Best of the Fest
From ‘American Fiction’ to ‘Woman of the Hour’ — the highlights of a slightly off, largely celebrity-less Toronto International Film Festival
It would be easy to blame it on the strikes currently affecting the business of show, or the usual feast-or-famine conundrum that affects festival programming in any given awards season, or a sudden spike in summer Covid cases, or everyone’s favorite industry scapegoat, i.e. streamers. But 2023 proved to be an off year for the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the handful of fall fests that set the stage for the last half of the moviegoing year and the beginning of gotta-get-those-statuettes Oscar campaigning. There were a conspicuous number of titles that had played Venice and Telluride, or were set to play in the New York Film Festival later this month, that were M.I.A. An emphasis on films directed by actors may have allowed for some stars to still walk red carpets and grace stages, but the way those movies truly ran the gamut in terms of quality was noticeable enough to bring out your inner cynic. (Congratulations, Anna Kendrick, you have a real knack for framing scenes and sustaining tension! Also: Let us never speak of Chris Pine’s Poolman ever again.)
There were still gala premieres, still highlights from earlier big-name festivals, still events like the Talking Heads reuniting to talk about the restoration of the landmark concert movie Stop Making Sense. The lack of celebrities was as much a boon as it was a bust, especially if you wanted to walk down King Street’s typically crowd-packed theater row but didn’t have an hour to spare. No one was going through the motions. Yet it was hard to shake the feeling that you were attending a phantom TIFF, in which the usual sense of vitality and urgency felt slightly leeched out of the proceedings.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t good movies, and a few genuinely great ones, at TIFF ’23. It wasn’t a chore to come up with a Top 10 list, and the glass-half-full viewpoint is that the lack of some major fall movies here made a few less flashy — but equally well-acted, equally well-directed, equally moving and inspiring — films stand out that much more. Here are the best things we saw at this year’s Toronto festival. Catch up with these as soon as you can.
(And shout-outs to Dream Scenario, Hit Man, Origin, Rustin and Seven Veils, all of which had central performances that reminded you of the way that actors can take strong material and turn it into something close to extraordinary.)
Frustrated by the lack of interest in his “important” novels, author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) decides to write the most cliché-filled book about Black life imaginable under a pseudonym. Guess what becomes the literary event of the season? If Emmy-winning writer Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut was simply a satire in the tradition of say, Bamboozled or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, it would still be scathing, sharp and funny as hell. But he’s also threaded a character study and a tender family drama within the broad comic strokes and cutting barbs about the publishing world, and captured the push-pull dynamics of siblings in a way that feels beautifully, painfully spot on. Plus he’s handed Jeffrey Wright a gift of a role, which the actor responds to by doing some of the best work of his career.
French provocateur Betrand Bonello (Nocturama, Zombi Child) brought his latest film to TIFF straight from a Venice premiere, where it caused a lot of chatter on the Lido — and it’s easy to see why. Ostensibly taking its cues from Henry James’ novella The Beast of the Jungle, this tale of two lovers played by Léa Seydoux and George McKay juggles narratives set in the early 19th century, 2014 and a dystopian near-future; A.I. paranoia, incel stalkers, the vapidity of the modeling industry, era-themed nightclubs (dig that spirit-of-1972 dance floor), science fiction, slasher-flick horror and costume-drama swooning all bleed into each other as Bonello whips you through oddball set pieces and timelines. As for the beast of the title? It’s inside all of us.
‘The Boy and the Heron’
A fable-like story of a tween named Mahito who must go on a hero’s journey and reckon with the adult world, the latest — and possibly last — feature from anime godhead Hayao Miyazaki is a typical Studio Ghibli phantasmagoria of surreal imagery, cuddly-to-creepy creatures, excitement, sorrow, space, silence, and emotional currents that run leagues deep. Grieving the loss of his mother during WWII, Mahito meets a mischievous heron in the woods, who takes him to an abandoned castle. From there, the boy enters an alternate world that may or may not lead him to a place of healing. It’s the feel of this work from Miyazaki, however, rather than the details of its storybook narrative that places it among the best of his work. If this is indeed it from the man who changed animation, he’s going out on a high note.
In 1998, an ambitious comedian named Tomoaki Hamatsu — nicknamed “Nasubi,” because of eggplant-shaped head — auditioned for a TV show. He was brought to a room with nothing but a floor mat and rack filled with magazines, stripped naked, and told that he had to earn whatever he needed (clothes, food, appliances) by winning them through sweepstakes prizes. Hamatsu assumed the footage of his daily struggles to survive would never be released. Instead, it was broadcast to an audience of millions and made him a superstar. The clear standout of this year’s documentary sidebar, Clair Titley’s recounting of this early experiment in reality TV is both a thought-provoking take on the lengths people go to achieve fame and fortune, and one hell of a wild ride. Someone needs to pick this up ASAP.
