Toronto So Far: ‘First Man’ and ‘A Star Is Born’ Lead a Crop of Films With Heart and Dazzle

Toronto Film Festival 2018: The festival’s highlights are films that should be in the thick of the awards race for months to come

If the word out of Venice and Telluride wasn’t enough, the first four days of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival has made it very clear: This is a dazzling fall festival season.

Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has the look of a big hit and an awards contender. Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” which premiered in Venice but had a spectacular IMAX debut on Sunday afternoon in Toronto, could be the same. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which doesn’t officially bow at TIFF until Monday, is surpassingly intimate and enormously powerful, and seized the conversation on Saturday at TIFF when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Throw in a solid batch of other films, including Paul Greengrass’ gripping “22 July,” Dan Fogelman’s surprisingly dark “Life Itself” and Karyn Kusama’s alternately drained and brutal “Destroyer,” and the fact that nothing became an unexpected festival smash over the first four days hardly even matters. We’ll be looking at a competitive and open field coming out of the first three festivals, and the Toronto highlights will no doubt be in the thick of it for months to come.

Those highlights so far also include such diverse films as “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s dark and socially conscious spin on the heist genre; Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with a career-best performance by Melissa McCarthy; and Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria Bell,” a vibrant English-language remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria” from the director whose last film, “A Fantastic Woman” won the foreign-language Oscar this year.

Apart from the mainstream headliners, two directors who’ve won the Oscar foreign-language award came back with bold and audacious period pieces: “Son of Saul” director Laszlo Nemes with “Sunset,” which uses the same style as his last movie to tell the story of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the prism of a hat shop in Budapest in 1910; and “The Lives of Others” director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck with “Never Look Away,” a three-decade survey of Germany before and after World War II as seen by a young artist.

Hot new faces at the festival include Juli Jakab, on screen for almost every second of “Sunset”; Lexy Kolker, a little girl who almost steals “Freaks” from Bruce Dern, not an easy task; and Irish actress Jessie Buckley as an aspiring country singer from Glasgow in “Wild Rose.”

And while every festivalgoer anticipates a good disaster or two, those really haven’t materialized yet. The rain that was forecast has for the most part stayed away, the escalators in the Scotiabank multiplex are actually working this year, the picture and sound in the Roy Thomson Hall are much better than they used to be and none of the festival’s movies have gotten a critical shellacking yet.

Sure, Shane Black’s “The Predator” was sidetracked by the revelation that one of its actors (who was cut from the film long before Toronto) is a registered sex offender, but a “Predator” movie was never going to get huge festival buzz anyway.

The three troubled-teen movies featuring some combination of Lucas Hedges, the word “boy” in the title and a big movie star playing the concerned parent — “Beautiful Boy,” “Boy Erased” and “Ben Is Back” — had a reductive quality when you put them side-by-side-by-side, with “Ben Is Back” partisans using that film to downgrade “Beautiful Boy” and Timothée Chalamet aficionados insisting he’s a more convincing addict in “Beautiful” than Hedges is in “Ben.”

And some of the commercial plays — “White Boy Rick” and “Outlaw King” among them — met with mixed reaction, par for the course on the festival circuit.

Still, “A Star Is Born” might be the most commercial play of all, and it stands a pretty good chance of winning the TIFF audience award before heading into an awards-season gauntlet that has not always been kind to big musicals.

And almost everything in Toronto has found admirers. The festival has a week to go, but at this point it seems to presage a formidable season.