I’ve spent what probably amounts to entirely too much time trying to think of ways to divide the 40-something films I saw during the Toronto International Film Festival into appropriately-themed diaries. As I began working on part two, a commonality emerged among this next crop of eight films; there was just something about them—a performance, the chemistry between leads, a line of dialogue, or a chilling moment, that I kept coming back to.
I wouldn’t call any of these films perfectly executed masterpieces (American Fiction does come close). In fact, I might struggle to recommend these movies to friends who have a more casual relationship with the films they consume than I do. There’s something idiosyncratic about these titles. They are not turn-your-brain-off, watch-in-the-background-while-you-do-other-things movies. They require your attention, your engagement, and at times, your patience. But let me assure you that the payoff is very well worth your investment.
When you watch dozens of films in a short amount of time, they inevitably blur together. These movies have remained distinct in my mind—they made me think, feel, made me question, or reaffirmed, some aspects of my life, work, or relationships.
With that in mind, lets dive into some thought-provoking dramas…
Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction won the TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, the festival’s top prize. I was ecstatic. I love American Fiction. I was also very surprised. I was sure the Toronto audience would throw their votes to a more traditional crowd-pleaser like runner-up Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers (another favorite of mine). I wouldn’t call American Fiction polarizing, but I didn’t think people would connect to a satire about the portrayal and role of marginalized voices in the publishing industry and society as strongly as I did. Again, I’m so happy to have been proven wrong.
Struggling to sell his latest novel to publishers and on an involuntary leave of absence from his professorship, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) returns home to Boston, where strained relationships with his siblings (Sterling K. Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross) and his mother’s ailing health awaits him.
Exacerbated after being told that his writing “isn’t Black enough,” Monk sits down to write a novel filled with every Black stereotype and cliché he can think up. He sends the book, later titled F***, to his publisher under a pseudonym, and it sells. Big time. Turning Monk, or rather his convicted felon alter-ego, into an overnight literary sensation. He now has a choice: cash in and take the money he desperately needs while pandering to white audiences and their need for tragic Black stories, or take a stand.
Interwoven with the hilarious social commentary is the messy Ellison family drama as they attempt to care for their matriarch together. I think American Fiction handles these back-and-forths and swings in tone rather well. Admittedly, I found the satirical parts more interesting; I wanted more of it. I loved Jefferson’s take on commodification, audience appetites, and how we consume art. But the more dramatic familial moments and Monk’s loss of identity also ring true to life—our biggest tragedies and triumphs often happen simultaneously—and without consideration for our circumstances or preparedness. American Fiction unveils uncomfortable truths with cutting precision and beautiful nuance.
I’ll leave any official awards prognosticating to Sasha and my AD colleagues. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that any Best Actor conversation without Wright in top contention is woefully incomplete. Jefferson’s screenplay, adapted from Percival Everett’s Erasure, also stuns. Even if you don’t fall for American Fiction as strongly as I have, I can guarantee it will engage, intrigue, and provoke you—everything we could (and should) ask for from the media we consume.
In my last diary, I mentioned Emily Blunt as one of my “I’ll see them in anything” actresses. Jessica Chastain also occupies a prime spot on that list. She seems to turn in one of the best performances of her career every time she’s in front of the camera.
In Memory, Chastain plays Sylvia, a single mom and recovering alcoholic who begrudgingly reconnects with an old schoolmate, Saul (Peter Sarsgaard, riveting in one of the best performances of the festival and of 2023 so far), after he follows her home from their high school reunion. He has early-onset dementia, and she soon realizes he isn’t who she initially remembered him to be. Thus begins the delicate, deeply empathetic dance that is Memory and the exploration of our histories, past traumas, and shared experiences that shape us.
Michael Franco’s direction and striking script provide Memory with a strong base, but it’s the connection and sweet chemistry between Chastain and Sarsgaard that propels the film into something truly memorable.
Anna (Jessie Buckley) and her partner Ryan (Jeremy Allen White) are three years into their relationship and have settled into a comfortable rhythm. Sure, things have gotten a bit stale, but she loves him. And she has the test results to prove it. The Love Institute can determine if a couple is in love by extracting a fingernail from each individual and using their high-tech microwave-like gadget to determine if both parties are in love.
When Anna begins teaching classes at the Institute, she finds herself more and more drawn to her fellow instructor, Amir (Riz Ahmed), which throws into question everything Anna thought she knew about love and her relationship.
The central question surrounding Fingernails is the ever-intriguing: can you love two people at once? Amir is more exciting, but Ryan is just so sweet. I could never decide who I wanted Anna to pick. Credit goes to director Christos Nikou and his co-writers for creating relationships so genuine and rich that you can easily understand why Anna has deep feelings for both men. And Buckley shares a natural chemistry with her costars, bringing dimension and warmth to each interaction. Fingernails provides a genuine love triangle wrapped up in an exciting premise executed very well. The real heartache comes in trying not to squirm as you watch so many fingernails get pulled.
Let’s call Fair Play a romantic thriller. Girl meets boy at high-stakes finance job, they fall in love and enjoy a steamy relationship until girl gets promoted instead of boy and is now his boss. Then, it all breaks down into a mess of jealousy, power plays, backstabbing, and some seriously messed up workplace dynamics.
