It’s still unknown whether or not Kawhi Leonard is excited to be going to Toronto, but for one pair of Ringer contributors, the Toronto International Film Festival is the equivalent of training camp, media day, All-Star Weekend, and the Finals all at once. There are over 200 feature films showing at this year’s TIFF, and while you may not ever hear about some of them (consider yourselves lucky in some cases), the festival’s insistence on positioning itself as the start line for the Oscar race—a setup that yielded a winner earlier this year in Guillermo del Toro’s Toronto-shot The Shape of Water—means that a lot of what’s showing here will be thinkpiece and box office fodder for months to come.
Over the next 10 days, Adam Nayman (who lives in Toronto) and Manuela Lazic (who does not, but likes it there) will be providing early takes on high-profile premieres and under-the-radar breakthroughs. To kick things off, here’s a rundown of some of the titles our critics can’t wait to see—or have already seen, or aren’t sure if they want to see, or will watch with rolling eyes (or eyes wide shut).
Nayman: High Life, Halloween
Claire Denis has been my favorite filmmaker (sorry, Jason Reitman) ever since I saw her astonishing 2001 vampire thriller Trouble Every Day, one of the most viscerally violent movies of the last two decades as well as one of the thirstiest. The spaces between these contradictions are where Denis thrives. At her best—which is almost all of the time, including her dusty, Corona-drunk all-timer Beau Travail and this year’s wonderfully flinty romantic comedy Let the Sunshine In—she variously seduces, perplexes, and brutalizes the senses like no other director I know. At 72, Denis is a genuine legend and a punk original, and the quotes that she gave The New Yorker earlier this year about her upcoming sci-fi drama High Life seem to promise a work of both conceptual and politically incorrect daring. Set in the future on a spaceship populated by convicts (including Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André 3000, whom the director pegged after seeing his performance as Jimi Hendrix) and being piloted toward a black hole, the film is reportedly as dark and grim a vision as Denis has ever offered up: even more troublesome than Trouble Every Day and on a larger scale than her French-language work.
The reference points for deep-space art house are inescapable, but I’m not expecting High Life to be its creator’s Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, I’m hoping it’ll end up casting its own long shadow over a movie landscape that could use more authentically mysterious monoliths. My curiosity is a bit more cynical when it comes to David Gordon Green’s Halloween, which is being positioned as more than just brand extension; featuring an original score by (and story consultant credit for) John Carpenter, the idea seems to be that this is a proper 40-years-on follow-up to one of the true classics of American horror. Based on the trailer, it seems that Green and co-writer Danny McBride (!) have thrown out every other subsequent movie in the franchise and crafted a direct sequel, enlisting Jamie Lee Curtis and original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle for continuity and pathos and aping the ruthless, prowling widescreen camera style of the original. “They get it,” Carpenter said of this unlikely pair behind the film. Considering it’s his legacy they’re playing with, I’m taking this vote of confidence from a known misanthropic pothead and running with it to the film’s sole midnight screening in Toronto.
Lazic: If Beale Street Could Talk, Greta
I’ve only ever watched the Oscars once, and perhaps never will again: the 2017 Oscars, when Barry Jenkins won not one but two statuettes for Moonlight (plus one for actor Mahershala Ali), after a legendary kerfuffle on stage where another dimension—in which La La Land is deemed worthy of a Best Picture award—was glimpsed. But Moonlight itself was the real event, with its tender and quietly overwhelming observation of an African American boy growing up and out of his difficult and restrictive conditions. For his follow-up, Jenkins isn’t resting on his laurels. If Beale Street Could Talk is a Jenkins-penned adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 Harlem-set novel that centers on an African American woman trying to find evidence that her fiancé is not guilty of the crime for which he has been jailed. The trailer is already one of the best of the year and the film promises to be another moving exploration of love and African American masculinity in an inherently racist society.
Neil Jordan may have won his one Oscar 25 years ago, but his new film Greta is probably on Jenkins’s watchlist, since it features his oft-proclaimed favorite actress Isabelle Huppert. Playing the titular character, she will revisit the moody elite as yet another pianist whose friendship with Chloë Grace Moretz’s character soon turns dark. At the very least, it will be interesting to see what comes out of this strange meeting of generations and styles, and hopefully the film will continue Huppert’s latest rise in popularity on the international scene.
