It’s ironic that somewhat of a kerfuffle has arisen about the Toronto International Film Festival as it turns 40, as some high-placed critics have begun to wonder if it hasn’t grown too big. (The festival showed 296 features this year.) Ironic because this year’s TIFF featured most of our very favorite films of the year. Not all of them premiered in Toronto, to be sure, but not every critic can attend every one, or even most, of the major festivals. Trips to Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Telluride (among others) are expensive. So for our money, there’s something to be said for collecting most of the “best of the year,” premieres or not (now, as to all the decidedly average movies—and worse—at the fest, point well taken). And so it is that we present to you what is likely a telling preview of our end-of-year list—the very best movies from TIFF 2016.
Full disclosure—I’m not the biggest fan of science fiction. But this is the kind of science fiction I can get behind, using the genre to explore larger issues in ways that are impossible outside those bounds. This is science fiction along the lines of Contact, of Interstellar, of Inception, and at its best, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arrival doesn’t scale the philosophical and spiritual heights of that last film, of course, but it’s to his credit that director Denis Villeneuve even tries to get into that range. The plot, such that it is, revolves around a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) trying to help decode the language of aliens who have landed a dozen massive ships in various parts of the Earth. But that plot is interwoven with a mysterious connection to a daughter she lost, and other unexplained phenomena. Part of the fun is seeing the mysteries unravel, so I won’t go any further. But Arrival is certainly worth the experience if you like your sci-fi heady and pensive. And—need it even be said?—Adams is fantastic in the lead role. —M.D.
Neruda is an existential chase picture, one in which the hunted and the pursuer start off in their own films that slowly meld into one. Director Pablo Larraín (also the man behind Jackie) tells the story of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s (Luis Gnecco) attempts to avoid capture after a 1948 government crackdown on communists. But the intricacies of that cat-and-mouse chase become less important than a general investigation into feelings of exile and vicarious connection to a famous person you’ve never met. The film starts off witty, stylish and irreverent, but it ends up elegiac and unexpectedly touching. —T.G.
How has this documentary not been made before? Along with spiders and snakes, rats have a particularly horrific hold on our deepest fears. (I’d argue they’re first in that list of three.) Why? Morgan Spurlock sets out not only to explore that question, but also to examine different reactions to rats around the world—from a New York City exterminator who couldn’t have been written any better in a scripted feature, to rat hunters in England and India, to a temple where live rats are actually worshipped as ancestors. And that’s just the beginning. You won’t see a documentary this year more cringeworthy and horrifying, and yet so engaging. You won’t be able to look away. And you definitely won’t be able to look at your home the same way ever again. —M.D.
Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu makes films that are, in the best sense, endurance tests. Working with long running times and delaying audience gratification, the man behind The Death of Mr. Lazarescu uses duration as a weapon, immersing us in his characters’ unhappy worlds so that we understand and, more importantly, feel their experience. Sieranevada doesn’t alter that formula, placing us inside the home of a brittle family reunion and then not letting us leave. At almost three hours, Puiu’s latest tries your patience, but that’s partly by design: This is a movie filled with characters who don’t really want to be there either. —T.G.
21. Katie Says Goodbye
The premise of the starry-eyed if simple-minded innocent being punished over and over by a cruel world is a well-established one in both literature and film. But Wayne Roberts somehow finds new ground to plow with it in Katie Says Goodbye, in great part through remarkable performances by Olivia Cooke and Christopher Abbott. Katie lives in rural Arizona and works at a roadside truck stop when she’s not turning tricks for the money she needs to support herself and her mother. But “turning tricks” makes it seem seedier than it is in the film. Katie doesn’t seem to be adversely affected at all by occasional prostitution, at least not until others’ attitudes toward it threaten her joy—not only the reaction of the newly found love of her life (Abbott), but of two of his sexually frustrated coworkers as well. Katie isn’t an easy watch, to be sure, but it’s very well executed and deeply felt. And it’s always a joy to see a film where the director is so obviously in love with his lead character. —M.D.
20. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Documentary master Steve James is the undisputed heavyweight champion of using a micro focus to explore big issues. With the exception of Roger Ebert, none of his subjects have been famous, or highly placed, or seemingly especially influential. But in telling their small stories he illuminates the world. Hoop Dreams was, of course, the perfect expression of that—by bringing us into the worlds of two young African-American basketball players hoping to make the NBA one day, he explored some of the largest themes in American life—race, class, poverty, education, social dysfunction, athletics and many more. He’s at it again with Abacus. On one level, it’s a misleadingly straightforward story of one Asian-American family’s fight to defend their bank against the government lawsuit that threatens it. (They are the only bank to be indicted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.) It works purely as a fascinating procedural, but as always James has larger things on his mind. The viewer emerges with an answer to the legal issue, but with more questions than ever about what got us into the situation in the first place, and into how we reacted, and why. —M.D.
19. Certain Women
The silence speaks volumes in Kelly Reichardt’s films. In works like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she has explored how people spend most of their day thinking, not talking, and that perhaps those quiet moments can be as revealing of character as anything that comes out of their mouths. Reichardt’s less-is-so-much-more approach is again on display beautifully in Certain Women, a series of three barely interconnected stories in which the empty spaces are pregnant with meaning and resonance. Every small moment feels thoughtfully considered, fully lived-in. Featuring expert minimalist performances from the likes of Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams, the film seeps into the skin and expands in the mind. —T.G.