Writer-director Chloe Domont’s take on sex, relationships, gender dynamics, and the bro-culture of Wall Street provides a lot to chew on. Phoebe Dynevor didn’t particularly impress me in Bridgerton, but she makes the most of the bait-y material she’s given here and fresh off of providing one of Oppenheimer’s best performances, Alden Ehrenreich is terrific as a “nice guy” who falls apart when faced with his own ego.
There are some moments, particularly at the end when Fair Play veers dangerously close to Lifetime movie territory, but I found it all, the messiness and frustration that it evoked, at the very least, extremely entertaining. Be on the lookout for Fair Play on Netflix in early October.
Daddio is not a film that will appeal to everyone; there were groans and a few walkouts from older audience members. But Daddio absolutely appealed to me. Dakota Johnson gets into a cab headed home from the airport, and Sean Penn is her brash, overly inquisitive cab driver. As the night progresses, their conversation moves from banal pleasantries to candid discussions of sex and the intricacies of Johnson’s relationship with a much older married man.
Strangers meeting by chance and sharing a connection one night in New York City is a conceit that has been done before, but writer-director Christy Hall offers the premise a fresh, modern perspective. (There’s a comment made about how women lose half of their value to society when they turn 30 that sent a chill through my 29-year-old bones). Like Fair Play, Daddio is examining gender dynamics in a way that merits our engagement and consideration, even if that leads to imperfect execution or moments of frustration. Johnson is more alluring and charismatic in the first 30 minutes of Daddio than she was, through no fault of her own, in three Fifty Shades films. Johnson and Penn’s wisecracks and flirtations offer unexpected insights and provocations.
Lee has been a major passion project for Kate Winslet, who has spent seven years and her own money trying to get the biopic off the ground.
I can understand why Winslet was so drawn to the part. Lee Miller, a model-turned-photographer, was a fascinating, trailblazing figure. As a correspondent for Vogue, Miller covered the holocaust and helped bring the horrors of Nazi concentration camps to light. The images she captured are considered some of the most important of the 20th century.
We are so used to high-caliber performances from Winslet that we hold her work to an entirely different standard. Take any metric you’d like, whether it be Winslet’s previous work or the recent performances of her peers; it’s undeniable that Winslet’s work in Lee is dynamite. She’s fierce, snarky, daring, and alluring.
It’s unfortunate and frustrating that Lee never lives up to the power of its leading lady or its subject. And suffocates Winslet’s nuance under very formulaic storytelling.
An older Miller reluctantly tells her story to a journalist (Josh O’Connor), who occasionally chimes in with questions, moving back and forth in time as Miller explains key moments in her life and career.
Lee does raise some interesting questions, like what moments, if any, are too delicate and intimate to photograph and what responsibility, if any, a photographer owes her subjects. But the film doesn’t seem too interested in wrestling with any of these topics. The film spends quite a bit of time setting up Miller’s controversial photos in Hitler’s apartment, but her response as to why she decided to pose in a dictator’s bathtub is nothing more than a throwaway line. I was left with more questions than answers about who Lee was, what drove her decision-making, or her relationship to her work. Struggling under the weight of too much story to tell, Lee moves from scene to scene with no real resolution. And I was left with no fundamental understanding of who Lee Miller was beyond her ability to capture a stunning photo.
Of course, Lee has its harrowing moments, as does any film that recreates the most tragic moments of World War II. Andy Samberg is a standout among the supporting cast, in a dramatic turn as David E. Scherman, a LIFE magazine photographer and Lee’s closest friend. Other cast members like Marion Cotillard and Andrea Riseborough are wasted, while O’Connor and Alexander Skarsgård, who plays Lee’s partner, are miscast.
Despite Winslet’s best efforts, Lee is a case of great potential left unexplored.
Ian McKellen delivers one of the standout performances of 2023 in The Critic as a cantankerous theater critic who is impossible to please. When his long-standing job at the paper is threatened, Jimmy Erskine resorts to blackmail in an effort to regain the favors of his editor (Mark Strong).
The Critic is not without its flaws and plot holes; everything goes a bit too off the rails, but I’m willing to overlook that and give in to the soap opera of it all because you can’t help but have fun watching McKellen having so much fun as this wicked and, ultimately tragic, old man. Gemma Arterton is also a delight as an actress seeking hard-earned Jimmy’s approval.
If you’re a fan of charming British period pieces as I am, you’ll find enough to love within The Critic to warrant your time—and, at minimum, a solid review.
They say actors draw the best performances from their fellow actors. That’s certainly the case for Bobby Cannavale’s work in Tony Goldwyn’s Ezra—another performance from the festival I wish was getting more attention. I’ve always enjoyed Cannavale, but there’s a depth and lived-in quality on display in Ezra that goes beyond what I’ve seen before and feels really special.
Cannavale and real-life partner Rose Byrne play an estranged couple who share an autistic son, Ezra (William Fitzgerald). With two very different approaches to parenthood, they are at odds as to how to raise Ezra and best care for his needs—what school he should go to, what rules to enforce, what boundaries to put in place, etc.
Goldwyn’s longtime friend Tony Spiridakis wrote Ezra based on his experiences raising an autistic son and that authenticity and warmth are evident from beginning to end. Ezra is a beautiful portrayal of the complexities of parenthood, the deep love that drives you, and the crippling fear that you’re getting it all wrong. Our parents are our heroes and their own deeply flawed human beings. Ezra presents its characters and their points of view with an overflow of empathy—a sweet family story that is deeply satisfying.
I’ll be back tomorrow with part III of my diary, diving into more of my favorite TIFF dramas.