic Church is one of the festival’s hottest titles and one of the year’s best films. It’s a slow-burn procedural that methodically follows its story as it unravels piece by piece. It also touches on newsroom politics, shifts within the industry amid the changing tide of readership and the value of dogged reporting. No wonder it received a hearty round of applause when it screened to an audience of journalists early Monday.

“Spotlight” follows a crackerjack script (by McCarthy and Josh Singer) and features extraordinary ensemble work from a cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber. The movie is set to roll out in theaters in November.

If “Spotlight’s” Oscar future is shining bright during TIFF, it’s dulling for “The Danish Girl,” director Tom Hooper’s placid story of Lili Elbe, who in the 1920s became one of the first patients to undergo transgender surgery. Eddie Redmayne, gunning for back-to-back Best Actor statues following his win for “The Theory of Everything,” is tepid as Lili, and the film never brings her story to life.

Rather, “The Danish Girl” acts as a showcase for budding Swedish star Alicia Vikander, who may earn her first Oscar nomination for her compassionate work as Redmayne’s character’s loving and supportive wife, Gerda. Vikander is having a breakout year after starring in spring’s “Ex-Machina” and summer’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Testament of Youth.” “The Danish Girl” could put the 26-year-old on Oscar’s map.

Another film tackling transgender issues at this year’s festival is the well-intentioned, if clumsy, “About Ray,” which stars Elle Fanning as the title character, a high school student lobbying her parents for permission to transition to become male. The film is light on transgender politics and more invested in the story of Ray’s family. Naomi Watts portrays Ray’s mother and Susan Sarandon is Ray’s wacky grandmother, who acts as a stand-in for audience members who don’t know how to approach transgender issues in a politically sensitive manner. It’s a timely, but hit-or-miss dramedy taking on a topic that has become one of the year’s biggest pop culture stories.

Fanning also appears in “Trumbo,” director Jay Roach’s story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who is played by Bryan Cranston in his biggest role since “Breaking Bad.” The film is fun and flashy, with Cranston immersing himself in the title role, and John Goodman, Louis C.K., Diane Lane and Helen Mirren rounding out a top-notch supporting cast. Roach (“Meet the Parents,” the “Austin Powers” films) uses the same even-handed accessibility he brought to HBO’s “Game Change,” and after four Emmy wins, Cranston is lobbying hard for his first Oscar nomination. He just may get it.

Others in Toronto vying for Oscar gold include Saoirse Ronan, whose work as an Irish immigrant to New York in “Brooklyn” packs a wallop so subtle it won’t hit you until after you walk out of the theater; “Freeheld,” which with its dual function as a cause movie (gay rights!) and a disease movie (cancer!) seems micro-engineered in an Oscar lab; and “Sicario,” the “Traffic”-like tale of ruthless drug cartels on the Mexican border provides a simmering performance by Benicio Del Toro as a dude whose path you do not want to cross.

But the Oscar guessing game is hard to play, especially at this early stage in the game. That’s why it’s best to take Toronto for what it is, a sprawling beast with nearly 400 films and shorts programs spread out over 11 days of sheer movie madness.

The festival, now in its 40th year, turns downtown Toronto into a movie lover’s paradise. Film fans line the streets in endless lines (oh, the lines!) talking about who they’ve seen, what they’ve seen, what they missed and what you can’t afford to miss.

Aside from Oscar bait, it’s also a launching pad for big budget Hollywood fare such as “The Martian,” Ridley Scott’s rockin’ rescue pic about an astronaut (Matt Damon) left for dead on Mars. The movie packs in a surprising amount of science for a mainstream popcorn movie, but it wears out its welcome when it drags past the two-hour mark when a tight 90-minutes (a la “Gravity”) would have been the move.

TIFF has documentaries (“Hitchcock/Truffaut” and Michael Moore’s engaging, lighthearted “Where to Invade Next” were two highlights), foreign fare (Cannes winner “Dheepan” is a standout), horror (“The Witch” delivers a chiller of a climax), shlock (Gaspar Noe’s “Love” is basically a 3-D porn film) and head-scratchers (try deciphering Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise” — on second thought, don’t).

There’s always more to see and seeing one thing means missing another, but these are not bad problems to have. That is why, for movie lovers, every September the spotlight shines on Toronto.