As the Toronto International Film Festival nears its halfway point, it’s time to survey the landscape and see which actors and performances have stood out this year.
As usual, there is no shortage of talent on display here in Toronto, where I’ve been mostly impressed with the quality of the films, with the exception of three Paramount movies that failed to deliver on (admittedly) high expectations.
Keep in mind, the list below is comprised solely of performances that I’ve actually seen at this point, and I may do a sequel to this list come Thursday, since we know how much Hollywood loves a good sequel. Anyway, that’s why you won’t find likely future inclusions such as Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) or Christian Bale (Hostiles) on this list.
If you’re here in Toronto, try and seek out some of these, because you may not see finer acting in a movie theater all year. Without further ado, here are the top 15 performances I’ve seen so far in Toronto. Enjoy…
Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name)
The buzz around Chalamet has been building ever since Sundance, culminating with his recent casting in Woody Allen’s next film, as first reported by the Tracking Board. He has three films at TIFF, and while I haven’t seen Hostiles or Lady Bird yet, I’m confident that his turn in Call Me by Your Name will be what he’s remembered for at this year’s fest. He’s excellent as Elio, a young boy who falls for a strapping grad student played by Armie Hammer over the course of one hot summer in Italy. Speaking of whom, poor Armie Hammer! He’s so good in this movie, yet Michael Stuhlbarg comes in at the end and steals his thunder, giving him the best shot at a supporting nomination — presuming Chalamet will campaign as the lead. It’s pretty much because of a single father-son-cigarette scene during the third act — one that will haunt you long after you’ve left the theater. It’s incredible writing, but none of the words would matter if they weren’t delivered with just the right care by Stuhlbarg. Sure, this film could potentially earn two supporting nominations, but maybe, just maybe, this is Stuhlbarg’s year.
Margot Robbie and Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Coming into Toronto, everyone knew that the role of Tonya Harding would be a major test for Margot Robbie as an actress, not just a movie star. Well, I’m relieved to report that she aced it, and if this were a figure skating competition, I’d give her a 5.9, even though she doesn’t really look anything like Harding. Believe me, that’s neither here nor there, especially because Allison Janney more than makes up for it by looking like the spitting image of Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden. Sales reps for I, Tonya are pushing for a 2017 release and a major awards campaign, so it’s totally plausible that we could see Robbie crack the field this year. But Janney? She’s a shoo-in. Her work in this film is undeniable, maybe even too good, since she’s the character you leave talking about. Bravo!
Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer)
This up-and-coming Irish actor made a good impression on me in Dunkirk, but nothing could prepare me for his quietly mesmerizing turn in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This is a movie in which all the actors read their lines in a monotonous tone that some may find off-putting, especially if they’ve heard Colin Farrell or Nicole Kidman speak before. But with Keoghan, it manages to sound natural because we’re not as familiar with his speech patterns. His character Martin speaks in a matter-of-fact kind of way, never raising his voice, which is very steady… and frankly, creepy as fuck. The way Keoghan makes us question whether he’s a wolf in sheep’s closing or a genuine victim is impressive, and I think this movie is going to get him a lot more work. He follows me on Twitter, so I guess I have a fan in him, and now he has a fan in me.
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project)
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a wondrous coming-of-age story about a little girl growing up at a motel managed by Willem Dafoe, who gives one of his all-time best performances here. Why is it so good? Because it’s a different kind of role for the actor, who normally plays eccentric villains and other crazy people, from Platoon to Spider-Man to Antichrist. But in The Florida Project, he’s projects a certain softness, and his interactions with young Brooklynn Prince are as heartwarming as they are hilarious. Because for Dafoe’s character, Bobby, you know his tenants are like his family. He claims not to care about them, but you can tell he does care… at least about the tenants we see, including Moonee’s mother, played by Prince’s fellow impressive newcomer, Bria Vinaite. Meanwhile, it’s rare to see such a strong child performance, and this is right up there with the best since Quvenzhané Wallis earned an Oscar nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film’s final close-up of Prince, tears streaming down her tiny face, is absolutely heartbreaking, and the young actress does a wonderful job of selling that all-important moment when the facade of childhood is knocked down. That moment when you learn that bad things can and do happen in this world, and pain is a just an unfortunate part of life.
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game)
Jessica Chastain speaking dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin is a recipe for success, as the actress has always conveyed a fierce intelligence that makes her a strong match for his rapid-fire material. Chastain rises to the occasion, while Elba goes toe-to-toe with her whenever he’s given the opportunity. He only gets two scenes to really shine as Molly Bloom’s lawyer, but shine he does, and this is probably the star’s best performance on the big screen alongside Beasts of No Nation. Will his performance be shiny enough for Oscar? Only time will tell, but for now, congratulations on a job well done are certainly in order.
Calum Worthy (Bodied)
Who knew the “kid” from Bodied had close to a million Twitter followers? I pride myself on knowing young actors and up-and-coming talent, but I’ll admit, Worthy was a major blindspot. I know he’s a former Disney Channel star, but I didn’t see him coming, just like you never see his character Adam coming in Bodied. I swear, 10 minutes into this film, I thought Kahn had miscast his lead, having already presumed to know what Adam’s function in the story would be — the squeaky-clean reporter (i.e. grad student) who falls in with this rowdy crowd and starts to like his new world. Except it turns out that I was just grafting the story of Almost Famous onto Bodied because Worthy reminded me of Patrick Fugit. No, this isn’t a movie that comes down to the big thesis at the end. It says fuck that thesis, it’s time to stop telling other people’s stories and start writing your own. Worthy’s transformation from battle rap student to master is impressive, especially when he gets that crazy look in his eye and starts to get straight-up mean. 15 years ago, DJ Qualls would’ve starred in Bodied, and it would’ve been off like a joke. Worthy sells the anger and pain though, and he makes you take this midnight movie seriously. Let’s hope buyers do too…
John Malkovich and Charlie Day (I Love You, Daddy)
I’m not trying to overlook the great Edie Falco and Pamela Adlon, as both of them are major scene-stealers here, I just love what Malkovich and Day do with their roles. To be honest, it was almost unclear what Day’s role was. I surmised that he was playing a TV actor, but he kind of came off like the Jeff Garlin to Louis CK’s Larry David. He was always just kinda there, yelling “speakerphone, speakerphone” or explaining Mother, May I? or fake masturbating. And for what that’s worth, I thought he was great! There’s no one who my mother tells me I look like who I’d rather watch fake masturbate than Charlie Day. And that is the genius of his performance, if you will. Then there’s Malkovich, getting back to his old Malkovich self with this delicious turn as a famous filmmaker who may or may not enjoy sleeping with minors. Malkovich walks a fine line here, because he keeps you guessing about his character — is he a nice guy, or is he a perv? Whatever you think about Woody Allen may inform your take…
Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier (Downsizing)
I wasn’t a big fan of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, but the movie got around 10 times better whenever Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier were onscreen. They’re the only two actors who look like they’re having any fun here! Maybe that’s because they’re playing rich playboys and get some choice lines, leaving Matt Damon to play the boring square. If only these guys were the leads! I’d totally watch a spinoff featuring these characters. Paging Wes Anderson…
Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!)
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is another movie that I didn’t really care for, but despite my feelings about the film, I have to give Michelle Pfeiffer some props, because she plays her part to perfection here. What that part is, I don’t want to say, but she gave me the heebie-jeebies (outdated phrase alert!) and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck each time she came onscreen. Maybe that’s because she looks almost supernaturally ageless. Jennifer Lawrence should be so lucky when she’s 59…
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief