After ten days, at least 55 films and an obscene amount of poutine and Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches, Team Playlist is done with the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF is probably the world’s biggest film festival, and if there were any worries about the “death of cinema” spurred by thinkpieces written as the fest was getting underway, they were swiftly dispelled by a line-up that showed the medium to be in fine health, from expensive true-life disaster movies and starry biopics to weird world cinema and tiny microbudget indies.
With such an extensive selection of reviews (and you can catch up on our complete coverage here), and the best of Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Cannes and Venice also screening, it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. So we’ve put our heads together and picked out the absolute highlights of another great festival. Thanks to all the TIFF programmers and volunteers, and to our contributors. See our faves below, in no particular order, and if you were there, let us know your own highlights too.
Imagine a Christopher Nolan movie without the setpieces, and even more science, and that might come close to approximating Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” Thoughtful, smart, and moving, this is an alien invasion movie that gets the titular event out of the way in the opening act. What follows is a complex story about communication, mortality, possibility, and what it means to be part of a larger universe, whether that’s the planets of people around you, or the galaxy beyond. There’s no hand-holding in Villeneuve’s film, nor is it cheapened by the requirements of studio movies; indeed, the most pulse-pounding scene involves a phone call. What the film does however is captivate with its intelligence, grace, and wonder at what lies beyond the stars. Catch up on our review if you missed it.
“A Monster Calls”
We’d been hearing good buzz on J.A. Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s award-winning young adult novel for a while, but even so, we (and, judging by the heavy weeping going on in the press screenings, the rest of the Toronto audience) weren’t prepared for the emotional devastation, and the real magic, of the film. Detailing the visits to young boy Conor (impressive newcomer Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is battling cancer, by an ancient tree monster who tells him three stories. It’s a “beautifully structured fable,” as our review put it, with “the timelessness of Hans Christian Andersen stories,” that manages to never feel manipulative or cheap, and that ultimately “dazzlingly shares that we can hurt and learn and survive the messily ever afters that will inevitably touch our hearts.” Expect to hear about this one a lot more as awards season comes closer.
Even given our long-standing love for Barry Jenkins’ previous film, 2008’s “Medicine For Melancholy,” it’s a little surprising — and very heartening — to see his follow-up, a raw, deeply personal story about racial and sexual identity based on an obscure play and with few big names in the cast, becoming one of the most talked-about movies of the fall season. Told in three distinct sections, this Florida-set coming-of-age story, which features career-best work from Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali, among others, went down just as well in Toronto as it did in Telluride, where Greg called it an “historic achievement.” Covered with “stunning imagery” to the extent that it feels like a painting in places, it’s an important film, one that “will transform lives long after it leaves theaters.” But it’s also an ineffably beautiful and moving one as well.
Indulgent, sumptuously staged, and gleefully erotic, much that has been written about Park Chan-Wook’s opus “The Handmaiden” has focused on its more salacious elements. Certainly, there’s blood and some acrobatically explicit sex scenes, however, what hasn’t been mentioned is just as crucial to the film’s high wire entertainment as the streak of humor that runs in an equally strong thread throughout the sprawling period picture. “The Handmaiden” is hilarious. The story of a long con in which a pair of seasoned professionals endeavor to bilk a woman out of her fortune, that’s all you should know going into the “Rashomon”-style narrative which unfolds with no shortage of twists, reversals, and delightfully wicked surprises. If you thought “Stoker” was too straight-faced, “The Handmaiden” finds the arch tone that picture was missing. But if you already love “Stoker,” then “The Handmaiden” will be heaven. For more, here’s Jess’s review.
“La La Land”
It might be hard to do until the film opens wide in December, but do yourself a favor and put aside the deafening hype, forget the Oscar talk, and even stop watching the trailers — just believe us when we say that “La La Land” is truly terrific (read our review). Bright, romantic, earnest, ambitious, bittersweet, and yes, hugely entertaining, Damien Chazelle’s musical is everything you’re not seeing at the movies right now. It’s heart-swelling and show-stopping, and proves that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone might be the most magnetic screen couple in decades. You’ll want to watch it all over again when it ends, you’ll want to live inside it, you’ll treasure it for years to come. It’s a love story about passion that never fades, it’s a dreamy movie about making dreams come true. “La La Land” will leave you singing.