TIFF 2017: Yes, Movies Can Still Be Magical 

A fabulous foursome emerges at Toronto International Film Festival

Clockwise: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri; Call Me by Your Name; The Florida Project and The Shape of Water.

Courtesy Toronto Film Festival

Clockwise: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri; Call Me by Your Name; The Florida Project and The Shape of Water.

Ask any of the actors, directors or screenwriters who brought movies to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival about the "O" word, and you'll get two different answers—one public and the other private—about the chance of an Oscar nomination. Publicly, they'll dismiss any talk of an Academy Award:

"That's very kind of you to bring that up," they're inclined to say, "but I'm not really thinking about awards." Ask them again privately, and the answer is much different.

"Are you kidding? Have you looked at a calendar?" they'll ask, aghast.

For most of us, this is simply the month of September. Step through the Hollywood looking glass, however, and you will find it's also "award season." The actors, directors and screenwriters don't have their hearts set on winning a trophy, though. They want an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination.

Between the time Golden Globe nominations are announced in mid-December (they're handed out in January) and Oscars are awarded in March, nearly three months will pass, and in that time span, the true Hollywood currency is based on whether someone has landed a nod for the Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director or Screenplay awards. The buildup to those nominations has officially begun—and the award clock is ticking loudly in Toronto.

The slate at TIFF this year hasn't really culled the herd of potential nominees, though. Instead, the field has been widened because the quality of films is top drawer—however, four stand out above the rest and pass the test of real cinematic greatness, something no other medium can duplicate.

Think, for example, of what made Citizen Kane, An American in Paris, The Apartment or Raiders of the Lost Ark so special. Movies like these are created through a magical alchemy of storytelling and technology that sets flimmaking apart from theater, music or literature. More importantly, the experience requires a big screen to frame its largesse, literally and figuratively. In those rare instances when that magic jumps from the screen and pierces the dark, you feel at one with the film, if only for the moment before you hear other moviegoers around you laughing, crying or gasping—just like you. In those flashes of time, going to the movies is like no other collective experience and, to this day, remains a wonderment.

My favorite film so far at TIFF is also the most captivating movie I've seen in some time: The Shape of Water, a fantastical tale of spirit, compassion and dimension. When I say this is the best film yet from director Guillermo del Toro, remember this is the man who gave us the masterful Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

In his latest wizardry, del Toro conjures another stunning visual display, only to be outshone by a luminous performance by Sally Hawkins (Maudie) starring as a mute cleaning woman who discovers a subaquatic half-man, half-amphibian being held captive at a top-secret laboratory. The movie is a reminder that, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being a true monster has nothing to do with appearance.

I was also bowled over by Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, from dark-humor master writer/director Martin McDonagh. The billboards mentioned in the title become canvasses for the expression of rage by a mother (Frances McDormand) who blames the police department in her town for failing to arrest her daughter's rapist and murderer. McDonagh's script is barbed with visceral satire only someone as skilled as McDormand can deliver.

McDormand's performance alone is worth the trip to Ebbing, but her supporting cast is equally superb and includes Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

The Florida Project, a small-budget, independent film from director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is equally worthy of attention. It peels the tan off the tourist town of Orlando, Florida, by focusing on the lives of four spirited urchins, ages 6 to 8, whose dance of joyous youth is only a step away from poverty. Willem Dafoe delivers the performance of his career as a harried motel manager who is, too often, the children's only protector.

Call Me by Your Name should also be on your watchlist. This adaptation of a novel Vanity Fair called a "modern classic of gay literature" is a breakthrough and certain to win over art house audiences.

Featuring a stunning performance by Armie Hammer, this magnificent film looks at identity, sexuality and the capacity to love in a respectful fashion rarely seen of late.

For more, check out our TIFF 2017 coverage at boiseweekly.com.

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