Toronto Film Festival faves: We pick 10 top movies and 10 best performances of 2017

Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in ‘Battle of the Sexes’. (Photo: TIFF)
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in ‘Battle of the Sexes’. (Photo: TIFF)

With another Toronto International Film Festival in the history books, the stage is set for the awards season to begin. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri scooped up the highly-prized Grolsch People’s Choice Award in a surprise victory. Set for release on Nov. 10, the Martin McDonagh-directed film features Frances McDormand as a small-town woman who launches a very public campaign to arrest the man who raped and murdered her daughter. (The runners-up for TIFF’s top prize were I, Tonya, and Sundance favorite Call Me By Your Name.) Now that Toronto audiences have spoken, it’s our turn to pick favorites. Here are the 10 best movies, and 10 best performances, that Yahoo Entertainment saw in Toronto. — Ethan Alter and Kevin Polowy

The Best Films

Battle of the Sexes
For much of its runtime, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s dramatization of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is more of a coming-out tale than a traditional sports movie. But it’s precisely that attention to the main character’s internal drama that places Battle of the Sexes in the company of genre classics such as Hoosiers and Rocky, which similarly seek to tell grounded, relatable stories in the run-up to the big game. And when Billie Jean and Bobby finally do face off, the tennis is absolutely top-notch.

The winner of this year’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award from the Midnight Madness program, Joseph Kahn’s battle-rap satire is slightly overlong, occasionally didactic…and funny as hell. With the help of screenwriter Alex Larsen, star Calum Worthy, and producer Eminem, Kahn takes the basic premise of 8 Mile and turns it into a savage Network-like satire, with Worthy’s white rapper discovering both the beauty and destructiveness of his chosen art form. Bodied‘s greatest asset is its fearlessness as it boldly challenges stereotypes and societal conventions with language few of us dare use.

Brad’s Status
On the surface it looks like another one of those “middle-aged white guy problems” dramedies, but that’s exactly why this razor-sharp comedy of awkwardness from writer-director Mike White (Year of the Dog) is so effective and affecting. Ben Stiller is fantastic as a Sacramento father on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he tours Boston colleges with his son, bitter that he never sold out — and prospered — like his old buddies. He’s woe-is-me to a T, and he gets exactly the perspective smackdown he needs.

Dave Franco and James Franco in ‘The Disaster Artist’ (Photo: TIFF)
Dave Franco and James Franco in ‘The Disaster Artist’ (Photo: TIFF)

The Disaster Artist
James Franco‘s raucous tribute to Tommy Wiseau‘s 2003 cult classic, The Room, isn’t as graceful and elegant a film as Tim Burton‘s Ed Wood…but then again, neither is The Room. What the Burton and Franco movies do share is a genuine affection and enthusiasm for their respective cult filmmakers, as well as career-best performances by Johnny Depp and (Oscar bound?) Franco, respectively. And don’t assume you have to have seen The Room to enjoy The Disaster Artist: the movie’s portrait of an unlikely artist trying to realize his dream will provoke plenty of laughs on its own terms.

Is Downsizing Alexander Payne‘s best film? At the very least, it’s the most ambitious and original work yet from the Election and Sideways writer-director. His sci-fi comedy about a near-future society where humans (including lead Matt Damon) are shrunk down to the size of insects to live luxurious lives (and decrease their carbon footprints) is a biting, hilarious satire that examines greed vs. the greater good. The knock on Payne’s film is that it’s too ambitious in scope, but we didn’t mind one bit.

I Kill Giants
A rare example of a non-superhero comic book movie for kids, I Kill Giants feels like a welcome throwback to movies like Stand By Me and My Girl, which wrestled with weighty subjects in a way that entertained young viewers without talking down to them. The set-up is reminiscent of A Monster Calls — a young girl (Madison Wolfe) disappears into a fantasy world in order to escape emotional trauma — but Giants is less heavy-handed in pushing the audience’s emotional buttons. Think of it as the comic book movie bridge between the likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming and American Splendor.

Jim Carrey in ‘Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond’. (Photo: TIFF)
Jim Carrey in ‘Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond’. (Photo: TIFF)

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
We’ve always heard about actors who insist on staying in character on set; Chris Smith’s terrific documentary shows us exactly what that looks like. The film alternates between remarkable behind-the-scenes footage shot on the set of Man on the Moon — the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic that starred Jim Carrey as the discomfiting comedian — and a supplemental contemporary interview with Carrey reflecting on his experience. Is some of it a put-on? Since this is Kaufman we’re dealing with, almost certainly. But there are moments of obvious Carrey clarity that shock and awe.

Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2014 drama Leviathan provides another harsh critique of his homeland. When the young son of a Moscow couple in the midst of a brutal divorce goes missing, the parents circumvent the country’s glacial bureaucracy to find him. Aesthetically austere and emotionally devastating, Loveless seems poised to bring Zvyagintsev a second Oscar nomination.

