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The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival had plenty to prove. Typically festooned with A-listers, the big event arrived without all the standard celebrity fanfare—the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes made for a quieter, though not entirely star-less spectacle. But TIFF’s position as a dependable intersection of arthouse, international, crowd-pleasing, and Oscar-contending cinema meant lines nevertheless stretched across downtown Toronto as fest-goers jostled for a seat at films such as American Fiction and The Boy and the Heron. As a first-time TIFF attendee myself, I was intrigued to discover that, with the red carpets lapping up less attention, word-of-mouth around town felt more essential than ever.
Ahead, some notes on the best films I saw at TIFF—and a few I missed that captured conversation online and in line. I’ll hold out thoughts on a few movies that have already made enthusiastic festival appearances and/or will appear at the New York Film Festival later this month (for example, Anatomy of a Fall, The Zone of Interest and Perfect Days), but others generated enough chatter in Toronto to merit an inclusion now. Let the awards-season circus begin.
The Holdovers, dir. by Alexander Payne
A newly minted holiday-movie stalwart and yet so much more, Alexander Payne’s 1970-set The Holdovers is an absolute treasure—the sort of sweet-but-serious comedy that can only stem from a precise infusion of talent. Thankfully, The Holdovers is led by Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph executing at the height of their craft. They’re joined by talented newcomer Dominic Sessa as the boarding-school student under their care while the three navigate a loaded Christmas holiday, accentuated by loss, abandonment, and the malaise of the era. Nuanced but never lacking in humor, The Holdovers is a sincere delight.
In theaters October 27.
The Boy and the Heron, dir. by Hayao Miyazaki
The legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s latest was a huge get for TIFF, nor did it disappoint his biggest fans: The Boy and the Heron, perhaps the last film of Miyazaki’s career, is a testament to his creativity and his perceptiveness as both storyteller and audience member. As its central protagonist, Mahito Maki, undergoes a journey of grief and becoming, he encounters a mysterious grey heron and a tower—which, of course, he must enter in order to experience Miyazaki’s imagination at its finest.
In theaters December 8.
American Fiction, dir. by Cord Jefferson
Speaking of awards buzz: Mere days after American Fiction was announced as the coveted TIFF People’s Choice Award winner, Jeffrey Wright has already earned numerous calls for a Best Actor Academy Award following his turn as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in this barbed satire. When Monk writes a stereotypical (and fictional) memoir of racial strife in an attempt to critique the publishing industry—only to get offered a huge deal for the book instead—Wright depicts the character’s frustrations and temptations with delicious nuance. The result is being heralded as one of the funniest and most fascinating films of the year.
In select theaters November 3 and wide-release November 17.
Dumb Money, dir. by Craig Gillespie
Craig Gillespie’s take on the GameStop short squeeze of 2021 is a surprising thrill, loaded with a punk-rock ethos that—however accurate or inaccurate—works in the film’s favor. Paul Dano is a gem as r/wallstreetbets ringleader Roaring Kitty, and his performance is heightened by a powerful cast including Anthony Ramos, America Ferrera, Seth Rogen, Shailene Woodley, and a perfectly cast Pete Davidson as Kitty’s brother Kevin.
In select theaters now and wide-release September 29.
Sing Sing, dir. by Greg Kwedar
As if anyone needed reminding of Colman Domingo’s talent, Sing Sing is both a showcase for the Euphoria actor and an opportunity for him to cast light on those around him—particularly the alumni of the Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, who star alongside Domingo in this touching, tremendous depiction of the real-life arts and theater program within New York’s maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Acquired by A24. Release date not yet announced.
Mother, Couch, dir. by Niclas Larsson
Certainly among the more bizarre fare out of Toronto this year, Mother, Couch has a deceptively simple premise: A man must remove his aging mother from the furniture warehouse where she’s taken up residence. From there, surrealism ensues, quirky but sophisticated with excellent performances from stars including Ewan McGregor, Taylor Russell, and Ellen Burstyn. Not all audiences will get the film, let alone enjoy it, but those willing to indulge in an unpredictable, confounding ride will discover something earnest in the end.
Dream Scenario, dir. by Kristoffer Borgli
A skewering of the attention economy and another absurdist vehicle for star Nicolas Cage, Dream Scenario follows everyman professor Paul Matthews as he realizes he’s begun to—inadvertently—populate people’s dreams. As his sudden worldwide recognition showers him with fame, the film’s satirical horror crystallizes into something both blisteringly funny and terrifying to behold.
In theaters November 10.
Thank You For Coming, dir. by Karan Boolani
Bhumi Pednekar is comedy gold in this coming-of-orgasm tale from director Karan Boolani. At 32, Pednekar’s Kanika Kapoor has never had an orgasm, despite several sexual relationships and a desperate desire for true love. Frustrated by the shunning of her single mother, who had her out of wedlock, and her own bullying as a teen, Kanika finally achieves climax the night of her engagement party—only to realize she isn’t altogether sure of the culprit. Accentuated by choreographed dances and spot-on line delivery, Thank You For Coming smartly straddles the political and the profane.
