Toronto So Far: Amid Biopics and Awards Contenders, Everybody’s Waiting for ‘Joker’

Toronto Film Festival 2019: TIFF has showcased everything from Mr. Rogers to urban dramas, but Todd Phillips’ dark comic movie looms large

toronto so far tiff
Clockwise from bottom left: "Parasite," "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," "Joker," "Dolemite Is My Name" and "Waves"

The first four days of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival have seen a bevy of crowd-pleasing films, some hard-hitting dramas about race, several strong Oscar contenders and films about real people ranging from children’s TV icon Mister Rogers to profane comic Rudy Ray Moore.

So why does it feel as if everybody’s just waiting for “Joker”?

In a way, that’s an unfair characterization of TIFF as the first weekend concludes. Lots of worthy movies have screened, a couple of deals have been made and the opening stretch has been solid.

But ever since TIFF decreed that films that premiered at the Venice and Telluride festivals will need to wait until Monday to book a prime theater in Toronto, some significant films have been left waiting in the wings during the prime first days of the Canadian festival.

And this year, nothing is more significant than Todd Phillips’ “Joker.” The Warner Bros. film’s Monday night premiere was the festival’s hottest ticket even before the Venice Film Festival jury gave it the Golden Lion Award and served notice that the pitch-black supervillain origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix could be a serious player during the upcoming awards season.

That means the air of summing-up after TIFF’s first weekend has largely been replaced by an air of expectation. And it’s not just “Joker” waiting for its TIFF closeup: James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” and the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems” are also premiering on Monday. Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” and Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” will all screen on Tuesday — the same day that “Green Book” debuted last year before its run to an Oscar Best Picture win.

So the story of this year’s TIFF has yet to be written. But we can glean some things from the first four days, both the public premieres and the press-and-industry screenings.

Biopics are in, as long as they’re unconventional
Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” looks at PBS kids TV icon Mr. Rogers through the eyes of a depressed magazine writer, Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name” is an outrageous look at the birth of Rudy Ray Moore’s bizarre film career in the blaxploitation era, and “The Two Popes” deals with Pope Benedict and Pope Francis by examining a meeting between the two men in Rome.

Awards contenders come in all sizes
Yes, “Beautiful Day” will be a strong awards contender for Sony, and Tom Hanks ought to be a lock for a nomination as Mister Rogers. But A24’s searing drama “Waves” has upped its awards profile in Toronto as well, and at least two foreign-language films — Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” and Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” — look to contend in far more than just the Best International Film category as well.

Crowd-pleasing works at this festival too
Last year, “Green Book” launched its ultimately successful Oscar campaign by winning the TIFF audience award. And while they’re not all bound for awards season, this year’s TIFF has seen lots of films bowl over their audiences and receive lengthy ovations, from “Beautiful Day” to “Dolemite” to Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” to Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts” to Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” to Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers.”

There are a lot of films getting a boost at this year’s event, but there are a lot more contenders still waiting their moment to shine.

Next stop, Gotham City.