TORONTO – The poutine may be warm north of the border, but it’s the films that are really hot this time of year.
Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing with a huge crop of big movies, from the much-anticipated “Joker” and Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" to Taika Waititi’s anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” and the Judy Garland biopic “Judy” with Renee Zellweger.
Between all the screenings, interviews and the occasional coffee, we’re going to be keeping folks up to date with reactions on all the big movies we’re seeing. (And because we like to rank things, we’re doing that, too.)
20. 'The Goldfinch'
The adaptation of Donna Tartt's hefty Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (in theaters Friday) offers some great Roger Deakins cinematography and Jeffrey Wright as a warmhearted father figure. That's about it for the compliments, though. The story of young Theo Decker spans two time periods – one as a boy (Oakes Fegley) who loses his mom in a horrific bombing but nabs a famous painting, the other as a 20-something (Ansel Elgort) with self-medication issues and criminal dealings having to do with the aforementioned artwork. But it's mainly a lost cause of underdeveloped characters, jumbled plot lines, soapy melodrama and bad Russian accents.
19. ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’
Now this is how you get kids into Charles Dickens, with slapstick comedy, a modern sense of humor, endless zingers and Tilda Swinton mad at donkeys. The delightful and often goofy take on the classic Victorian novel has its spunky title character (Dev Patel) tell his charming and embattled story, from having nothing to a little something, rinse and repeat, while interacting with kooky sorts like his aunt Betsey (Swinton), kite-loving and off-kilter chap Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and dog-loving dim love Dora (Morfydd Clark). Director Armando Iannucci’s version is also surprisingly touching, keeping you chuckling while stealthily warming your heart with Master David’s class-breaking shenanigans.
As cultural icon Judy Garland in the twilight of her career – and just months before her death at age 47 – Renee Zellweger gives a transformative, Oscar-ready performance that elevates an otherwise standard biopic (in theaters Sept. 27). The story shifts between the early days of fame for young Judy (Darci Shaw) and the five-week run in London where a broke and ailing Judy tries her hand at a comeback. In the way she looks and marches around, Zellweger strikes an uncanny resemblance to the real-life legend, and the "Chicago" star pulls off songs such as "By Myself" and "Over the Rainbow" with pitch-perfect gusto.
17. ‘Just Mercy’
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s solid legal drama (in select theaters Dec. 25) doesn’t do anything particularly innovative but then again, with this cast and such a rousing, inspirational real-life story, it doesn’t really need to. Michael B. Jordan proves his star power yet again as a young Harvard-school lawyer who heads to Alabama in the late 1980s and helps out death-row inmates such as Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), wrongfully convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. Just when you think it’s predictable, some emotionally brutal scenes keep you hooked into the inequality of the era. Brie Larson gets a meaty role as another legal eagle and Foxx turns in a stellar performance, as does Rob Morgan, playing a troubled war veteran with an execution date.
16. 'A Hidden Life'
Terrence Malick's historical drama (in theaters Dec. 13) is three hours long and probably doesn't need to be, though its main characters certainly have an epic journey of faith and love. Austrian couple Franz (August Diehl) and Franziska Jagerstatter (Valerie Pachner) have their life torn apart when Franz is jailed by the Nazis for being a conscientious objector and not taking Hitler's oath of allegiance. He's tortured for years, and his wife has to tend to their farm and children plus deal with disapproving neighbors. Gorgeous pastoral shots of mountains and sprawling farmland with a dazzling score make it a rich viewing experience, and the lovers' tale will certainly wrench your heart.
15. 'The Climb'
In the slightly dark and refreshing dramedy (in theaters this fall/winter), Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and Mike (Michael Angelo Covino, who also directs) are longtime best friends until Mike reveals he slept with his pal's fiancee. A tragedy brings them back together, and their roller coaster of a relationship goes through various ups and downs over the years as Mike's personal life tanks and Kyle falls for a woman (Gayle Rankin) his family can't stand. There's a fun overall trippiness to the affair – with interludes featuring synchronized skiers and a gospel choir of cemetery caretakers – though it's the bromantic guys' heartfelt and hilarious travails that'll have you rooting for this little gem.
