From sci-fi to horror to biopics about young Obama, our TIFF road warriors pick the films they are looking forward to most.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious film festivals. Now in its 41st year, TIFF 2016 is set to present 397 films (287 features and 110 shorts) from 71 different countries.
For festivalgoers, cramming all of TIFF’s delicious programming into 10 scant days of theatre-hopping is no easy task. In order to help out, we’ve scanned every last one of TIFF’s 397 films and put together a list of notable selections. There is no doubt that films like I, Daniel Blake and Toni Erdmann will dominate awards season conversation. However, it’s the buzz of Midnight Madness crowds and big-screen spectacle that gets our blood blood pumping. Crime flicks and stories right out of The Twilight Zone are prioritized over standard Oscar-bait contenders. With that minor caveat out of the way, here is a list of TIFF’s must-see movies.
Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
The debut documentary from visionary filmmaker Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life) chronicles nothing less than the history of the universe.
Victor Stiff: Whether you consider him a moviemaking visionary or the height of cinematic pretension, one thing remains clear: Terrence Malick creates visually stunning movies. It’s rare that a non-popcorn movie trailer leaves me picking my jaw up off the floor (I must have re-watched Voyage of Time’s trailer three straight times).
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Malick traffics in visual poetry; rather than moving the plot forward with words, he seeks to connect directly with his audience’s soul. Working within the documentary format unshackles Malick from plot constraints. At times, Malick’s movies already feel like documentaries, so it will be interesting to see how this medium lends itself to his artistic inclinations.
Isabelle Huppert stars in the daring new film from perennial provocateur Paul Verhoeven, about a high-powered businesswoman whose brutal sexual assault elicits both erotic fantasies and dreams of revenge.
Matt Hoffman: The latest film from Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven features Isabelle Huppert in a tailor-made role of a lifetime. Huppert stars as Michele, the CEO of a respected video game company in Paris. After being raped by a masked assailant in her home, Michele refuses to call the police, handling the attack with a seemingly careless ambivalence that shocks her close friends. What they don’t know is that Michele has taken manners into her own hands, vowing to unmask and take revenge on her rapist.
Huppert has never been one to shy away from dark material, and with Verhoeven on the camera she really has the potential to give one of her best performances yet. The film is also reported to be surprisingly funny, though not in the way it deals with the rape, but instead in Verhoeven’s careful exploitation of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Sony Pictures Classics is preparing for a full Oscar campaign for Huppert, which means Elle should finally get Huppert the long-overdue stateside recognition she deserves.
Sadako vs Kayako
Two iconic J-horror franchises face off in this wild monster mash-up that pits the house-haunting phantoms of Ju-on (The Grudge) against the analogue-to-digital demon of Ringu (The Ring).
Victor Stiff: Two words: Nightmare Fuel. What better time to catch a bone-chilling movie than during TIFF, a two week period where I don’t sleep? Right off the bat, monster movies ask us to suspend our disbelief, but when franchises cross over it pushes our BS-meters to the limit. Monster vs monster movies have a long storied history, going back to the Hammer Horror days, and there a few reasons why these movies are mountains of fun.
First of all, all bets are off. A franchise’s established rules and sacred canon fly out the window for the sake of 90 thrilling minutes. In other words, the stakes are low. These films usually have lots of creative wriggle room to play with since they’re one-offs that don’t affect their respective franchises. Besides, no one is asking for Citizen Kane. If Sadako vs Kayako lands some solid chills, thrills, and kills, my fellow midnight madness lovers will exit the theater happy.
Ewan McGregor makes his directing debut and stars alongside Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in this ambitious adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, about a “perfect” American family that is torn apart by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s.
Victor Stiff: The film goes back to the 60’s and explores how social upheaval fractured the American ideal. First time director, Ewan McGregor, also stars alongside a stacked cast which includes Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, and Uzo Aduba. If American Pastoral’s trailer is any indication, the film’s cinematographer, Martin Ruhe, is putting on a visual storytelling masterclass. Ruhe delivers welcoming images of Norman Rockwell-esque homes and contrasts them with cold, stark scenes draped in shadows. Regardless of how well McGregor translates Philip Roth’s novel, the film is a guaranteed feast for the eyes. Make sure to catch this one on a big screen.
Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer headline the second feature from director Tom Ford (A Single Man), about a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband.
Matt Hoffman: I know very little about the sophomore film from fashion designer Tom Ford. His first feature, A Single Man, remains one of my favorite films of the last decade. Featuring Colin Firth in a career best performance, A Single Man quietly observed one day in the life a closeted gay man in the 1950s. While I’m trying to go into this one as spoiler-free as possible, I do know that Amy Adams stars as the owner of an art gallery who becomes enamored with the latest novel by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Early reviews from Venice hailed the film’s disturbing imagery, and an unsurprisingly weird performance from character actor Michael Shannon. Nocturnal Animals sounds like quite the ride, and it may just surprise audiences as one of the most talked about films of the festival.