18. In the Radiant City
It’s always impressive when an actor can play the lead in a movie where nothing much happens in the plot, and turn in a performance you can’t look away from. That’s what Michael Abbott Jr. does in In the Radiant City. Director Rachel Lambert has obviously learned well from her producer, the director Jeff Nichols, as she builds the film’s tension around untold mysteries and intense performances. It feels like a Nichols film, and in a good way. And it’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Zoe White, who also shot Catfight. —M.D.
17. Karl Marx City
I have to admit, I wasn’t intrigued by the description of Karl Marx City—dreary East German setting, first person narrative, etc. But I was drawn in by comments of the PR rep, who I know has good taste, and, man, was I rewarded. Petra Epperlein set out (along with cinematographer and co-director Michael Tucker) to explore the East Berlin of her youth, which was at the height of the Cold War. What she finds is a bit disquieting, as it appears that her father may not have been the hero she always assumed him to be. But she keeps digging. Themes of obsession, guilt, shame and societal relations predominate, and it’s all wrapped in gorgeous black-and-white photography by Tucker, truly some of the most beautiful camerawork of the entire festival. —M.D.
The premise is irresistible—Sandra Oh and Anne Heche beating the crap out of each other for two hours. But what happens when you go to the screening and find that not only are the fights masterfully executed (ironically, no sissified catfights here, only the most powerful brawls this side of ’70s Clint Eastwood), not only are the performances excellent (Heche continues her remarkable recent run, Alicia Silverstone is wonderfully natural in a supporting role, and Oh’s is simply one of the best performances in the whole festival), but the film actually has a lot on its mind, and a lot to say? I’ve been a fan of Onur Tukel’s for quite a while now, and even I wasn’t prepared for this. —M.D.
15. The Unknown Girl
The Dardennes brothers just keep churning out beautifully understated human dramas that plumb the depths of our relations with each other. I’m not sure if any filmmakers anywhere have done it so consistently, so well, for so long. Their latest is about a young doctor who works in a small clinic for the poor, but has plans to move to a more lucrative practice in a swankier part of town. But when police are unable to identify a girl who died shortly after seeking refuge at the clinic, she is unable to live with the inhumanity of it all, and begins to investigate. Adèle Haenel gives a marvelously restrained lead performance. —M.D.
14. Things to Come
In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings, and her latest, Things to Come, takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. (In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.) Huppert is marvelous in the role: Between this performance and the one in the far spikier Elle, she’s made a compelling case for Actress of the Year, blending vulnerability and defiance in inspiring ways. —T.G.
13. Buster’s Mal Heart
Director Sarah Adina Smith’s first feature, The Midnight Swim, was not for everyone. I loved it, but some were left a bit cold by its mysterious nature and lack of traditional structure. Her new film should have no such audience limitations; it’s every bit as good as Swim, but will appeal to nearly everyone. A great part of that appeal is a lead performance by Rami Malek that goes well beyond even his outstanding work on his series Mr. Robot. Part of it is in a plot that explores the tense paranoia and conspiracy fears that seem to underlie much of our political life at the moment. And part of it is the joy of seeing Smith develop before our eyes from a promising director to an important one. —M.D.
Beginning with a rape scene, Elle is the latest nasty bit of business from director Paul Verhoeven. It’s also one of his greatest films, exploring how the assaulted woman (Isabelle Huppert) decides to turn the tables on her attacker. Darkly funny but also very astute about our predatory, sensation-driven culture, this thriller upends societal hypocrisies—in particular, how we all like to pretend we’re nice, normal people with no kinks at all—and gives Huppert one of her best roles in the process. As the head of a videogame company that happily peddles gory, shoot-’em-up games, she’s a lethal, amoral businesswoman whose personal tragedy doesn’t cause her to even bat an eye. —TG
11. Toni Erdmann
German writer-director Maren Ade’s last film was the audacious, masterful romantic drama Everyone Else, which pitilessly examined a young couple’s slow realization that maybe they shouldn’t be together. Her latest is also about a kind of breakup, in two ways: Toni Erdmann tells the story of a father (Peter Simonischek) and his distant daughter (Sandra Hüller) negotiating the reality of their severed bond—but it’s also about Ade crafting a moving, perceptive, human character piece and then provocatively shifting course halfway through the film, daring her audience to stay onboard as she travels in a much more challenging direction. Part family drama, part surreal cringe comedy, Toni Erdmann is one of the year’s gutsiest films, frequently taking narrative risks to examine how families break apart and then eventually repair themselves. —T.G.
The crimes are minor, but it’s the misdemeanors that do the most harm in Graduation, an excellent Romanian drama that begins as a father’s hope for his talented teen daughter and morphs into a claustrophobic moral crisis ensnaring several individuals. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) lays out his story with nearly surgical precision, adopting a chilly tone for a movie about the tiny, day-to-day infractions that conspire to corrode society’s foundation. Rarely has cheating on a test been fraught with such significance. —T.G.
