With more than 333 features from over 80 countries, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the largest stages for mainstream and independent cinema. Joker debuted at Venice and again sent shockwaves through TIFF’s opening weekend, solidifying its path to the Academy Awards. Renée Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland is also now tipped for awards success, despite middling reviews for Judy itself. And then there’s Jennifer Lopez and her empowering stripper drama Hustlers, which came out of nowhere to become TIFF’s breakout hit.
It wasn’t all good, of course. The Goldfinch with Nicole Kidman was universally panned for being too long and boring, and Meryl Streep had a rare misstep with The Laundromat—playing a Latina to much controversy.
But it wasn’t all bad. Here are 10 highlights of TIFF 2019…
How to Build a Girl
Anglo-American comedy How to Build a Girl, based on Caitlin Moran’s not-so-loose autobiographical debut novel, took the FIPRESCI (film critics’) jury’s Special Presentations prize. Coky Giedroyc (Mary Shelley’s Monster) directs rising star Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, Lady Bird) as Johanna, a teenager longing to escape her working-class life. She dreams of being swept off her feet with a fairy tale romance but instead finds herself working as a music critic, but when Johanna gets to live out her dream she becomes arrogant, attention-seeking, and unlikable.
Described as Almost Famous (2000) for the YouTube generation, How to Build a Girl is funny, earnest, and will appeal to anyone who loves the warm familiarity of British dramedies. Emma Thompson and Jameela Jamil (The Good Place) co-star.
Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) breaks the mystery genre and rebuilds it again with Knives Out, a ‘whodunnit’ described as the most entertaining film of the year so far.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a successful mystery writer who just happens to be found dead by his housekeeper, with a slit throat and a knife in his hand. Two bumbling cops (LaKeith Stanfield, Noah Segan) arrive to interview the family, which includes a successful daughter with a horrible husband (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson), an even ruder son (Chris Evans gleefully subverting his clean-cut Captain America image), a self-help enthusiast who has ‘self-helped’ herself to her fathers-in-law’s fortune (Toni Collette), and Harlan’s confidante (Ana de Armas, the only likable character).
The case is only made more complicated when egotistical Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig in a career-best performance) arrives. Knives Out offers a new twist on classic mysteries Clue (1985) and Murder by Death (1976), but with a borderline satirical tone that explores the nature of greed and privilege.
Released: 29 November 2019 (US & UK).
Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed (The Night Of) plays Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer going deaf, in this debut from writer-director Darius Marder (co-writer The Place Beyond the Pines). Ruben plays in an abrasive duo with girlfriend Louise (Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke), living happily as musical nomads in a gear-stuffed silver RV and selling merch to pay for fuel.
Facing the end of his music career, the recovering addict lands in an isolated facility run by the committed Joe (real-life sign language interpreter and musician Paul Raci), who wants him to understand where he is rather than where he wants to be. His journey to finding inner peace brings him to Paris, where he gains perspective on his own denial.
Described as the rock world’s answer to The Wrestler (2008), both tell a story of men committed to the physical toll of their art, to the point they’re ignoring the consequences. Ahmed delivers a career-best performance, but it’s a shame it’s likely to go unrecognised this award season.
Adam Sandler finally finds a movie and a director that understands his chaotic performance style, for the first since Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Directors Joshua and Benny Safdie follow up Good Time (2017) with a dark psychological thriller bursting with frantic comedy and disorientating chaos. Sandler plays fast-talking New York jewellery dealer Howard Ratner, who spends his days frantically trying to make money and avoiding those he owes money to. The Safdie’s have concocted a plot that involves the NBA player Kevin Garnett, a rare Ethiopian opal, The Weeknd, and a soon-to-be-ex-wife. Lakeith Stansfield, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian, and Idina Menzel co-star.
Like being cinematically punched in the face, Uncut Gems is an assaultive experience ago that finally lets Sandler shine. It’s described as the most affecting film about gambling since The Gambler (1974), with Sandler delivering the kind of performance one would expect from Al Pacino.
Released: 25 December 2019 (US).
Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) co-star in the third feature from Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), a drama exploring the lead-up to and aftermath of a trauma for a Florida family. Waves is almost a film of two halves. The first section follows young Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a high-school wrestling prodigy who’s at breaking point after being derailed by a serious bicep injury. Tyler feels suffocated by the pressures of his father (Brown) and it’s portrayed through anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic scenes.
