From 'Joker' to 'Knives Out' here are the biggest questions about the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

‘Tis the season for movie lovers. How do we know? Because today marks the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the fall’s Oscar hopefuls will screen for the press and the general public. Last year, TIFF was the place where Peter Farrelly’s Green Book started its unlikely race towards a Best Picture victory, and it’s that many of the films competing for the same prize in 2020 will have screened at the festival. As usual, Yahoo Entertainment will be on the ground covering all the buzziest movies and performances. Here’s a look at some of the big questions we’re pondering before the curtains go up on the latest edition of TIFF. —by Ethan Alter and Kevin Polowy

How will Joaquin Phoenix stack up against past Jokers?

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in 'Joker' (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.)

What is it about Batman's most famous foe that yields such meaty, memorable film performances? Jack Nicholson was a delight in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Heath Ledger was a revelation in The Dark Knight (2008), and Jared Leto was … not bad, but at least gave us some great behind-the-stories from the otherwise highly turdy Suicide Squad (2016). If early reactions out of Venice to the Todd Phillips-directed Joker are any indication, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a brand new twist on DC Comics' iconic clown prince, and one that's so good it could even land him his first Oscar. Phillips was at TIFF last year as a producer on his Hangover buddy Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, and now he returns with one of the fest's hottest properties yet again. It’s also likely to be one of festival’s most controversial entries, as critics and audiences wrestle with its R-rated imagery and depiction of an emotionally damaged loner who finds solace for his demons in mayhem. Phillips has promised that Joker won’t be your typical comic book movie, and that’s certainly shaping up to be the case.

Could Netflix’s Marriage Story steal The Irishman’s Oscar thunder?

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in 'Marriage Story' (Photo: Netflix)

It’s widely assumed that Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making (and just plain long) crime drama The Irishman is going to be the Big Kahuna of the 2019 awards season. But hear us out for a minute: what if Noah Baumbach’s devastatingly intimate Marriage Story ends up being the streaming service’s ticket to a Best Picture Oscar? The advanced word on the film — which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as an about-to-divorce couple loosely modeled after Baumbach and ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh — out of its premieres at Venice and Telluride has been off-the-charts stellar. And there’s precedent for this kind of intense interior drama beating out a bigger epic for the top prize. In 1980, the divorce-themed Kramer vs. Kramer won Best Picture over Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. At the very least, Johansson and Driver will be Netflix’s leading contenders in the acting categories, while The Irishman competes for Director and Picture.

Will A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood be as good as we hope?

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' (Photo: Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures)

Casting doesn't get much better than seeing an all-American hero like Tom Hanks recruited to play another all-American hero like Fred Rogers. Add to the equation that this biopic is directed by Marielle Heller — who helmed one of 2018 TIFF's best surprises, the thrice-Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me? — and this one feels like a slam-dunk. How Heller will pivot from a curmudgeonly antihero like Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel to a Mr. Congeniality like Mr. Rogers, though, remains to be seen. Were there flaws and turmoil in Rogers's life that will provide the story the dramatic weight it needs? Or will this be more of a pure tribute, à la the acclaimed 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? We'll find out when A Beautiful Day premieres in Toronto on Saturday night.

Is 2019 the year of the biopic?

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in 'Harriet' (Photo: Focus Features)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of the highest-profile biopics playing at TIFF, but the festival will feature a number of entries in a genre that’s an easy target for ridicule, but frequently a shoo-in for awards glory. For example, Renée Zellweger is already gathering Oscar buzz for her star turn as Judy Garland in the aptly-named Judy. And before she joins Charlie’s Angels later this fall, Kristen Stewart will portray French New Wave star Jean Seberg in Seberg. Perhaps one of the festival’s most hotly anticipated biopics is Harriet, Kasi Lemmons’s portrait of famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role. Ford v Ferrari, Dolemite Is My Name and The Aeronauts round out TIFF’s “based on real people” offerings.

Will Ford v Ferrari reverse Fox's fortunes?

It has not been a great year for Fox at the box office, with movies like X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Stuber tanking just after the studio was absorbed by the Daddy Warbucks of film distributors, Disney. Enter Ford v Ferrari, a "high-octane" drama about an underdog American auto designer (Matt Damon) and race-car driver (Christian Bale) daring to dream they can topple the slicksters at Ferarri during the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. Damon and Bale are both drawing early buzz for the James Mangold-directed film, and it could very well follow in the path of other recent Fox Toronto titles like The Martian and Hidden Figures in becoming both a box office hit and awards contender. That would be a big win to close out '19.

Will Rian Johnson’s Knives Out be a force for good?

