Even by the standards of an always-anxious movie business that sees the apocalypse coming around every corner, 2019 has been the summer of Hollywood hand-wringing. A slight decline in ticket sales, combined with the unprecedented dominance of Disney films (the studio has released five of the six biggest hits of the year) and the continued growth of streaming media, has fueled something of an identity crisis within the industry. So this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the start of the awards-season marathon that ends in February with the Oscars, feels particularly significant.
With major studios releasing mostly franchise entries and family films over the summer, the fall is packed with artsier fare, for which Toronto serves as the proving ground. Last year, the festival’s audience award went to Green Book, which rode that buzz (and a whole lot of other, more critical discourse) to an Academy Award for Best Picture. Other major Oscar contenders such as Roma and A Star Is Born played at TIFF in 2018; this year’s offerings include some 333 films from more than 84 countries, some of them certain to overwhelm the next few months of discussion.
Fittingly for a superhero-filled era, one of the biggest projects to watch for is Joker, Todd Phillips’s reimagining of the Batman villain as a nervy madman, played by Joaquin Phoenix with a vibe straight out of a ’70s Scorsese movie. An avalanche of controversy, acclaim, and anxiety accompanied its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last week, and while the early hype for Phoenix’s performance may well be sustained at Toronto, so will debate about the toxic fandom sparked by the character in the past and present. Still, it’s telling that Warner Bros. is treating the movie like an awards contender by showing it at a prestigious festival, rather than releasing it wide like a typical comic-book blockbuster.