Toronto’s First Weekend: ‘Moonlight’ Leads the Way as TIFF Gets Bold

At a strong festival, the heat so far has gone to the films that take big risks, among them “Nocturnal Animals” and “Arrival”

A film from a young African-American director that deals with the black experience was the big winner on the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, but for a change we’re not talking about Nate Parker and “The Birth of a Nation.”

Instead, the heat is on Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a moving and finely-drawn three-part portrait of a young gay man as a child, teenager and young adult. The film secured the buzz it had coming out of Telluride. It won extended standing ovations at its screenings, and tears afterwards. And it even prompted a rave from iconic director Jonathan Demme during the Q&A session that followed its second public screening.

“Moonlight” came to TIFF as a little film with a good buzz, and it now stands as the real deal in the awards conversation.

It was far from the only winner from the first four days of a lively TIFF — and to be fair, “The Birth of a Nation” also did a reasonable job of acknowledging the controversy surrounding Parker’s rape charge from 17 years ago, and at least partially shifting the conversation back to what’s on screen. And for its part, the movie played exceptionally well to TIFF audiences.

If there’s a motto to the first few days of Toronto 2016, it’s “go big or go home.” The films that stirred up the most heat are the ones that took risks and weren’t conventional. In this setting, well-made films that hit familiar beats risk seeming out of step, even if they might not feel that way out of the festival bubble.

So “The Queen of Katwe” and “A United Kingdom” and “Lion” and “Denial,” as expertly made as they are, aren’t the TIFF films that are causing excitement. They’re crowd-pleasers, to be sure, but not buzz boosters.

(It’s important to note that I’m definitely not ruling any of them out as awards contenders.)

On the other hand, Tom Ford‘s “Nocturnal Animals,” which mixes an elegantly stylized relationship drama with a pulpy rape-murder-revenge tale, was a bracing delight; its best awards chance may lie in Michael Shannon‘s delicious supporting performance, but it challenged and excited its audience, which is what you want from a festival film.

And Denis Villeneuve‘s “Arrival,” the kind of cerebral, brain-bending sci-fi tale rarely seen these days, also won an enthusiastic ovation from the typically blasé press-and-industry crowd.

Terrence Malick‘s “Voyage of Time,” particularly in its poetic 90-minute version, was a gloriously mad vision, truly thrilling to soak in.

And J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls” dared to turn to a groundbreaker like “Pan’s Labyrinth” for inspiration, instead of the usual kid-friendly elements that go into fantasy movies with young protagonists.

There’s something a little nuts about all of those movies, which is great: A touch of craziness is what it takes to stand out from the exceptionally crowded field in Toronto.

Other bold works that have made a mark over the first few days include the Cannes favorite “Toni Erdmann,” which dares to spend two hours and 42 minutes on a slim comedic premise and pays off grandly; “Fire at Sea,” a tough verite drama that humanizes Europe’s refugee crisis; “Tramps,” an indie crime film with the nerve to go hopeful where most indies would go dark and cynical; “Jackie,” in which a Chilean director was given the assignment to do an intimate anti-biopic of an American icon, Jacqueline Kennedy; and many others, large and small.

Some made their world premieres at TIFF, others played at previous festivals — but as awards season begins in earnest, Toronto is where the buzz from smaller festivals reaches critical mass and starts to assume the aura of consensus.

The funny thing — and in many ways the fun thing, too — is that the consensus has definitely not coalesced around an awards frontrunner. Maybe that’ll change on Monday night, when Damien Chazelle‘s musical “La La Land” comes to TIFF. Maybe not.

For now, Toronto heads into its second week, and the landscape is delicious. Strong festival, bold movies, no real leader in the clubhouse — at this point in the season, what more could you ask for?