Toronto: Johnny Depp, Michael Keaton, Idris Elba, Brie Larson Arrive With Big Awards Buzz

Standout films playing Toronto on the heels of other festivals include “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Room”

When the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival ends, the lines typically get shorter as out-of-town festivalgoers begin to head home, secure in the knowledge that TIFF shows the cream of its crop on its first four days.

But since the festival instituted a new policy last year that blocked films from receiving prime first-weekend spots if they played the Telluride Film Festival, heavy hitters have begun showing up for Monday and Tuesday screenings.

This year, that meant Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in “Spotlight,” Johnny Depp in “Black Mass,” Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” and Brie Larson in “Room,” among others.

TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde reviewed “Spotlight” out of Venice and called it “that rare journalistic procedural that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as ‘All the President’s Men.'” Suffice it to say that its Toronto screenings only reinforced the impression that Tom McCarthy’s taut, smart film is a real contender for year-end awards, and one of the likeliest Best Picture contenders to play TIFF.

Open Road

A year after losing the Best Actor Oscar to Eddie Redmayne, Keaton in particular figures to be a major supporting-actor contender for his role as the leader of a team of Boston Globe investigative reporters who uncovered years of sexual abuse by local Catholic priests, and years of cover-ups by their Archdiocese.

Also delving into the subject of wrongdoing in Boston is Scott Cooper‘s “Black Mass,” a tough, hard character study both of local gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and of Boston-bred FBI agent John Connolly, who became Bulger’s protector within the Bureau.

As Duralde pointed out in his review from Venice, the film is the Johnny Depp show from start to finish. The actor may seem like an unlikely choice to play Bulger, but he dominates the film and overshadows both Joel Edgerton as Connolly and particularly Benedict Cumberbatch, who gamely wields a Southie accent as Whitey’s older brother, a state senator.

black-mass-featured

Barely recognizable and always commanding, Depp will unquestionably be a major factor in the Best Actor race. The film itself is dark and sleek and virtuosic in its brutality, though the level of that brutality may well turn off some viewers and alienate some voters. The viciousness of Bulger, it’s safe to say, is pretty well established the first or second time he beats someone to death or plays nice only to have a compatriot gruesomely dispatched. But that doesn’t stop “Black Mass” from showing it again and again, impressively if a bit excessively.

Another Telluride-to-Toronto entry with the potential to scare away timid voters with its violence is “Beasts of No Nation,” the first film for director Cary Fukanaga since he did the entire first season of “True Detective.” (You know, the season everybody liked.)

Beasts of No Nation

The horrifying story of Agu, a young boy (non-actor Abraham Attah) forced into becoming a child soldier in Africa, “Beasts” played as strongly in Toronto as it reportedly did in Venice and Telluride. This is a harrowing drama with scenes that are very difficult to watch, particularly one in which Agu and another boy kill a man with machetes.

The usual practice for a movie like this is to campaign for child actors in the supporting categories and their adult counterparts in lead, but this is Agu’s story. Attah rightly belongs in lead, while Idris Elba should be high on lots of Best Supporting Actor ballots for his commanding and frightening performance as a rebel leader.

There’s been a lot of talk about how “Beasts” could be too dark and violent for conservative Oscar voters, but I think a film this gripping has a strong chance at a Best Picture nomination. It doesn’t need everybody to like it to land a nomination – instead, it needs a small but passionate following, which it is powerful enough to gather once it starts screening for voters.

Lenny Abrahamson’s quiet and understated “Room” bears little resemblance to “Beasts,” other than the same lead/supporting dilemma. The first produced script from Irish writer Emma Donoghue, the film is set largely inside a backyard garden shed, where Joy Newsome (Larson) has been held captive since she was abducted at the age of 17.

Her captor pays her a visit to rape her every night — and five years before the film begins, one of those visits resulted in the birth of a boy, Jack (the amazing Jacob Tremblay). Joy creates a fantasy world to enable her son to deal with the impossible circumstances of his life, though she also realizes that they must attempt an escape despite the high risk of failure.

“Room” is a deeply unsettling suspense tale, but also a moving look at motherhood. Larson, a revelation in “Short Term 12” two years ago, is even better here as a damaged woman who finds the strength to survive the unsurvivable, but then feels lost in the real world.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in "Room"

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in “Room”

Many people are calling her a Best Actress contender, and she’s absolutely deserving. But while her role is bigger than Elba’s in “Beasts of No Nation,” the two of them both play second fiddle to the kids in their movies. Distributor A24 will have to decide where to campaign for Larson and Tremblay; I’d say Tremblay belongs in lead (where, sadly, he’ll probably have a hard time getting too far) and Larson should go in supporting (where she’ll be a formidable contender unless voters insist on calling her a lead).