Devon Terrell and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) star in this biopic about the young Barack Obama’s college days in New York City.
Victor Stiff: With his 2011 documentary, Kumaré, Gandhi established himself as a shrewd filmmaker unafraid of taking risks. Add in Gandhi’s politically charged work on Vice and you have a filmmaker who as the kids are saying, “Stays Woke.” What better way to channel Gandhi’s acerbic wit and political insights than in a political biopic?
Ironically, biopics encompassing a subject’s entire life often come off as broad and lifeless. Selma and Steve Jobs are recent examples of biopics which found success focusing on small windows into their subject’s lives. Barry takes a similar approach, placing a spotlight on the college days of Barack Obama. Barry peels back 30 years’ worth of emotional callouses, revealing a raw center steeped in frustration and resentment. While President Obama is “cool as a cuc,” back in the 80’s a young man named Barry was still learning how to navigate the choppy waters of race in America. How can that be anything other than awkward, uncomfortable, and utterly relatable?
Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent) directs this provocative account of a group of young, multiracial radicals whose terrorist attacks on Paris lead to a massive manhunt.
Matt Hoffman: French provocateur Bertrand Bonello returns with Nocturama, his most heatedly controversial film to date. The film follows a group of young, multiracial radicals set on bombing buildings around Paris. While the film was completed before the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, it unfortunately become a tough sell. After getting rejected from the Cannes Film Festival (where Bonello’s two previous films premiered) due to safety concerns, the film has finally found a world premiere home in Toronto. Programmed in the platform section, with an extended on-stage conversation with Bonello following the first screening, Nocturama is one hot ticket you won’t want to miss out on. After grabbing your tickets, look out for our interview with Betrand Bonello this weekend.
Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Cillian Murphy star in the hotly anticipated new film by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise), about a weapons deal gone wrong that escalates into a manic, bullet-riddled standoff inside an abandoned warehouse.
Victor Stiff: Kill List and Sightseers established Wheatley’s talent at adapting dark and twisted stories into morbidly delightful cult films. Although his 2015 TIFF entry, High-Rise, left me disappointed, the film offered just enough “Wheatley-ness” to earn a couple re-watches down the road.
With Free Fire, Wheatley is stepping back into his pulpy comfort zone. Taking place in the late 70’s, the film is an atmospheric crime thriller set almost entirely in one location. The film stars festival darling Brie Larson, Wheatley movie staple, Michael Smiley, and something called an Armie Hammer. Throw in the always entertaining Sharlto Copley as an arms dealer and the stage is set for some anxiety-inducing tension. Free Fire may just be this year’s Green Room.
A going-nowhere party girl (Anne Hathaway) discovers a mysterious connection between herself and a giant monster wreaking havoc on the other side of the globe.
Victor Stiff: Director Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 film, Timecrimes is a 92-minute slice of movie magic. With Timecrimes, Vigalondo created a time-travel movie masterpiece on a modest budget. Like the title of his latest picture dictates, Colossal is anything but modest. Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, international heartthrob Dan Stevens, and Jason Sudeikis (the red bird in The Angry Birds Movie) pack the screen with a level of acting talent uncommon in most giant monster movies. With Vigalondo at the helm, this picture is sure to have ambitions beyond the standard Tokyo-stomping kaiju flick.
Director Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) and members of his beloved stock company – Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr., and Fred Willard – along with new additions Chris O’Dowd and Zach Woods, usher us into the high-stakes world of professional sports mascots, who are engaged in a cutthroat competition for the annual “Gold Fluffy Award.”
Matt Hoffman: It’s been ten years since a Christopher Guest directed film debuted on the big screen, taking a break to work on television. For the first time since his 2006 feature For Your Consideration, the filmmaker has rounded up his comedy troupe for the Netflix-produced film Mascots. Reuniting with regulars Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, and Jane Lynch, Guest may have made one of the year’s best comedies. It’s unfortunate that Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara have decided to sit this one out, but the rest of the troupe should get by just fine. This is a film that you will want to catch at the festival, as it may be your only opportunity to see it on the big screen. After playing TIFF, Mascots will find its home on Netflix, bypassing theatrical distribution.
A crook-turned-servant falls for the vulnerable heiress she had originally schemed to swindle, in this audacious, visually sumptuous, and highly erotic period piece from acclaimed writer-director Park Chan-wook.
Victor Stiff: Chan-wook Park is best known for his Vengeance Trilogy, namely the middle installment, 2003’s Oldboy. While I love Park’s seminal work as much as the next cinephile, there are a couple standouts later on in his filmography that snuck up and floored me. Park’s unconventional vampire flick, Thirst (2009), and his jet-black gothic jewel, Stoker (2013) left me willing to take a blood oath that I would never miss another one of his films.
The Handmaiden’s trailer is a thing of beauty. The film combines Park’s technical artistry behind the camera with his signature dark themes to form a visceral and twisted plunge into the macabre. For those seeking challenging, visually stunning, and emotionally evocative experiences, The Handmaiden is a can’t miss.
