Over the seven total days I spent at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw 19 films, had upward of 20 cups of coffee, got less than five hours of sleep a night, and attended, optimistically, 60 per cent of my classes. It was an absolutely insane experience that I could only compare to some sort of army-ranger training, cramming so much emotion and exhaustion into such a compressed amount of time. Here is what I have to show for it: this list of films and many great memories.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
I wrote a full review of this film, which is good because I certainly do not have enough space here to express my admiration and reverence for this movie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French lesbian period drama directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s a stunning, heartfelt rumination on love and art, and maybe ruined me for any other film this year.
2. Uncut Gems
The latest film by the Safdie brothers stars Adam Sandler as a New York jeweller with a crippling gambling problem, in a performance that fully cements the Sandler renaissance. Sandler’s classic anger comes out in new and desperate ways, as the film clips away with the Safdie brothers’ unique mix of gaudy and genuinely cool.
3. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s Clue-inspired murder mystery is as beautiful as it is intricate, and features a deep bench of sensational performances. Knives Out feels profoundly committed to fun, which is not to say that it has nothing else going on. Johnson’s grasp of genre contributes to this balancing act, and his obvious love of mystery iconography permeates this wholly original film.
The Palme d’Or-winning Parasite was directed by Bong Joon-Ho and is a clawing commentary on upstairs-downstairs class relations. Pretty serious and deadly funny, Parasite corners hard. The film is anchored by amazing performances and tight cinematography, and epitomizes ‘must see to believe.’
5. Pain and Glory
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical film is a lovingly-constructed exploration of the body and mind. Almodóvar’s expressive use of colour and a brilliant performance by Antonio Banderas are the standouts of this graceful and open-hearted feature.
Pablo Larraín’s follow up to 2016’s Jackie is a thumping, distraught piece that follows Ema, a dancer. Rhythmic dance sequences are interspersed with Ema’s decaying relationship with her husband and adopted son. It’s empathetic and pounding, emotional and sensual, and gorgeously photographed.
Lorene Scafaria directed this true story about a group of exotic dancers who run a very successful con on Wall Street ‘dudebros’ in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s bright, it’s loud, it features extended sequences of Jennifer Lopez absolutely killing it on the pole, and it invests in its female characters with deep understanding and interiority. What more could you want?
8. True History of the Kelly Gang
Justin Kurzel’s Australian gangster period piece is just as insane as it sounds and very rad. George MacKay is absorbing as the notorious Ned Kelly, and, together with a host of other great performances rounds out the strobing clanging film, complete with homoerotic sexual energy and exquisite cinematography. The film does the story justice, and peppers the storyline with as many questions as it answers
9. Hope Gap
William Nicholson’s film is about a couple living in a picturesque English seaside town and the breakdown of their marriage. Annette Bening is orders of magnitude better than the film deserves; she is painfully biting and deeply tired. She is honestly the only reason Hope Gap is ranked this high, but it’s my list so we are going with it.
Norwegian director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen teamed up with actress Josefine Frida in this film which combined hyper-intense religious cults with super athletic dance sequences. It’s all set to a pounding house score and flooded with purple neon light, while the characters crumble under the pressures of their faith.
Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age story about the daughter of Muslim immigrants is a welcome addition to the genre and boasts a star-making performance by Geraldine Viswanathan. The film catalogues the tension between Hala and her parents, and builds to show the consequences of repressive familial ties.
A complex story about stories, Synonyms was directed by Nadav Lapid and follows an Israeli immigrant on his first couple weeks in Paris. As Yoav — played intensely by Tom Mercier — struggles between aspects of his identity. Formal choices bring a sense of newness to the story about a man trying to find his place in a rigid societal structure.
13. Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi latest film is a satire about Nazi Germany, and stars newcomers Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie, as well as Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. The first half is far more outrageous than the second, when it morphs into something genuinely heartfelt. Too much gets reconciled in time for the ending, but the film achieves its goal and sticks with you.
Kantemir Balagov’s Russian postwar drama is exhausting and gouging, and a dire portrait of a country in mourning. Anchored by two unbelievably gripping performances by Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina, Beanpole makes its warm-toned art design feel incredibly cold. Visually impressive, but it will leave you with the biggest lump in your throat.
15. Just Mercy
Just Mercy tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works with prisoners on death row. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, we follow Jamie Foxx, who plays an innocent man framed by a racist police department, a role which Foxx is fantastic in. Stevenson’s story is amazing, so the film has trouble doing anything other than rephrasing how amazing he is. It’s evocative and devastating, but struggles with traditional biopic issues.
16. Endings, Beginnings
Drake Doremus’ feature, starring Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, and Sebastian Stan is basically a coming-of-age movie about white people in their 30s. It’s an inoffensive study of relationships and chemistry, but it’s a little stale. Also, someone should introduce Doremus to a wide angle.
17. Guns Akimbo
Jason Lei Howden’s video game action-comedy has something to say about our penchant for violent content and the churning antagonism online, but it gets in its own way with the same violent content and churning antagonism. Daniel Radcliffe is good as an online troll forced to take part in a deadly livestream game, but the film reads more like an energy drink commercial than a movie.
18. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
According to Daniel Roher’s new documentary, Robbie Robertson has never done a thing wrong in his life. Great music and fun talking-head appearances — Bruce Springsteen! Martin Scorsese! — cannot save this film from itself and its aggressive need to mythologize Robertson. Just watch The Last Waltz.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directed Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in Synchronic, which, despite its great concept, is a pretty big miss. The film limps along until it finally explains what’s going on and why it’s cool, but by that point we’ve lost all interest in our one-dimensional characters to even care at all.