The best films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival

From Louis C.K.'s "I Love You, Daddy" to Frances McDormand’s "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," every major title at the fest jockeyed for attention.

At the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival, which presents many movies destined to be factors in the end-of-year awards, every major title jockeys for attention. Film journalists converge from around the world to start critical conversations about their worth that will last until the Academy Awards presentation in early March 2018.

However that plays out, I certainly saw some notable films screening at Toronto this year. There was The Square, from Ruben Östlund, which earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Cincinnati-filmed The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which snagged Best Screenplay at Cannes. The Shape of Water, from Guillermo del Toro, took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival mere days before its unveiling at Toronto, which meant it rocketed to the top of quite a few must-see lists.

click to enlarge Jason Mitchell (left) and Garrett Hedlund in "Mudbound" - Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Jason Mitchell (left) and Garrett Hedlund in "Mudbound"

Heading into this year’s event, I had the sense that there would be several female filmmakers on my must-see list. Writer-director Dee Rees definitely held a spot near the top, as I had seen her powerful debut feature Pariah at Toronto in 2011. The new Mudbound heralds a monumental step forward for Rees, who proves to be an adept translator of narrative period fiction — the film is based on an award-winning novel by Hillary Jordan — while also illuminating tragic contemporary reflections that can so easily trip up other celebrated and well-intended filmmakers (see Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit). Her film captures the two sides of America — black and white — forever stuck in a racial mudslide, yet offers up an ending far happier than we deserve.

• Back in 2012, I agreed to a phone interview offered with actress Greta Gerwig in support of Lola Versus, an indie comedy about a young woman’s misadventures in love and life on the cusp of turning 30. I was intrigued because I wanted to see if there was more to Gerwig than this typecast persona. I sensed she was on the verge of discovering another layer, dormant and waiting inside. Five years later, it is a truly marvelous surprise to watch Lady Bird, Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, and appreciate how she has tapped into her own story of growing up in Northern California. She captures the longing of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) to break free from a stifling family and community with an assurance that recalls the lived-in reality of a year of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

• Every Guillermo del Toro fan has a film that stands as the absolute representation of what they love about his complete and utter surrendering to the fantastic and surreal. The comic book crowd can’t get enough of the graphic pulp found in Blade II and the Hellboy movies. Some love the mythic reimaginings and gothic stylings of Cronos and Crimson Peak, while others appreciate the dark fairy tale allure of Pan’s Labyrinth. With The Shape of Water, del Toro has — like a magus of the first order — concocted a strange and steaming brew that combines all of these elements into a romantic fairy tale for adults.

click to enlarge Frances McDormand’s "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" - Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Frances McDormand’s "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

• There has always been a comic black hole at the center of Martin McDonagh’s work. As a writer-director, he’s given us In Bruges (which earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 2009 Academy Awards) and Seven Psychopaths, but I’m not sure those films came close to preparing us for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Rather than focusing on a collection of daft and dank career criminals, here he centers on a mother (Frances McDormand) going to extraordinary lengths to get justice for her murdered daughter. Notions of right and wrong take a cruel beating at every turn, but somehow McDonagh never loses sight of the redemptive power of forgiveness. 

• Outside his dual turn as the Winklevoss brothers in The Social Network, I’ve never understood the appeal of Armie Hammer beyond his hulking blond presence. But Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) expertly employs Hammer’s all-American physicality to great effect in Call Me by Your Name, contrasting it with the precociousness of an American-Italian teen (Timothée Chalamet) as the two characters gradually discover and begin to act upon their mutual attraction during the summer of 1983 in northern Italy. This film is a sensual case study of how moments can define a life.

• It will be a shame if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences somehow overlooks the wonderfully human and humane work of Willem Dafoe in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. The film revolves around the giddy and mischievous adventures of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives with her mother among a community of outcasts in the shadows of Disney World. Baker, following the edgy and experimental vision of his previous Tangerine, continues to set his gaze on forgotten and invisible people on the margins, but Dafoe reminds us that real kindness exists everywhere.

click to enlarge Louis C.K. stars in and directs "I Love You, Daddy." - Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Louis C.K. stars in and directs "I Love You, Daddy."

• How did Louis C.K. keep I Love You, Daddy a secret during its filming? When you’re shooting a 35mm film in black and white all around New York, you assume word is going to get out, since social media is all- seeing, right? Well, he did it and he distilled all of his neuroses about fame, success, parenthood and scandal into a lethally addictive cocktail about a famous writer (C.K.) trying to raise his daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) and protect her from the trappings of his celebrity. As a parent, I found I Love You, Daddy tough to sit through because, despite the very real class and social distinctions, it is still an all-too relatable experience.

click to enlarge The late Sammy Davis Jr. is the subject of "I’ve Gotta Be Me." - Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Photo: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
The late Sammy Davis Jr. is the subject of "I’ve Gotta Be Me."

• Samuel D. Pollard’s documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me is a sad reminder that certain social and cultural realities will never die. Sammy Davis Jr. was a legendary talent, a one-of-a-kind entertainer who literally did it all. He played a variety of instruments, sang, danced, acted and performed stand-up comedy like a virtuoso. Unfortunately, he also served in the military for a country that didn’t recognize his humanity, loved women deemed inappropriate for him because of his race and attempted to stand with an oppressed community by whom he never truly felt accepted. Pollard’s film shows us that no one, other than Sammy Davis Jr., could have been him.


CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]

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