10 Memorable TIFF movies for 2016

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Having just wrapped up its 40th edition, the Toronto International Film Festival presented more than 296 films in its lineup this year. The festival is wide and vast in its embrace of world cinema, but every year the most buzzed-about titles are that will impact awards season. This year most of the big titles had already debuted in Venice and Telluride just a few weeks prior. There were no surprises or out-of-left-field contenders like last year’s “The Martian.” What we saw instead was the continued success of “La La Land” and “Moonlight” which became certified critical favorites, just as they were at Telluride. Here are ten titles that emerged as the biggest winners from this year’s selections.
1. La La Land
Winning the People’s Choice Award, Damien Chazelle’s film was a no-brainer. Everyone felt sure it was going to win even before the festival started. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s film has moments of pure joy that make you feel punch-drunk in love at the movies again. The morning press screening burst into extended applause after the film’s final shot and that sealed the deal for the film’s eventual fate as a major Best Picture contender. Stone, a beauty of an actress, also turned heads for her performance as Mia, a struggling actress hoping to find her big break. Mia falls for Sebastian, a playful and charismatic Ryan Gosling, as they embark on a colorful and touching adventure filled with some of the best original songs ever conceived for the big screen. It’s quite possibly the best movie musical since Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”
2. Moonlight
What can be said about Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” that hasn’t already been said? Set during three transformative periods in the life of an African-American  gay man, the film is not only a mesmerizing journey into the “African-American experience,” but it also shatters cinematic taboos that not many have dared touch before it. This was the first major film I can recall to feature two black men who kiss onscreen. Unheard of, but an incredibly important landmark moment and the very definition of a film that can change lives. Jenkins splits the film into three different time frames as he follows his protagonist Chiron’s struggle for self-identity in a society that refuses to acknowledge his sexual freedom. The three actors playing Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) were all revelatory and Jenkins (a former Telluride Film Festival volunteer) makes good on the promise of his first feature “Medicine for Melancholy.” His “Moonlight” deserves to be called a milestone.
3. Arrival
Toronto was a kind of homecoming for Canadian boy Denis Villeneuve whose “Arrival” had very successful showings at both Telluride and Venice just a week prior. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist twho is recruited by the military after enormous Alien pods show up across the globe. Many countries are prepared for war, but Louise believes that the visitors might actually be on earth for non-violent reasons. Adams, in one of her very best performances, gives a touching and rewarding performance in a film that feels like a better version of Christopher Nolan’s well-known sci-fi blockbusters. The sentimentality is somewhat stripped down for a more concrete and profound look at the ties that bind us all on earth. It’s a thought-provoking adventure that isn’t about war, but communication instead. Villeneuve once again proves to be the real deal. The 49-year-old Quebecois filmmaker is building up a solid, loyal fan-base that could one day rival Nolan’s. The fact that his next movie is “Blade Runner 2” only gets us more excited about his future.
4. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s follow-up to 2009’s “A Single Man” turned out to be the love it or hate it movie of the fest. Heated debate raged post-screening, with the film’s champions touting it as a provocative depiction of 21st century masculinity, whereas the haters couldn’t look past what they saw as its lurid fiction-within-fiction B-movie plot device. Amy Adams, on fire this fest, plays art gallery owner Susan Morrow, a woman haunted by an old flame (Jake Gyllenhaal) who sends her his latest violent novel “Nocturnal Animals.” Something in the book touches a nerve in Susan and, through flashbacks recounting their failed relationship, we get to see why. To mention any plot points in Ford’s film would be to ruin a nastily satisfying thriller that refuses to balk away from conventions. This wasn’t an easy film to swallow for many, and some of the people I spoke to did in fact have real distaste for it. But it has just enough intrigue and artfulness to prove to the world that, yes, Tom Ford is an extraordinary filmmaker.
5. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Getting lost in the shuffle of Telluride was Joseph Cedar’s English-language debut. After his impressive Israeli film “Footnote” made waves on the international circuit Cedar decided to make this film about New York “fixer” Norman, a crooked man who lies, sways and persuades numerous people of power for his own benefit. As played by Richard Gere, Norman ends up in deep trouble after “helping” an Israeli dignitary who three years later becomes the Israeli Prime Minister. This flawless balancing act of a film had Richard Gere giving an incredibly rich performance that is sly enough to feel fully fleshed out. The wheeling and dealing that the film presents to us is transfixing and feels like new, uncharted cinematic territory. Cedar makes it all work like a pro and the fact that the film, which has a sprawling ambitious plot, doesn’t feel like a mess at all, but instead like a work of art is a testament to its director’s talent.
6. Wakefield 
Wakefield would not be as fascinating if its central performance wasn’t as fully fleshed out as Cranston makes it. In the best performance of his career on the silver screen, it’s made even more impressive by the fact that he is mostly alone for the majority of the film, but what he does is never less than riveting. He infuses his character with humor, heartbreak, and scathing cynicism. His Howard Wakefield is not necessarily a man one is supposed to like and, in many ways, he represents a kind of anti-hero that not many actors could pull off. Swicord, mostly known for her screenplays such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Little Women, shows a surprising amount of restraint as compared to her previous works. Here she makes a film stripped of artifice designed to ponder deep, humane questions about existence. With an ending meant to spark debate and cause both anger and provocation in its audience, Wakefield fights formula and creates its own unique cinematic language.
7. Lady Macbeth
Get ready for a star-in-the-making. Florence Pugh is mesmerizing in “Lady Macbeth,” first-time director Wiliam Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Pugh plays Lady Katherine, a young woman forced into marriage and who decides to take matters into her own hands. Katherine is a woman who defies conventions and will do almost anything to get the freedom she most desperately craves in a society that refuses to give it. Especially if you’re a woman. Her desires and needs are things that come naturally to women in today‘s society (freedom, true love, her own free will), but since this is a story set in Victorian London those things are taboo and punishable. She dares to break those conventions by doing unspeakable things, including murder. Oldroyd has reinvented the genre by injecting a much needed dosage of adrenaline. “Lady Macbeth” is a thriller masquerading as a period piece The critics were unanimous in their praise and Roadside quickly snatched it up not too long after. You’re in for a real treat.
8. Paris Can Wait
Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford’s wife, isn’t well-known as a director. However, her documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about the tumultuous and depressing shoot of her husband’s “Apocalypse Now” stands as a great, important time capsule in film history. She has never really delved into narrative  fiction until now. With “Paris Can Wait,” another underseen Telluride gem, she has made one of the most enjoyably sexy road movies in quite some time. Casting Diane Lane as Anna, an unsatisfied wife whose Hollywood producer husband (Alec Baldwin) is always away on the road, was a stroke of genius. This spiked bonbon of a film has Lane playing Anne, left alone again by her husband this time at the Cannes Film Festival, which leads to her being playfully lured to go on a two-day road trip through the south of France with her Hubby’s business partner Jacques (Arnaud Viard). Jacques delights in showing her a good time, but also doesn’t shy away from telling her how beautiful she is. Their cat and mouse game makes for an intriguing romcom filled with substance.

