They should print T-shirts that read: “I Survived TIFF 2019.”

Thirty-five films watched and reviewed during a maddening nine days. Arguably the largest film festival in the world, The Toronto International Film Festival encompasses the breakout films from Sundance, the highlights from Cannes as well as their own slew of world premieres. TIFF is important in the award race because many of the eventual best picture Oscar nominees will debut in Toronto first. Last year, “Green Book” won the audience award at TIFF and went on to win the Oscar for best picture. Nine out of the past 10 years, the TIFF audience winner has been a best picture nominee and or winner.

Taika Waititi’s controversial “JoJo Rabbit” took the audience award this year, the one film few were predicting. I gave the Nazi farce flick co-starring Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell a B-, because it’s message of equality and respect does shine through the creative screenplay by the end. It’s a rather ludicrous coming of age story where a 10-year-old has Hitler as an imaginary friend. The runner up, another Johansson film, Noah Baumbach’s very personal “Marriage Story.” Chronicling his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, the drama which will debut in theaters and then on Netflix will earn Johansson her first Oscar nomination. Adam Driver however, gives the performance of the year and is one of two best actor front runners already. “Marriage Story” will land on most critics’ top 10 lists come year’s end, including mine at this point.

The film I was most impressed with this year, “The Personal Life of David Copperfield.” There are few movies that can land a genuine smile on your face. I’m talking pure unfiltered joy coming from the creativity beaming on screen. A sprawling retelling of Charles Dickens novel with the most diverse casting you will find anywhere. Dev Patel is Copperfield along with Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie and Ben Whishaw filling out the cast. “Copperfield” will have it’s best chance at awards with production design, costumes and maybe adapted screenplay. Another film also full of adventure is “The Aeronauts” reuniting co-stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne from “The Theory of Everything.” The soaring air balloon adventure will leave you gasping for breath, boasting some of the most naturalistic special effects of the year.

Perhaps the most divisive film at TIFF this year was “Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix. Sold out screenings and news of the Todd Phillips film landing the surprising Venice Film Festival top award, the Golden Lion, had audiences and critics alike discussing the violence and dark nature of the movie, but also its spectacular production design. “Joker” exists both as an off shoot of the “Batman” mythology or can work entirely on it’s own as a film about mental illness. The social media buzz was at all-time highs, calling it the most violent, disturbing film of the year. It’s not (those people clearly need to see more movies), and with managed expectations, “Joker” is one of the more unique and visionary films at the festival. Warner Bros. will push the film into award conversations, as Phoenix will directly challenge Adam Driver for a best actor Oscar win.

Other favorite films from TIFF included Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” a surefire nominee for the Oscars newly renamed Best International Film award. Antonio Banderas could crack the best actor five with his stirring performance. Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville give duel Oscar worthy performances in “Ordinary Love,” the underplayed surprise of the festival and the last film I saw before heading back to Galveston. Adam Driver’s other film “The Report” is an investigative powerhouse drama where Annette Benning plays Dianne Feinstein, likely to earn her a supporting actress nomination. Finally, the well-written “The Two Popes” is surprisingly touching and funny. Anthony Hopkins is Pope Benedict, while Jonathan Pryce takes the lead as Pope Francis, another pair of likely nominees.

I did make time to sit down with Texan Renee Zellweger promoting her new film “Judy” where she transforms into the late Judy Garland. A big fan of the “Chicago” and “Cold Mountain” star, I asked if previous roles helped prepare for “Judy.” “I would guess that the other experience, the experience of living with a public persona over that period of time might have been the most helpful in telling this particular story.”

Zellweger inhabits “The Wizard of Oz” icon near the end of he life, broke, separated from her children, and reluctantly performing on a sold out London stage. Zellweger received a rousing standing ovation during the “Judy” premiere, bringing her to visable tears. “It was immersive in a way that felt different from all the other films,” she said. “There’s a big difference between the woman who stands on stage and what she shares with the world. And what she keeps for herself, her private experiences when she goes home at night”. Singing, dancing, and her transformational performance might take her over the rainbow to a second Academy Award. Very proud of her Texas roots, before our interview ended she got “Hook ’em Horns!” and “Go ‘Stros!” in there.

The films at the bottom of my list began with “Hustlers,” the Jennifer Lopez flick about strippers inadvertently exacting revenge on Wall Street by drugging clients. It felt more like an extended music video than a narrative feature. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” from France was a sleep inducing. Disappointments included “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” where Tom Hanks does an impersonation of Mr. Rogers. The movie focuses on an Esquire Magazine journalist profiling him, a dull performance from Matthew Rhys. “Ford v Ferrari” drove into the festival with high anticipation. Matt Damon gives a questionable performance as a Texan but neither he or Christian Bale cross the finish line on this one. The last one worth mentioning is “Lucy in the Sky” starring Natalie Portman, based on the NASA Astronaut who wore a diaper and chased a fellow astronauts cross country with rope and madness. Sadly, this film alters the facts that made it movie-worthy in the first place, resulting in an overly complicated drama that omits the very elements that made it newsworthy.

You can find all 35 reviewed films at texasartfilm.net and read them right here in The Daily News as they are released in theaters over the course of the next four months.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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