Film & TV

10 Films That Should Be on Your Radar at TIFF

This year's iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival features a plethora of leading ladies and Bradley Cooper's directorial debut.
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Organizers of the mammoth-sized Toronto International Film Festival have already made it resoundingly clear they would use their event’s incredible reach to mark their first edition in a post-#MeToo world. For starters, 34 percent of the films selected are directed by women (a much better ratio than the other top-tier festivals), and they’ve cataloged 136 female leads among the 343 titles screening this year.

Then there’s TIFF’s very first “Share Her Journey” rally to be held on the morning of September 8, featuring inspiring voices such as Canadian actor Mia Kirshner, co-founder of #AfterMeToo. As for the films themselves, TIFF always leaves moviegoers feeling spoiled for choice.

On the documentary front, look out for Errol Morris’s confrontational sit-down with far-right mogul Steve Bannon (American Dharma). Among titles heading to TIFF in full-blown Oscar campaign mode is Sundance favorite The Kindergarten Teacher, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the titular professor whose support for a gifted student teeters on the edge of obsession. And fellow Sundance breakout Monsters and Men, about a Brooklyn community grappling with the death of a Black man shot by police, which will be introduced on opening night by hometown hero Drake. Otherwise, we’ve sifted through the Canadian fest’s extensive selection to point out 10 titles we can’t wait to see.  

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

No Canadian feature has more buzz building around it than Xavier Dolan’s long-awaited English-language debut, with a stellar cast that includes Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, and Kathy Bates. Donovan recounts the epistolary relationship between the now-deceased US TV star (Kit Harrington) and an obsessive young fan/aspiring actor (Jacob Tremblay and Ben Schnetzer)—how it turns their worlds upside down and impacts each of their lives. Earlier this year, Dolan passed on an invite from Cannes (the film wasn’t yet ready) and reluctantly announced he was removing Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist character from the movie (her villain subplot no longer worked). This September we’ll finally see how the French-Canadian writer-director has weaved together his long-gestating story about dreams, fame and a life lived with integrity.

Life

There are two high-profile sci-fi dramas by acclaimed filmmakers and starring prime Hollywood heartthrobs premiering in Toronto. Given Damien Chazelle’s First Man has already monopolized early festival coverage for his Apollo 11 moon landing-themed reteaming with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, we decided to focus on the promising outer space provocation of Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail). In her English-language debut, the brilliant French auteur casts art-house darling Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André Benjamin as a ragtag bunch of convicts who set off on intergalactic missions to find alternative sources of energy (!). The deep space script is co-written by beloved novelist Zadie Smith and TIFF programmers are comparing it to the work of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Nuff said.

If Beale Street Could Talk

In what appears to be the perfect follow-up to Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning film Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk marks only the third time late American novelist James Baldwin’s oeuvre has been brought to the big screen—2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro and 1998 French feature À la Place du Cœur (another adaptation of Beale Street) being the other two. In this 1970s Harlem-set love story, a young couple’s relationship and livelihood are put to the test when fiancé Fonny is falsely accused of rape. His love, Tish, sets out to prove his innocence and get him out of jail before giving birth to their first child. Who better than Jenkins to translate the deeply poignant lyricism of Baldwin into cinematic form? As the trailer, released on what would have been the writer’s 94th birthday, confirms, we can expect smoldering gazes and hushed intimacy graciously illuminated by the soft glow of streetlights.

Vox Lux

The second Natalie Portman title on this list, the Oscar-winning Black Swan actress carries this musical drama about the changing fortunes of international pop star Celeste over a decades-spanning story arc, set between 1999 and present day. Actor-turned-director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader) broaches the dissolving divide between private and public through the lens of a young woman who survives a traumatic shooting only to become an entertainment juggernaut left to balance motherhood with a scandal-plagued career. Australian singer-songwriter Sia and avant-garde experimentalist Scott Walker provide the score, Jude Law takes on the part of Portman’s overbearing manager, and the costume department has a ball with seriously dramatic sequined dresses.

