Upon its founding in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival was originally known as the Toronto Festival of Festivals. Implied in the name was TIFF’s status as a clearinghouse for the best festival films of the year. Cannes and Venice might be able to attract bigger premieres from the world’s leading auteurs, and Sundance might have the market cornered on formulaic-yet-quirky dramedies, but Toronto would bring the best of each festival to North American residents who might not feel like hopping on a plane to the South of France.
Over the years, TIFF has grown to be a powerhouse among film festivals, not only selecting high-profile films that were first shown elsewhere, but also offering a bevy of its own prestigious premieres. So far, only the Gala and Special Presentation screenings have been announced, but they represent the movies most likely to cause a stir. Below are a sampling of the films you’ll want to seek out in Toronto.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
You wouldn’t be wrong to be puzzled about the existence of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Didn’t we just get a Mr. Rogers movie, after all? Well, yes, and Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor charmed critics and left audiences misty-eyed. This new narrative feature is clearly trying to ride the wave of acclaim that followed the documentary, but it’s the creative team that makes this one worth watching. The director, Marielle Heller, is responsible for last year’s Melissa McCarthy dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a scathing yet poignant look into the life of a once-prominent writer who has sunk to forging the letters of famous authors to make a living. It was one of 2018’s best (and most underrated) films, opening up the possibility that Heller might strike gold twice in a row. Tom Hanks doesn’t look much like Mr. Rogers, even in makeup and costume, but there’s a good chance Heller will still extract just the right performance out of him. (Brian Marks)
Pablo Larrain had a banner year in 2016, when he released both Jackie and Neruda. The former offered a nuanced portrait of grief in the public eye, as well as one of Natalie Portman’s greatest performances. The latter, rather than being a standard biopic, mixed biographical elements with a metaphysical detective story that elevated the project. Now Larrain returns with Ema. There’s not much to go on about the new film, which is described as being about a woman who attempts to restart her life in the wake of a family tragedy, but Larrain’s ability to shake up even rote material makes it worth watching. (Brian Marks)
Another literary adaptation, Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch arrived eleven years after her last book, and quickly caused a stir. Though it polarized critics, the iconoclastic author found a new appreciation among readers, who turned the book into a bestseller. Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort stars as Theo Drecker, whose mother was killed in a terrorist bombing when he was a child while visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amid the confusion and shock, Theo takes The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius, the most gifted student of Rembrandt (who himself was killed in an explosion). Though he’s taken in by a wealthy socialite (Nicole Kidman), Theo is drawn into a world of crime years later as the result of his theft. Directed by John Crowley, who helmed part of the underrated second season of True Detective and the lovely Brooklyn, this adaption looks as if it might thread the needle between the novel’s thriller aspects and its emotional charge. (Brian Marks)
It’s impossible to view Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, through anything other than a personal lens. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Baumbach favorite Adam Driver as an actress and a playwright going through a difficult divorce following the birth of their first child, it’s uncomfortably close to Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, shortly after they had their own child (and reportedly after he had already started seeing his current partner, Greta Gerwig). It’s unclear if he’ll mine the same dramedy territory of his first masterpiece, The Squid and the Whale, or if he’ll stick more to drama for this one, but it’s bound to be an essential work from one of our greatest living writers and directors. If you’re not able to catch it at Venice or Toronto, fear not — Netflix will be releasing the movie, just as it did Baumbach’s last film, The Meyerowitz Stories. (Brian Marks)
Following 2000’s forgotten Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton seemed to have given up any itch to direct. In reality, he’s been working behind the scenes for almost twenty years to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn. The detective thriller was a watershed for Lethem, who found a way to retain the absurd postmodernism of his early novels while creating characters of real emotional density. In addition to writing and directing, Norton will star as Lionel Essrog, an orphan who’s compelled to spit out nonsensical utterances thanks to his Tourette Syndrome. He’s eventually drafted by a mobster-adjacent figure into a low-rent detective service. But when that mentor is stabbed to death, Essrog goes in search of his killer. Lethem’s moving and blisteringly funny novel deserves a sense of style as developed as the novelist’s, and though Norton doesn’t have a track record himself, he has worked with some of the greatest directors out there. Hopefully, some of their style rubbed off on him. (Brian Marks)
Adam Sandler is a great actor whose talents can only be unlocked by great directors. Aside from some of his early comedy classics, it’s when he’s working with auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love) or Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) or even James L. Brooks (Spanglish) that he can really shine. Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, who directed one of 2017’s best films, Good Time, Uncut Gems stars Sandler as a jeweler looking to score it big. TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, said the film is “probably the most Safdie movie you’ve ever seen,” and is “cranked up to 11 the whole time” while speaking to IndieWire. If anyone can bring Sandler back to the heights he’s occasionally reached, the Safdies can. The movie is also co-written by Ronald Bronstein, who’s collaborated on many of their films, as well as starred in Daddy Longlegs, so the whole gang is back together. (Brian Marks)
While the internet will have you believe that Rian Johnson is one of the worst directors in Hollywood after he “ruined” Star Wars with Episode VIII, he is in fact still allowed to make movies. And at this year’s TIFF, he is set to make a huge splash at the festival much in the way his previous films Looper and The Brothers Bloom did before. Making its world premiere in Toronto, Knives Out ditches the science fiction epic for a new take on the whodunit genre, with the promise of twists and turns, and a cast more than ready to duke it out against each other. Daniel Craig leads an investigation into a group of suspects potentially guilty of murdering a wealthy crime novelist (Christopher Plummer). That group of suspects includes Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curties, and Michael Shannon. The first trailer for Knives Out is electrifying, from Chris Evans telling off each character to the absolute cattiness of Toni Collette, and there is no doubt that this will be one of the bigger films of the festival. Unsurprisingly, it looks like a surefire hit for audiences, and a likely contender for the festival’s People’s Choice award. (Christopher Cross)
Another famed indie director who made it huge with an established franchise is Taika Waititi. Though What We Do In The Shadows has a large following and received plenty of praise as TIFF’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice award winner in 2014 (while also enjoying life as a TV spin-off for FX), there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok has given the New Zealand director more opportunities. While he’s now set to write and direct the next Thor film, Waititi is bringing a more controversial movie to this year’s TIFF for its world premiere. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds a Jewish girl in his home and seeks advice from his imaginary friend on how to handle the situation. The catch is that the imaginary friend is not a cute animal or character…but Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself).
