I had a plan for how this TIFF was going to go. I was going to meet friends for drinks, have proper meals between screenings, and make an earnest attempt at planning my schedule in advance.
Wishful thinking. I barely got to see much of anyone and sustained myself with protein bars stashed in my purse and pure adrenaline. Due to my own bad luck and a terrible run-in with the TIFF ticketing system, most of the films I saw were the result of incredibly kind film reps and last-minute day-of tickets and not the result of any forethought.
But embracing the unexpected also led to spontaneous meet-ups and conversations with strangers who became festival buddies. The open schedule also led me to some movies I might have otherwise overlooked, like Unicorns, Green Border, and Swan Song—all of which became festival favorites.
The lesson learned here is to always keep an open mind, something I’ve thought a lot about as I watched, reflected on, and written about these 42 films. So join me as I step outside my movie-comfort zone and dive into some (more) of the dramas at TIFF 2023.
If I had to pick one film from this year’s TIFF lineup to recommend to absolutely everyone, that film would be Ava DuVernay’s Origin.
Origin is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The film blends elements of the traditional biopic with documentary-like recreations of real-life events.
Inspired by and partly adapted from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Origin takes author Isabel Wilkerson’s (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) personal tragedy and unspools it as she begins writing Caste and exploring the system of social hierarchy, its history, and modern implications.
When her husband (Jon Bernthal) and mother pass away, Wilkerson channels her grief into work, traveling to Germany and India to study how the caste system has given way to inequality and racism. The film moves from Wilkerson’s perspective to vignettes that show key scenes from her book.
Origin cleverly and seamlessly blends genres and storytelling techniques into something that feels bold and completely original. Ellis-Taylor is phenomenal as Wilkerson and portrays her grief with such authenticity and depth that it permeates every frame. It’s a wonder how a person can experience such profound loss and, through it all, write one of the best works of non-fiction in recent history.
I can’t remember the last time a film impacted me as deeply as Origin has—there’s something so raw, ugly, and simultaneously beautiful about its humanity. It’s stunning.
I tried very hard to go into this festival, managing my expectations and giving each film a fair shot, but admittedly, The Holdovers was my most anticipated film of TIFF 2023 and one of the could-be awards contenders I was most curious about. The Holdovers did not disappoint.
I’m a huge fan of director Alexander Payne (Election being my favorite of his work), and like many, I was left completely dismayed and disappointed by his last outing, the Matt Damon-starring Downsizing. But fear not, with The Holdovers, Payne is back in fine form.
The film follows Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a New England prep school teacher with a serious likeability problem, who is tasked with spending the winter break watching the students unable to travel home for the holidays.
It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Giamatti as this workaholic curmudgeon. He faces off against newcomer Dominic Sessa, starring in his first film, as one of the unfortunate “Holdovers.” These two squabble and ultimately bond over the disappointments and bitter truths of adulthood. But it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance as the school’s lunch lady and recently bereaved mother that left the greatest impact on me. Watching this acting trio rip into David Hemingson’s richly developed script and unfurl and develop these relationships felt like a Christmas treat, even if it did hurt my heart in the process. The Holdovers is everything I want in a drama—intelligence, humor, warmth, and compassion.
His Three Daughters:
What writer-director Azazel Jacobs does so well in His Three Daughters is show how non-linear and untidy grief can be—it really is a process, and Jacobs throws us right in the middle of it.
His Three Daughters stars Carrie Coon, Natasha Lyonne, and Elizabeth Olsen as sisters who reunite in their childhood home when their father is placed in hospice care and given days to live. I’d call their relationships strained, but there isn’t much of a relationship to speak of, just pilled-up resentments and unspoken judgments. These women are all wildly different, which gives us three unique windows into what grief can look like; sometimes, you feel the urge to clean, and sometimes you just want to smoke weed and watch football. All of the darkest, most awkward elements of death are baked into His Three Daughters, right alongside a surprising dose of humor.
The film feels like a play and barely leaves the confines of the apartment; this just adds to the building tension, the weight of words left unsaid, and the gravity of waiting for death to arrive. I’ve seen and written about many, many dramas about grief. His Three Daughters is one of the most accurate and subtlely profound.
