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Toronto 2023 Awards

Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers (2023)

Setting the stage for awards season is not Toronto’s explicitly stated mission, but there’s no denying that it’s high on the festival’s to-do list. The same can be said of TIFF’s calendar cousins, Venice and Telluride, but Toronto’s the one with the track record. As the AP’s Jake Coyle points out, since 2012, every winner of the People’s Choice Award voted on by festival attendees has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and three have taken home gold: 12 Years a Slave (2013), Green Book (2018), and Nomadland (2020).

Wrapping its forty-eighth edition on Sunday, Toronto announced that the People had chosen American Fiction, starring Jeffrey Wright as a frustrated professor and novelist who furiously types up what the New York TimesManohla Dargis calls “a fake memoir that embraces crude racial stereotypes. He submits it under a pseudonym, which leads to expected complications, a lot of smiling white people, and some pointed soul-searching about matters of race and representation.” We took a look at early reviews last week, and Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson has put American Fiction on her list of Toronto favorites, calling it “an extremely funny movie that lands some sharp blows, and a stellar feature debut from seasoned TV writer Cord Jefferson (Succession, The Good Place, Watchmen, Master of None).”

Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is the first runner-up, and the second runner-up is The Boy and the Heron, which, as we noted last week, may not be Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature after all. For Wendy Ide, who has just taken over the position of chief film critic for the Observer from Mark Kermode, The Holdovers is “by no small margin the best film of the festival.” Set at a New England boarding school in the early 1970s, the film is shot by Eigil Bryld to look as if it were a freshly rediscovered sleeper from the New Hollywood era. “Speaking as someone who was there,” writes Ty Burr, “the production detail in the film’s recreation of early ’70s private school is awe-inspiringly tweedy.”

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a misanthropic teacher of ancient history who’s charged with babysitting the students who have nowhere else to go over the Christmas holidays. The ragtag group eventually dwindles down to just Paul; Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), a troublemaker; and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook who has just lost her only child to the war in Vietnam. “This is a familiar setup, the hoary stuff of so many odd-couple movies,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “There’s even a road trip. But Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson set known things spinning at novel tilts, keeping the film away from the worst of its genre’s many cliches. Funny and rueful, The Holdovers seems beamed in from another time in cinema history, when wordy and thoughtful little movies like this were in healthier supply.”

For the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee, the film’s “simplicity is one of its many aces, especially after the uncharacteristically convoluted silliness of Payne’s last film, 2017’s high-concept, low-reward escapade Downsizing. He’s on far less precarious ground here, a film closer to Nebraska or The Descendants that makes for a welcome return to the fold.”

Midnight Madness and TIFF Docs

Festival attendees also cast ballots for their favorite films in the Midnight Madness and TIFF Docs programs. The winning documentary, Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, focuses on the life and work of Ernie Coombs, who hosted what many describe as a Canadian Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for thirty years. In Cinema Scope, Madeleine Wall notes that “director Robert McCallum presents a profile of Coombs, his family, and the changing face of Canadian media; he outlines the life and afterlife of what is clearly more than just a TV show.”

Dicks: The Musical, the Midnight Madness winner directed by Larry Charles (Borat), is for audiences from an entirely different neighborhood. Adapting their off-Broadway sensation Fucking Identical Twins, Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp play rival vacuum cleaner parts salesmen who team up when they discover that they’re long lost brothers, each raised by a single divorced parent (Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane). “Few films so violently, deludedly believe in themselves,” writes Charles Bramesco for the Guardian, “and even if the high pitch of its humor makes one want to plug their ears, this jazz-handed freak show demands some measure of respect for the simple fact of its dumbfounding, throbbing existence.”

“You can’t accuse Dicks: The Musical of phoning in a half-assed take on material that demands you bring the big-dick energy or GTFO,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “But there’s a big difference between being loud and rude and being hilarious, cutting, or even clever. The movie keeps it up for a good long while. It could just use a few more inches.” Vulture’s Nate Jones notes that the premiere “went down like gangbusters in the specific context of a midnight festival screening, and I have absolutely no idea how it will play outside it.”

Platform

Created in 2015 and named for Jia Zhangke’s 2000 film, Toronto’s Platform competition was juried this year by Barry Jenkins, Nadine Labaki, and Anthony Shim. From a lineup of ten premieres, the jury selected Dear Jassi, the first feature from Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals) in eight years, and the first he’s shot in his native India. Echoing Romeo and Juliet, Dear Jassi is “a tragedy whose twists and turns would be unbelievable and overwrought if not for the horrifying fact that they really happened,” writes Meg Shields for Cinema Scope.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck notes that “renowned Punjabi singer/composer Kanwar Grewal introduces and narrates the tale, his music giving it the feel of something that has been passed down for generations.” But it’s the mid-1990s when Jassi (Pavia Sidhu), who comes from a well-to-do Indo-Canadian family, visits relatives in Jagraon and spies a rickshaw-driving neighbor, Mithu (Yugam Sood). It’s love at first sight, but Jassi’s overbearing mother will not stand for it. Most early reviewers are not as taken with Dear Jassi as the jury, whose statement praises “the perfect blend of craft, purpose, and faith in its audience, creating a world that is both richly cinematic and steadfastly realistic.” Sidhu and Sood “are by turns breathtaking and, in performances that pull no punches, heartbreaking.”

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