In anyone else’s hands this would sound like a disastrous idea, but this is Waititi we’re talking about. Billed as an “anti-hate satire,” it is clear that Waititi won’t pull any punches with the subject matter. However, he’s also putting a lot of the onus on himself to make Hitler ‘fun’ by casting himself in the role. The cast includes Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Scarlett Johansson, and Thomasin McKenzie, but this looks like it might be more of a two-hander much in the vein of Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The first teaser trailer has plenty of laughs, but also shows a lot of why this could go either way. It’s a must-see for fans of all of Waititi’s previous films, but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays to more general audiences. (Christopher Cross)
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci’s criminally underseen The Death of Stalin proved that anything Iannucci touches is bound to be hilarious. While his political satire has never been sharper than in almost everything else he’s done, The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a witty take on the life of Charles Dickens. Based on the autobiographical novel David Copperfield by Dickens, it’s the potential of an Iannucci film to be biting while highlighting the absurdity of the time period that will likely please most audiences. With The Death of Stalin, Veep, The Thick of It, and In the Loop, Iannucci has always gotten the best out of his casts, often elevating his already great writing. The Personal History of David Copperfield stars Dev Patel, but it’s the supporting cast that raises excitement for the film even more. Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, and Gwendoline Christie all round out the cast. The movie feels like a safe bet at the minimum, but it depends how much Iannucci mines out of his cast and the source material that will dictate the film’s success on the festival circuit. (Christopher Cross)
Okay, let’s be honest here. Comic book movies don’t really need to go into the festival circuit. They do well enough on their own, and the only reason to pull something like this is because awards season buzz starts at festival time. Why get shunned by the festival crowd when you can get included in the conversation by virtue of just being there? That being said, Todd Phillips’ Joker is one such film that doesn’t look like a big flashy blockbuster that will make a ton of money just by existing. This origin story for Batman’s most notorious antagonist looks stripped down, dark, and appropriately moody. It also has Joaquin Phoenix playing the titular role. If anyone is going to push the potential for awards buzz, it’s Phoenix, who is almost always in the Best Actor conversation, even if it’s rarely a guaranteed lock.
The film also features a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, and Brian Tyree Henry (who has been rather unstoppable in his acting choices). Joker sounds like everything that would appeal to the awards season circuit, if it was anything other than a comic book movie — which is likely why it is here. All signs point to it being a potentially great character study, but its in the hands of Phillips, who has not had the greatest track record, and has virtually no evidence in his filmography to support the idea that this could be good. But the trailers have looked promising, and you wouldn’t know it to be a Phillips movie unless you looked it up. Consider this one of the most intriguing films to play at TIFF this year. (Christopher Cross)
Steven Soderbergh took a break from filmmaking only to come back just as hard-working as ever. This year he has already released the magnificent High Flying Bird, and the much-more-anticipated The Laundromat is now making its North American premiere at TIFF this September. Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas, there isn’t much room for second-guessing the awards chances of this movie. Unless it’s an absolute dud (which based on Soderbergh’s track record, is highly unlikely), this will likely be a huge awards contender for Streep and Oldman.
What will make it a likely hit with festival audiences is not just its cast and crew, but the subject its tackling. Soderbergh takes his aim at the Panama Papers leak from 2015, which exposed an abundance of fraud and tax evasion from wealthy individuals through offshore financial corporations. It’s a topic ready for Soderbergh to target, and rife with material that should keep it gripping at a brisk 96-minute runtime. At the very least, Soderbergh has a way with dialogue and making character interactions sizzle on-screen which helps keep the excitement for The Laundromat high. (Christopher Cross)
Who are we kidding — The Witch was too incredible of a debut from Robert Eggers for anyone not to be excited about his sophomore feature. The Lighthouse promises the same kind of atmospheric intensity as Eggers’ debut film, which played huge at TIFF; this will undoubtedly play to the same effect. Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers on an island in New England in the 19th century, the movie tracks their gradual descent into madness. Shot on 35mm black-and-white film, The Lighthouse is being billed as a psychological thriller, and if anyone is not 100% sold on everything mentioned above, then there’s not much more that can be said. Everything paints this as an exciting, dread-filled follow up to The Witch. Seeing Eggers move from the 17th-century to 19th-century still promises a heavy emphasis on period, which will likely feed into the atmosphere. And then there’s that intensifying paranoia that sounds like it will be in full effect here as well. Consider this another guaranteed hit at the festival. (Christopher Cross)