The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gained international prominence over the last few decades by billing itself as the “Festival of Festivals.” That distinction means, in essence, that if you go to TIFF, you won’t need to go to another festival all year. With more than 300 titles hailing from across the globe, one can only dip their toe into the riches of Toronto’s lineup even with wall-to-wall screenings over its 11-day duration.
By the time the oft-Oscar prognostication People’s Choice Award winner is announced on Sunday, September 15, two of TIFF’s biggest premieres – The Goldfinch and Hustlers – will be playing across North America. But let’s say you don’t want to wait until then to get in on the Toronto viewing? Here are ten curated titles that you can program as a streaming festival adjacent to Toronto. That way, once these titles hit theaters over the next year, you’ll have a leg up on some of the past work of cinema’s coming vanguard.
Just Mercy (Gala Presentations)
Warner Bros. had originally slated Just Mercy to open in January 2020, but their recent schedule shift to December and a prime TIFF gala bow signals they have big plans for this one. Just about everything about the film points to a timely and moving experience. Michael B. Jordan stars as a well-educated lawyer who goes down to Alabama to defend the victims of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement by the justice system. Is this what finally gets awards voters to take notice of Jordan? And for director Destin Daniel Cretton, the film could also serve to ramp up anticipation even further for his next gig – Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: If you haven’t already seen Cretton’s feature debut Short Term 12, it’s time. The film is quickly establishing a reputation as The Outsiders of the 2010s – that is to say, a film that brought together an absurd amount of future big-name actors on the cusp of fame. It already boasts two Oscar-winners in the cast with Brie Larson (who also stars in Just Mercy) and Rami Malek, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Come for them, stay for brilliant early work from Lakeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever and Stephanie Beatriz. (available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime and Netflix)
Radioactive (Gala Presentations – Closing Night Film)
In the five years since beguiling audiences as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike is still awaiting her second breakout role. It’s not for a lack of good work, to be clear – and her committed turn in last year’s A Private War did earn her a Golden Globe nomination – but fans want something that will also really resonate with audiences. Perhaps Radioactive, in which Pike plays prize-winning chemist Marie Curie, will help right the ship. The film certainly promises something a little outside the norm of stuffy biopics, too, as it’s directed by Marjane Satrapi and is adapted from a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: If you want to see what Satrapi can do with a graphic text on screen, look no further than her Academy Award-nominated animated film Persepolis. She adapts her own autobiography about growing up in a tumultuously changing Iran in a way that is both formally innovative and deeply heartfelt. (available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
Bad Education (Special Presentations)
Before “Operation Varsity Blues” netted Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin earlier this year, there were other high-profile scams that took schools for suckers. Bad Education tells the tale of one of them, an embezzlement racket that took place in the early ‘00s out on Long Island. Rather than get into the details and potentially ruin the fun of the film, I’ll just throw out some members of the cast and let those names speak for themselves. For the adults, we’ve got Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Ray Romano. Among the youth, there’s Alex Wolff, Geraldine Viswanathan and Jimmy Tatro.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: Who better to take a scalpel to privileged, over-educated coastal elites than director Cory Finley? His debut Thoroughbreds drolly satirizes the danger of two cunning teenagers left to their own devices in palatial Connecticut estates. Like the scheming northeasterners of Bad Education, the two female leads of Thoroughbreds hatch a plan of their own – murdering one of their stepfathers. (available to stream on HBO GO)
Ema (Special Presentations)
After Pablo Larraín’s jaw-droppingly prolific 2016, which saw the release of three films in the U.S., the Chilean director is back with Ema. While Larraín tends to focus on stories either set in the past or directly dealing with the residual effects of historic events in Chile, this looks to be a change of pace: a story set in the present. Ema reunites him with Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays one half of an artist marriage grappling with the fallout from their adopted son burning their house. The festival’s summary promises a drama about “art, desire and family” – just the kind of lofty themes that global masters should be exploring.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: If you haven’t seen Jackie, stop reading this and go watch it. If you have seen Jackie, finish reading this and then go rewatch it. No matter how many times you’ve seen Larraín’s previous film, you haven’t seen it enough to appreciate the ticks and nuances of Natalie Portman’s performance. Nor have you ruminated enough on the film’s contemplation of how history is not just events; it’s little more than artifice constructed by those in power designed to turn people into characters through the power of mythologizing. No matter where the American story goes, Jackie will be in fascinating conversation with it. (available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
Guns Akimbo (Special Presentations)
Remember that meme-worthy production photo of Daniel Radcliffe last year? The one where he’s waving two guns while wearing a robe and oversized slippers? Yeah, that’s from the set of Guns Akimbo. That bonkers image alone should be enough to sell you, but just in case it’s not, the premise also sounds awesome. Radcliffe stars as a videogame developer who gets drawn into a live-streamed death match online. Hopefully it veers more in the direction of a Verhoeven-esque social satire than it does towards 2016’s Nerve, which shared a similar setup (and left a lot to be desired in execution).