14. 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'
Tom Hanks wears the sweater and inviting smile of Mr. Rogers well in director Marielle Heller's super-sweet and interesting drama (in theaters Nov. 22). A cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) is tasked with writing a profile of Rogers, though it's the iconic kids' TV host who turns the tables and gets the reporter to reveal his own repressed issues. "A Beautiful Day" is very meta in its structure – it's pretty much one long episode of Rogers' TV show – and the comedic vibe at times takes away from the movie's overall poignancy. But the rapport between the two leads is amazing, and Hanks is all charm and heart – just like the real Mr. Rogers.
13. ‘Honey Boy’
We’re in the middle of the Shiassance and for anyone who’s paid attention to Shia LaBeouf’s tumultuous Hollywood career, “Honey Boy” (in select theaters Nov. 8), which he co-wrote, is an intriguing, autobiographical character study. Shia – or in this case, Otis – is seen as a “Transformers”-era malcontent (Lucas Hedges) forced to go to rehab to deal with PTSD from his crazy childhood. In parallel fashion, the film also shows Otis as a child star (Noah Jupe) working on a TV show and living in a rundown motel with his abusive father (LaBeouf). Directed by Alma Har’el, the film digs into the way we lie to ourselves and others around us and features strong showings from Jupe, Hedges and especially LaBeouf. Between this and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” he’s back, y’all.
12. ‘Pain and Glory’
Those wondering when the heck Antonio Banderas will finally nab an Oscar nomination should pay attention, because this might be his best chance yet. In Pedro Almodovar’s Spanish drama (in select theaters Oct. 4), Banderas is a world-renowned director in the twilight of his career, facing chronic physical anguish as one of his best-loved works is getting a high-profile re-release. The occasion leads him to quash a 30-year-old feud with the film’s star (and try out heroin), reconnect with an old lover and also flash back to formative childhood experiences and time spent with his loving mother (Penelope Cruz). Banderas lends gravitas, humor and grace to one of his greatest roles ever.
Joaquin Phoenix wows as the scary (and scary good) title character of Todd Phillips' psychological thriller (in theaters Oct. 4), an ode to 1970s cinema that's akin to "Network" as a comic-book movie. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has had a hard life, feeling like an outcast because of uncontrollable laughter and behavior, but when he gets a taste of real power for one deadly instance, Arthur goes on a relentlessly dark path that has no time for levity. Phoenix masters an eerie vibe in a different spin on the famous Batman villain that's a little twisty, somewhat familiar, but mainly bombastic, nihilistic and weirdly timely in its tackling of societal toxicity and tribalism.
10. 'The Laundromat'
Director Steven Soderbergh entertains and educates with an intriguing dramatization (in select theaters Sept. 27, streaming on Netflix Oct. 18) of the 2016 Panama Papers leak by way of intertwining characters, anthology-type stories and true-life lessons. (Think "Black Mirror" with way more tax avoidance.) Meryl Streep stars as a middle-aged woman who investigates a bunch of shady insurance dealings, and the framing device centers on Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as billionaires who track human economy from the days of bartering cows and bananas to the modern era of financial bad behavior. You'll laugh, you'll learn and you might even get a little angry.
9. 'Dolemite Is My Name'
Like "The Disaster Artist" but way funkier, director Craig Brewer's biopic comedy (in select theaters Oct. 4, streaming on Netflix Oct. 25) stars Eddie Murphy as 1970s actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore. Moore struggles to break big until he creates the well-dressed pimp character Dolemite, finding success first with comedy records and then making a cult blaxploitation movie. In fine form as Moore, Murphy is joined by a fun supporting cast including Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes, who plays constantly exasperated "Dolemite" movie director D'Urville Martin.
8. ‘The Report’
The CIA’s torture practices get the “Spotlight” treatment with director Scott Z. Burns’ exceptional and rather nonpartisan look at a questionable period in government history (in theaters Nov. 15). Adam Driver stars as Daniel Jones, a hard-driving staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) tasked with investigating the morality and legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in the wake of 9/11, getting stonewalled to get the report done and then dealing with powerful figures in Washington who don’t want it to see the light of day. While the supporting cast is full of standouts, from Bening to Jon Hamm (as chief of staff Denis McDonough), Driver and his character’s dogged pursuit of the truth get all A’s on the “Report” card.