Nayman: Ash Is Purest White, Transit
If there’s a truism worth quoting in the past two decades of global cinema, it’s that Jia rules. As a sign of respect, TIFF named its annual competition after Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s first masterpiece, Platform, and if there’s a filmmaker with a better batting average than the one-time outlaw auteur—whose early works were banned at home while garnering unparalleled critical acclaim in the United States—then he or she has surely had fewer at-bats. Ash Is Purest White, Jia’s 12th feature, is an epically scaled gangster drama that unfolds across 17 years (and multiple film formats, from blocky camcorder to sleek hi-def), melding visual and thematic elements from several of its predecessors (including the vicious sting of A Touch of Sin). Starring the director’s wife, Zhao Tao, as a small-town moll who stands by her man as the country around them changes beyond recognition, Ash could be its director’s Goodfellas, from its savvy use of pop music (“YMCA” is deployed in a way that surpasses even Wayne’s World 2) to its embedded study of underworld values in transition to its flashes of brutal violence.
Another genius-level filmmaker offering near career-peak work is Germany’s Christian Petzold, whose Transit features the year’s most remarkable formal conceit: It’s a World War II–era story filmed against an unadorned 21st-century European reality. It’s a period piece without the period, a bleak Casablanca riff that swaps out black and white glamor for dingy digital color. The result of this simple but endlessly complex stylistic choice is something that feels simultaneously lo-fi and sci-fi, suggesting either an alternate past or a dystopian future—think “Play it again, Sam” as a warning rather than an invitation—even as its analysis of immigration and xenophobia is yoked closely to the present tense. Petzold’s last movie, the Berlin-set Vertigo homage Phoenix, was a scorching modern classic. Transit is a slower burn, but it’s unlikely that the fall will offer anything to rival its structural or conceptual brilliance.
Lazic: Shoplifters, Burning
The Cannes Film Festival tends to be a good showcase for exciting Asian cinema, which, due to that continent’s accelerated economic development, often offers piercing and strange takes on capitalism. Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, from Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda, and FIPRESCI award recipient Burning, from South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, continue this tradition while being very much their own beasts.
Koreeda’s shoplifters live on the margins of society, having formed their own chosen family because their natural ones—sometimes brutally stifling in this still-conservative country—didn’t provide the support they were supposed to. The movie portrays people who are not after some big economic achievement but only the chance to live in peace. In that process, they find themselves almost unwittingly reaching out to others who are also in need. This thesis—that capitalism breeds neglect and madness—also seeps through the unclassifiable and mesmerizing Burning. The main character, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), is suddenly introduced to the new love interest, Ben (The Walking Dead and Okja star Steven Yeun), of his sort-of girlfriend Haemi (Jong-seo Jun).
This classy and much wealthier man has a disquieting smirk at all times, and his intentions seem in turn both generous and cruel—does he really care about Haemi, or is he only exercising his advantage? Almost four months after seeing it, I remember Burning mostly in a few images, startling in their craft and threat, because the script doesn’t follow any conventional rules of storytelling or characterization I could hang on to. But the embers that greed and fear have left behind are still smoldering.
Nayman: The Sisters Brothers, A Star Is Born
“Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.” Patrick DeWitt’s stellar 2011 best-seller The Sisters Brothers features a pair of siblings whose thicker-than-water bond is tested when they’re hired as contract killers in Oregon, circa the gold rush. Admittedly, it would have been awesome to see Will Ferrell join step-bro John C. Reilly above the title here, but I guess we can make do with a lesser actor like Joaquin Phoenix, who’s perfectly cast as the volatile Charlie. I’m even more excited by the presence of Rutger Fucking Hauer as the Sisters’ fixer, the Commodore, a juicy role that could be his best part in a big-ticket movie since Blade Runner. I’m not wild about French director Jacques Audiard, but the festival pedigree of his thrillers A Prophet and Dheepan, combined with so many top-level movie stars (I didn’t even mention Jake Gyllenhaal yet), topped off with the Cormac McCarthy–ish intensity of the novel should generate some friction, as well as awards interest.
