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Here are the breakthrough films that premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival

(L-R) Sheila Atim, Julius Tennon, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and Cathy Schulman in Toronto.
Emma McIntyre
/
Getty Images
(L-R) Sheila Atim, Julius Tennon, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and Cathy Schulman in Toronto.

Harry Styles with a purse. Taylor Swift in gold. Steven Spielberg's love song to his late parents. After two years in the dark, with movie theaters shuttered and studios in existential struggle, the Toronto International Film Festival returned this week with a blockbuster, largely unmasked edition.

Structured as a sprawling public festival with sidebar industry meetings and critic-led buzz, Toronto has become the leading bellwether for the annual award season, where commerce and art converge. This year, though, as opposed to smaller, idiosyncratic and independent cinema that led the way through Covid, it was Hollywood studios and celebrity entourages that led the march back into sold-out cinemas.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Woman King, and a major studio's first gay theatrical romcom Bros made their international debut in Toronto, with full casts in attendance and rapturous audience reactions. Jordan Peele introduced a special IMAX screening of Nope alongside cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to help Universal launch an Oscar campaign for his summer extravaganza.

La La Land director Damien Chazelle took a break from the editing suite to debut the fever dream trailer for his 1920s Hollywood epic, Babylon. But nothing quite shifted the energy and excitement at this year's edition than Steven Spielberg's Toronto debut with The Fabelmans: a wistful, and deeply personal film about his parents' divorce and his filmmaking career as an irreplaceable avenue for catharsis.

Spielberg wasn't alone in his earnest ode to a medium facing a fragile and uncertain future. Hollywood and cinemas themselves are playing a starring role in several of this year's award-season films, in what at felt times like a collective industrial campaign to insist upon cinemas as sacred endangered spaces.

After his Bond films, Sam Mendes returned to his theatrical roots with Empire of Light, a portrait of a movie theatre manager in 1980s England played by Olivia Colman. The director assembled cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create a distinctly big screen portrait of mental health, friendship, and cinema's power to inspire and heal.

Sam Mendes follows his war epic <em>1917 </em>with <em>Empire of Light</em>, a more intimate portrait of a movie theater staff in 1980s England starring Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Michael Ward.
/ Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
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Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Sam Mendes follows his war epic 1917 with Empire of Light, a more intimate portrait of a movie theater staff in 1980s England starring Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Michael Ward.

Current viewing trends may prove otherwise but the studio pictures on screen were big, ambitious, and well-received examples of Hollywood polish.

Despite the festival's insistence on the triumphant return to red carpets and widescreen projection, certain fundamental shifts in the making and distribution of film are impossible to ignore. Streamers Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime threw some of this year's biggest soirees, as they came to Toronto with a roster of splashy documentaries and feature films - from Harry Styles as a closeted English police officer in Amazon's My Policeman to an extraordinary new documentary about Sidney Poitier called Sidney produced by Oprah Winfrey for Apple.

But the biggest coup was certainly Netflix's new Knives Out film, Glass Onion which features Daniel Craig's return as Inspector Benoit Blanc and an ensemble of would-be murderers including Kate Hudson, Ed Norton, and Janelle Monáe. It remains unclear if the film will receive an extended theatrical run before its Netflix premiere but it's bound to be one of the biggest international hits for the streamer when it debuts on December 23.

For cinephiles targeted by fall's more serious entertainments, some of this year's wintry dramas returned to classic award-season themes - war, political exile, repressed desires, and unresolved memories. Added to the mix in this post-Covid edition were several portraits of mental health, including Causeway with Jennifer Lawrence as a returning Afghanistan war veteran with invisible wounds - and Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman as parents of a depressed teenage son in The Son by the French filmmaker Florian Zeller.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras arrived in Toronto directly after winning this year's top prize at the Venice Film Festival for her film All The Beauty and the Bloodshed. It follows acclaimed photographer Nan Goldin's campaign against the Sackler family's institutional relationship with art museums, and is also an intimate portrait of opioid addiction and corporate malfeasance. It is provocative and powerful, and bound to be in contention for the year's best-of lists.

That said, in contrast to all of my previous festivals, this year there seemed to be less emphasis on award season prognostication and argumentative predictions. This was evident in the concurrent coverage of the Emmy Awards on Monday night as several critics took a pause from film screenings to write scathing reviews of the telecast and the Emmys' cultural relevance.

As for the Oscars – the ongoing stories of racial exclusion, nosediving ratings – not to mention this year's 'slap' - have damaged the Academy Awards as a unifying brand and pinnacle for film festival season. In conversations and coverage, there was less focus on likely frontrunners and inevitable Best Pictures. Instead, there was broad excitement for a wide-ranging and high-quality season of new films from across genres and cultures. Queer desire in Pakistan's first international breakout film Joyland debuted alongside the scathing social satire and Palme d'Or winner Triangle of Sadness from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund.

Above all, there was cautious hope that widescreen storytelling on a human scale can survive the onslaught of televised dragons and endless superhero sequels. If Toronto's annual empires of light were any indication, this fall there will be a feast of possibilities.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 16, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, Hoyte van Hoytema's name was written incorrectly as Hoyte Van Hoytema.