The Toronto International Film Festival is such an enormous undertaking that it can be hard to even preview it effectively. Many point to the fest’s ability to launch Oscar campaigns—“Room,” “The Danish Girl” and “Spotlight” all had red carpet premieres there last year—while others look to programs like Vanguard or even Midnight Madness for films that are off the beaten path. It is definitely one of those festivals that offers ticket buyers a chance to experience everything from high-profile awards contenders to indie flicks that may not play again outside of the Scotiabank theater. While I love the experience of seeing something as powerful as “Spotlight” with a large audience, I often think back on the discoveries of years past. Two films last year that weren’t even on my schedule until I had to adjust it at the last minute ended up being two of my favorites of last year’s TIFF: “Mustang” and “February” (now known as "The Blackcoat's Daughter"). What will people be talking about in Toronto and around the world over the next week and a half? It’s impossible to know for sure, but we can try and pick out a few titles that look the most promising.
Just for the sake of focus, let’s stick to World Premieres. And yet one could easily make up a schedule of films entirely based on works that already premiered at other fests. There are the Sundance hits yet to open, including the masterpiece that is “Manchester by the Sea,” Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful “Certain Women” and Nate Parker’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation.” There are the dozen or so Cannes imports, including Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” and many more. Barbara Scharres has already reported on many of these, but we’ll be hitting a few again this weekend. And then there are the films just premiered at Venice and Telluride, including “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” “Neruda,” “The Bad Batch,” “Bleed For This,” "Wakefield," two new films by Werner Herzog, and my most-anticipated film of TIFF and possibly the rest of the entire year, “Moonlight.” And yet none of those are World Premieres. Here’s the 20 we’re most excited to see, in alphabetical order. Be sure to come back for daily coverage from myself, Matt Fagerholm, Tina Hassania and Alexander Huls.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
Steve James' first film since the award-winning “Life Itself” tells the story of Abacus, the only bank criminally indicted after the financial crisis of 2008. While other, larger banks were being bailed out by the government, Abacus, a Manhattan-based bank, was being tried by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. Never heard of Thomas Sung and his Chinatown bank? Neither have most people, but we’re confident that one of our best documentarians will tell his story with the compassion and detail that only he can.
“All I See Is You”
Director Marc Forster has carved out a very unusual career, moving from Oscar-winner “Monster’s Ball” to blockbusters like “Quantum of Solace” and “World War Z.” His latest looks more character-driven and less CGI-heavy, and it stars two often-fascinating actors in Jason Clarke and Blake Lively. The latter plays Gina, a woman who has been virtually blind since a car crash in her childhood, but she has a groundbreaking surgery to restore her sight. When she regains her vision, she starts seeing things in her marriage that she didn’t know about before in what the TIFF description designates as a thriller. That’s all I need to know.
Ewan McGregor has been one of our most interesting actors over the last couple decades, working in pictures as big as the "Star Wars" prequels and as small as “Last Days in the Desert.” It makes sense that his directorial debut would be as ambitious as tackling the often-hard-to-film work by Philip Roth. He directs and stars in this version of one of Roth’s most famous novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic from 1997. Time has called it one of the 100 greatest novels ever written. No pressure, Ewan.
On paper, a reboot/follow-up to the 1999 smash hit “The Blair Witch Project” sounds like a really bad idea. “The Blair Witch Project” was a lightning strike, the kind of phenomenon that can’t be easily recreated. So why put this on the list? Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. The team behind “You’re Next” and “The Guest” have impressed more with each collaboration, and I like that they filmed and even first-hyped this project under the title of “The Woods” before revealing its actual identity. What’s it about? I don’t care, and I’m trying to stay as ignorant as possible because the first movie worked best the less one knew about it.