‘Evil Does Not Exist’
Drive My Car filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi goes back to the land with this elliptical tale of a woodsman (Hitoshi Omika) who lives with his daughter in a small slice of rural paradise. Unsurprisingly, snakes come slithering into his Eden, in the form of developers who want to construct a “glamping” resort right in the middle of town. The company’s two liaisons (Ryuji Kosaka and Ayaka Shibutani) assume that if they can win him over, the community will stop pushing back. It’s a good idea, until it very much isn’t. Hamaguchi spends much of the film sloooooowing everything down, so that both these unwelcome city dwellers and we, the audience, adjust ourselves to the rhythms of nature. He them reminds us that nature can be brutal and cruel as well.
‘His Three Daughters’
Easily the single best movie we saw at TIFF by a large margin, writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ portrait of sniping siblings caring for a patriarch who’s preparing to pass away is as close to a masterpiece as the Momma’s Man filmmaker has ever come. Not that these three sisters — the Chekhov allusion in the title isn’t a coincidence — have ever been particularly close: Katie (Carrie Coon) is a passive-aggressive control freak; Rachel (Natasha Lyonne) is a checked-out stoner who’s numbed by taking care of their father over the last years of his life; and Christina (Elizabeth Olsen) just wants everyone to get along, pretty please. The way the actors play the dysfunctional dynamic of this unholy trinity, however, is nothing short of miraculous, and given the way Jacobs frames their interactions within their dad’s claustrophobic NYC apartment, he’s clearly been boning up on Ingmar Bergman’s back catalog. There’s not a single false note to any of it. And in a perfect world, Coon would be drafting an Oscar acceptance speech right about now.
Continuing to build off the buzz it received at Cannes, this late work from Wim Wenders focuses on a stoic Japanese man named Hirayama (veteran actor Kôji Yakusho, who’s already started collecting awards for his performance) who cleans public toilets for a living. He goes about his working days with a quiet dignity, listening to classic rock cassettes — yes, the Lou Reed track that’s paraphrased in the title does make an appearance — and training a somewhat hopeless twentysomething coworker (Tokio Emoto). You know that saying about still waters running deep? It applies to both Wenders’ working-class hero and his movie as a whole, which seems to be keeping its emotions in check until it finally lets the floodgates open. And the ending shot is, in a word, perfect.
‘The Teachers’ Lounge’
One of the true left-field discoveries in this year’s TIFF. A junior high school in Germany is hit with a series of thefts, and suspicion begins to fall on several of the Turkish students. A new teacher (Leonie Benesch), who counts many of the accused kids as her students, defends them from these allegations and fights back against her classroom being turned into a kangaroo court. In an effort to catch the culprit, she sets up a trap in the lounge and leaves her laptop camera’s running — and that’s when the real shitstorm starts in director Ilker Çatak’s thriller.
‘Wicked Little Letters’
Imagine an old-timey Ealing Studios comedy mixed with Le Corbeau — and blessed with a genuine appreciation for the poetry of profanity — and you’d have this rough jewel of a movie, in which a small English seaside town is plagued by a series of anonymous, obscene letters. The locals naturally suspect the new resident in town, an Irish single mother (Jessie Buckley) who’s been locked in a public battle with her pious, holy-roller neighbor (Olivia Colman). The case is anything but cut-and-dried, however, and the cast and director Thea Sharrock let the paranoia take equal footing with the laughs. A good reminder that no one can make the most foul-mouthed phrases sound sweeter or more shockingly nasty than Colman, as if we die-hard fans of The Favourite needed one.
‘Woman of the Hour’
Say hello to Anna Kendrick, genre auteur! The Pitch Perfect actor kicks off what we hope will be a long and fruitful career behind the camera with this high-degree-of-difficulty directorial debut. Rodney Alcala was a prolific serial killer who’d been targeting young women since the early ’70s; despite the authorities being alerted to his crimes, he would not be apprehended until 1979. The year before that, however, Alcala was one of three bachelors vying for the hand of contestant Cheryl Bradshaw on The Dating Game, (!) and had ended winning the grand prize on the game show. In the hands of most filmmakers, this would either be a nail-biting thriller or a comedy filled with Me Decade kitsch. Kendrick decides to roll the dice by trying to do both at once while adding in a lot of social commentary on a culture of rampant sexism, then and now — and her gamble pays off. There’s a scene in a parking lot that we’re still creeped out by days after seeing this at the fest.