Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

TIFF 2020: Gala Presentations bring female filmmakers, first timers and Oscar winners

The ‘Gala Presentation’ section of TIFF is often as it sounds, the big, glitzy films with megawatt stars that will draw the photographers and the crowds outside The Princess of Wales and Ryerson Theatres in Toronto. They’re often largely U.S. films and indeed this year is full of stars and Oscar winners to bring those crowds, albeit largely virtual this time; there won’t be any glamorous red carpet moments with Halle Berry, Kate Winslet & Saoirse Ronan, or Rosamund Pike this year. In a way, the removal of that level of artifice in the filmmaking and promotion of film process will allow the films to speak for themselves.

The 10 films in this year’s Gala Presentations represent exciting work from returning filmmakers like Francis Lee, whose God’s Own Country was a bit of a gay marvel of a film in 2017 and brought stars Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu to a new level of visibility in their careers. 

We have the feature film debuts from two acting Oscar winners; Regina King (Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018) and Halle Berry (Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, 2001). This section will also see the return of the Oscar-winning duo of Diana Ossana and Frank McMurtry (Adapted Screenplay, Brokeback Mountain) with the Good Joe Bell.

Recent Oscar winner Spike Lee (Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, 2018), who just had a huge hit with Da 5 Bloods on Netflix in June, is already back with the David Byrne concert doc American Utopia.

Less than half of these films currently have distribution and one of the biggest losses of this year’s in-person film festivals is the market where so many of the films we see get picked up. Buyers won’t have the benefit of sitting in an audience and hearing the response to a film. They’ll see them themselves and have some reviews to rely on but otherwise it’s going to be a gut check for these studios, major and independent, to make the most informed decisions possible. It’s exactly how films like Bruised or Good Joe Bell find a home. Back in 2014 when Still Alice premiered at TIFF, many of us knew it could be the vehicle that gets Julianne Moore her Oscar and pleaded for its pickup and release during the current season. Sony Pictures Classics listened and Moore won the Oscar after sweeping all precursors.

Here are the 10 films from the Gala Presentations section of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

Ammonite Francis Lee | United Kingdom | 120m

Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan star in this raw love story between a solitary paleontologist and a wealthy, grieving wife in 19th-century Dorset. The Neon-distributed film was hoping to repeat Parasite’s run all the way to the Oscars with a Cannes debut (it would have hit Telluride too) but TIFF will be its official premiere and Cameron Bailey didn’t hesitate to say “It’s by far the best performance I’ve seen [Winslet] do.” High praise, indeed. Undoubtedly, Winslet, Ronan, Lee and the film should be major Oscar contenders. (Distributor: Neon | Release date: TBD)

Bruised Halle Berry | USA | 129m

The directorial debut from Academy Award winner Halle Berry (Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, 2001) follows a former MMA fighter struggling to regain custody of her son and restart her athletic career. With a logline like that this might feel like Million Dollar Baby meets Losing Isaiah but is that a bad thing? The movie was originally set to be directed by Nick Cassavetes and star Blake Lively, before Berry took over both roles. No US distribution yet but if a mid-range studio can see a path for Berry it will get picked up. Berry is still the first and only Black Best Actress Oscar winner in the Academy’s 93-year history. (Distributor: TBD)

Concrete Cowboy Ricky Staub | USA | 111m

While spending the summer in North Philadelphia, a troubled teen (Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things) is caught between a life of crime and his estranged father’s vibrant urban-cowboy subculture. Inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stable, the feature film debut from Ricky Staub that stars Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint, Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) and Method Man. Produced by Elba, Lee Daniels. Also a part of TIFF Next Wave. (Distributor: TBD)

David Byrne’s American Utopia Spike Lee | USA | 135m (Opening Night Film)

Academy Award winner Spike Lee directs the timely 2019 Broadway show from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, based on his recent album and tour of the same name, in which he performs songs alongside 11 other musicians from around the world. David Byrne’s American Utopia ran at Broadway’s Hudson Theater from October 2019 to February 2020. (Distributor: HBO | Release date: TBD)

Good Joe Bell Reinaldo Marcus Green | USA | 90m

Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton star with Reid Miller and Maxwell Jenkins in the true story of a father’s walk across the US to raise awareness about the harms of bullying after his gay teenage son takes his own life. With the right studio (like Focus Features) this could become an “audience” favorite and a potential Oscar contender. From the Oscar-winning writers of Brokeback Mountain and produced by Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Jake Gyllenhaal and Cary Joji Fukunaga. (Distributor: TBD)

I Care A Lot J Blakeson | United Kingdom | 118m

A legal conservator (Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike) who defrauds elderly clients runs afoul of a gangster (multi-Emmy winner Peter Dinklage), in this droll thriller from J Blakeson (The 5th Wave) that also stars Elza González, Alicia Witt, Chris Messina, Scoot McNairy, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest. It sounds juicy and pulpy (Distributor: TBD)

Nomadland Chloé Zhao | USA | 108m

Two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Frances McDormand explores the vast landscape of the American West in Chloé Zhao’s follow up to The Rider, an intimate portrayal of life as a modern-day nomad. Based on the best-selling novel by Jessica Bruder and co-starring Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, this Searchlight Pictures film will have a dual world premiere at Venice and TIFF, was a Telluride selection and is the centerpiece film of the New York Film Festival. A topical and timely film that could capture the mood and state of the union at exactly the right time. McDormand is a slam dunk Best Actress contender but Strathairn could be a player as well as are the film and Zhao, who would make Oscar history as the first Asian-American woman ever nominated for Best Director. (Distributor: Searchlight Pictures | Release date: TBD)

One Night in Miami Regina King | USA | 110m

The feature film debut of Oscar and multi-Emmy winner Regina King, based on Kemp Powers’ play, is a fictionalized account of a 1964 meeting between Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay on the cusp of becoming Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr.), and NFL football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), as they celebrate Clay’s surprise title win over Sonny Liston in a Miami hotel room, watched over by Nation of Islam security. I’m keeping my eye out for the film as a Best Picture contender and for King as a possible Best Director player, which would make her the first Black female director ever nominated. (Distributor: Amazon Studios | Release date: TBD)

Pieces of a Woman Kornél Mundruczó | USA/Canada/Hungary | 126m

Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star as a couple reeling — in very different ways — from the loss of her baby, in the English-language debut from director Kornél Mundruczó (White God). A BRON studios production, the film also stars Emmy nominee Sarah Snook (Succession), Molly Parker, Jimmie Fails, actor/director Benny Safdie and Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn. It will first world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. (Distributor: TBD)

The full schedule for TIFF 2020 will be announced August 25. [UPDATED]: The full list of film and events.

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