There is always something new to see at the Toronto International Film Festival, and always something old worth catching up with. It’s a lesson that should be kept in mind as the ever-competitive fall movie season — of which this now 41-year-old festival has long been an important pillar — gets underway.
Set to open Thursday with Antoine Fuqua’s starry remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” this year’s event will unspool a whopping 296 features total. Of those films, 139 are having their world premieres in Toronto, including the much-anticipated likes of Oliver Stone’s biographical drama “Snowden,” Ewan McGregor’s Philip Roth adaptation “American Pastoral” and Christopher Guest’s comedy “Mascots.”
The other 157 films have already screened elsewhere, either in their home countries or at other festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and Berlin, as well as the still-in-progress Venice and the recently wrapped Telluride. Several of these titles — among them Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” and Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” — will look to build on their enthusiastic early acclaim. Another one, Nate Parker’s Sundance prizewinner “The Birth of a Nation,” has become such a lightning rod for controversy that it may well play like an entirely new film in Toronto, or at least a new experience.
And those are just the movies everyone recognizes and talks about. That the festival program contains still more multitudes — that it counts short masterworks, revived classics, below-the-radar genre items and avant-garde mind-blowers among its essential offerings each year — is a fact that easily gets lost amid the deafening reams of Oscar hype that issue forth from this event. A massive annual confluence of art and industry, as well as a cinematic buffet of tremendous cultural and aesthetic diversity, is invariably reduced to just a handful of heat-seeking titles.
As much as I’m looking forward to some of them, many of which will reach American theaters in the weeks and months to come, Toronto offers no shortage of grand alternatives — the kinds of movies that, whether due to their subtitles or their subtleties, tend not to attract much attention from academy voters. There are many more worth seeking out than the 30 that I’ve chosen to highlight below — a mix of old and new, big and small, Hollywood and beyond — but when a festival boasts nearly 300 films to choose from, a critic must start somewhere.
Here are 15 films that I’m looking forward to seeing in Toronto (in alphabetical order):
“Arrival.” The prospect of a brainy science-fiction thriller coupled with the muscular filmmaking prowess of Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) would be a considerable lure even without the presence of Amy Adams in the lead role.
“Austerlitz.” A master of the hands-off, long-take documentary, Sergei Loznitsa trains his camera on tourists paying their respects (or not) at the sites of former Nazi death camps. Sounds like people-watching at its most perversely revealing.
“Colossal.” Nacho Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes” and “Open Windows” have established him as a gifted and idiosyncratic genre specialist. And eight years after “Rachel Getting Married,” it’ll be nice to see Anne Hathaway playing a crazed alcoholic again.
“Daguerrotype.” It’s not every day that the Japanese horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa shoots a movie in France, let alone with actors as good as Olivier Gourmet, Tahar Rahim and Mathieu Amalric.
“Harmonium.” Another Japanese-directed title, this one actually set in Japan, Koji Fukada’s family drama was one of the best-reviewed under-the-radar titles at Cannes.
“Heal the Living.” Katell Quillévéré’s “Love Like Poison” and “Suzanne” have earned her a sterling reputation among the ranks of French up-and-comers. Her latest, a medical drama in which three separate tales are fated to converge, looks like a serious leap forward.
“Into the Inferno.” How has Werner Herzog not made a documentary about volcanoes before this? As ever, his eye for untamable natural wonders shows no sign of cratering.
“Jackie.” Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy could have the makings of a high-wire triumph or “Diana”-level disaster. After the wonders he worked with his previous biopic, “Neruda” (see below), I trust Pablo Larraín knows what he’s doing.
“Moonlight.” Directed by Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”), this three-part story about the young life of a gay black man from Miami has already drawn rapturous early word from Telluride.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” Sometimes a title’s enough.
“Nocturama.” Tragic recent events understandably kept this drama about a Parisian terrorist group from making this year’s Cannes lineup. The embers have scarcely cooled in the meantime, which suggests there will never be an appropriate (or, for that matter, inappropriate) time for Bertrand Bonello’s latest provocation.
“Nocturnal Animals.” Tom Ford’s gorgeous “A Single Man” struck me as the work of not just an exacting stylist but a born filmmaker, not to mention a skillful director of actors. Here’s hoping his long-overdue sophomore feature, another major showcase for Amy Adams, bears that out.
“A United Kingdom.” After “Loving,” another historical dramatization of an interracial marriage in a less forgiving era, this one directed by Amma Asante (“Belle”) and starring the redoubtable duo of David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
“Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey.” Terrence Malick’s cosmic rumination on the origins of the universe is being presented in a Cate Blanchett-narrated feature-length version as well as a Brad Pitt-narrated 45-minute IMAX version. In either form, it could be glorious or insufferable — or both.
“Yourself and Yours.” Another film festival, another study of romantic malaise from the prolific Hong Sang-soo, this time with an apparent nod to the Luis Buñuel classic “That Obscure Object of Desire.”
Here are 15 films in Toronto that I’ve seen and recommend (in alphabetical order):
“The Age of Shadows.” Kim Jee-woon (mildly) tones down the ultra-violence of “I Saw the Devil” with this thrillingly taut and intricate 1920s spy yarn, which will represent South Korea in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film.
“Aquarius.” A career-crowning performance by the great Sonia Braga drives this sophomore work from Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Neighboring Sounds”), the cinematic poet laureate of Brazilian real estate.
“Christine.” Antonio Campos’ cool-toned yet warm-blooded drama tells the sad story of Christine Chubbuck, a 1970s TV journalist played here in a shattering performance by Rebecca Hall.
“Elle.” Don’t let the reductive “rape comedy” claims scare you away from Paul Verhoeven’s elegant and exacting psychological chiller, starring Isabelle Huppert at the very top of her game.
“Graduation.” Cristian Mungiu illuminates a bleak, morally compromised swath of Romanian society with the same intelligence and compassion he demonstrated in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”
“The Handmaiden.” Park Chan-wook’s meticulously constructed thriller transplants Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set page-turner “Fingersmith” to 1930s Korea with delectably twisted results.
“Julieta.” It may not reclaim the delirious heights of his best work, but every frame of Pedro Almodóvar’s layered, melancholy new film is a work of patient, unobtrusive mastery.
“La La Land.” Fronted by the incandescent duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s fever dream of a Hollywood musical is intoxicating in a way that few contemporary movies are.
“Manchester by the Sea.” Kenneth Lonergan’s small-town drama is a masterful, symphonic portrait of loss, grief and everyday survival, centered around the finest performance of Casey Affleck’s career.
“Neruda.” Pablo Larraín liberates an often moribund genre with possibly the most inventive, freewheeling movie about an artist since Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.”
“Paterson.” Speaking of movies about artists: Jim Jarmusch’s sly comic miniature is that rare successful attempt to bottle a kind of poetry in cinematic form, aided in no small part by Adam Driver’s wonderful performance in the title role.
“Personal Shopper.” Renewing her collaboration with “Clouds of Sils Maria” director Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart sees dead people in a ghost story that never feels less than fully alive.
“Sieranevada.” Cristi Puiu’s Bucharest-set family talkathon sports perhaps the festival’s most enigmatic non sequitur of a title, as well as some of its most rigorously humane filmmaking.
“Things to Come.” Another superlative showcase for Isabelle Huppert, this tenderly woven drama about a middle-aged professor, wife and mother weathering challenges on all fronts won Mia Hansen-Løve a directing prize in Berlin.
“Toni Erdmann.” I may have saved the best for last: Maren Ade’s unclassifiable tour de force brought down the house at Cannes and will continue to do so, I suspect, at Toronto and beyond.