In theaters in India October 6.
The Movie Emperor, dir. by Ning Hao
In a riotous stab at movie-star fame and film-festival elitism, Ning Hao’s meta-critique The Movie Emperor stars Hong Kong film star (and pop icon) Andy Lau as Hong Kong film star Dany Lau, who loses out on a major film award to “Jacky Chen.” In a desperate bid to compete with international stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise, Dany opts for a role as a village pig farmer—but as he attempts to understand what it’s like to live “rough,” his actions only serve to get him canceled...on multiple occasions. The film mixes straightforward drama with jaw-dropping slapstick humor, and while it veers in certain segments, The Movie Emperor ultimately sticks its landing.
The End We Start From, dir. by Mahalia Belo
Not all at TIFF were as captivated as I was by Mahalia Belo’s eco-catastrophe drama The End We Start From, but I found its raw sentimentality remarkable. Based on Megan Hunter’s novel of the same name, the film follows Jodie Comer’s protagonist as she gives birth during the early days of an extreme flood in England. As the rains continue, the whole country grinds to a halt, loved ones are lost, and Comer’s character and her partner (Joel Fry) are forced to separate so the former can live in a shelter with their newborn. Portraits of desperate survival and joy’s stubborn persistence underline this powerful drama as the family seeks to reunite in the wasteland of what came before.
In theaters December 8.
Hit Man, dir. by Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s latest puts Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) in the fascinating role of philosophy-professor-turned-hitman-impersonator as he inadvertently falls for one of his would-be clients. The zany premise allows for a sharp moral compass embedded in an otherwise good-natured comedy.
Acquired by Netflix. Release date not yet announced.
Flora and Son, dir. by John Carney
A musical comedy that merges what audiences loved about John Carney’s previous films—including Sing Street, Begin Again, and Once—Flora and Son plants audiences in Dublin to meet single mother Flora and her 14-year-old son, Max, whom she loves but struggles to relate with. When Max is disinterested in the guitar she tries to gift him, Flora takes up her own lessons with a Los Angeles-based musician (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who teaches her a new way of looking at love and music—both for herself and her son.
In select theaters September 22 and streaming on Apple TV+ September 29.
Origin, dir. by Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s narrative adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents delighted some audiences and disappointed others, but neither should distract from the feat that is its ambition. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson herself as she’s caught in the crosshairs of her own research, and the film moves between characters and generations in a search for understanding tangled in centuries of social hierarchy.
Acquired by Neon. Release date not yet announced.
His Three Daughters, dir. by Azazel Jacobs
Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, and Natasha Lyonne star as three estranged sisters in this intimate family drama, which sees the women reunite as caregivers—and end-of-life planners—for their ailing father. But viewers never actually see this ailing father; the camera remains on his daughters, who inform us over the course of everyday life how he’s left his distinct stamp on each of them.
In the Rearview, dir. by Maciek Hamela
I had the privilege of stumbling upon the documentary In the Rearview during my last night at TIFF, and its quiet power stayed with me for hours afterward. The film is astoundingly simple: It is composed almost entirely of stitched-together shots of the director’s backseat, where numerous groups of Ukrainian citizens are stuffed together as Maciek Hamela evacuates them to Poland. In this van, they roll through a war-torn landscape and share observations both plain and gutting, their stories each marked with a unique sense of erasure—and the prospect of new freedom.
How to Have Sex, dir. by Molly Manning Walker
Molly Manning Walker’s debut feature is heart-wrenching for its supposedly bright premise: A group of British teens arrive on a Greek island to celebrate finishing their exams with a tour of the local club scene. As part of that tour, their goal is to have sex and drink with abandon. But as the nights get blurrier, so too do the contours around which these teens self-identify, and the power dynamics that serve as the fulcrum of their relationships.
Acquired by Mubi. U.S. release date not yet announced.
The Royal Hotel, dir. by Kitty Green
In her searing follow-up to The Assistant, also starring Julia Garner, Kitty Green puts Garner and Jessica Henwick together as friends backpacking through Australia, only to realize they’ve run out of money. To replenish their cash, they start jobs at the local Royal Hotel, where the clientele are mostly men who draw an immediate—and deeply uncomfortable—line of dominance as the women put on a show for their tips.
In theaters October 6.
Monster, dir. by Kore-eda Hirokazu
A multi-layered family portrait by Kore-eda Hirokazu—with a soundtrack from the late Ryuichi Sakamoto—Monster defies easy summary: a story about a child and his stretched-thin single mother, both dealing with loss; a story about that same child and the supposed victim of his bullying; and a story about schoolteachers and scandals and what we do with opposing, overlaid points of view.
Woman of the Hour, dir. by Anna Kendrick
Snapped up by Netflix in a massive deal, Anna Kendrick’s film Woman of the Hour is based on the true story of serial killer Rodney Alcala, who appeared on the 1970s show The Dating Game after he was released from prison. Kendrick stars as an actress who appears on the show at the same time as Alcala, making for a pulse-pounding thriller that balances on the performance art of appeasing male egos.
Acquired by Netflix. Release date not yet announced.
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