The second act is dedicated to a burgeoning relationship between Tyler’s sister (Taylor Russell) and the adorable Luke (Hedges), who must deal with immense grief and violence as they get to know each other. Waves doesn’t back away from big themes like toxic masculinity, religion, and the inner ugliness of humanity. As with Shult’s previous films; Krisha (2015) and It Comes At Night (2017), Waves is steeped in a very personal trauma that is leading critics to compare it to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016).
Released: 1 November 2019 (US).
New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) brings his unique take to a World War II film with Jojo Rabbit. Described as an anti-hate satire and based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leuens, Jojo Rabbit is absurd, poignant, and the perfect indictment of hate for our times.
The film centres on a 10-year-old boy called Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) whose admiration of the Nazi party is challenged when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish teenager. And Jojo just happens to have an imaginary Hitler as a friend—well, an absurdist Jewish-Maori Hitler played by Waititi himself. Jojo Rabbit also stars Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Sam Rockwell.
Jojo Rabbit won TIFF’s ‘People’s Choice’ award, and the last seven films to do so were either nominated or won the Academy Award for ‘Best Picture’ (including Green Book, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Kings Speech).
Released: 18 October 2019 (US) • 3 January 2020 (UK).
Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) handsomely adapts Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about the broken US justice system and the racial prejudices built in the country.
In 1987’s Alabama, “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is arrested and convicted for the murder of a young white woman. A couple of years later his attorney Bryan Stevenson (Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan) provides legal assistance to inmates on Death Row, which includes Johnny. Not only does Stevenson battle the flimsy case against Johnny D but the entrenched racism within the legal system. Just Mercy co-stars Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Just Mercy is a straightforward drama that’s undeniably emotive, blessed with impressive performances from Foxx and Jordan. This moving film will remind audiences that Stevenson’s brave work is sadly not over.
Released: 10 January 2020 (US) • 24 January 2020 (UK).
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
A film that’s likely to make an appearance during awards season is Marielle Heller’s (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) touching biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as US television legend Mr Fred Rogers.
Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, loosely based on the writer Tom Junod) is a journalist assigned to do a short piece on children’s TV icon Fred Rogers. It’s supposed to be a quick puff piece, but he finds himself caught up in the kind man. He can’t quite believe Roger’s kind on-screen persona is real, mainly because his father (American Beauty’s Chris Cooper) abandoned him at a young age.
The film has been described as an unashamedly message-driven movie designed to make you call your loved ones and apologise for all the years of pent-up tension. It’s almost a given that Hanks will receive at least a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ nomination come next year’s Oscars.
Released: 22 November 2019 (US) • 6 December 2020 (UK).
Calm With Horses
Calm With Horses is set in the darkest rural Ireland and centres on ex-boxer-turned-enforcer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Peaky Blinders’ Cosmo Jarvis). whose personal life is dominated by his five-year-old autistic son. This is Mean Streets (1973) transported to the sleepy and deprived Irish seaside, with Arm working alongside cocky Dympna (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan) and making drug runs for his uncles, Hector (David Wilmot) and Paudi (Good Omens’ Ned Dennehy), who run the family business from their seedy farm.
The plot cuts between Arm’s life as a father, trying to insert himself back into his son’s life, and his internal struggle to fight back against criminal responsibilities. Calm With Horses is a gentle drama that gives thoughtful attention to Arm’s well-intentioned relationships and skips many of the expected gangster-thriller tropes. Produced by Michael Fassbender, from a novella by Colin Barrett, directed by newcomer Nick Rowland, Calm With Horses mixes Ken Loach influenced kitchen sink drama with film noir thrills.
Released: 6 March 2020 (UK).
The Vast of Night
Set in the shadow of the Cold War, The Vast of Night follows a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) and a radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) who stumble upon a strange frequency in their small New Mexico town. Spanning a single strange night, director Andrew Patterson pays homage to The Twilight Zone with this tale of supernatural beings, UFOs, and 1950s nostalgia. A perfect mix of smart low-budget indie and B Movie plotting, Patterson is certainly a name to watch.
The Vast of Night also won the ‘Audience Award’ at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival and was scooped up by Amazon the night before its TIFF premiere