Ask anybody who’s been making the trek to the Great White North every September for the Toronto International Film Festival for a while to define what, exactly, the annual event represents, besides 11 days (September 4th-14th) of gorging on movies, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Is it the official start of the awards season, when studios drag out the big guns (The Judge, Wild, The Theory of Everything) and the fall’s prestige films start building up hype? Is it a chance to check out the cream of Cannes’ crop, as well as some of the best of Sundance (Whiplash, The Guest) and beyond? Is this where you go to see the latest high-fiber documentaries? Or the high-calorie midnight-movie offerings from around the globe? Or bleeding edge of experimental shorts and boundary-pushing “Wavelength” features? Or….
Yes, yes, yes, and yes: TIFF is indeed all of those things, which is why adventurous movie lovers keep making the trek every year. You do get to see the pacesetters early on, true — but you also get a well-rounded diet of everything under the cinematic sun, there for the perusing and picking should you want the whole experience. Our round-up of the best of this year’s fest will go up next week, but until then, here are 25 movies we’re looking forward to checking out, or in a few cases, seeing again. The viewing begins now.
The 50 Year Argument
A documentary about the New York Review of Books — co-directed by Martin Scorsese? It may seem like an odd fit at first glance, but this incisive, lively portrait of the venerable publication and its editor-in-chief Bob Silvers doubles as a tribute to Scorsese’s beloved hometown and its history of producing and nurturing intellectual raging bulls, most of whom duked it out on the Review‘s pages. Everyone from Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer to Michael Chabon drop by for guest appearances.
As in 1971, the year that a fresh-faced British soldier (Jack O’Connell, star of the stellar prison drama Starred Up and Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken; he’s having a very good year) finds himself shipped out to Northern Ireland. The country’s civil war is hitting a boiling point; when he’s separated from his platoon, the young man finds himself a stranger in a strange, incredibly hostile land. Word on the street is that former TV director Yann Demange has delivered an airtight, almost unbearably tense political thriller.
Fans of the Oscar-nominated Bullhead (2011) had wondered what Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam was going to do for a follow-up. The answer is an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane short story (who also wrote the screenplay) about a slow-witted bartender, an abandoned puppy, some outer borough tough guys and a robbery gone very, very wrong. Playing the slow neighborhood local, Tom Hardy shows the kind of sensitivity and range that suggests he’s got more than Mad Max or mumblin’ Batman villains up his sleeve. But it’s the performance of James Gandolfini, in his final role, that’s likely to stay with you the longest after the credits roll.
The Duke of Burgundy
Borgen fans, take note: the show’s prime minister, Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, plays an aristocrat obsessed with butterflies and her comely new housekeeper in this stylish pomo throwback to Seventies sexploitation films. Everyone else should just know that director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) has stocked the movie with lots of thrills, chills and S&M-tinged power struggles.
Oh, to be young and French in the early Nineties, when DJs and dance music were the next big thing for Parisian youth culture. One kid (Félix de Givry) decides to pair with a friend and form a techno-house duo called Cheers; two of their buddies also team up and give themselves some silly name — Daft Punk. Mia Hansen-Løve’s take on the rise of Gallic EDM sounds like one hell of a BPM rush. Yes, that’s Greta Gerwig as the American romantic interest.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
Ninjas! Biceps! Breakdancing! Competitive arm-wrestling! This documentary on the rise of Eighties exploitation juggernaut Cannon Films promises a lot of nostalgic pulpy pleasures, cheesy clips galore and a whole lot of grunting. Of all the fest’s Midnight Madness selections, this may be the one we’re looking forward to catching the most.
A breakout film from this year’s Cannes, the latest from Swedish director Ruben Östlund (Play) watches as a family on a skiing vacation find themselves in the middle of an avalanche — and then dealing with the domestic-crisis fallout once Dad abandons Mom and the kids once disaster strikes.
The Oscar buzz surrounding Steve Carell — yes, that Steve Carell — in this based-on-a-true-story drama about eccentric heir John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) has gone from white-noise chatter to damn near deafening in the last few weeks. All we know is that filmmaker Bennett Miller has a great track record (Capote, Moneyball) and that the dead-eyed, prosthetic-heavy appearance of Carell in the trailer gives us a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Good Kill
Because who doesn’t like a good moral-free-fall-over-issuing-drone-strikes drama now and again? Director Andrew Niccol reunites with his Gattaca star Ethan Hawke for this character study about a drone operator whose psychologically coming apart at the seams.
The Imitation Game
The year is 1938, the Nazis are preparing to take on the world and British cryptanalyst Alan Turing has been enlisted by the government to crack the Enigma code. His efforts will end up turning the tide of WWII. No less than Sherlock himself, a.k.a. Benedict Cumberbatch, plays the man of the hour. Sold!
The metaphor couldn’t be more obvious — a mysterious something-or-other that stalks people is transmitted by sexual contact — but festival-circuit hounds testufy that what indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) does with this concept and a minimalist aesthetic is nothing short of amazing. We’ve been due for a genuinely creepy lo-fi, low-budget horror movie for a while now, so bring it on.
