Meeting Great Expectations 

The surprises, so far, at TIFF 2016

Clockwise from top right: Queen of Katwe is an inspirational story of a Ugandan chess master, Moonlight is set to become the indie of the year, La La Land is a musical from the days of yore and Lion is a bona fide crowd pleaser.


Clockwise from top right: Queen of Katwe is an inspirational story of a Ugandan chess master, Moonlight is set to become the indie of the year, La La Land is a musical from the days of yore and Lion is a bona fide crowd pleaser.

Good tidings of great joy from Toronto, dear moviegoers. The news from this year's edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is good. Just as a cooling rain swept across Lake Ontario, pushing out a late summer mugginess from the great Canadian metropolis, a fresh gust of high quality films blew in, bringing with them the promise of great expectations for months to come at your favorite movie theater.

Oscar's New Frontrunners

It's uncommon for a film to spark ovations and cheers in the middle of a screening, but that's what happened four times at the TIFF 2016 premiere of the much-anticipated musical La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It takes its inspiration from Hollywood musicals of yore but is a wonderfully contemporary story. I counted at least eight Oscar nominations and the three minutes of Emma Stone singing a new song called "Here's to the Ones Who Dream" near the end of the movie practically guarantee her a Best Actress Oscar.

There is so much to love about Loving from director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter). This rich retelling of the marriage between Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) Loving that led to the landmark 1958 Supreme Court ruling overturning Virginia's ban on interracial marriage is a lock for the Motion Picture Academy to champion—especially in the wake of the #oscarssowhite controversy earlier this year, after only white actors and actresses comprised the lists of Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Loving is a humble and, well, loving chronicle of how an injustice was righted.

The other film sure to be on Oscar's shortlist is Moonlight, a provocative R-rated tale of racial and sexual identity.

Directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), Moonlight is a requiem of sadness, in which Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray Chiron (pronounced shy-ron) as a black child, teen and adult, respectively, pushing back against poverty, bullying and drug addiction in his Miami neighborhood. Produced by up-and-coming studio A24, Moonlight is destined to be the independent film of the year. You'll be hearing a lot about this film.

The Big Surprises

Two near-perfect films, Lion and Queen of Katwe, slipped in under the radar, taking TIFF audiences and many of the world's top critics by surprise.

The moment the lights came up at the end of Lion, the opening night audience responded with full-throated cheers, applause and tears. As the house lights came up, I looked around the packed theater and lost count of how many people were silently mouthing the word "Wow."

Lion, which stars Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, tells the true story of a 5-year-old Indian boy, lost on the streets of Calcutta, who is eventually adopted by a family in Australia and, as an adult, makes his way back to India using Google Earth.

"I make so many different films, but it's nice to do something that can put some goodness back into the world," Kidman told Boise Weekly at a post-screening press conference.

Kidman said having adopted children of her own gave her particular insight to her character.

"I can't tell you how much of a joy it was to to play a mother who just loves her child," she said. "To be a part of something like this film that is so uplifting... well, there's nothing quite like it."

More than a few happy tears were also shed at the TIFF premiere of The Queen of Katwe, another life-affirming film for anyone of any age. It's another true story, this time of an uneducated girl living in a Ugandan slum who stuns much of the world when she becomes one of the greatest chess masters on the planet.

It stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and Lupita Nyong'o who last came to Toronto in 2013 to unveil 12 Years a Slave, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

"I'm sentimental about coming back here to Toronto with this film which I'm so passionate about," said Nyong'o. "And what an amazing thing this film will do: Showcase Africa on a cinematic scale that we've never seen before."

The Queen of Katwe is as gorgeous as it is impressive, but perhaps the biggest stunner is that the Walt Disney Company is behind the production.

More to Come

Among the hundreds of TIFF films still to be screened, I'm looking forward to American Pastoral, with Ewan McGregor directing himself and an all-star cast in this adaptation of Philip Roth's novel of the same name; Jackie, with Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy; LBJ, starring Woody Harrelson as the 36th president of the United States; and four different movies about monsters—loveable and otherwise.

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