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9 movie performances people will be talking about this fall

This year’s standout TIFF performances include two Best Actress frontrunners, a future “it” girl, and a tiny child.

With more than 350 movies screening over just 11 days, it’s easy for a film or performance to get lost at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s impossible to even see a quarter of the slate, whether you’re a member of the press or one of the TIFF faithful who try to fit in up to four films a day. That’s one reason Toronto has become more of a “catch up” festival of proven prestige movies that have already earned kudos at early festivals such as Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. You see what you can and catch the rest down the road.

Every so often, however, a performance will be so noteworthy it breaks through the constant stream of red carpet reports.

Case in point, two years ago Eddie Redmayne proved he was truly a talent to be reckoned with in the “this isn’t the biopic we thought it was” drama The Theory of Everything. That same festival, Julianne Moore delivered an iconic turn in Still Alice, a film most critics and media assumed wasn’t a priority because of its subject matter. (I was one of just five critics who attended the world premiere.) Redmayne and Moore went on to win the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars that February.

But TIFF buzz isn’t just about golden statues. Ten years ago, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan rocked Toronto and transformed Sacha Baron Cohen from a well-known comedian in the UK to a global superstar. Talent does rise to the top, even at an event with so many movies.

The 2016 edition of TIFF only featured a smattering of impressive world premieres — including Lion, Sing, and Lady Macbeth — but there were at least nine great performances worthy of recognition beyond the fest. So, with that in mind, we present our awards for some breakout performances from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

She’s Got The Range Award: Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Hidden Figures)

Janelle Monae in Moonlight
Janelle Monáe plays Teresa, the girlfriend of a Miami drug dealer, in Moonlight.

Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe has always been a charismatic figure during her live performances and music videos, but whether that charisma translates to acting was an open question. After TIFF, though, the verdict is a resounding, “Yes, it does.”

In Barry Jenkins’s masterpiece Moonlight, Monáe plays Teresa, the girlfriend of a Miami drug dealer who has taken a shine to Chiron, a young boy whose mother is becoming more and more negligent because of her drug addiction. It’s a key role in Moonlight, as Teresa is a steadying figure during two stages of Chiron’s life.

Additionally, the promising Hidden Figures only screened about 20 minutes of finished footage, but Monáe’s portrayal of real-life NASA employee Mary Jackson was a standout. Co-stars Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson may get most of the attention when the final film comes out, but Monáe is going to be who moviegoers remember when they walk out of the theater.

2018’s Magazine “It” Girl Award: Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth)

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth
Florence Pugh plays a teenage bride named Katherine in Lady Macbeth.

Based on Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, William Oldroyd’s feature directorial debut Lady Macbeth finds young English actress Florence Pugh as a teenage bride basically forced into marriage with an uncaring older man. Pugh is simply transcendent in a dramatic role that is full of wonderfully dark humor and wry manipulation.

Like Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, this is the sort of role that will put Pugh on the casting sheets for every indie director from London to Los Angeles, and perhaps a few studio flicks as well. A year and a half from now you’ll find her positioned as the new “it” girl on the cover of every fashion magazine she agrees to appear on. Just you wait and see.

This Year’s Best Actress Frontrunner, Pt. 1: Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy
Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy has her positioned as an Oscar frontrunner.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Make no mistake, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of former first lady Jackie Kennedy during the days before and after President Kennedy’s assassination is simply the best thing she’s ever done. It’s a fully formed performance that dominates every frame she’s in and screams of a career achievement. It also suggests Portman could be in line for another Academy Award, except…

This Year’s Best Actress Frontrunner, Pt. 2: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Emma Stone stars as Mia in La La Land
Emma Stone is the best she’s ever been as aspiring actress Mia in the musical La La Land.
Dale Robinette

Sure, she sings and dances up a storm in Damien Chazelle’s enchanting musical, but Emma Stone has simply never been this good before, in a musical or otherwise. As Mia, she’s playing a character bordering on cliché: the small-town girl hoping to make it as an actress in Hollywood. But Stone infuses Mia with a passion that’s incredibly realistic, even with all the fantastic musical numbers going on around her. You’ll immediately believe she’s a lock for Best Actress, until you see the aforementioned Ms. Portman. Take a deep breath and realize this may be an Oscar race for the ages.

Every Performance Gets Better Award: Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Michael Shannon (right) co-stars in Nocturnal Animals, one of eight films he appears in this year alone.
Focus Features

Unexpectedly, Michael Shannon is slowly becoming the next Samuel L. Jackson, in that he never seems to stop working. He’s already appeared in eight different movies that hit theaters or debuted at festivals this year, and we’re not even counting his corpse cameo in Batman v Superman.