Daniel Craig leads an all-star ensemble in Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' (Photo: Claire Folger/Lionsgate)

Returning to terra firma after a stint in George Lucas’s far, far away galaxy, The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson assembles a stellar cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and Don Johnson — for what he’s described as his homage to Agatha Christie mysteries. Johnson’s murder mystery bonafides go all the way back to his breakout feature debut, 2005’s Brick, which lifted the plot twists and distinctive language from vintage detective fiction and set them down in the hallways of an ordinary high school. (TIFF has another modern-day noir in their lineup this year, Albert Shin’s Niagara Falls-set Clifton Hill, which stars Tuppence Middleton, Noah Reid and David Cronenberg. Yes … that David Cronenberg.) Even though The Last Jedi remains one of the most critically and commercially successful Star Wars films yet released, it’s no secret that there’s a small, but vocal section of fans that has their knives out for Johnson’s follow-up. Based on his track record, though, it would be a real mystery if Knives Out wasn’t a bloody good time.

Can Taika Waititi make Hitler funny?

Taika Waititi is on the top of the world right now. He has become one of Marvel's go-to directors with the one-two punch of Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder; he's directing and doing voice work on the highly anticipated Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian; and even his mockumentaries like What We Do in the Shadows are turning into cult TV shows. Jojo Rabbit may be his boldest endeavor yet, though, an "anti-hate satire" about a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) visited by an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi), while his mother harbors a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) during World War II. It's been tough to nail down the film's tone through early footage, and though mining humor out the monster that was Hitler has been done before (see The Producers), it's still a tricky proposition. We'll soon see if Waititi can continue to reign supreme.

Will Midnight Madness yield a breakout horror hit?

Nicolas Cage in 'Color Out of Space' (Photo: TIFF)

Horror lovers and TIFF regulars know that the scariest things at the festival happen after midnight. Sight unseen, the crown jewel of this year’s edition of the popular Midnight Madness lineup is Color Out of Space, the latest film from MM perennial, Nicolas Cage. Adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft short story about an alien invasion, the film marks the long-awaited narrative return of Richard Stanley, best known for directing the 1990 horror movie favorite, Hardware, and for being fired off of the infamous 1996 Island of Dr. Moreau remake starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Other potential cult movies in the making include The Vigil, set in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, and Blood Quantum, a Canadian zombie picture directed by Jeff Barnaby and starring a cast of First Nations performers.

Will Dolemite begin Eddie Murphy's comeback?

Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in 'Dolemite is My Name' (Photo: Netflix)

Eddie Murphy is clearly primed for a comeback. The comedy legend works sparingly these days, with only one movie in the past six years (2016's Mr. Church). But he'll headline one of TIFF's most high profile premieres as standup great and rap pioneer Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name before returning to the screen in at least one sequel (Coming to America 2), if not three (the Twins sequel Triplets and Beverly Hills Cop 4 continue to be rumored). Dolemite, however, is the likeliest of that batch to return Murphy to the Academy Awards, where he was once the favorite to win an Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007. Speaking of comebacks, Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical Sundance hit Honey Boy is getting a prominent TIFF berth.

Is Bruce Springsteen the next Clint Eastwood?

Bruce Springsteen stars in and co-directs the concert movie 'Western Stars' (Photo: Rob DeMartin/Warner Bros.)

The rock icon adds “director” to his résumé with Western Stars, a purposefully minor-key concert film based on his recently released album of the same name. Springsteen shares directing duties with regular collaborator Thom Zimny, who previously helmed the 2010 Boss-centric documentary, The Promise. Following its world premiere in Toronto, the film will get a general theatrical release on Oct. 25, where it will hopefully find the audience that sadly eluded the neglected summertime Springsteen tribute, Blinded by the Light. And as part of their ongoing transition from indie rockers to mainstream act, The Lumineers are making their way into motion pictures. TIFF is hosting the premiere of III, a 40-minute visual version of the band’s latest record — the one with the much-played single “Gloria” on it — with a cast that includes Nick Stahl and Anna Cordell.

Did Adam Sandler make another great drama?

Adam Sandler in 'Uncut Gems' (Photo: A24)

In between raking in millions (of both dollars and reported views) from broad, oftentimes sophomoric comedies as part of his Netflix deal, Adam Sandler continues to make the occasional drama … and they continue to draw the SNL alum consistently strong reviews. That was the case with 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, 2007's Reign Over Me and 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories. It appears to be the case again with Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers' follow-up to their 2017 indie breakout Good Time. Sandler plays a New York jeweler who finds himself in escalatingly dire straights, and the early buzz out of the Telluride Film Festival is that it's another gem of a Sandler performance.

Which foreign language film will be the next Roma?

The cast of Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' (Photo: Neon)

Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City-set period piece Roma was the toast of Toronto, and went on to become the rare movie to land an Oscar nomination for both Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film. (The film eventually won the latter statue, and Cuarón took home his second Best Director award.) There are several 2019 movies that could follow a similar trajectory, starting with South Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling and darkly hilarious Parasite, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or in Cannes earlier this year. That festival was also the launching pad for A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s German-language World War II drama about Austrian pacifist, Franz Jägerstätter, which will appear in TIFF’s lineup as well. And don’t forget about Academy favorite, Pedro Almodóvar, whose latest feature, Pain and Glory, boasts a terrific star turn from Antonio Banderas. Much like Roma, it also mines the director’s own life for rich dramatic material.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5-15.

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