Provocative Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No) depicts the events leading up to and following the assassination of JFK through the eyes of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman).
Matt Hoffman: Say what you will about the state of auteur cinema, but Argentinian director Pablo Larrain is turning out impeccably crafted pieces of art like clockwork. His second film at this year’s festival, and third in the past sixteen months, Larrain’s latest gives another perspective to one of America’s most notorious crimes. Jackie follows its title character, Jacqueline Kennedy, in the days following the assassination of her husband, president John F. Kennedy. Natalie Portman steps into the lead role, one which may be a return to form for the actress who has not yet had a role to rival her Oscar-winning turn in the 2010 film Black Swan. Already receiving raves for Portman following the film’s Venice premiere, this yet to be bought film could enter Portman into the Oscar race should it be released before the end of the year.
La La Land
An ambitious jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom, in this dazzlingly stylized homage to the classic Hollywood musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle.
Victor Stiff: We go to the movies in hopes that for two hours, these giant moving pictures can transport us to other worlds. For me, La La Land as the potential to do exactly that. La La Land’s hypnotic trailer transfixed me, like Mowgli staring into Kaa’s eyes in The Jungle Book. Damien Chazelle masterfully creates a sensual dreamscape that I can’t wait to visit. Afterward, La La Land’s trailer left me feeling as though I had drifted off to sleep on a velvet pillow and awoken to a warm gentle kiss. I can only imagine what this picture will do to me when I see it in its entirety. La La Land’s debut can’t come soon enough!
Visionary Quebecois auteur Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) directs Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in this sci-fi drama about the panic that follows a wave of mysterious spacecraft landings across the globe.
Victor Stiff: If you look back at TIFF 2015 through a Game of Thrones filter, Denis Villeneuve’s gripping crime thriller, Sicario, ascended The Iron Throne. Sicario captured most of the festival buzz and landed atop countless critic’s best-of-the-year lists. Villeneuve is back the very next year – bringing a sci-fi movie with him! For movie nerds, Arrival feels like Christmas come early. Place an alien and a spacecraft in a film and I’m half-way sold, throw in the brilliant director behind Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario and I’m running towards the theater screaming, “Please take all my money!” And the cherry on top? With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker in his arsenal, Villeneuve is defending his festival crown armed with the acting talent equivalent of blazing-hot dragon-fire. To the competition – Valar morghulis.
Rooney Mara (Carol) and Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind, Netflix’s Bloodline) star in this adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, about a young woman who arrives in the workplace of an older man from her past, seeking answers for the long-ago events that have fatefully shaped both of their lives.
Matt Hoffman: No stranger to the stage, Benedict Andrews makes his feature debut with his adaption of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, titled here as Una. The celebrated stage directors enlists Rooney Mara as the title character, who seeks to confront the man who sexually assaulted her when she was thirteen. Now an adult, Una tracks down Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), seeking answers and reasoning for an incident over a decade past. Mara and Mendelsohn are currently two of modern cinema’s most skilled dramatic actors. The source material calls for quite the showdown between the two, so it will be interesting to see how Andrews makes this work as a film.
The new film from Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, The Celebration) focuses on a middle-aged professional couple in 1970s Denmark who decide to experiment with communal living by inviting a group of friends and random eccentrics to cohabit with them in a sprawling house.
Matt Hoffman: Celebrated initially for his groundbreaking 1998 film The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg is certainly among Denmark’s greatest filmmaker. His 2012 film The Hunt devastated audiences across the world, and helped make Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen the highly sought after leading man his is today. After stepping out of his native Denmark to make Far From the Madding Crowd, Vinterberg returns with The Commune, taking him back to his high-stakes dramatic roots. Starring Danish film royalty Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen, Vinterberg explores discord in a Danish commune in the 1970’s. While the tone of the film is largely unclear, if it is anything like Vinterberg’s previous work it is bound to be both completely devastating and profoundly moving.
Jeff Nichols (Mud) directs Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who waged a decade-long legal battle that led to the overturning of the state of Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriage.
Victor Stiff: With his film’s Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, Jeff Nichols has shown a knack for creating tender, relatable moments and wrapping them in a thick layer of southern grit. Nichols knocked it out of the park earlier this year with Midnight Special, his love-letter to 80’s sci-fi. With Loving, Nichols is looking to dive back into familiar waters with a grounded drama based on real-life events.
Nichols is anchoring his film around Midnight Special’s Joel Edgerton, and Preacher star Ruth Negga. Based on Love’s trailer, you can be sure that there’re a couple of gut-wrenching performances lying in wait. With her dynamite turn on Preacher, Negga has proven herself a dynamic talent. She’s equally capable of manic highs, heartbreaking lows, and every subtle human frequency in between. Fans of raw acting ability should enjoy watching Negga put her considerable skills on display when she’s not working with such irreverent material.
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