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: Director Jason Lei Howden might have cut his teeth in the visual effects world on the recent Hobbit and Apes films, but he’s also got a very solid feature directing credit under his belt. Deathgasm, a rip-roaringly fun horror extravaganza from New Zealand, has a gory good time exploring the fallout from a group of high school outcasts in a metal band playing cursed sheet music. Is this the birth of the next Taika Waititi? (available for free to subscribers of Amazon Prime)
Jungleland (Special Presentations)
Sometimes it feels like Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam are two movie stars that the industry is trying to bludgeon us into accepting, even though neither has quite caught much of a fire with the public. Each actor has had roles worthy of breakout status – O’Connell with his feral intensity in Starred Up, Hunnam as an indefatigable explorer in The Lost City of Z – but need something bigger or risk going into Sam Worthington territory. Perhaps Jungleland, which leans into the rugged masculinity of both men, can change their trajectories. O’Connell plays a boxer on his last leg, while Hunnam features as his brother and manager. The two take a road trip to a potential final fight only to have an unexpected travel companion fracture their relationship further.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: It doesn’t feel like a particularly comparable title for Jungleland, but director Max Winkler’s last title Flower caught me by surprise with its deft handling of tricky relationships. He draws great performances of the ever-charismatic Zoey Deutsch, here playing a teenager unafraid to wield her sexuality for personal advantage, and Kathryn Hahn, playing her scatter-brained mother just trying to find some kind of foothold in the world. The story takes many an unexpected and potentially risky turn, but Winkler guides it confidently. (available for free to subscribers of Hulu)
Pelican Blood (Special Presentations)
Remember her name: Katrin Gebbe. This German director is a true rising star on the international cinematic stage, and I couldn’t be more excited that TIFF decided to elevate her second feature to the Special Presentations section rather than letting it fade into the crowd in Contemporary World Cinema. There’s not much information out there about Pelican Blood, Gebbe’s sophomore film, but its logline teasing an adopted child whose behavior shifts from delightful to devious could hold some real intrigue.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: Back in 2013, I wandered into Gebbe’s debut feature, Nothing Bad Can Happen, completely blind. It’s debatable as to whether I’ve ever recovered. This harrowing test-of-faith crucible for an evangelical German teen delivered into the lion’s den of an abusive elder is so viscerally affecting that it might give you actual shellshock. It’s not for the faint of heart yet is unforgettable if you can stomach all the trauma that the protagonist endures. (available for free through Hoopla as well as to rent through Amazon and iTunes)
Synchronic (Special Presentations)
Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan, while both well-known stars, have yet to find much commercial success outside franchises. Perhaps that changes with Synchronic, where the duo plays a team of paramedics who fall down a rabbit hole investigating a new drug that leads to numerous overdoses they must treat. The film also represents a potential breakthrough for its directors, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, a team widely lauded on the genre circuit but still a bit under the radar for general audiences. With a starrier cast and noir-like premise that defies categorization, Synchronic might open many a door for them.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: After years of letting Moorhead and Benson’s work linger in various streaming queues, I finally got to work on checking out their back catalogue once TIFF programmed Synchronic. I was quite impressed with what I saw, particularly The Endless, a lo-fi UFO cult movie where the directors also play the two protagonists. Very few movies are able to pull off the sophistication of human drama that they do without selling out the genre conventions altogether. Their economic filmmaking style, too, has me amped to see what they do with a bigger budget and scale. (available for free to subscribers of Netflix)
Wet Season (Platform)
Toronto’s Platform section traditionally offers some of the festival’s most promising breakout titles. The sidebar’s purpose is specifically to elevate filmmakers in that strange grey area after their debut but before they become widely recognized as masters of their craft. Wet Season, the sophomore feature of Cannes’ Camera d’Or winner Anthony Chen, could fit the bill as a standout in the section. It’s another tale centered around an unconventional relationship between a young boy and a more mature woman – in this case, it’s a high-school student with an uncommon empathy for his despondent teacher struggling with fertility issues.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: Back in 2013, Chen won over audiences at Cannes with his arresting debut, Ilo Ilo (which translates to “Mom and Dad Are Not Home”). The film charts familial tensions in the wake of Singapore’s 1997 financial crisis as two struggling parents attempt to corral their impetuous ten-year-old son. Hiring a Filipina housekeeper initially helps keep him in check, but her continued presence also opens up a new set of issues for the family altogether. (available for free through Kanopy as well as to rent through Amazon and iTunes)
The County (Contemporary World Cinema)
A woman wages war against her co-op … and no, this is not yet another Upper West Side story. The County unfolds in Iceland (before your mind goes there – that’s not the one Trump wanted to buy) with a small farmer taking on the trade organization that seems to oppress workers more than it helps them. If you’re looking for proof that the populist spirit extends well beyond the United States, look no further than Grímur Hákonarson’s latest film, whose protagonist goes on quite the crusade for her country to live up to its egalitarian ideals.
Can’t make it to Toronto? Watch this at home: If you aren’t sure if agrarian Icelandic drama is your cup of tea, check out Hákonarson’s prior feature Rams. It starts as a story of a disease spreading through a village’s sheep population but quickly becomes something more elemental. At the core of Rams is not the titular beasts; rather, it’s the animals that two estranged brothers who both farm in the region become when brought back into contact after decades of not speaking. (available for free through Kanopy as well as to rent through Amazon and iTunes)
The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5 to 15.
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