The 23 Absolute Must-See Films at TIFF 2016

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The 23 Absolute Must-See Films at TIFF 2016

After a couple of years of weak programs, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) appears to be back with a vengeance. Not one but two Jim Jarmusch films. Not one but two new Werner Herzog films. Wim Wenders. Paul Schrader. Jonathan Demme. Pedro Almodovar. And that’s just some of the established masters. We created a special list at the bottom of this article for those guys and guys like them, since it’s not really fair to compare them to, say, someone’s debut feature. But on the general list, we have the most controversial film of the year, the most anticipated film of the fall, and the best narrative film of the year so far. And that’s just the beginning! Here are the films we think are must-sees at this year’s festival. What did we miss? Tell us in the comments below.

American Honey

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) won the Jury Prize at Cannes for her first film set in America, about a crew of hard-partying teenagers criss-crossing the Midwest while working as traveling magazine salesmen.
The Key Players: Director Andrea Arnold; Riley Keough, Shia LaBeouf
The Draw: Paste Chief Film Critic Tim Grierson is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and he loved this film at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize. That’s enough for me.


Aquarius

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The Category: Contemporary World Cinema
The TIFF Synopsis: The magnificent Sônia Braga stars in the new film by acclaimed Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds), about a retired music critic battling a corrupt real-estate firm as she struggles to hold on to her apartment.
The Key Players: Director Kleber Mendonça Filho; Sônia Braga
The Draw: Word is that the hype on Braga’s performance is justified; it’s the performance I keep hearing the most about, pre-festival.


The Birth of a Nation

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Writer-director Nate Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s KKK-boosting 1916 milestone for this epic chronicle of the life of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion against white plantation owners in 1831 Virginia.
The Key Players: Director Nate Parker; Armie Hammer
The Draw: We’d go to see any biopic on Nat Turner. One starring Nate Parker, one of the finest young actors currently working, is especially appealing. But one also written and directed by Parker? Where do I sign? (Postscript: And it’s now become the most controversial film of the year. We’re not touching the controversy with a ten-foot pole, thank you very much)


Blue Jay

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Meeting by chance when they return to their tiny California hometown, two former high-school sweethearts (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) reflect on their shared past through the lens of their differently dissatisfied presents, in this tender, wise and affecting chamber drama from first-time feature director Alex Lehmann.
The Key Players: Director Alex Lehmann; Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson
The Draw: At this point, you’re either in or you’re out on this kind of movie, especially starring Mark Duplass. I’m 100% in.


Buster’s Mal Heart

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The Category: Vanguard
The TIFF Synopsis: A troubled man (Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek) on the run recalls the mysterious events that brought him to his present fugitive state, in the enigmatic, elliptical and moving second feature from director Sarah Adina Smith (The Midnight Swim).
The Key Players: Director Sarah Adina Smith; Rami Malek, Kate Lyn Sheil
The Draw: Maybe you saw The Midnight Swim and know what a gifted and mysterious storyteller Sarah Adina Smith is. Maybe you saw any one of Kate Lyn Sheil’s many roles over the last decade most recently the stunning lead role in Kate Plays Christine, and know what a treasure she is. Or maybe you’re just a big Mr. Robot fan and want to see more of Rami Malek. Doesn’t matter. We’ll all be watching together, each for our own reasons.


By the Time It Gets Dark

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The Category: Wavelengths
The TIFF Synopsis: The delicately poetic second feature by Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong weaves together multiple stories and characters to create a portrait of a beautiful country haunted by its troubled history.
The Key Players: Director Anocha Suwichakornpong
The Draw: A slow, beautifully shot character study from a Thai director? Sounds like a winner, and not just because it sounds like the second coming of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Although that doesn’t hurt.


Catfight

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: A reunion between two old school friends (Sandra Oh and Anne Heche) sparks a no-holds-barred war of attrition, in this outrageously madcap black comedy.
The Key Players: Director Onur Turkel; Anne Heche, Sandra Oh
The Draw: Turkel’s natural Woody-Allen-meets-Jason-Alexander personality was always a lot of fun onscreen in his more traditional dialogue-driven indies, but now that he’s doing indie horror films, the mix is even more fascinating. And he’s a fantastic writer. Anne Heche has been quietly building up quite a string of very funny performances recently, beginning with 2012’s That’s What She Said. And who doesn’t love Sandra Oh?