7. 'The Two Popes'
It's popes gone wild – or at least eating pizza, downing orange soda and watching soccer – with the charming, insightful and quite funny Netflix dramedy (in select theaters Nov. 27, streaming on Netflix Dec. 20). "Two Popes" chronicles first the rivalry and later friendship of conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and reformist Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who would become Pope Francis. It's a straight-up acting master class for most of the film with Hopkins and Pryce butting heads. The movie digs into several issues involving the Catholic Church, including inequality, priest abuse scandals and just change in general, without ever being preachy.
6. 'Knives Out'
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" director Rian Johnson comes back to Earth to craft this bonkers whodunit (in theaters Nov. 27) with a dysfunctional family of all-star suspects (Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and Michael Shannon) who all had motives to off their wealthy patriarch, a famed mystery writer (Christopher Plummer). There are multiple Chekhov's guns, twists upon twists and other fun details Agatha Christie would love, though the highlight is Daniel Craig's enigmatic investigator Benoit Blanc, a Southern-fried Hercule Poirot type with an accent that lies somewhere between Foghorn Leghorn and Colonel Sanders.
Writer/director Lorene Scafaria's wildly enjoyable crime dramedy (in theaters Friday) finally uses all of Jennifer Lopez's skills – including, apparently, pole dancing. The multi-hyphenate star plays the leader of a group of ambitious strippers (including Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer) who turn Robin Hood on their Wall Street clientele, fleecing the rich jerks for all they're worth in order to help each other and their families out. Lopez and Wu make quite a duo as two friends who develop a close relationship that's tested by greed and questionable decision-making, and their girl gang's misadventures are as insane as their fashion taste.
4. ‘Sound of Metal’
This one rocks unlike everything else at the festival. With an awesome use of sound design, director Darius Marder lets an audience experience what it’s like for a hard-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) to lose his hearing after being exposed to constant noise. The musician is forced to confront being suddenly deaf, what it means for his relationship with his girlfriend/bandmate (Olivia Cooke) and how he needs to cope to maintain a not revert to previous addictions. Ahmed is fantastic at communicating a wide range of emotions during his character’s odyssey, from absolute anger to calm optimism, and the film itself is profound, innovative, heartbreaking, uplifting and even a little breathtaking.
3. 'Ford v Ferrari'
By the time Christian Bale yells his first "Giddy-up" zooming around in a car, you're totally in for director James Mangold's speedy drama (in theaters Nov. 15). Matt Damon plays Southern-twanged automobile designer Carroll Shelby and Bale is hotheaded British driver/car whisperer Ken Miles as the two team up with Ford Motor Company to give Ferrari some real American competition at the 1966 Le Mans. The car-racing sequences pop with wondrous cinematography, white-knuckle tension and pedal-to-the-metal thrills, and Damon and Bale make for a dynamic duo on the track (especially when one's hitting the other with a loaf of bread).
2. 'Jojo Rabbit'
Director Taika Waititi promised an "anti-hate" satire (in theaters Oct. 18), and that's exactly what "Jojo" is. Set in the latter days of World War II Germany, 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is all about being a Nazi and his best pal is imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi). His views begins to change when he discovers his mom (Scarlett Johansson) is letting a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hide in their home, and as Jojo grows closer to her, Adolf shifts from an odd goofball to a petty guy more like the Hitler we know from history. Its humor and subject matter will be polarizing – there's archival footage of legions doing the "Heil Hitler" salute set to a German-language version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" – but the must-watch movie has a lot to say about love and hate.
1. 'Marriage Story'
There's a good chance writer/director Noah Baumbach's superb, tear-jerking Netflix drama (in select theaters Nov. 6, on Netflix Dec. 6) is going to be talked about all through the Oscar race, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson never better as a married couple going through a divorce. Nicole (Johansson) is an actress who snagged a TV pilot and wants to move their son to L.A. with her. Charlie (Driver) wants the kid to stay in New York so he can direct plays. Hard feelings and old memories get stirred up as lawyers get involved, you see how they fell in love and where it all fell apart, and intense scenes with both leads feature fights with devastating crescendos that break their – and your – hearts.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Joker': The best movies we saw at Toronto Film Festival