And then there’s a A Star Is Born (yes, it’s a remake, get ready to read 8 million articles about the three other versions soon), which seems like a movie designed in a lab to give Oscar bloggers something to do for the next six months. They’re already at it, in fact: One day, we’ll look at the ejaculatory, embargo-breaking review that compared director Bradley (“DJ Ski Mask”) Cooper to Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Cassavetes all at the same time (and which was deservedly and mockingly quote-tweeted to death before being pulled off of Talkhouse) as ground zero for a thermonuclear-style campaign that reduces the internet and reality itself to a smoldering crater. I called The Shape of Water winning Best Picture seconds after its TIFF screening ended last year; mark my words, “Academy Award–winner Bradley Cooper” is a thing that’s going to happen so let’s all just get ready to live with it.
Lazic: Widows, Vox Lux
If Cannes is still an opportunity to see challenging foreign films, TIFF tries to maintain its reputation as the best platform for big and bold American domestic efforts despite the unfriendly climate for such movies in today’s superhero-obsessed Hollywood. With its Gillian Flynn–penned script, Academy Award–winner Steve McQueen’s Widows should start its Oscar campaign well at the Canadian festival. Most of the best contemporary actors working today seem to feature in this film, doing A Lot of Acting: Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis is shooting for a Leading Role award, taking a Taken-like part from Liam Neeson, who plays her husband; Colin Farrell is also there, and his dad is none other that Robert Duvall. Michelle Rodriguez, Jacki Weaver, and rising star Elizabeth Debicki are also part of the squadron of angry wives who decide to avenge their murdered criminal husbands. Perhaps Jean-Luc Godard (or D.W. Griffith) was wrong: What you need for a movie is not one, but four women and four guns. Let’s hope that Widows will be more than just McQueen seizing another big issue (feminism, after racism in 12 Years a Slave) and making a fancy but self-congratulatory film out of it.
Brady Corbet’s second feature film, Vox Lux, meanwhile, seems to be all about making something beautiful out of pain. After she failed to win an Oscar for her bold and painful-to-the-ear choice to conflate Jackie Kennedy with her husband’s alleged mistress, Marilyn Monroe, in Jackie, Natalie Portman challenges herself in a new way by playing a tormented rock star, Celeste. In her teens, Celeste and her sister penned a hit song after a personal tragedy, but the thinning line between private and public proves dangerous. Much more exciting for this writer is the Closer reunion that is also on the cards, with Jude Law appearing as an ambitious promoter—not as fun as an obituarist or a failed novelist, but I’ll take it.
Nayman: Climax, Green Book
Gaspar Noé doesn’t just want to get in your face; he wants to get inside your face. The Argentine-born, France-based director’s irreversible trajectory toward becoming one of international cinema’s most reliably obnoxious provoc-auteurs may not actually end with the suggestively titled Climax, but riddle me this: Where is there to go after a techno-scored musical-horror-comedy (based, however loosely, on a true story) about a troupe of lithe, multicultural dancers who all but tear each other apart after somebody spikes the post-rehearsal sangria? Orgies, Possession-style writhing, and endless, athletic tracking shots ensue. “I showed [the cast] loads of videos of people under the influence of crack [and] LSD,” the director told Vice at Cannes, where his film got a better ratio of raves to walkouts than his last couple of efforts (to say nothing of his fellow shockmaster Lars von Trier, whose The House That Jack Built is conspicuously absent in Toronto’s super-woke smorgasbord). Even if he’s ultimately just high on his own supply, the director knows what he’s peddling (and to whom).
Still, even on his best day, Noé couldn’t generate the kind of cognitive dissonance that comes with reading the synopsis for the super-prestigey Green Book: Set in the ’60s, this Driving Miss Daisy inversion features Mahershala Ali as a jazz musician and Viggo Mortensen as the white chauffeur guiding him through the segregated South directed by—I told you this was weird—Peter Farrelly, last seen signing his name to Dumb and Dumber To. I fully expect his brother Bobby to retaliate next year by adapting something by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Lazic: Assassination Nation, Her Smell
With the title Assassination Nation, Sam Levinson’s second feature, which screens in the “Midnight Madness” section of TIFF, could only be about one thing: America, baby! Its bombastic trailer introduces us to the totally true story of how a quiet city “absolutely lost its mind” after a series of online hacks. The neon tornado of sex, violence, frat boys and cool girls set against ominous iMessage sounds of promises to be provocative and get people going, but I hope someone knows what it means. In the cast, models Hari Nef and Suki Waterhouse seem to be serving more than looks, and reportedly one of those girls has the same Fatal Attraction socks as me, guaranteeing that my millennial, typically short attention span will be caught, if only temporarily.
