Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Significance Of The TIFF People’s Choice Award

The Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, is not an official competition for film awards. While a jury is assembled each year to decide the best Canadian films of the festival, the rest of the selection has no equivalent to Cannes’ Palme d’Or or Venice’s Golden Lion awards. Instead, there is the People’s Choice Award, where the audience is invited to vote for their favorite movie of the festival, with one winner and two runners-up. Although there are equivalent categories for documentaries and Midnight Madness, it’s the main award that attracts the most attention – and if you frequent Next Best Picture, you can probably guess why.

Just as TIFF has become a prime launchpad for awards season, its People’s Choice Award is seen as an important precursor for the Oscars. Toronto, after all, is the biggest film festival in the world: the number of movies “in competition” for the People’s Choice Award in a given year is over twice the size of the average competition slate at Cannes. While usually eclectic, the program offers plenty of broadly approachable fare, more in line with a general audience’s taste than what you might find at the Berlin International Film Festival, for example. And with thousands of voters, the award is often a sign of what films might have passion in the coming Oscars race. Here are the winners and runners-up over the last ten years…

2022: 1. The Fabelmans 2. Women Talking 3. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
2021: 1. Belfast 2. Scarborough 3. The Power Of The Dog
2020: 1. Nomadland 2. One Night In Miami… 3. Beans
2019: 1. Jojo Rabbit 2. Marriage Story 3. Parasite
2018: 1. Green Book 2. If Beale Street Could Talk 3. Roma
2017: 1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 2. I, Tonya 3. Call Me By Your Name
2016: 1. La La Land 2. Lion 3. Queen Of Katwe
2015: 1. Room 2. Angry Indian Goddesses 3. Spotlight
2014: 1. The Imitation Game 2. Learning To Drive 3. St. Vincent
2013: 1. 12 Years A Slave 2. Philomena 3. Prisoners

Most often, the People’s Choice Award winner is a crowd-pleaser. That may sound obvious, but a movie that happens to please crowds is not necessarily a crowd-pleaser. A crowd-pleaser is the kind of feel-good, middlebrow film that is catnip to parents, grandparents, and less adventurous Oscar voters alike. While neither formally inventive nor narratively surprising, they hit the necessary beats well enough to achieve the desired effect. There is enough comedy to keep audiences engaged and enough drama to remind audiences of what’s really important to the story being told. The monologues are stirring; the score is tasteful; the ending is happy or on the sweet end of bittersweet. Crowd-pleasing films that have won the People’s Choice Award include “Belfast,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “The Imitation Game” and the Best Picture-winning “Green Book.” Along with “Green Book,” past winners that went on to receive the Oscar for Best Picture include “Nomadland” and “12 Years A Slave.” Best Picture winners that were runners up in the category include “Parasite” and “Spotlight.” 

With that said, not every People’s Choice Award winner is a crowd-pleaser; this is a film festival, after all, and even attendees with populist tastes are likely to be more adventurous than, say, your mom. The prize has gone to movies as prickly as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2017, as downbeat as “Nomadland” in 2020, and as harrowing as “12 Years A Slave” in 2013. In 2007, the People’s Choice Award went to “Eastern Promises” – a film featuring the Russian mob, human trafficking, and a naked, knife-wielding Viggo Mortensen absolutely wrecking some dudes in a bathhouse – just ahead of the warm indie comedy “Juno.” As with the Academy, the TIFF audience likes to zig when you expect them to zag.

So, what will win the top prize this year? By now, the bloom is fully off the rose for “Next Goal Wins.” Taika Waititi’s long-delayed underdog sports movie appeared TIFF-bound since 2020, and now that it’s finally here, we have a film with lukewarm defenders and passionate detractors. The consensus shifted towards “The Holdovers” by Alexander Payne sometime before the festival, and now that it’s premiered, it seems the consensus was bang on: the ’70s-set Christmas story featuring Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph has received praise that ranges from “warm” to “glowing.” It appears to be precisely the kind of finely crafted, sweet-but-not-sappy film that represents the crowd-pleaser at its very best. However, TIFF’s decision to program it later in the festival after most audiences have already headed home may cost it the win.

So, what else could TIFF anoint as a potential Oscar player? It all depends on how basic the voters feel. If they’re in the mood for a broad crowd-pleasing biopic, they could vote for “Nyad” or “Rustin” and make Netflix’s priorities a little more clear. However, like “The Holdovers,” these films were scheduled later in the festival, a supposed punishment set forth due to them choosing to world premiere at Telluride before TIFF.

What about the films that had their world premieres at TIFF and, thus, were scheduled earlier in the festival with more public showings? As hard as Kate Winslet tried with her well-received performance, the reception for “Lee” was considerably muted. If a soul-soothing movie is what they’re in the mood for, “Sing Sing” could scratch that itch. Perhaps the situation calls for a nuclear-grade tear-jerker, in which case, either “One Life” or “His Three Daughters” would do nicely, with the former being more conventionally Oscar-friendly and the latter regarded as an incredibly effective chamber piece. “American Fiction” could also place given its brilliant screenplay and likable performance from Jeffrey Wright.

In the end, two films appear to be the most likely in competition with “The Holdovers” for the top prize. And while they didn’t have their world premieres at TIFF, they might as well have, considering the glowing response audiences showered upon both of them. The first is “Hit Man,” Richard Linklater’s action-rom-com starring Glen Powell, which somehow surpassed its already-enthusiastic premiere out of competition at Venice. It’s not a crowd-pleaser per se – it’s less concerned with uplift and more concerned with a crackerjack good time – but if reactions are any indication, it pleased the hell out of every crowd it faced. The second is “The Boy and the Heron,” the opening night film and hottest ticket of this year’s festival. Even though it’s apparently no longer Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the occasion prompted an outpouring of appreciation for one of the greatest filmmakers ever, which may carry over into the voting. Then again, the heavy questions posed by the film – how do we live in a hostile world such as this and keep our souls intact? – it might just make something like the TIFF People’s Choice Award feel altogether frivolous.

What do you think will win the TIFF People’s Choice Award based on the feedback you heard from the films screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival? Whatever it is, expect that film to instantly solidify itself as a possible Best Picture nominee as the category hasn’t missed its winner making the lineup since 2011 with “Where Do We Go Now?.” In fact, since the expanded era for Best Picture, that’s the only TIFF People’s Choice Award winner not to receive a Best Picture nomination. Will the streak extend this year, or will Nadine Labaki‘s film finally have some new company? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Joe and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @HoeffnerJoe

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