The Look of Silence
In his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer allowed former government-sanctioned Indonesian murders to re-enact their crimes. Now, for his follow-up, he tracks a family who confronts one of these men and demand to know why one of their own was killed.
Love and Mercy
A Brian Wilson biopic could be great or grating — it’s really a 50/50 proposition. But when you have Paul Dano playing the young Beach Boy, John Cusack (!) as the older version of the songwriting genius and Paul Giamatti (!!!) as Wilson’s therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, the notion that this could be the first option seems more than possible. In other words: Don’t worry, baby.
In which David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) tries to do for Al Pacino what he did for Nicolas Cage — remind us that an over-the-top star can still be nuanced when he wants to be — in Joe. We’ve heard that Shouty Al sits this one out, and that Sensitive Character Actor Al (think Donnie Brasco) is in full effect here. We can only say “Hoo-HAA!” to that.
Mike Leigh does for the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner what he did for Gilbert and Sullivan in his earlier Topsy-Turvy: bypass the stuffiness of historical there-goeth-the-great-man biopics and go straight for the earthiness, the messy humanity and the labor that goes into making something look effortless. Not the film skimps on the painterly beauty or the brilliant performances — Timothy Spall earned his Best Actor prize at Cannes. You just don’t get the usual trapped-in-amber sense that plagues such movies.
Ever wonder what Taxi Driver would have been like if Jake Gyllenhaal had been cast as Travis Bickle? Us neither, but his portrayal of a sociopathic go-getter who nudges his way into the world of freelance crime-scene cameramen is as close as you’ll ever get to seeing the Brokeback Mountain actor portray God’s Lonely Man, wandering the streets of L.A. with a camcorder and a complete lack of morals.
That would be Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian filmmaker, poet and provocateur who ended up being murdered by some rough trade he picked up. Whoever had the genius idea of giving Abel Ferrara the money to make this and allowed him to cast Willem Dafoe as the late director, we say bellisima.
Roger Waters The Wall
Part rock documentary, part narrative journey through its creator’s life, this look at the former Pink Floyd singer-songwriter’s epic 2013 tour/theatrical reimagining of The Wall is, by all accounts, a must-see for fans of Waters and the 1979 concept album. Play it loud. No, really, play it very loud.
Having wowed Telluride fest crowds and garnered standing ovations, this screen version of an Iranian-Canadian journalist being imprisoned and tortured is well on its way to being a serious awards-season stunner. Yes, it may forever be known as the movie that Jon Stewart took a Daily Show sabbatical to make, but the comedian’s deft hand in directing drama and Gael García Bernal’s performance as the tortured reporter makes this, according to those who’ve seen it, one for the ages.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Documentarian Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac) digs into the case of a serial killer who plagued South Central L.A. for a quarter of a century — and how the case and conviction of a prime suspect sheds light on how race, class and economic adversity play a role in our social justice system.
The talk of the town when it premiered at Cannes last spring, this African melodrama about jihadi extremists and what happens when a shepherd runs afoul of the fundamentalist powers that be was said to have reduced audiences to tears. Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sisshako (Bamako) has long deserved a bigger audience in the West; this devastating tale may be the one that finally gets him his due.
Time Out of Mind
If you happened to see those pictures of a homeless guy who looks a lot like Richard Gere that were circulating a while back, well, guess what? The actor was going deep undercover for his role as a man living on the streets and trying desperately to reconnect with his grown daughter (Jena Malone). Filmmaker Oren Moverman was responsible for both the muted military drama The Messenger and the take-no-prisoners cop movie Rampart, which makes us think that any potential TV-movie-of-the-week clichés are likely to be M.I.A. here.
Modern-day Renaissance Man Chris Rock writes, directs and stars in the story of a stand-up comic who, after getting a torn apart by a vicious New York Times review, decides to do some soul-searching and make a serious drama. Whether his latest turn behind the camera is semi-autobiographical or not remains to be seen, but the fact that the cast is stocked with virtually every major working African-American comedian not named Chappelle or Buress has us intrigued.
While We’re Young
The new Noah Baumbach joint stars not one but two Heartbreak Kids (Charles Grodin and Ben Stiller), a Mulholland Drive vet (Naomi Watts), the handsome fuck-up from Girls (Adam Driver) and the Beastie Boys’ Ad Rock (Adam Horowitz). As if that cast were not enough enticement, the press notes make it sound as if the director’s latest is a fusing of Greenberg’s middle-aged sad-sackitude and Frances Ha’s nouveau boho malaise. That sound you just heard was a number of Noah-heads squealing with joy.
“Wild,” apparently, doesn’t begin to describe this Argentine anthology of loosely connected, vignettes — involving out-of-control air transportation, out-of-control wedding receptions, out-of-control vehicular abuse — that come together, Voltron-style, to form one cracked look at vengeance and modern society. The combo of humor and violence had a lot of Cannes festgoers throwing around Tarantino comparisons; others said it was sui generis. Either way, we’re so there.