While I didn’t outright dislike any of the films I saw at TIFF, it’s undeniable that the festival experience inevitably elevates my view of said film. Such is the case with The Burial, a movie I liked but my audience absolutely loved. The crowd whooped for Jamie Foxx’s charismatic wisecracks and left raving about The Burial.
The courtroom drama unfolds after a small-town, small business owner (Tommy Lee Jones) gets the runaround from a competing corporate giant and hires a celebrity attorney (Foxx) to fight back. There’s something old-fashioned about The Burial, the kind of mid-budget, made-for-adults film that has mostly disappeared from the industry. The Burial was designed to be a middle-of-the-road crowdpleaser, and as indicated by the cheers I witnessed, it has successfully made its case.
Anthony Hopkins, compelling on screen as always, plays Nicholas Winton, an English financier who helped 669 Jewish children escape from the Nazis at the start of the second world war.
Fifty years pass, and Winton’s good deeds go unknown and unacknowledged until a BBC television program reunites Winton with some of the so-called “Nicky Children,” the now-adults he rescued.
Like The Burial, there’s something very old-fashioned and sweet about One Life. The drama doesn’t reinvent the wheel or break new ground as far as biopics go; it just focuses on bringing attention to an important story. And does a perfectly fine job.
Rustin is another biopic that takes a very routine approach to telling the tale of Bayard Rustin, one of the key figures in the civil rights movement and one of the architects of the March on Washington.
Despite his accomplishments, Rustin’s name isn’t immediately familiar to most Americans. Fearing that his sexuality would bring negative attention to the march and “hurt the cause,” allies, including Martin Luther King Jr., pressured Rustin into taking a less public-facing role during the history-making march and its aftermath. Thus, Rustin’s name doesn’t stand alongside other giants of the civil rights movement as it ought to. Simply because he was gay.
As director George C. Wolfe said when introducing the film, Rustin “was a man who changed history, and history forgot about him.”
Rustin hits the same marks that other films about civil rights and LGBTQ activists have covered before. What is remarkable about Rustin is the magnetism and ferocity of Colman Domingo’s portrayal of the icon, a sure-fire contender for one of the best performances of the year. Domingo sets the mediocre screenplay on fire with a magnetism and easy charm that burns through the screen and elevates everyone and everything around him. You can’t help but leave with a sense of appreciation for the forgotten icon on screen and the performer who brought him to life.
I fell into Unicorns by sheer dumb luck. I happened to have some free time in my schedule, and Unicorns was playing in the right place at the right time. I’m so grateful for this little piece of TIFF serendipity that brought Unicorns to my attention—a movie that needs to be on your radar, too.
James Krishna Floyd and Sally El Hosaini co-direct this drama about a blue-collar worker (Ben Hardy) who meets an alluring nightclub performer named Aysha (Jason Patel). After sharing a steamy kiss, Hardy realizes that Aysha is a drag queen, not a cisgender woman as he had assumed.
What follows is a story that confronts our preconceived notions of connection, identity, and sexuality. Unicorns transports us to a world that is bright, colorful, and seductive while also confronting the bigotry facing LGBTQ people of color. The chemistry between Hardy and Patel is both tender and electric and Patel, a relative newcomer, is utterly hypnotic and displays impressive range. Unicorns is simply beautiful and utterly unique.
The Dead Don’t Hurt:
Sometimes, I watch a political drama or a show like Succession and think, “They made this for me.” Westerns, on the whole, are very much not for me. If you are a lover of Westerns, there’s plenty to admire about The Dead Don’t Hurt, written, directed by, and starring Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen plays a Danish carpenter who meets and falls for a feisty French-Canadian flower seller (Vicky Krieps) in San Francisco. The two set out to build a life together until the Civil War intervenes.
The film is beautifully shot and is a solid second effort behind the camera for Mortensen. The Dead Don’t Hurt plays with the conventions of the Western genre in clever and interesting ways. But it’s Krieps’ acting chops that really pop here. She delivers another commanding and confident performance—proving once again that she’s one of the most interesting actresses working today.