Beautiful Boy

2017’s award-season prodigy Timothée Chalamet goes from precocious teen questioning his sexuality in Call Me By Your Name to a wayward teen struggling with a meth addiction in the guaranteed tear-jerker Beautiful Boy, produced by Amazon Studios. Steve Carell and Chalamet portray David and Nic Sheff, a real-life father and son who wrote a pair of best-selling memoirs (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak) chronicling the ups and downs of a family left to contend with a helpless son and his heartbreaking addiction. The first English-language film from Belgian filmmaker Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) promises no perfectly packaged Hollywood recovery arc but plenty of relapses, death scares and, yes, waterworks.

Gloria Bell

Remaking your own film in another language is a highly perilous task and one that’s seldom been carried out admirably. But Academy Award winner Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) did such a great job with his 2013 character study of a free-spirited, fifty-something divorcee looking for love on the mature dance floors of Santiago, Chile that we trust his eponymous heroine can be made just as full-dimensional when the language shifts to English, the setting to Los Angeles, and the heroine to Julianne Moore. Having hung out with his mother and her friends to conduct research while writing the original script, Lelio’s observations about a generation of women in middle age and rendered invisible by a youth-obsessed society were sensitive and spot-on. About the remake, Lelio told The Hollywood Reporter last year: “It's going to be like jazz, you’ll feel the spirit of the original story but it’ll be re-invigorated and vital."

Climax

Shot with a handheld camera over two weeks, based on a one-page outline, featuring a cast of racially and sexually diverse young dancers and set entirely inside a Paris rehearsal studio, the Franco-Argentine director’s latest came out of Cannes being hailed as his most accomplished project yet. For a guy whose entire career has involved memorable cinematic provocations from a profoundly distressing rape-revenge feature (Irréversible) to a pornographic 3D relationship melodrama (Love), that’s saying a lot. Climax taps into Noé’s fascination with corporeal language, as a fictional troupe of hip-hop dancers drinks from an LSD-spiked sangria bowl and progressively descends into depraved techno musical terrain. To prep for their psychedelic performances, his voguers, krumpers and assorted dancers were made to watch a playlist of videos of folks going bananas while under the influence.

Quincy

The most nominated person in the history of the Grammy Awards (79 noms, 27 wins). The first African American VP of Mercury Records in the 1960s. The producer responsible for Michael Jackson’s number one best-selling album, Thriller. For a biopic to deftly delve into the legendary 85-year-old producer’s compelling life and towering contributions to music, Netflix needed to tap the right folks. Thankfully, documentarian Alan Hicks and Quincy Jones’ multihyphenate daughter Rashida were up for the challenge, and what they’re promising is a career-spanning look—and insider take—on his most significant achievements, from his early days at a trumpeter to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. If it’s anything like the candid and hilarious interview he gave earlier this year to Vulture, we can’t wait.

A Star Is Born

A number of celebrated male thespians are unveiling their directorial debuts at this year’s festival—the chameleonic, delightfully unconventional Paul Dano (Wildfire), Jonah Hill (Mid90s) and French heartthrob Louis Garrel (A Faithful Man) among them. But Bradley Cooper’s is the one on everyone’s lips, if only for the fact that he’s adapting a 1937 romantic-drama that’s already been remade twice before: as a 1954 Judy Garland version and a 1976 rock musical with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Here, he casts himself as a hard-drinking country musician who quickly becomes smitten with timid songwriter and fledgling star Ally, played by none other than mother monster Lady Gaga, who contributed original songs to the film. Cooper and Gaga shot scenes at Coachella and Glastonbury for the sake of authenticity, and Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, and Sam Elliott round out the cast.

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy

Based on Savannah Knoop's 2008 tell-all memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, audiences are finally being treated to an A-list Hollywood retelling of the greatest turn-of-the-century literary hoax. Chosen to close out the festival, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy stars Kristen Stewart as Knoop, a young woman who spends years pretending to be the enigmatic, gender-fluid teen/bestselling author JT Leroy in public—a character created by her sister-in-law and writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern). Penning magic-realist books under the JT pseudonym about the queer rural teen’s purported experiences being raised by a prostitute mom, Albert created a blond-wig-and-shades-sporting literary persona from scratch. Celebs from Winona Ryder to Courtney Love gravitated around JT’s attractive orbit, and both the fashion world and underground lit circles just couldn’t get enough of the bold-faced lie. Now writer-director Justin Kelly (King Cobra) takes a stab at telling this compelling story about our obsession with celebrity and the fluidity of identity, based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Knoop.  

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6 through 16.

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