Celebrating cinema in an empty theatre

Plus an Uncultured exclusive: the official movie night cocktail

The Toronto Film Critics Association awards are one of the many signposts on the road to the Oscars. This year, that road is shrouded in fog, slicked with sleet and surrounded by billboards telling motorists to stay home.

But the shows, all of them, must go on — in some form or another. You may have seen the recent live Golden Globes gala, a glitch-ridden shadow of its usual louche self.

The Oscars themselves have been delayed two months, until April 25, and no host has yet been announced. The nominations, plucked from a year mostly lacking in tentpoles, blockbusters, sleeper hits or even indie darlings, are due to be announced on March 15.

Toronto’s modest critics gala may actually be improved this year by the fact that movie talent is spending a lot more time at home: there’s been a record number of acceptance videos submitted by the category winners, says TFCA president Peter Howell.

What’s happening this year with prize galas, including Toronto’s, is a function of what the movie industry itself has had to endure this past year: delays, cancellations, adapting on the fly to changing COVID-19 protocols and lockdowns.

But the biggest shift has to be the wholesale acceptance of streaming services as the default platform for feature premieres.

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Not too long ago, a movie that fast-tracked to Netflix after its theatrical premiere was cause for controversy. Now the theatrical premiere is skipped altogether, and it’s still eligible for Best Picture consideration. What a difference a pandemic makes.

So on Tuesday, the TFCA’s 24th annual gala, normally held in a luxe ballroom at the Four Seasons or the Carlu, will, like everything else, be a streaming event. To celebrate a medium designed to be experienced on a big screen in full auditoriums, the city’s critical mass gathered at a mostly empty one.

“It made me feel sad and excited at the same time,” says Howell, longtime critic (and my former colleague) at the Toronto Star, of finally stepping into a theatre again last month. Segments from Tuesday’s awards show were pre-recorded at the recently refurbished Paradise Theatre on Bloor St. West.

“The ceremony was mostly pre-taped,” said Howell in an email, “for the simple reason that we couldn’t all get together because you-know-why.”

Eleven masked critics gathered at the theatre on Feb. 21 to record “socially distanced ‘Siskel and Ebert’ bits” about the prize nominees, Howell says. Then last week, Lainey Lui and Kathleen Newman-Bremang went to record their hosting segments.

“For the grand finale, we will go live at the end of the show for the big reveal of the winner of the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award.” You can stream the nominees for a fee: Anne at 13,000 Ft.; And the Birds Rained Down; and White Lie.

The gala, streaming Tuesday at 8 p.m. at torontofilmcritics.com, will be preceded by an invitation-only “virtual cocktail party.” Follow the recipe below and raise a toast to a time (next year!?) when we’ll all be schmoozing, and watching movies, with live people again.

The official drink of movie night

Toronto bartender Lisa Bell of Annette Food Market in the Junction offers this twist on the classic French 75 as the official cocktail of the 2021 TFCA Gala. It takes its name from the Paradise Theatre, owned by Moray Tawse, who donated the space for shooting much of Tuesday's event.

Ticket to Paradise

2½ oz Tawse Spark sparkling wine

1 oz Tawse Gin

1 oz freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

½ oz Aperol

¼ oz thyme-infused simple syrup1

2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients except the sparkling wine in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake briskly until tin is chilled, and strain into a champagne flute. Top with the sparkling wine and garnish with a sprig of thyme.

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*thyme-infused simple syrup: In a saucepan, combine 1 cup white sugar, 1 cup water, and 10 or so springs of thyme. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat. Let simmer for ten minutes, let cool and strain out thyme. This should keep for at least a week if refrigerated.