Nacho Vigalondo hasn’t really fulfilled the promise of his twisty and brilliant “Timecrimes” but this odd, intriguing entry in the often-great Vanguard section of this year’s program could be the follow-up we’ve been waiting for. It certainly won’t be forgettable. Anne Hathaway plays a hard-drinking party girl in a film that sounds like it’s set up as a coming-home/redemption story, co-starring Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens. And then our heroine learns that she has a connection to a giant monster currently destroying the city of Seoul. Yeah, sign me up.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been busy. We’ve already written about his return to genre roots in the excellent “Creepy,” which played Fantasia Fest, and now we have the masterful director’s first film outside of Japan, a French-language thriller starring Olivier Gourmet, Constance Rousseau and the amazing Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”). Working in new languages can often be problematic, even for great filmmakers, but I’m fascinated to see how a craftsman like Kurosawa works with such a raw, emotional actor as Rahim.
One of several high-powered blockbusters looking to use the fest as a launching pad for a successful theatrical run like last year’s “The Martian,” Peter Berg’s telling of the biggest oil spill in US history promises a lot of bang for your fest-going time. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell star as two of the foremen on the titular offshore drilling unit in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010 when disaster struck. Berg has been very hit-and-miss in the past but this material seems perfectly suited to his strengths, and could offer quite the alternative to the large number of dialogue-driven character studies in the TIFF program.
Director Mick Jackson has been quiet after a dominant ‘90s that included hits like “The Bodyguard” and “Volcano,” along with one of my favorite comedies of all time, “L.A. Story.” He’s a hard director to put a finger on, and it’s impossible to tell how he’ll handle such a complicated, emotionally fraught story as this adaptation of Deborah E. Lipstadt’s History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, although having David Hare ("The Hours") as a screenwriter will certainly help. Another reason to be optimistic? The promise of a showdown between Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall. Weisz plays a woman who accuses a military historian of being a Holocaust denier. He then sues her and forces her, because of the U.K.’s libel system, to actually prove the existence of the Holocaust.
Last year’s premiere of Ben Wheatley's “High-Rise” was one of the most buzzed-about events of TIFF, and the director is not about to take time off. He’s back on opening night in the Midnight Madness program with this genre film starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Cillian Murphy. The description promises a ‘70s crime thriller set almost entirely in one location during a gun deal gone horribly awry. That’s all I need to know.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”
Osgood Perkins’ “February” is the best TIFF 2015 film that has yet to be released, but will be under the new named “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” early next year. And yet you may end up seeing his follow-up first with this repeat trip to the Vanguard program for the grandson of the great Anthony Perkins. As with most thrillers, the less you know, the better. Ruth Wilson of “The Affair” plays a young nurse whose patient, a horror novelist, may have written a book about the nurse’s death. Sounds awesome, and I can’t wait to see how Perkins follows up his breakthrough. I have a feeling that we’re going to be talking about his work for many years and films to come.
“JT + The Tennessee Kids”
Why include a concert film about Justin Timberlake in the Toronto International Film Festival? Because it was directed by Jonathan Demme, who gave us "Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense"—the best concert film of all time—and shot by the legendary Declan Quinn, a regular collaborator of not just Demme but U2. There’s also the fact that Timberlake is just a phenomenal live performer. I may have to reveal my fandom in front of everyone at TIFF. I’ll try not to sing along too loudly.
It’s been ten years since “For Your Consideration” and twenty years since “Waiting For Guffman.” Does director Christopher Guest have another comedy masterpiece in him? Before this premieres on Netflix in October, we’ll get a sneak peek of its quality at TIFF. Guest and many of his regular collaborators, including Parker Posey and Fred Willard, take on the world of mascot competitions, which sounds like it blends the pageantry of “Best in Show” with the theatricality of “Waiting for Guffman.” These are good things.
“Message From the King”
This thriller is a big question mark but I love the cast, including Teresa Palmer and Luke Evans in supporting roles, and should-be-a-star Chadwick Boseman in the lead. Boseman plays Jacob King, a South African who has come to Los Angeles looking for the people who killed his sister. Boseman is a charismatic, complex actor, and one hopes that this could be another striking role for him. Comparisons to Takeshi Kitano’s “Brother” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey” only increase my level of interest.