Free Fire

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The Category: Midnight Madness
The TIFF Synopsis: Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Cillian Murphy star in the hotly anticipated new film by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise), about a weapons deal gone wrong that escalates into a manic, bullet-riddled standoff inside an abandoned warehouse.
The Key Players: Director Ben Wheatley; Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy
The Draw: Last year, Wheatley’s High-Rise was easily the most polarizing film in the festival. But even those who didn’t think it worked knew that there was some massive talent in Wheatley. Hit or miss, you can bet that Free Fire won’t be boring. And Larson and Murphy are always worth watching, no matter what.


In the Radiant City

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The Category: Discovery
The TIFF Synopsis: Writer-director Rachel Lambert makes a striking debut with this enigmatic family drama about a prodigal son’s return to his family and hometown, and the demons stirred by his arrival.
The Key Players: Director Rachel Lambert
The Draw: Jeff Nichols executive produced this film, which would already put it on my “must” list. But I also saw an insanely crazy Southern comedy this year called Elbow Grease (it actually premiered at my festival), and the highlight was a completely over-the-top, utterly hilarious turn by Michael Abbott Jr. Word is that he’s just as effective playing restrained emotional drama in this film.


The Ivory Game

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Wildlife activists and investigators put their lives on the line to battle the illegal African ivory trade, in this suspenseful on-the-ground documentary.
The Key Players: Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani; Producer Leonardo DiCaprio
The Draw: I’m as skeptical as anyone about celebrity activism, and Lord knows DiCaprio has made some missteps that make him an easy target for haters. But let’s not let the messenger get in the way of the message—this looks to be a well-told yarn, and a worthwhile one.


Jackie

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The Category: Platform
The TIFF Synopsis: Provocative Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, No) depicts the events leading up to and following the assassination of JFK through the eyes of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman).
The Key Players: Director Pablo Larraín; Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
The Draw: Natalie Portman as Jackie O? And you seriously need anything else to convince you?


Katie Says Goodbye

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The Category: Discovery
The TIFF Synopsis: A truck-stop waitress (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) believes she has found a way out of her dead end when she falls in love with a handsome young mechanic, in this heartrending character study co-starring Christopher Abbott (James White), Mary Steenburgen, and Jim Belushi.
The Key Players: Director Wayne Roberts; Christopher Abbott
The Draw: At one point in the longer synopsis, the TIFF programmer says the film is “shot through with the poignant lyricism of a Tom Waits ballad.” Sold.


La La Land

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: An ambitious jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom, in this dazzlingly stylized homage to the classic Hollywood musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle.
The Key Players: Director Damien Chazelle; Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
The Draw: If you don’t want to see this one, especially after its rapturous reception at Venice, you might be a little dead inside. My #1 most anticipated film of the festival.


Loving

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The Category: Gala Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Jeff Nichols (Mud) directs Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who waged a decade-long legal battle that led to the overturning of the state of Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriage.
The Key Players: Director Jeff Nichols; Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga
The Draw: The only reason Jeff Nichols is not in the “Masters” section is a lack of name recognition for the casual film fan; by virtue of the quality of his work, he absolutely belongs there. Plus, it’s my bet that this film wins the Oscar. Whether it does or not, if it’s not a great film, it’ll be the first not-great film he’s ever done.


Manchester by the Sea

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler star in this emotionally overwhelming and critically acclaimed drama from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), about a reclusive handyman who must face his painful past when he returns to his Massachusetts hometown after the sudden death of his beloved older brother.
The Key Players: Director Kenneth Lonergan; Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
The Draw: Simply the best narrative film I’ve seen all year. And all of last year. And maybe the year before. It’s stunning, heartbreaking, devastating, and unforgettable. And Casey Affleck … man. Print the Oscar plaque now.


Moonlight

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The Category: Platform
The TIFF Synopsis: The second feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) follows its young protagonist from childhood to adulthood as he navigates both the dangers of drugs and violence in his depressed Florida neighborhood, and his complex love for his best friend.
The Key Players: Director Barry Jenkins
The Draw: Probably the one new film I’m hearing the most buzz about. The cinematography looks gorgeous, the premise is intriguing, and A24 has fantastic curatorial taste. I can’t wait for this one.


