TIFF Recap: The Best Movies of the Fest

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In previous years, I would include films in my TIFF recap that had also premiered at Telluride and Venice. But this year’s slate in Toronto was so strong, we can fill a full report with nothing more than the note-worthy world premieres that screened at the festival’s 42nd edition. There was plenty to cheer. Although Venice and Telluride perhaps featured the peak title of the festival season — Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful Roma — TIFF managed to deliver a memorable week. Artistic director Piers Handling and festival programmer Cameron Bailey year’s carved out an outstanding group of films, distinct from the other competitive festivals they compete with every September.
A whopping 35% of this year’s films in Toronto were directed by women, and the effects of that impressive figure were felt throughout the festival’s 10 days of cinema. The names speak for themselves: stalwarts such as Nicole Holofcener, Sara Colangelo, Veena Sud, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Mia Hansen-Løve, Miranda de Pencier, and Stella Meghie each had films to take part this year.

However, it was a legendary master who made the most waves. French director Claire Denis premiered her latest provocation High Life, a sci-fi mind-bender of the highest order starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. While some in in the audience were bewildered, others expressed bliss for this risk-taking endeavor. The mixed reaction in itself seemed to ramp up the excitement. In contrast to all the Oscar-friendly films that premiered here, Denis’ complex exploration of human nature felt like a breath of fresh air, in a work of art that dares us to leap into its twisted and abstract story.
Political docs ran the spectrum of ideologies. Werner Herzog tackled the Soviet collapse in the late ’80s with Meeting Gorbachev; Errol Morris’ controversial American Dharma brought us a fascinating debate between the esteemed filmmaker and notorious alt-right shit-stirrer Steven Bannon; Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes recounted the rise and fall of the late former Fox News chief.
Attracting the most garish attention — Michael Moore’s signature move — Fahrenheit 11/9 kick-started the fest in controversial fashion with a scattershot approach to America’s political landscape. His latest cascade of mini-rants has polarized and infuriated many because not only has Moore chosen to throw darts at Trump, he slings poop at the only party that can stop the insanity. It’s a dubious path to take, given that Moore professes to want to be rid of Trump but he undermines the opposition that has the best chance to do it.
Far more solid highlights included Mid90s which has writer-director Jonah Hill reliving his youth in a skateboard coming of age drama. It focuses on the plight of 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), tormented by his older brother (a surprisingly threatening performance by Lucas Hedges), who decides to take a crack at hanging with the cool kids at a skateboarding store. Hill’s directorial debut shows a relaxed agility for the craft. The screenplay, written by Hill, feels thoroughly authentic, with dialogue that’s delivered with offhand naturalism. Kudos to the actors, each of whom inhabit their roles with the kind of credibility essential to making this kind of movie work.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark is the latest from one of America’s most versatile genre specialists (his third after Blue Ruin and Green Room). This time around we follow an expert in wolf behavior (Jeffrey Wright) as he travels to an Alaskan village to investigate the disappearances of three children, who may or may not have been killed by wolves. Saulnier escalates his trademark flair for visceral violence, so we feel every punch, every bullet wound, every stab of the knife. For those who like a thriller that verges on horror, this is the ticket to that nightmare.
Five TIFF premieres rise above the rest in terms of hot buzz:
Green Book
The very worthy winner of the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is the dictionary definition of crowd-pleaser. Featuring one of the funniest scripts I’ve seen in ages, it has immense relevance to America’s current flareup of racial animosity. It’s the true story of an Italian-American driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) hired in the early ’60s to drive renowned African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour through racist bible-belt states. From casting, to direction, to wry witty writing, this movie fires on all cylinders.
The Hate U Give
Perhaps the most unexpected pleasure of the fest. Based on the popular YA novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, George Tillman Jr’s The Hate U Give may be the best such adaptation of the decade. Centers around the Black Lives Matter movement, the film follows Starr, a promising student whose life is upended, then galvanized, when her friend is senselessly shot dead by police.
Widows
When a gang of high-end robbers are killed, their resourceful widows turn to criminal tactics to fend off the aggressive mobsters who come calling. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki are the trio who band together to pull off a daring heist to pay back the hustlers that are after them (led by a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya). Director Steve McQueen dives headlong into exuberant mainstream filmmaking by bending the cliches backward and creating a fascinating hybrid, a film quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was such a universally praised film that whatever he made next would inevitably face with tremendously high hopes. If Beale Street Could Talk meets and exceeds those expectations. Jenkins has given us a masterful adaption James Baldwin’s classic 1974 novel, whose themes of social boundaries, crippling poverty, and racial injustice resonate as much now as ever. A top-notch cast, including the knockout leads, KiKi Layne and Stephan orchestrate a vividly realized tone poem that’s destined to earn acclaim throughout the season.
Gloria Bell
Sebastian Lelio has re-imagined his own 2013 film “Gloria,” by transposing the story from his native Chile to the U.S. It might be sacrilege to say, but this shot-for-shot remake might even be better than the original. This new version feels more effective and emotionally relatable. More importantly, his characters have now been endowed with added depth, thanks largely to the impeccable cast. Julianne Moore gave one of her greatest performances in the role of a middle-aged woman that makes the mistake of dating a troublesome schlub of a man (John Turturro).