The Natalie Portman film "Jackie," which on Monday became the first major deal of this year's Toronto International Film Festival when it sold to Fox Searchlight, is typical of a particular kind of fall festival film: the awards contender whose biggest hopes in the Oscar race lie in pushing an actor or actress into contention.
The prime example of this in recent years was probably "Still Alice," the 2014 drama that was acquired by Sony Classics at TIFF and went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for Julianne Moore.
And now, at this year's TIFF, there's "Jackie." And there's Richard Gere in the oddly but accurately titled "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer." And there's Miles Teller in "Bleed for This," one of the festival's three movies about real-life boxers (the other two being "The Bleeder," with Liev Schreiber as the modestly talented but durable Chuck Wepner, and the Finnish film "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki," about a boxer from the '60s who got a title shot against featherweight champ Davey Moore).
"Jackie" is the most high-profile of the acting showcases, winning raves in Venice and landing the Searchlight deal. Like director Pablo Larrain's other TIFF film, "Neruda," it's an anti-biopic of sorts, a hazy meditation on loss and mythmaking that follows Jackie Kennedy in the wrenching week between the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and his funeral.
The film flashes between a grief-stricken and rage-filled Jackie reacting to the assassination, an interview she did with friendly journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) in which she was outwardly polite but quietly combative, and flashbacks to a famous televised White House tour and, eventually, the assassination itself.
In the works with producer Darren Aronofsky for years before the Chilean director Larrain ("No") came on board, "Jackie" is both a moody and challenging film and a showcase for Portman's channeling of Jackie Kennedy, whose steely reserve and affected accent makes her a distancing character as soon as she opens her mouth.
But Portman does a remarkable job of showing how that chilliness was a mask, as was the forced cheeriness of her White House tour persona. In this film (and presumably, in real life), Jackie is a fiercely private person desperate to create an image, play a part and secure a legacy. Portman shows the enormous effort that took, as well as the pain that lay beneath her assorted masks.
"Nothing's ever mine," she says at one point. "Not to keep, anyway."
Richard Gere's Norman Oppenheimer is another person whose entire life is a play, who doesn't leave home (wherever that is) without his own mask. In "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," he is affecting, annoying and enormously sad as a hustler who trades in favors in an attempt to persuade everybody he meets that he's a lot more connected and important than he really is.
Norman's good fortune is that an up-and-coming Israeli politician takes pity on him, and in fact takes a liking to the sad sack who insists on buying him a pair of $1,100 shoes. When fortune smiles on the pol and he becomes prime minister, Norman actually ends up with some of the juice he's always faked -- but things do not go well from there.
Cadging, cajoling, pleading and hustling with every breath he takes, Gere's Norman is a marvelous and unsettling creation at the center of an odd piece of work. Like its title, the film from Israeli director Joseph Cedar (the Oscar-nominated "Footnote") takes a tragedy and often gives it a jaunty twist: what we see is mostly sad, but the music and mood never lets the sadness takes root.
And you won't forget Gere; he's weathered, beaten down and just about drowning -- but as he says more than once, he's a good swimmer.
While "Jackie" and "Norman" are both relative newcomers to awards buzz, Miles Teller's performance in "Bleed for This" has been in the conversation since it began screening in advance of the fall festivals.
And its TIFF premiere showed why: For starters, Teller bulked up and muscled up and trained to play boxer Vinny Paz (born Vicenzo Pazienza), who recovered from a car accident that broke his neck because he was determined to fight again.
Oscar voters have long loved physical transformations and boxing movies, though the sheer number out this year could be daunting. (In addition to the three at TIFF, the Weinstein Company has the Roberto Duran story "Hands of Stone," which screened out of competition in Cannes.)
"Bleed for This" is brutal, grueling and definitely not for the squeamish, both in the fight sequences and particularly in the scenes of Vinny's excruciating rehab, when he spent months with a metal "halo" physically screwed into his head.
It's a rare boxing movie where the hardest scenes to watch don't take place inside the ring, which is the case in "Bleed for This." But even if you have to look away at times, you'll probably remember the bruised defiance in Miles Teller's stare - and this time of year, that might be the whole point.