“A Monster Calls”
J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage” is one of the best horror films of the last twenty years, and I’m a fan of his tsunami drama “The Impossible” as well, despite the controversy. Whatever one may say about that film, it is a remarkable technical accomplishment, revealing a skill set that makes him an interesting choice for a CGI-heavy monster movie that sounds like a twisted cousin of Steven Spielberg's “The BFG” from earlier this year. Based on the award-wining children’s book by Patrick Ness, Bayona’s adaptation tells the story of a boy struggling with the death of his mother when he befriends a giant monster. The description makes it sound like this is a fantasy film more about the human experience than CGI—the boy has to tell stories to keep the monster happy—and distributor Focus Features surely seems confident in the project, recently moving it to an awards-friendly release date in December.
Speaking of awards, if anything looks like “bait” this year, it’s the latest drama from Terry George, the director of “Hotel Rwanda,” although I’m OK if that bait earns the great Oscar Isaac the recognition he deserves. The star of “Inside Llewyn Davis” plays an American medical student in Anatolia during the first World War who gets caught up in a love triangle. The sprawling epic co-stars Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
“Queen of Katwe”
Mira Nair teams with Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for “12 Years a Slave,” and David Oyelowo, who should have won one for “Selma,” for a film about a young, Ugandan chess champion. Based on a true story, Nair’s drama is being released by Disney later this month, and promises to be a unique, inspiring family film.
“The Secret Scripture”
Very few films at TIFF are in my personal wheelhouse as much as this period piece based on Sebastian Barry’s novel. It stars Rooney Mara, Jack Reynor, Eric Bana and Vanessa Redgrave, which is a powerhouse quartet of actors. The film is directed by Jim Sheridan, who has faltered a bit in recent years but gave the world “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “In America,” a personal favorite. Redgrave and Mara play the same woman, the latter in flashbacks detailing a troubled past. Casting alone has me intrigued enough to file it under “don’t-miss.”
Is there a better subject in 2016 for Oliver Stone than Edward Snowden? Not that I can think of. Months of delays have produced some critical jitters, but I’m still optimistic that Stone can capture the story of the world’s most infamous whistle-blower in a way that only he can. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Timothy Olyphant and Nicolas Cage, the premiere of “Snowden” this Friday night is one of the biggest film events of the year, pushing it for a hopeful awards season run to begin next week, September 16, when it goes nationwide.
“Trespass Against Us”
Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson in the same film? Where do I buy tickets? Fassbender plays the son of a criminal father played by Gleeson. The son is trying to go straight, but he gets sucked back into the family business in this highly-buzzed feature debut from Adam Smith, a regular video director for The Chemical Brothers, who also score this thriller.
“A United Kingdom”
David Oyelowo pops up on the TIFF premiere list again, this time with a female, black director, illustrating the notable diversity in this year’s line-up. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama in this biopic about the first president of Botswana, who courted controversy when he married a white Englishwoman, played by the great Rosamund Pike. Amma Assante (“Belle”) directs this epic period piece that sounds like one of the more ambitious films at TIFF 2016.
Other World Premieres that have us intrigued: Walter Hill's “(re)ASSIGNMENT” with Michelle Rodriguez & Sigourney Weaver; Tony Elliott’s sci-fi mindbender “ARQ”; Vikram Gandhi’s Obama drama “Barry”; Greg McLean’s star-studded Midnight Madness entry “The Belko Experiment”; Alexandre Lehmann’s “Blue Jay” with the great Sarah Paulson & Mark Duplass; Susan Johnson's “Carrie Pilby,” starring Bel Powley & Gabriel Byrne; “City of Tiny Lights” with the fast-rising star Riz Ahmed; Rachel Lambert’s “In the Radiant City”; Bronwen Hughes' “The Journey is the Destination”; Rob Reiner’s “LBJ,” with Woody Harrelson as the controversial leader; Juan Carlos Medina’s “The Limehouse Golem” with Olivia Cooke & Bill Nighy; Garth Davis’ “Lion”; Antoine Fuqua’s star-studded “The Magnificent Seven”; Avi Nesher’s “Past Life”; Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” with Gemma Arterton; Adam Leon’s “Tramps.” We will do our best to get to all of them.