Stranger than fiction? Movies about real-life people and events look ready to steal the spotlight at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, running September 5 to 15. And many of those true stories are Canadian-made, providing a welcome reversal of the country’s Hollywood North, second-fiddle filmmaking reputation.
This year’s key opening-night spot hits both trends on the head with the premiere of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, director Daniel Roher’s documentary tribute to the Indigenous singer-songwriter-guitarist who helped lead bluesy Ronnie Hawkins’ former backup group to fame and fortune in the late 1960s.
Robertson, who grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario, will attend the film, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. The two will again join forces later in the week when they introduce a free TIFF public screening of The Last Waltz, the now iconic 1978 live music documentary spotlighting the last days of The Band and featuring performances by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Scorsese will also be the focus of a TIFF retrospective taking place later this year.
Other docs to look for at this year’s TIFF include There’s Something in the Water, a film about environmental racism in Nova Scotia that Canadian actor Ellen Page co-produced; The Cave, a world premiere about an underground hospital in Syria; and Cunningham, a 3-D dance film exploring the masterful moves of the late (and great) American post-modern choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Character-driven dramas are also plentiful at TIFF this year and include The Personal History of David Copperfield, a world premiere starring Dev Patel. It’s directed by Scottish-born Armando Iannucci from his own screenplay, an adaptation of the original 1850 Charles Dickens novel. Iannucci was behind the satiric The Death of Stalin, which debuted at TIFF in 2017. Featuring Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood and Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep, the film—already rumoured to be a best picture contender at next year’s Oscars ceremony—is scheduled to open the London Film Festival in October.
Speaking of repeat hits, this year TIFF will host the return of two directors who may be renewing themselves. Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar brings his semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory, starring faithful collaborators Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz. And Canadian Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour is a psychological drama based on his own script about a woman who is in jail for a sex crime she didn’t commit.
For fans of great acting, Hope Gap, starring Annette Bening as one half of a couple that’s splitting up, is the one to watch. The 61-year-old’s performances are being revisited these days, given that she is long overdue for an Academy Award. But she’ll get a run for her money here, as her co-star, the excellent Bill Nighy, is known for scene-stealing.
Also look for Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, a Netflix collaboration based on the real-life Panama Papers leak of 11.5 million supposed-to-be-secret documents. It stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone, and the aforementioned Antonio Banderas—a heady mix of talent, to be sure.
Less star-studded but just as noteworthy from an artistic point of view is Harriet, a biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons (of Eve’s Bayou fame) from a screenplay she co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard about abolitionist and Underground Railroad organizer Harriet Tubman. It stars Tony Award–winning British actress Cynthia Erivo, best known for her work on Broadway and in London’s West End.
Last but not least is an actor playing an actor: Renée Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in Judy. Exploring the late Hollywood legend’s ups and downs, it features a catalogue of songs that Zellweger, giving a note-perfect performance, sings herself. Get ready to fly over the rainbow; this is yet another title—based on the life of a real person—with “Oscar winner” written all over it.
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