Ferocious. An adjective. From the Latin "ferox," meaning "wild" or "bold."
Festival. A noun. From the Latin "festivalis," meaning "joyous" or "pleasing."
Indeed, ferocity swept into the Great White North this week as wild, bold choices from artists, most of them women, blew down the doors of the Toronto International Film Festival, 2018 edition. To be sure, more than a few of the films have been joyous and pleasing, but a new era of ferocious storytelling has most certainly begun. And these new stories written by, directed by, produced by and/or starring women are pushing aside any well-intentioned platitudes or hashtag-labeled movements that have heretofore just appeased. For the record, there are plenty of male filmmakers in the mix as well, and I don't expect their numbers to change any time soon. But the best of them have chosen to use new voices in order to speak to a wider, more diverse audience. Make no mistake, the tide is rising. I can testify because I've personally seen the watermarks in TIFF's opening week.
People's Exhibit No. 1: Viola Davis, whose talent might best be measured on the Richter scale.
"In our film, we tell the story of women who were absolutely catapulted together," said Davis, enthusing over her new film, Widows, which set TIFF afire in its opening weekend. "This film is a terrific metaphor... a metaphor for how we're forced into change, often kicking and screaming."
Widows is that rare film that will soon have many people asking one another, "Have you seen it yet? Is it as good as they say it is?" The only answers are "Yes" and "Yes."
The film is a dazzler, certain to be a box office and critical smash. And it's not merely that director Steve McQueen has pushed in all of his chips from his Oscar-winning success, 2013's 12 Years a Slave (Widows is McQueen's first project since that win), to craft a #MeToo-era spin on a big-budget heist drama. Yes, he has checked all of those boxes, but Widows is so much more, redefining the crime genre and even surpassing 2007's The Departed, the last film of this ilk to take home the Best Picture Oscar. The script was co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) and the cast includes Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson. But Davis is the center of its hurricane.
Exhibit No. 2: The force of nature that is Lady Gaga.
"I wanted to give everything I had to this film. All my fear, all my shame, all my love, all my kindness," said Gaga at the red carpet premiere of TIFF's most-buzzed title, A Star Is Born. "And when I see myself in this film now, I see so much of myself when I was a little girl. But let me tell you, little Stefani [Germanotta, Gaga's given name] is quite humble tonight."
A Star Is Born, directed and co-starring Bradley Cooper, pulled off a minor miracle by defying expectations that stretch all the way back to the 1930s, when the first A Star Is Born was produced (this is the fourth iteration). Despite the audience knowing exactly where the story is heading, this new film is a blast of energy. Gaga will take your breath away, and then steal a few of your tears, for good measure. The only real question here is: Will the Motion Picture Academy nominate her as Lady Gaga or Stefani Germanotta (the name used in the film's end titles). In either case, I'd be happy to bet that will be the name inside the envelope for the Best Actress Oscar.
Exhibit No. 3: The versatility of Melissa McCarthy
The worst quicksand any actor can be pushed into is the muck that traps her or him with the "comic" actor label. Simply put, good luck being taken seriously in a heavy drama. But Melissa McCarthy—who is quite possibly the funniest woman on film nowadays—is a glorious exception. Her dramatic performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a masterclass.
"Honestly, I don't approach a character any differently in a comedy than a drama," she said just prior to her film's TIFF red carpet premiere. "A good story is a good story."
One minor correction for McCarthy: Her film tells a great story. Based on a memoir from bestselling biographer Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? chronicles Israel's stunning fall from grace when, after her writing career had dried up, she began selling fake letters that she had forged. In them, Israel pretended to be famous departed authors like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. The film is fabulous and McCarthy is heartbreaking. It's her best work yet.
There are many more films at this year's TIFF showcasing women at their best, including Judi Dench (Red Joan), Keira Knightley (Colette), Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell) and Hilary Swank (What They Had). Look for all of our reports, and continued dispatches as TIFF enters its second week, at boiseweekly.com.