TORONTO — Fall is when the divas traditionally arrive: legendary actresses (and those who hope to be legendary) giving big performances in challenging roles, real-life and fictional. This year, though, it’s the men who are dominating the chatter at the Toronto International Film Festival, which along with fellow autumn events in Venice, Telluride, and New York helps set the banquet table for the annual Oscar race.
Women have hardly been left in the shade, of course. The TIFF schedule is loaded with bravura performances, like Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in “Judy,” Kristen Stewart playing actress Jean Seberg in “Seberg,” Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman (“Harriet”), and Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie (“Radioactive”). And that’s just the headliners. But consider that the two performances most people are talking about in Toronto this year are given by Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” and Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and their characters live at the opposite extremes of human behavior.
Phoenix’s turn as Arthur Fleck, the sad, mad title character of “Joker,” is easily the best aspect of Todd Phillips’s heavily hyped addition to the “Dark Knight” cinematic comic book universe. Grimy, gritty, self-important, and weighing a ton, “Joker” is already set to be the season’s most controversial movie, especially after winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.
Set in a diseased Gotham City during the rotten-apple 1970s, the movie isn’t so much an homage to films like “Death Wish,” “The King of Comedy,” “V for Vendetta,” and especially “Taxi Driver,” as it is built from their spare parts. Does “Joker” celebrate Arthur’s rise to chaos? The guy next to me at the TIFF screening seemed to think so; when Arthur commits a shocking act of violence toward the end, he was up on his feet cheering the movie on.
But Phoenix is amazing, pouring himself into this desiccated lost soul without a whit of vanity, charting a self-pity that gives way to homicidal rage as Arthur loses all hope and finds power through the barrel of a gun. The actor plays the Joker as a hero in his own mind, and with such mercurial conviction that a lot of people will be convinced. Maybe more than we want. It opens Oct. 4.
Other unlikely male role models that are screening at TIFF and will turn up on your movie screens in the next few months:
Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name.” Craig Brewer’s film is a fond and funny recounting of how has-been comedian Moore created the jive-talking, kung-fu-fighting Dolemite character in the 1970s and boot-strapped it all the way to a bad-movie classic. “Dolemite” features story beats familiar from “Ed Wood” and the recent “The Disaster Artist,” but Murphy may have the best straight role (sort of) of his too-wayward career as a king of low-rent hustle, driven by a desperate fury to be seen. (Oct. 4)
Matt Damon and Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari.” A race-car drama detailing how maverick car builder Carroll Shelby (Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) teamed up with (and against) the stodgy Ford Motor Company to beat the Italians at Le Mans. Steeped in automotive arcana yet fast and graceful on the turns, James Mangold’s drama is the definition of a guy movie (Caitriona Balfe of “Outlander” does fine work as Miles’s wife), and the two stars click together beautifully. Between this and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” it’s been a great year for male onscreen marriages. (Nov. 15)
Speaking of marriage, Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.” Noah Baumbach’s latest — and arguably his best to date — is actually a divorce story, recounting with warm, sad details the falling apart of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) as they wrestle with lawyers for custody of their young son. Johansson is excellent, and Laura Dern is a lock for supporting actress as a high-rolling divorce attorney, but Driver hits levels of self-inflicted pain and sorrow that had TIFF audiences openly weeping. The scene in which Charlie sings “Being Alive” from Sondheim’s “Company” — turns out Driver has an excellent voice — goes straight into the actor’s career reel. (Dec. 6, and available soon thereafter on Netflix)
Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems.” Every five years or so, Sandler reminds us that he can actually act, and in this adrenalized doozy from the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny (“Good Time”), he’s an exposed nerve as Howard Ratner, a New York diamond dealer with a gambling addiction and way too many markers out. Unfolding over three nerve-wracking days, “Gems” makes room for former Celtics star Kevin Garnett playing himself (and quite convincingly), but this heart attack of a movie is Sandler’s show all the way to the bitter, bitter end. “Joker” has been made by people who’ve seen a lot of Martin Scorsese movies. “Uncut Gems” has Scorsese on board as executive producer and is truer to the gutter ferocity of the master’s early work. (Dec. 13)
Hugh Jackman in “Bad Education.” The versatile actor tightens it all the way up to play Frank Tassone, a beloved Long Island school superintendent who in the early 2000s was revealed to have embezzled millions of dollars from the local education budget. With a rogue’s gallery of smart players (Allison Janney and Ray Romano among them), “Bad Education” could have been a satire in the style of “Election.” It’s funny, sure, but mostly fascinated with Tassone, whose compartmentalization skills turn out to be awe-inspiring (he supported two separate male lovers on his ill-gotten gains). Jackman plays him as an immaculate invention whose façade slowly buckles under pressure. (Release TBA)
Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal.” The compact, intense Ahmed, best known as the star of HBO’s “The Night Of,” is a changeling actor, and in this independent drama from writer-director Darius Marder, he plays Ruben, a rebellious heavy-metal drummer and recovering addict whose life comes undone when he goes deaf. The movie’s sound design becomes a main character as well — in many scenes we hear the world as Ruben does, muffled or distorted — and the central sequences at a rural halfway house for the deaf, subtitles filling in as Ruben learns sign language, are genuinely moving in their specificity. Ahmed roots it in a noisy performance that gradually learns the value of silence. (Release TBA)