From 'Joker' controversy to Eddie Murphy's long-awaited comeback, here's what we learned at the Toronto International Film Festival

Heading into last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, A Star is Born was the movie on everyone’s lips. But when TIFF ’18 wrapped up, Green Book emerged as the festival’s big winner, nabbing the coveted People’s Choice Award — the first stop on its path towards an eventual Best Picture Oscar. We’ll have to wait and see whether history repeats itself with this year’s equally divisive People’s Choice winner, Taika Waititi’s World War II fable Jojo Rabbit. But the 2019 edition of North America’s biggest film festival had other lessons to teach us as well. Here’s a recap of everything Yahoo Entertainment learned while in Toronto.—by Ethan Alter and Kevin Polowy

Joker is already the most debated movie of the year ... and most people haven’t even seen it yet

Joaquin Phoenix gets into character in 'Joker' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Days after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival — where it shocked the world by winning the top prize, the Golden Lion — Todd Phillips’s one-shot Joker story played to similarly enthusiastic crowds in Toronto. While the film’s first TIFF screening was controversy-free, the tide turned as more viewers, particularly critics, caught up with this ultra-dark take on Batman’s longtime nemesis, played by Joaquin Phoenix. It wasn’t long before some writers were branding Joker a “dangerous film” online and on social media, where anxiety mounted about its depiction of a mentally ill loner who finds an outlet for his cracked vision of the world through violence. At the same time, others commended Phillips and Phoenix for turning the traditional comic-book origin story on its head. (Our take? For much of its runtime, Joker is overbearingly grim and frequently tedious, but it builds to a final half-hour that’s genuinely surprising and features some terrific work by its star.) One thing is for sure, the filmmakers will be laughing all the way to the bank: Joker is on track to earn upwards of $80 million when it opens to general audiences on Oct. 4.

Netflix has many of the fall's best movies

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

A year after setting up Alfonso Cuarón's Roma for awards glory at TIFF ’18, the streaming giant had an even more gigantic year. Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story — which should really be called Divorce Story — looks primed to be a major Oscar contender, and land not only nominations in Best Picture and Best Director but possibly three acting nods as well for stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern. Eddie Murphy had crowds cheering for his lively portrayal of comedian-turned-filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, and could be an awards contender as well in what's sure to be called a comeback role. Even The Two Popes surpassed expectations, proving to be a wildly more entertaining depiction of papal talk between the great Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. And Netflix hasn't even rolled out its biggest Oscar threat of the year yet: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which premieres Sept. 27 at the New York Film Festival.

Adam Driver is having a moment

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

Seven years after his breakthrough role in Girls, Driver firmly established himself as one of our finest contemporary screen actors with a TIFF double bill that highlighted his remarkable range. Playing a version of writer-director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, Driver locates the humanity in a self-absorbed character who keeps his spouse (Scarlett Johansson) and the larger world at a purposeful distance. (He sings Sondheim, too, which means that we’ll hopefully see him in a full-fledged musical soon.) Meanwhile, in The Report, Scott Z. Burns’s All the President’s Men-inspired procedural, Driver essentially plays both Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, who assembled the definitive account of the CIA’s inhumane torture of terror suspects in the aftermath of 9/11. Not for nothing, but both films are arriving in theaters and on their respective streaming services (Marriage Story for Netflix, and Amazon Prime for The Report) before Driver picks up Kylo Ren’s lightsaber one last time for the saga-capping Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a Mr. Rogers biopic ... And that's OK

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

Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have been trying to warn us that their Mr. Rogers movie isn’t a traditional biopic about the beloved children’s entertainer. Faced with having to make a drama about someone so saintly, the filmmakers came up with a clever solution: framing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood through the eyes of a troubled, highly cynical investigative journalist (Matthew Rhys) assigned to profile Fred Rogers (a pitch-perfect Tom Hanks). Some Rogers fans might be disappointed there's not more of him — Rhys is unquestionably the main character — but there's a lot to appreciate about what the film is, not what we wanted it to be.

Jojo Rabbit puts Fox Searchlight in the awards conversation

Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson in 'Jojo Rabbit' (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Courtesy TIFF)

Fox Searchlight celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and TIFF audiences gave the studio (now a division of Disney) a present by awarding Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit the People’s Choice prize. Moviegoers embraced the whimsical World War II film — in which the writer-director himself plays a buffoonish version of Adolf Hitler — in the face of critical divisiveness. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which is otherwise facing an uncertain awards season: while their pricey Terrence Malick acquisition, A Hidden Life, has received critical acclaim, the movie’s lengthy runtime and lack of star power will likely limit its commercial and awards prospects. And the studio’s other high-profile Toronto premiere — Lucy in the Sky, directed by Noah Hawley and starring Natalie Portman — had a disastrous lift-off, earning some of the worst reviews of the festival.

Ford v Ferrari will be your dad's favorite movie

Christian Bale and Matt Damon in 'Ford v Ferrari' (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy TIFF)

Does your dad love movies? What about cars? What about friendship and loyalty between men? What about nostalgia? Is he patriotic, but also skeptical of corporate America, too? Boy, do we have the film for him! And yes, while your father like will indeed likely love James Mangold's high-octane retelling of how a couple of down-and-out racing stars (Matt Damon's Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale's Ken Miles) reluctantly teamed with Ford to attempt to dethrone those Ferrari hotshots at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, the film is a crowdpleaser that should appeal to a much broader audience. Why? Because at the heart of it, it's not about racing. It's about the bond formed between buddies. And it's a fun and truly rewarding one to cheer on.