Shannon has been fantastic this year in Midnight Special and Frank and Lola, but it’s his role as West Texas police detective Bobby Andes in Tom Ford’s thriller Nocturnal Animals that will really turn heads. We won’t spoil the reason why Andes becomes a man with nothing to lose, but Shannon gives him a heartbreaking intensity that makes him the center of attention in scenes with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jake Gyllenhaal, who are also at the top of their game and have much louder characters. For fans of the Mud and Boardwalk Empire star, this is an example of peak Shannon.

So Happy To See Your Face Award: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe)

Lupita Nyong'o in Queen of Katwe
Lupita Nyong’o returns to live-action (finally!) in Queen of Katwe, the story of an Ugandan chess prodigy.
Walt Disney Pictures

It’s been over two years since Lupita Nyong’o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, and in that time she’s appeared in just two films, both of them motion capture roles (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book). While there were some behind-the-scenes circumstances that led to that strange career turn, it’s a joy to see Nyong’o as a living, breathing character in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe.

Nyong’o plays Nakku Harriet, the mother of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), a young woman from the slums of Uganda who became the nation’s foremost chess prodigy. Katwe is Phiona’s story, but the second half mostly focuses on how her newfound fame and experiences traveling across the continent and to Europe dramatically change her relationship with her family.

Nyong’o is superb here, and if anything it’s frustrating that we’ve had to wait so long to see her her incredible talents on proper display again. (Note: While she’ll eventually appear as a “real” character in 2018’s Black Panther, the only other film on Nyong’o’s upcoming slate is a return to mo-cap with Star Wars: Episode VIII over a year from now. There is something very troubling about that.)

Give This Woman More Movie Roles Please Award: Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon)

Gina Rodriguez in Deepwater Horizon
Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez delivers the most grounded, emotional performance in Peter Berg’s disaster movie Deepwater Horizon.

Newsflash: There is much more to Gina Rodriguez’s talents than Jane the Virgin. In Peter Berg’s upcoming disaster movie Deepwater Horizon, the 32-year-old Golden Globe winner plays Andrea Fleytas, a crew member on the mobile oil-drilling rig that exploded into flames on April 20, 2010. While Berg often diverts too much attention to the bombast of the tragedy itself, somehow through the fireballs and falling debris, Rodriguez delivers the most grounded performance in the picture. So much so that at a pivotal point toward the end of the film, when Andrea refuses to jump off the ship to save herself during the evacuation, your heart breaks at her visceral fear.

As with Nyong’o, we simply need to see more of Rodriguez on the big screen. The good news is that she’s already wrapped a major role in Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina, Annihilation. Apologies in advance if we demand even more.

This Movie Would Not Work Without You Award: Sunny Pawar (Lion)

Sunny Pawar
Sunny Pawar plays the 5-year-old version of Dev Patel’s character, Saroo, in Lion.
The Weinstein Company

A tip of that hat goes to Lion director Garth Davis, but youngster Sunny Pawar delivers a child-actor performance for the ages as Saroo, an Indian boy who finds himself thousands of miles from home after mistakenly playing on a train traveling across the country. As 5-year-old Saroo, the first-time actor simply radiates undeniable talent on screen.

Sure, much of Pawar’s performance was shaped by Davis and his editor, Alexandre de Franceschi, but some of the things Pawar depicts on camera would be difficult for actors three times his age to convey. A very impressive Dev Patel plays an adult Saroo and dominates the second half of the picture. However, without Pawar in the first half, you simply wouldn’t care.

You’d Never Guess This Guy Was Supposed To Be The Next Transformers Franchise Star Award: Jack Reynor (Free Fire)

Jack Reynor in Transformers Age of Extinction
There are no stills of Jack Reynor in Free Fire, so here he is in Transformers: Age of Extinction, a movie which thankfully did not end up defining Reynor’s career.
Paramount Pictures

Let’s be eternally grateful that Jack Reynor is not returning to the Transformers franchise. After getting a whiff of global fame in the Michael Bay monstrosity Age of Extinction, Reynor is returning to character roles, and audiences are better for it. He already stole the show earlier this year as the hilariously supportive older brother in Sing Street and now he’s almost unrecognizable in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire.

As Harry, Reynor plays a hothead who ends up being the spark that turns an arms deal into a warehouse firefight. Fire features a large ensemble cast, and while more notable co-stars Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, and Cillian Murphy are all on their game, it’s Reynor who steals the movie. He’s so funny and charismatic that you may find yourself actually rooting for him to get out alive, even though he started the mess in the first place.

Read all of our coverage of this year’s TIFF right here.