Another punk-rock film in TIFF’s Platform section comes from the usually quiet and bookish American director Alex Ross Perry. Her Smell (hardcore from its very name) traces the downward spiral of a ’90s rock-band frontwoman played by the gifted Perry favorite Elisabeth Moss and seems to continue the auteur’s John Cassavetes–inspired exploration of the female psyche after 2015’s Queen of Earth and last year’s Golden Exits. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams returns to shoot this fall from grace on film, and more ex-models are billed, including Cara Delevingne, Agyness Deyn, and Amber Heard, making for a very alt and cool ensemble.
Nayman: American Dharma, The Front Runner
I don’t want to watch Steve Bannon in close-up for an hour and a half and neither do you, but Errol Morris’s confrontations with political power brokers are always appointment viewing. American Dharma is being positioned as the third prong of a trilogy including Robert McNamara’s Vietnam-era recriminations in The Fog of War and Donald Rumsfeld’s doublespeak in The Unknown Known. Bannon’s bristling, end-of-history rhetoric is terrifying stuff—especially considering that he used to be in the president’s ear with it 24/7—and yet as of right now, he’s become a slightly pathetic, marginalized figure, the type that Morris specializes in profiling without fear of reprisal. Anyway, I’m more interested to see what Morris and his Interrotron drag out of their subject than Michael Moore’s usual grandstanding in Fahrenheit 11/9. And speaking of political opportunism: All credit to Jason Reitman for releasing a movie about Gary Hart in 2018—what could be more resonant after “But her emails” and #Pizzagate than a fact-based drama revolving around an honorable Democratic presidential candidate (played in the film by the greatest showman Hugh Jackman) submarined by unfavorable media coverage?
For some, Reitman’s best movie is still his Washington-set debut Thank You for Smoking, so The Front Runner’s return to Beltway intrigue is potentially a comeback move. I guess I’ll have to sit through it to find out.
Lazic: First Man, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan
With his new film First Man—about Neil Armstrong’s groundbreaking moon walk—Damien Chazelle goes from the “City of Stars” to the actual stars themselves and to the very source of that elusive moonlight energy. But La La Land’s pandering manipulation and convenient politics (its white male hero turned out to be right all along—even as he mansplained jazz to both his supportive girlfriend Emma Stone and musician John Legend) don’t make me hopeful for the insights into the human psyche that moon will offer.
Ryan Gosling returns to play this time on a space shuttle’s keyboard as Neil Armstrong, guided by a strong supporting cast including Kyle Chandler—who shines in the trailer when he writes the word “moon” on a chalkboard and underlines it so we know what he’s referring to—as well as Jason Clarke, Ciarán Hinds, and Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. Since everyone knows that the moon landing turned out to be the start of something wonderful and new, brutal and tearjerking “what-if” twists à la La La Land will hopefully be avoided. But would that leave us with just one more cheesy, white-washed moondance, my love?
The mysteries surrounding The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’s production can only be compared to that of its 29-year-old director’s own place in cinema. Sharing a Cannes Jury Prize with Godard for the gunless Mommy in 2014 then winning the Grand Prix for its follow-up, It’s Only the End of the World two years later, Xavier Dolan nevertheless remains divisive. His predilection for stereotypical characters engaging in shouting matches while never actually saying what they are so mad about (because “shame”) has somehow made him a star of Canadian cinema and attracted increasingly prestigious international actors to his sets. American royalty and rising talents such as Natalie Portman, Kit Harington, and Jessica Chastain were set to appear in his next family cinenovela, but in the months since that exciting casting news, the film has missed expected festival appearances (especially at the Dolan fanbase, Cannes), and rumors have spread about reshoots and heavy editing. In February, Dolan himself announced via Instagram that he was cutting Chastain out of the film for narrative reasons. He also used that post to explain the genesis of the film as stemming from “our fascination and our chain production of superhero movies.” But I could do without Dolan’s Hulk; his previous works have already convinced me that I don’t like him when he’s angry.