9. Voyage of Time
At this point, no one’s talking anyone into this movie. If you found Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life ponderous and self-indulgent, especially the parts about the history of the Earth, you’re probably going to hate Voyage of Time. But if you’re willing to give yourself over to one of our greatest living filmmakers, you will go on a profound journey with him. Even if you already know all, or much, of the science involved, seeing it actually happen (or at least actually depicted) can induce a state of meditative wonderment, and can fundamentally shift the way the viewer looks at life, at least for a while. How many films do that? —M.D.
Why did TV journalist Christine Chubbuck take her life on camera in 1974? The brilliance of this Antonio Campos drama is that it tries to answer that question while still respecting the enormity and unknowability of such a violent, tragic act. Rebecca Hall is momentous as Christine, a deeply unhappy woman whose ambition has never matched her talent, and the actress is incredibly sympathetic in the part. As we move closer to Christine’s inevitable demise, we come to understand that Christine isn’t a morbid whodunit but, rather, a compassionate look at gender inequality and loneliness. —T.G.
We live in an era of cinematic bombast. When we’re not being bombarded by superheroes, transformers, fast and furious cars, or gunfights using 800 rounds a minute, we’re often confronted with melodramas featuring emotional pyrotechnics that are every bit as loud. Jeff Nichols, one of the best young directors alive, has had his moments of each in his previous four features. But in telling the real-life story of a biracial couple in 1960s Virginia who slowly come around to becoming civil rights pioneers, Nichols turns the volume button way, way down. These characters have no interest in shouting their emotions to us. But in that restraint he finds profundity, and even transcendence. —M.D.
Grieving portrayed as cold numbness, Jackie brings us back to the aftershocks of President John F. Kennedy’s slaying, observing the tragedy through the perspective of his widow (Natalie Portman). Director Pablo Larraín (Oscar-nominated No, this year’s quite good Neruda) has often been intrigued by how compelling times impose themselves on people caught in their crosshairs, and with Jackie he’s hit upon a prickly but moving approach that seems to trap Jackie behind glass, the emptiness of every room she enters a powerful symbol for the looming absence of her husband. Portman’s performance is part mimicry, but it’s more about conveying a sense of anger—and of coming to terms with a new chapter in a life that’s never been of her own choosing. —T.G.
5. Manchester by the Sea
If TIFF 2016 provided one of the most purely joyous cinematic experiences in recent memory in La La Land, it was in Manchester by the Sea that it provided one of the most emotionally devastating. Casey Affleck, one of our most underrated actors, gives perhaps the performance of his life, and Michelle Williams is affecting enough even in this tiny role that there are award whispers for her as well. I think it was Blue Valentine that last left me feeling so despondent at the end of a film. But in Kenneth Lonergan’s unflinching, sympathetic gaze, there’s a nobility as well. —M.D.
Told in three segments, Moonlight is a devastating and moving portrait of a young life that asks us to engage in the nature-versus-nurture debate all over again. Played by three actors, Chiron is an African American growing up in Tampa as a child, a teenager and then in his 20s, and writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) charts the different ages to see how questions of sexuality, racism and masculinity influence him at each stage. Naomie Harris astonishes as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, and Mahershala Ali is a marvel as a local dealer who decides to take Chiron under his wing. Moonlight slowly becomes a love story, but not before it encompasses a very different kind of Boyhood: one in which a black child’s upbringing can be threatened by external and internal forces that others are privileged enough to ignore. —T.G.
The minutiae of the day-to-day powers Paterson, a dazzling deadpan comedy from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. In a career-best performance, Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver and aspiring poet living in Paterson, New Jersey. The odd coincidence between the protagonist’s name and that of the city is Paterson’s only digression into quirky cutesiness: For much of its running time, this delicate film ponders the very nature of being alive by observing how small moments help shape our destinies in ways we don’t consider. —T.G.
2. La La Land
All the hype, all the love, all the ecstatic rhapsodizing you’ve heard about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land—it’s all true. But the most amazing thing about it is not the impossibly charming, heartbreaking performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. (I’ve never even really liked the latter very much in a film, but after this one I actually feel guilty for being a Johnny-come-lately.) It’s not the wonderful music or the truly delightful choreography (imagine talking about the choreography of a film in 2016!). It’s not the thrilling shout-outs thrown in the direction of great movie musicals like Singin‘ in the Rain, West Side Story, and perhaps above all, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. No, the most amazing thing is that a young director whose first feature—a much beloved, Oscar-nominated breakout hit (Whiplash)—would use his juice and influence to make a film that not only nods at, but positively enters into the spirit of, the classic Hollywood musical. What a thrill. —M.D.
1. American Honey
Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is electric. Chronicling a group of “mag kids”—young people selling magazines door to door—the film is a road-trip movie that documents America as a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land. Newcomer Sasha Lane projects an almost feral vibrancy that makes her character’s next move consistently unpredictable. And Shia LaBeouf is a magnificent scuzzball as Lane’s love interest, doing some of the best work of his career while rocking the grossest rat-tail in recent cinematic history.—T.G.