As I prepare to make my annual trek up to Canada for the most important of all fall film festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival, I’ll have my first opportunity to form critical takes on the year’s most important movies. And I’ll be writing in my September columns about what I find.
Last year, I caught the three pictures that figured most in the Academy Awards for 2016 releases — Manchester By the Sea, La La Land and Moonlight. This year, the early festival buzz offers reverential love for films like Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, whose A Bigger Splash was a favorite of mine from 2015), Stronger (David Gordon Green), Downsizing (Alexander Payne), Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), Mother!, (Darren Aronofsky) and The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, potentially working in the same mode as his Pan’s Labyrinth).
Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name has a screenplay by James Ivory, who as a director worked with the late producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on such memorable literary films as A Room With a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day. Based on a novel, Call Me is about a relationship that develops between two young men in 1980s Italy. Stronger features Jake Gyllenhaal as the real-life Jeff Bauman, whose efforts to recover from injuries suffered in the Boston Marathon bombing have inspired many. Downsizing is a satire about a couple (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) that shrinks to four inches, ostensibly to reduce their human footprint on the environment.
Battle of the Sexes casts Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, who played a much-ballyhooed tennis match in 1973. The thriller Mother! has Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple whose life at their country home is disrupted by strange guests. And the fantastical yet real-world-rooted The Shape of Water is set during the Cold War and features Sally Hawkins as an isolated employee of a government laboratory who, with co-worker Octavia Spencer, discovers a secret experiment.
Here are some other Toronto films I’m really excited about checking out:
• A Season in France
Immigration narratives have resonance all over the world, so it is intriguing to see how other countries grapple with the personal stakes of this global/political crisis. Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France focuses on an African high school teacher (Eriq Ebouaney) who flees his war-ravaged nation with his children for France and winds up falling in love with a French woman willing to offer solace to him and his family. Haroun, a native of Chad, boldly explores political conflicts in his homeland, but here the issues take a backseat to the personal.
• The Square
Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure was an unforgettable Toronto experience a few years ago, so my personal expectations are quite high for his latest, The Square, which satirically examines our notions of community, our moral and philosophical integrity and the identity crises of the upper class. It already sounds like a spiritual sequel to Majeure, which means that the added attraction of familiar talents like Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West will only solidify this as a must-see.
• The Florida Project
Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) forges ahead with his low-fi aesthetic in full force, as The Florida Project tracks the summer odyssey of a six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she gallivants around with her playmates and her free-spirited mother, all under the looming shadow cast by Disney World. Baker casts Willem Dafoe as a grizzly Oz-like mentor and, if the advance word is to be believed, he might be looking at Best Supporting Actor nomination.
• Molly’s Game / The Mountain Between Us
Back in 2015, Idris Elba had what should have been his long-awaited breakout turn in Beasts of No Nation, but a misfired release (thanks to the film’s acquisition by Netflix) delayed, once again, his ascension. This year, Elba has two chances to secure his spot as a top Hollywood actor. In Molly’s Game, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, he plays a lawyer defending the woman (Jessica Chastain) who ran one of the most exclusive high-stakes poker games in the world (with movie stars, top-level entrepreneurs and Russian mobsters) before running afoul of the FBI. That one is based on a true story. The Mountain Between Us, Hany Abu-Assad’s adaptation of a Charles Martin novel, details the bond forged between two strangers (Elba and Academy Award-winner Kate Winslet) stranded after a plane crash in a remote snowy region. Survival demands that they embark on a perilous trek across the wild expanse.
• Chappaquiddick / Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Past is most definitely prologue with these two festival films that offer sharp insights into scandalous crash and burns. John Curran’s Chappaquiddick looks at the events of 48 years ago, when Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) accidentally drove a car off a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), a campaign worker. Curran recreates that moment, and its conspiracy-laden aftermath, with a moodily suspenseful take that poses questions about how and why this tragedy occurred in the first place. In Mark Felt, director Peter Landesman (Parkland) advances us ahead to 1972, as Felt (Liam Neeson), a dedicated special agent at the FBI, breaks with the agency over its handling of the Watergate investigation. Taking it upon himself to leak information to Bob Woodward at the Washington Post(earning the legendary label “Deep Throat”), Felt’s heroic decision to defend the nation against internal abuse of power serves as an example for our current situation today.
• Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig steps behind the camera — doing double duty as writer and director — for this tale about Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a young Northern California high school senior fumbling her way through a difficult year. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is working overtime to support the family when her father (Tracy Letts) gets laid off, while her brother and his girlfriend — college graduates — toil away at a supermarket. Gerwig is known for capturing whimsical awkwardness in her performances, but Lady Bird finds her helming a head-on collision with adulthood.
The idea of two Americas coming together lies at the heart of the new film from Pariah’s Dee Rees. Mudbound, an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s prizewinning novel, follows two World War II veterans (Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) as they return to their Mississippi home and attempt to adjust to a post-war life beset by Jim Crow-fueled racism. There are no lasting monuments to the everyday heroes who made sacrifices to defend our country’s ideals against such racism, but Rees and her talented cast — also including Mary J. Blige (yes, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul) — might lay a golden foundation for a moving memorial.
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