Saoirse Ronan in ‘Lady Bird’ (Photo: TIFF)
Saoirse Ronan in ‘Lady Bird’ (Photo: TIFF)

Lady Bird
One of our very favorite discoveries of the festival had to be this crowd-pleasing autobiographical tale from actress-turned-writer/director Greta Gerwig. The habitually excellent Saoirse Ronan could very well lock down a third Oscar nomination for playing Gerwig’s avatar, a high school senior with bad grades, a testy relationship with her nurse mother (the great Laurie Metcalf), and a desperate desire to get the hell out of Sacramento. It’s a sweet, super-funny, tearjerking coming-of-age tale that’s so good it transcends our notions of how powerful a “teen movie” can be.

The Shape of Water
Fresh off its Venice Film Festival victory, Guillermo Del Toro‘s creature feature romance worked its magic on Toronto audiences as well. A tale of sexual liberation told in the visual language of ’40s monster movies (and musicals!), The Shape of Water features all the hallmarks of a Del Toro joint — beautiful production design, atmospheric cinematography, and practical special effects — coupled with an emotional (and erotically charged) love story.

The Best Performances

Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with an ungainly biopic/poker movie hybrid that’s held aloft entirely on Chastain’s shoulders. Playing self-styled “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom, the Interstellar star handily smooths out Sorkin’s occasionally lumpy narration and dialogue, and locates the beating heart of a character who often came across as a caricature in her press coverage.

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in ‘The Upside’. (Photo: TIFF)
Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in ‘The Upside’. (Photo: TIFF)

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, The Upside
The long-in-the-works American remake of the 2011 French hit, The Intouchables, is pretty much the same movie as its predecessor, right down to the awkward racial and class politics at play in the story of a wealthy quadriplegic (Cranston) and his ex-con caretaker (Hart). The one upside of The Upside is that it establishes Cranston and Hart as the next great comedy duo. Their chemistry, and evident appreciation of each other’s skills, is a joy to watch even when the movie inspires reflexive cringes.

Judi Dench, Victoria & Abdul
Twenty years after playing Queen Victoria in John Madden’s 1997 film, Mrs. Brown, Dench once again gets the royal treatment in Stephen Frears’ semi-sequel, which depicts the friendship between Victoria and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her devoted attendant. At this point in her career, Dench could easily sleepwalk through these roles, but there’s no snoozing here. The 82-year-old actress is as vital as she’s ever been.

Michael Greyeyes, Woman Walks Ahead
Jessica Chastain also headlined this frontier drama that made its world premiere in Toronto alongside Molly’s Game. But she willingly cedes the spotlight to her co-star, who makes an immediate impression as famed Lakota holy man, Sitting Bull. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in Toronto, Greyeyes made it clear that he was an active participant and not a bystander in the film’s depiction of Native American history, and the film benefits from his voice.

Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Margot Robbie may not have known the backstory involving disgraced U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, but her onscreen mom, Janney, clearly understands the kind of nightmare stage mother she’s meant to be playing. The Mom star is a comic force of nature in Craig Gillespie’s surprisingly funny approach to a traditional sports biopic, which was the first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award.

Barry Keoghan in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. (Photo: YouTube)
Barry Keoghan in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. (Photo: YouTube)

Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest movie divided Toronto audiences, although everyone pretty much agreed that it was no Lobster. Another point of agreement? Dunkirk star Barry Keoghan is one of the creepiest screen psychos ever. As a teenage monster who orchestrates an elaborate revenge plot against a picture-perfect family headed up by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, Keoghan’s unsettling presence provides some much needed menace to offset the movie’ ultra-dry, ultra-dark sense of humor.

Diane Kruger, In the Fade
Having already scooped up the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Kruger enters the fall awards season well-positioned for further nominations. Her powerhouse performance as a grieving mother in director Fatih Akin’s timely drama is a career-best star turn.

Shia LaBeouf, Borg/McEnroe
Slyly playing off his real-world persona as a tantrum-throwing troublemaker, LaBeouf hurled verbal abuse, not to mention tennis rackets, as Hall of Famer John McEnroe and Twitter loved him for it. Between Borg/McEnroe and American Honey, LaBeouf is back on the road to being a critical darling…though probably not a FOSS (Friend of Steven Spielberg).

Gary Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’. (Photo: TIFF)
Gary Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’. (Photo: TIFF)

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
The veteran British actor may as well just start giving his Oscar speech now. Oldman vanishes into his role as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s otherwise workmanlike dramatization of the monumental choice facing England’s wartime Prime Minister: whether to engage Adolf Hitler on the battlefield or appease him. And while make-up certainly aids Oldman in his transformation, he doesn’t simply let the latex do the acting. This is the kind of lived-in portrayal you’d expect from the man who previously brought Sid Vicious and Beethoven to life.

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
After his bigger-than-life performance in Fences, Washington goes small in Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler, which casts him as a quiet lawyer suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Gilroy told TIFF crowds that Washington was his first and only choice for the role, and watching the movie it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could change up his image this seamlessly.

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