Nocturnal Animals

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer headline the second feature from director Tom Ford (A Single Man), about a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband.
The Key Players: Director Tom Ford; Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer
The Draw: More skepticism overcome—who would have believed that fashion wunderkind Tom Ford would have come up with as confident and accomplished a directorial debut as 2009’s A Single Man? It will be interesting to see whether he’s able to build on that promising beginning.


Queen of Katwe

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The Category: Gala Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: David Oyelowo (Selma) and Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) star in the true story of a young girl from rural Uganda (played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) who discovers a passion for chess, and sets out to pursue her dream of becoming an international champion.
The Key Players: Director Mira Nair; David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o
The Draw: Oyelowo, who was utterly robbed of an Oscar nomination for Selma and has already turned in one Oscar-worthy performance this year (in Maris Curran’s Five Nights in Maine), comes to TIFF with lead roles in two high profile films (this one and A United Kingdom). They both look intriguing, but the positive buzz is especially strong around this one.


The Salesman

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: A sudden eruption of violence creates an atmosphere of simmering tension between a husband and wife, in this work of slow-burning domestic suspense from Academy Award-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation).
The Key Players: Director Asghar Farhadi
The Draw: Wait, did you not see A Separation? If so, you know what the draw is. If not, go watch it on your favorite streaming platform. Farhadi is a stone cold master.


Things to Come

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The Category: Special Presentations
The TIFF Synopsis: French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden, Goodbye First Love) directs the great Isabelle Huppert in this delicate and affecting tale about a middle-aged professor whose carefully structured life is thrown into disarray when her husband leaves her for another woman, and who finds an unlikely new companion in a former student and radical young communist.
The Key Players: Director Mia Hansen-Løve
The Draw: The website Grantland used to run a feature called “Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated.” It seems that, somehow, many women directors these days are either completely overlooked because they are women, or overly praised because they are women. I’m not sure what causes the division. But I do know this—Mia Hansen-Løve is a festival darling for a reason. She’s absolutely Properly Rated. Which makes every one of her films a must see


Tramps

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The Category: Contemporary World Cinema
The TIFF Synopsis: A young man and woman find love in an unlikely place while carrying out a shady deal, in this charming romantic adventure from writer-director Adam Leon.
The Key Players: Director Adam Leon
The Draw: Leon’s directing debut, Gimme the Loot, was a festival hit for a reason—it displayed a wonderfully sensitive ear for the way young urban youth talk to each other, and don’t talk to each other. Some critics might be disappointed that he’s returned for another story of a pair of young people in New York City, but I can’t wait to see what he’s got for us this time.


The Unknown Girl

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The Category: Masters
The TIFF Synopsis: After refusing to answer a late-night knock on her clinic door, a doctor seeks to uncover the truth behind the mysterious death of her unidentified caller, in this social-realist procedural from Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
The Key Players: Directors Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
The Draw: Much like with Nichols (Loving, above), the only thing keeping this film off the Masters list is a lack of name recognition for fans who concentrate more on American films. But fans of foreign films know that the brothers have been churning out little masterpieces for a long, long time, and their work is, if anything, getting better as they age.


We Are Never Alone

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The Category: Contemporary World Cinema
The TIFF Synopsis: The unhappy lives of a shop clerk, a bouncer, a stripper, and a prison guard intersect in this nihilistic black comedy set in an isolated central European town.
The Key Players: Director Petr Vaclav
The Draw: Honestly? I just directed an ensemble film about intersecting lives myself. I want to compare notes. But even if you’re not in the same boat, how about the prospect of uncovering the next Czech Robert Altman? You just never know.


MASTERS SECTION
Oh yeah … and some of these guys will be there, too.

Abacus (Steve James)
Beautiful Days (Wim Wenders)
Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader)
Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch)
Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)
 Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)
Julieta (Pedro Almodovar)
Mascots (Christopher Guest)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog)
Secret Scripture (Jim Sheridan)
Snowden (Oliver Stone)
Voyage of Time (Terence Malick)

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