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Ten Stand-out Titles from TIFF

Having just wrapped up its 40th edition, the Toronto International Film Festival presented more than 296 films in its lineup this year. The festival is wide and vast in its embrace of world cinema, but every year the most buzzed-about titles are that will impact awards season. This year most of the big titles had already debuted in Venice and Telluride just a few weeks prior. There were no surprises or out-of-left-field contenders like last year’s “The Martian.” What we saw instead was the continued success of “La La Land” and “Moonlight” which became certified critical favorites, just as they were at Telluride. Here are ten titles that emerged as the biggest winners from this year’s selections.

  1. La La Land

Winning the People’s Choice Award, Damien Chazelle’s film was a no-brainer. Everyone felt sure it was going to win even before the festival started. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s film has moments of pure joy that make you feel punch-drunk in love at the movies again. The morning press screening burst into extended applause after the film’s final shot and that sealed the deal for the film’s eventual fate as a major Best Picture contender. Stone, a beauty of an actress, also turned heads for her performance as Mia, a struggling actress hoping to find her big break. Mia falls for Sebastian, a playful and charismatic Ryan Gosling, as they embark on a colorful and touching adventure filled with some of the best original songs ever conceived for the big screen. It’s quite possibly the best movie musical since Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”

  1. Moonlight

What can be said about Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” that hasn’t already been said? Set during three transformative periods in the life of an African-American  gay man, the film is not only a mesmerizing journey into the “African-American experience,” but it also shatters cinematic taboos that not many have dared touch before it. This was the first major film I can recall to feature two black men who kiss onscreen. Unheard of, but an incredibly important landmark moment and the very definition of a film that can change lives. Jenkins splits the film into three different time frames as he follows his protagonist Chiron’s struggle for self-identity in a society that refuses to acknowledge his sexual freedom. The three actors playing Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) were all revelatory and Jenkins (a former Telluride Film Festival volunteer) makes good on the promise of his first feature “Medicine for Melancholy.” His “Moonlight” deserves to be called a milestone.

  1. Jackie

Natalie Portman’s performance as Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy is masterful. If you thought there was nothing else that could be said about that fateful day when JFK was shot and killed in Dallas then you were wrong. Director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) dissects the incident through Jackie’s own eyes. The film takes place in the hours following JFK’s death as the First Lady tries to comprehend the magnitude of the event. Through the use of finely crafted flashbacks, Larrain strips the cinematic conventions that come with bio-pics and gets to the core of Jackie’s psyche at the time. Portman’s performance is a high-wire act of intrigue. She never fully reveals the exact reasons for some of Jackie’s behavior and  though we can never truly know if there was manipulation involved with her grief, this is hinted at. In a way Larrain and Portman are playing with the audience with an immaculate mix of enigma, grief and cynicism. It’s an artfully crafted thing, this “Jackie.”

  1. Arrival

Toronto was a kind of homecoming for Canadian boy Denis Villeneuve whose “Arrival” had very successful showings at both Telluride and Venice just a week prior. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist twho is recruited by the military after enormous Alien pods show up across the globe. Many countries are prepared for war, but Louise believes that the visitors might actually be on earth for non-violent reasons. Adams, in one of her very best performances, gives a touching and rewarding performance in a film that feels like a better version of Christopher Nolan’s well-known sci-fi blockbusters. The sentimentality is somewhat stripped down for a more concrete and profound look at the ties that bind us all on earth. It’s a thought-provoking adventure that isn’t about war, but communication instead. Villeneuve once again proves to be the real deal. The 49-year-old Quebecois filmmaker is building up a solid, loyal fan-base that could one day rival Nolan’s. The fact that his next movie is “Blade Runner 2” only gets us more excited about his future.

  1. Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s follow-up to 2009’s “A Single Man” turned out to be the love it or hate it movie of the fest. Heated debate raged post-screening, with the film’s champions touting it as a provocative depiction of 21st century masculinity, whereas the haters couldn’t look past what they saw as its lurid fiction-within-fiction B-movie plot device. Amy Adams, on fire this fest, plays art gallery owner Susan Morrow, a woman haunted by an old flame (Jake Gyllenhaal) who sends her his latest violent novel “Nocturnal Animals.” Something in the book touches a nerve in Susan and, through flashbacks recounting their failed relationship, we get to see why. To mention any plot points in Ford’s film would be to ruin a nastily satisfying thriller that refuses to balk away from conventions. This wasn’t an easy film to swallow for many, and some of the people I spoke to did in fact have real distaste for it. But it has just enough intrigue and artfulness to prove to the world that, yes, Tom Ford is an extraordinary filmmaker.