9. The Edge of Seventeen
A new, unique female voice was discovered with "The Edge of Seventeen." Writer-director Kelly Fremon gave us an incisive look at female teenage-dom. Nadine, a never better Hailee Steinfeld, is already an awkward and isolated high-schooler when she finds out her best friend is dating her older brother, that sets up a chain events that feel both unexpectedly moving and hilarious. A geek kid boy in her class (Hayden Szeto) seems to be the escape she needs, although she isn't sure if she actually like likes him. The top-notch cast is rounded out by Kyra Sedgwick, playing Nadine's mom and Woody Harrelson as Nadine's History teacher, and mentor. The Edge of Seventeen is the most John Hughes-esque film to come around in quite some time. It feeds off of the awkwardness of its characters plights, but also humanizes them in ways that are so rare for the teen movie genre. You could tell Fremon brought some of her own persnal experiences to the table for the film, which is also the funniest movie I have seen so far in 2016.

10. Denial
There’s often a genuine dramatic pull to films in the courtroom drama genre, yet they’ve suffered the last few decades because of the conventional tropes that can come with it. How do you reinvent such a genre to become less predictable and less by-the-books? While Denial doesn’t do anything new on a technical side, it is fully aware of its gripping plot, one that welcomely avoids pushing its inherent clichés to the forefront of its story. The true story centers around the legal battle David Irving (Timothy Spall) and Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) questioning the historical validity of the holocaust. Yes, the story might sound oddly over-the-top, but it did happen. Irving, a man who considers himself a historian, believed the holocaust was a complete hoax. So much so that he decided to bring Lipstadt to court over her book Denying the Holocaust, which he deemed insulting and filled with lies. Lipstadt decided to hire a top-notch legal team, headed up by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), with the financial help of Steven Spielberg among many other celebrities, to prove that Irving was not just a fraud, but a racist man that was filled with hate and craved public attention.

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