This is the time of year when we whine about awards season starting six months before the Oscar ceremony. Have the lamps gone out on gongs chatter? Will we see them lit again in our lifetimes?
It's not quite so bad as all that. A version of the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), traditionally the busiest and friendliest of the year's movie bashes, will glide into action on Thursday. The Covid-19 crisis has changed everything. In 2019, subsequent Oscar favourites such as Joker, Le Mans '66, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story and Parasite were among 245 features unspooling by the lake. This year, just 50 full-length films will screen at Tiff. "We began this year planning for a 45th festival much like our previous editions," Tiff artistic director Cameron Bailey explained. "But along the way we had to rethink just about everything."
There are fewer guests. There are fewer big Hollywood releases. Social distancing is in place. For the first time in its history, Tiff is premiering a significant number of movies in the (usually still balmy at this time) Ontarian outdoors. As far as the press is concerned, the festival will happen largely online. Screenings for critics will take place on the festival's digital platform. Public conversations with Toronto veterans will take place via Zoom and other services.
The Irish Times is fortunate to be included among a reduced number of remotely accredited journalists. (It may seem unusual to limit numbers for a virtual event, but fear of piracy is certain to have kept the organisers alert.) It turns out to be a good year for domestic interest.
Wolfwalkers, the latest film from Cartoon Saloon, the Oscar-nominated Irish animation studio, will premiere on the opening Saturday of the event. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's film tells the story of a friendship between two girls during Cromwell's brutal occupation of Ireland. The filmmakers see Wolfwalkers as the completion of the "Irish folklore" trilogy that began with The Secret of Kells and continued with Song of the Sea. All three of the Kilkenny operation's features have been nominated for best animated feature at the Oscars - The Breadwinner was up in 2018 - so expectations are high.
Cathy Brady's much-anticipated Wildfire will, in further acknowledgment of changed circumstances, have its premier at West Island Open Air Cinema on Wednesday evening. Brady's film stars Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan as sisters engaging with social and personal discontents along the Northern Irish Border. Brady, known for excellent shorts such as Small Change and Morning, shot the film some months before McGuigan's tragic death in July 2019. Veteran David Collins of Samson Films is among the producers.
And, of course, there is Saoirse. Ms Ronan stars opposite Kate Winslet in the already Oscar-napped Ammonite. Francis Lee's follow-up to the much-loved God's Own Country studies the growing sexual relationship between two real-life fossil hunters in 19th century England. Winslet plays Mary Anning. Ronan is Charlotte Murchison. Some artistic license has been taken. Anning was 10 years younger than Murchison, but Winslet is around 18 years older than Ronan. Some of Anning's descendants have argued that there was no evidence of a sexual relationship between the two women. None of this dulled excitement when a delicious trailer was released last week. Ronan will be engaging in a public discussion about her already spectacular career.
Also premiering at Toronto we find Regina King's One Night in Miami. King, who won the best supporting actress Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk, makes her directorial debut with a drama imagining conversations between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali. Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round stars Mads Mikkelsen in a film about an epic nihilistic booze-out. Spike Lee's take on David Byrne's American Utopia brings that singer's 2019 Broadway show to the big screen. Demonstrating a newly collegiate atmosphere, Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a contemporary wanderer, will premiere simultaneously at Toronto and the ongoing Venice Film Festival.
Dealing with the pandemic
The big festivals have dealt with the crisis in different ways. Arriving at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Cannes was forced to cancel, but organisers released a theoretical official selection of films - Another Round was one - that, in reality, were set to premiere elsewhere. Our own Galway Film Fleadh went virtual. Venice, the oldest of the big beasts, is persevering with a physical event. In order to cope with reduced capacity, there are twice as many screenings of films as is customary. Masks are required in all shared spaces. In recent years, as awards season became ever more focussed on the autumn rush, the Italian event has become ever more stuffed with high-end Hollywood fare (somehow or other, Joker won the Golden Lion in 2019), but this year sees a return to the soberer European arthouse. Films by esteemed documentarian Gianfranco Rosi and Hungarian eccentric Kornél Mundruczó will be fighting for the top award.
Meanwhile, the Telluride Film Festival, which usually straddles Venice and Toronto, has elected to cancel all screenings. This is unfortunate news for the Irish filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan whose To The Moon was announced as part of the official selection. O’Sullivan, director of the excellent The Great Wall, looks to be pushing boundaries again. “Structured around a lunar cycle, the film moves through tales of love, myths of madness, songs of longing and loss, dreams of innocence and the nightmare of colonialism,” the press briefing tells us. To the Moon will also play in the Venice Nights sidebar.
So, where does this leave the dangling conversation about Oscar season? In truth, that chatter does not seem likely to get started until the beginning of 2021. The Academy has moved the ceremony from February to March 25th - the latest it has been since the 1930s - and juggled the rules to accommodate delayed production and alterations in festival procedures. Certain films that cancelled scheduled theatrical premieres in favour of streaming release will, for one year only, qualify for Oscar consideration. The eligibility period for release has been extended from the end of 2020 until the close of February 2021.
This may be good news for The Sundance Film Festival, which begins on January 21st, and the Berlin Film Festival, kicking off on February 11th. Both may now compete for some of the releases lining up to squabble over best picture nominations. Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, also on the Cannes list, could arrive in Berlin before racing to a qualifying run in American cinemas. Taika Waititi's Next Goal Wins could do the same with Sundance. Then there is the Netflix contingent. The streaming giant has a wealth of potential nominees, but it seems they may skip the festival circuit this year. David Fincher's Mank, the story of the writing of Citizen Kane; Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7, a study of that 1968 case; Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, starring Amy Adams, and George C Wolfe's Ma Rainey's, featuring the late Chadwick Boseman, may all take an unusual route towards Oscar consideration. Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things is already on the service.
The world has changed. Nobody is certain if it will change back again.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10th until September 20th.