  1. Lion

After his stunning work with TV’s “Top of the Lake” director Garth Davis decided to make the jump to the big screen with “Lion.” Based on a true story, the film sees its main character Saroo getting lost in the streets of Central India and ending up thousands of kilometers away in the streets of Calcutta. He eventually gets adopted by an Aussie family, but two decades later decides to use Google Earth and try to locate his family in India. The audience reaction at the gala screening was so enthusiastic that there were people, including myself, who thought it had a legitimate shot at beating “La La Land” for the People’s Choice Award. That obviously did not happen, but it was the runner-up and further proved that this movie might have legs during Awards season. The critics were a little colder toward it, but word of mouth and audience reaction will further push this movie once it gets released in November. Oh, and did I mention The Weinstein Company is “Lion”s co-producer and distributor?

  1. Lady Macbeth

Get ready for a star-in-the-making. Florence Pugh is mesmerizing in “Lady Macbeth,” first-time director Wiliam Oldroyd’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Pugh plays Lady Katherine, a young woman forced into marriage and who decides to take matters into her own hands. Katherine is a woman who defies conventions and will do almost anything to get the freedom she most desperately craves in a society that refuses to give it. Especially if you’re a woman. Her desires and needs are things that come naturally to women in today‘s society (freedom, true love, her own free will), but since this is a story set in Victorian London those things are taboo and punishable. She dares to break those conventions by doing unspeakable things, including murder. Oldroyd has reinvented the genre by injecting a much needed dosage of adrenaline. “Lady Macbeth” is a thriller masquerading as a period piece The critics were unanimous in their praise and Roadside quickly snatched it up not too long after. You’re in for a real treat.

  1. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Getting lost in the shuffle of Telluride was Joseph Cedar’s English-language debut. After his impressive Israeli film “Footnote” made waves on the international circuit Cedar decided to make this film about New York “fixer” Norman, a crooked man who lies, sways and persuades numerous people of power for his own benefit. As played by Richard Gere, Norman ends up in deep trouble after “helping” an Israeli dignitary who three years later becomes the Israeli Prime Minister. This flawless balancing act of a film had Richard Gere giving an incredibly rich performance that is sly enough to feel fully fleshed out. The wheeling and dealing that the film presents to us is transfixing and feels like new, uncharted cinematic territory. Cedar makes it all work like a pro and the fact that the film, which has a sprawling ambitious plot, doesn’t feel like a mess at all, but instead like a work of art is a testament to its director’s talent.

  1. Barry

The second Obama movie to premiere this year, and also the best, director Vikram Gandhi’s “Barry” has uncanny lookalike Devon Terrell playing the 44th U.S. President. He not only looks like the president, he also finds a way to fully flesh out a 22-year-old College sophomore trying to find himself amid racial tensions in New York City. During his first day on campus a young Barack Obama gets racially profiled by a cop who doesn’t believe he is a student, but thinks he’s intruding on private property. This would be one of the many moments that would shape and mold Obama into a socially conscious, deep-thinking individual. Ending with his decision to no longer called Barry, but Barack instead, Gandhi’s film attempts to make the argument that Obama’s experiences with racial bias in 1981 at Columbia are what triggered him to become the politician that he is today. It’s an invigorating portrait of a president who we will miss all too much after he leaves office next January.

  1. Paris Can Wait

Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford’s wife, isn’t well-known as a director. However, her documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about the tumultuous and depressing shoot of her husband’s “Apocalypse Now” stands as a great, important time capsule in film history. She has never really delved into narrative  fiction until now. With “Paris Can Wait,” another underseen Telluride gem, she has made one of the most enjoyably sexy road movies in quite some time. Casting Diane Lane as Anna, an unsatisfied wife whose Hollywood producer husband (Alec Baldwin) is always away on the road, was a stroke of genius. This spiked bonbon of a film has Lane playing Anne, left alone again by her husband this time at the Cannes Film Festival, which leads to her being playfully lured to go on a two-day road trip through the south of France with her Hubby’s business partner Jacques (Arnaud Viard). Jacques delights in showing her a good time, but also doesn’t shy away from telling her how beautiful she is. Their cat and mouse game makes for an intriguing romcom filled with substance.