Taika Waititi's anti-hate satire "Jojo Rabbit" won over moviegoers upon its debut at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, claiming its coveted TIFF Grolsch People's Choice Award, an accolade that has affirmed its status as a major Oscar contender. While I think it is way too early to start playing the "Oscar Guessing Game," it must be noted that several films that have won the TIFF audience award in recent years have gone on to garner Oscar nominations or wins such as "Green Book" (2018), "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017), "La La Land" (2016), "Room" (2015), "The Imitation Game" (2014), "12 Years a Slave" (2013) and "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), "The King's Speech" (2010), "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire" (2009) and "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008).
Though critics, including our own, were divided on "Jojo Rabbit", Waititi's evisceration of prejudice and his touching portrait of human connection between people of different religions is timely and may just serve as a cautionary tale to younger audiences about the horrors of intolerance. Newcomer Roman Griffith Davis stars as the titular boy in WWII-era Germany whose imaginary friend takes the form of Adolph Hitler (played with irreverence by Waititi). Jojo's idolization of Nazis starts to shift once he befriends a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, "Leave No Trace"), hiding in his attic. Are we ready for a buffoonish caricature of Hitler, some are asking? Waititi carries it off with as much verve and humor as can be expected. He is a comedian, after all, and his New Zealand take on many serious situations in the world is twisted in the style of an auteurist who has an original point of view.
In Roger's three-and-a-half-star review of Waititi's 2010 feature, "Boy," he recognized the filmmaker's comedic chops as well as his ability to stare with a clear gaze at challenges facing young men growing up in a Maori community. After earning an Oscar nomination for his short film, "Two Cars, One Night," Waititi has gone on to emerge as the 21st century successor to Mel Brooks with his uproarious and disarmingly sweet comedies, "What We Do in the Shadows" and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," making him a natural fit for a "Springtime for Hitler"-esque satire. He relishes in filtering American pop culture through his inventive and distinctively New Zealand-influenced sensibility, and his mainstream mega-hit, "Thor: Ragnarok," is no exception. He also made an appearance earlier this year in the top-grossing film worldwide, "Avengers: Endgame," and will soon be writing and directing "Thor: Love and Thunder."
Earlier in the festival, I was joined by the Oscar-winning director, Guillermo del Toro, in presenting Waititi with both the Ebert Director Award and the TIFF Tribute Award at the festival's inaugural TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9th. True to form, when Taika took to the stage, he immediately deflected all of the attention being paid to him with humor. He used his Ebert Golden Thumb award and the TIFF award like Lego building blocks, piling one on top of the other. He read from Meryl Streep's speech instead of his own, before he began flipping the microphone up and down, and then mumbled a story about growing up in a small town in New Zealand where he had to be careful about not dating a relative accidentally. He was hilarious in a Robin Williams-ish way. And now he also has the TIFF audience award as a prize.
I will remember that night not only for Taika's performance, however, but for one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me onstage. Earlier in the evening when David Foster was receiving an award, instead of a speech, he brought beautiful singers on stage and played the piano while they crooned songs from Whitney Houston, who was a colleague and client of Foster's. So when I gave my speech, I said it would go better if I had David Foster playing the piano in the background. I thought he had left, so when I called him to come up onstage, imagine my surprise when he bounded up the stairs and sat at the piano and began to tap out a tune. It was so light and beautiful and the look he gave me was so generous and encouraging! I proved that I couldn't sing, and he patiently said, "I will play while you speak." And then he did! It was so lovely that I felt we were enveloped in a white light. That is the only way I can describe it. Thank you David Foster for being so kind.
Hosted by TIFF's Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey, and TIFF's newly named Co-Head, Joanna Vicente, the gala combined our accolade, renamed the TIFF Ebert Director Award, with several other honors including the TIFF Tribute Actor Awards, presented to three-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep and three-time Oscar-nominee Joaquin Pheonix; the TIFF Variety Artisan Award to Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins; and the TIFF Special Tribute Award to legendary Canadian hitmaker David Foster. Also honored at the event were Participant Media's founder and chairman Jeff Skoll and CEO David Linde, the 2019 recipients of the TIFF Impact Award. The inaugural Mary Pickford Award, given to an emerging female talent in the industry in celebration of United Artists’ 100th anniversary, went to actress and filmmaker Mati Diop, who recently became the first black female director in competition at Cannes.
"Jojo Rabbit" will arrive in theaters on October 18th. You can watch Taika's full acceptance speech below...