Nicolas Cage is still crazy after all these years

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

It wouldn’t be TIFF without some vintage after-midnight Cage Rage. Nic Cage returned to the Midnight Madness line-up this year with Color Out of Space, writer-director Richard Stanley’s unhinged adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story. And the actor didn’t disappoint: during the course of the film — which follows a family that has a close encounter of the third kind — Cage screams about alpacas, gets covered in blood and gore and leaps off the deep end into insanity. And according to co-star Joely Richardson, he was equally anarchic behind-the-scenes. “Nic takes risks,” she told Yahoo Entertainment during an interview prior to the movie’s premiere. “And I quite like working like that. I personally like to see what happens.” The actress remembered one scene in particular where Cage did handstands just before cameras rolled. For his part, Cage compared his preferred method of preparation to jazz. “Miles Davis is like a surrealist father of mine. I always remembered how he would just bring the musicians in; there was no rehearsal and then they would find their way. I've been doing this now for 40 years, I usually have a pretty good idea through trial and error and experimentation if it's going to work or not. And that’s fun to photograph.”

Some of the best movies in Toronto gave us the most anxiety

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

Sometimes the greatest films are the ones that hurt us the most. Two of our very favorite films at TIFF were riddled with anxiety, keeping us on the edge of our seats in highly uncomfortable yet deeply mesmerizing ways. We thought Trey Edward Shults's attempt at a "family drama" with Waves — his third feature after tormenting us with Krisha and It Comes at Night — would be relatively painless. After all, it's about an upper-class black family in Florida, and that This Is Us sweetheart Sterling K. Brown is the father: what could go wrong? Let's just say it'll punch you square in the gut. Then there's Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers' follow-up to Good Times, which hyperactively tracks a desperate New York City jewelry and gambling addict (an excellent Adam Sandler, in all-out frenzy mode) as he makes one terrible decision after the next while his debt collectors breathe down his neck from every angle. You'll need a good nap — or maybe a therapy appointment — after this one.

Beanie Feldstein is ready for her close-up

Beanie Feldstein in 'How to Build a Girl' (Photo: Courtesy TIFF)

After scene-stealing supporting turns in Neighbors 2 and Lady Bird and a co-lead performance in Booksmart, Beanie Feldstein scored her first star vehicle with the charming coming-of-age story How to Build a Girl. Loosely based on the life of author and journalist Caitlin Moran, the movie is a portrait of a young music journalist trying to find her voice and trying on lots of different hats along the way. We mean that both metaphorically and literally. “There are a lot of hats,” Feldstein told us, laughing. “Playing this role really made me feel brave. ... I went so deeply outside of my comfort zone. Anytime I got really scared, I would think about Caitlin and how she gave the character permission to make these beautiful mistakes, and push my own boundaries.” Having that experience will come in handy for Feldstein’s next big showcase, which will also exists outside her comfort zone. The actress will play Monica Lewinsky in the upcoming FX series American Crime Story: Impeachment. Feldstein hadn’t met Lewinsky when she spoke with us, but she described herself as “deeply, deeply excited” for that first encounter. “I truly cannot wait to start that journey with her and Ryan. With this crazy ride I’ve been on, I like to take it one day at a time.”

Harriet is latest biopic that doesn't live up to its lead performance

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

How many biopics have we seen in recent years with excellent lead performances that far outshine the films themselves? Think Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar and Chadwick Boseman as pretty much any of the real-life characters he's played. Harriet, unfortunately, is the latest example. Tony winner and 2018 movie breakout Cynthia Erivo delivers a predictably audacious and deep-cutting performance as celebrated Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman, but the film itself is flat and lifeless, and lacks much of the style and suspense of other films we've seen in recent years, like 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation, which tackled similar subject matter.

Knives Out is bloody great fun

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

Inspired by equal parts Agatha Christie and the movie version of Clue, Rian Johnson’s comedy-laced mystery instantly emerged as one of TIFF’s big crowdpleasers. We wouldn’t dream of spoiling the various twists and turns before the movie’s Nov. 27 release: suffice to say that we want this movie to be a Last Jedi-sized hit so that Johnson can deliver on his promise of making an entire franchise starring Daniel Craig’s hilarious Southern-fried sleuth.

Moves are too damn long

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in 'The Goldfinch' (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy TIFF)

One thing you tend to pay special extra attention to while on the ground covering film festivals: movie runtimes. The shorter a film, the more likely you'll be able to make other screenings that follow it. And for whatever reason, films seemed to run extra-long this year in Toronto. It's especially noticeable with a bad film. The Goldfinch was a treasured novel, but the film wears thin long before its 149 minutes expires. Even some of the good movies felt too long at times. Ford v Ferrari is a whopping 155 minutes, while Marriage Story, Just Mercy, Waves, Uncut Gems and Parasite all stretch at least 130 minutes.

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