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TIFF 2023: 20 World Premieres We Can’t Wait to See

It’s going to be an unusual Toronto International Film Festival this year. With the dual strikes still rattling the industry, the red carpets won’t be quite as star-studded, leading to a different kind of fest. However, the movies will still be there, with submissions from dozens of countries and hundreds of perspectives. In fact, we’re planning our most ambitious TIFF coverage to date, with over 75 films covered. Many of the films we cover out of Toronto will have premiered at other fests, including Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” or Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron,” which is already out in Japan. However, TIFF still boasts a robust slate of world premieres, including these 20 that we can’t wait to see. Come back for coverage by Robert Daniels, Marya E. Gates, Nick Allen, Monica Castillo, and yours truly.

(All synopses courtesy of TIFF.)

“American Fiction”                                  

Starring Jeffrey Wright in one of his most beautifully nuanced performances, “American Fiction” is both a wickedly smart satire about the commodification of marginalized voices and a bittersweet portrait of an artist forced to re-examine the terms of his integrity.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright) is a respected author and professor of English literature. But his impatience with his students’ cultural sensitivities is threatening his academic standing, while his latest novel is failing to attract publishers; they claim Monk’s writing “isn’t Black enough.” He travels to his hometown of Boston to participate in a literary festival where all eyes are on the first-time author of a bestseller titled We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a book Monk dismisses as pandering to readers seeking stereotypical stories of Black misery. Meanwhile, Monk’s family experiences tragedy, and his ailing mother requires a level of care neither he nor his trainwreck of a brother (Sterling K. Brown) can afford.

“Boy Kills World”

Akin to stuffing a supercollider full of arcade beat ’em ups, ultra-violent comics, and martial-arts B movies, and then mashing all the buttons, Moritz Mohr’s feature-film debut is a wicked, maximalist action-opera that pits a titular Boy (an impressively shredded Bill Skarsgård) against Hilda Van Der Koy (Famke Janssen), the deranged matriarch of a corrupt post-apocalyptic dynasty that left the boy orphaned, deafened, and voiceless. Moulded from this tragic childhood into an instrument for revenge by an enigmatic shaman (The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian), Boy is set loose in his far-flung dystopia on the eve of its annual culling of dissidents. Feverish bedlam ensues. As he tries to parse his place in this delirious realm, Boy soon falls in with a desperate resistance group, all the while bickering with the apparent ghost of his rebellious little sister.

“The Burial”

Based on true events, this rousing David and Goliath courtroom drama stars Oscar winners Tommy Lee Jones (also at the Festival in “Finestkind”) and Jamie Foxx as two unlikely allies united by a shared desire for justice. Directed by Maggie Betts (TIFF '17’s “Novitiate”), “The Burial” generates suspense and laughter as it chronicles one family’s struggle to hold onto their funeral home in the face of heartless corporate exploitation.

As he turns 75, Biloxi, Mississippi funeral director Jeremiah O’Keefe (Jones) feels blessed by his wife and children and the legacy he’s proud to leave to them. But debts force Jeremiah to sell parts of his business to a corporation rapidly buying up funeral homes, cemeteries, and insurance companies to profit from what its CEO, Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), refers to as “the golden age of death.”

“The Dead Don’t Hurt”

Set in the 1860s, Viggo Mortensen’s second outing as writer-director (after “Falling,” TIFF ’20) is an elegantly realized feminist western starring Mortensen himself and Vicky Krieps as immigrants attempting to forge a life in a corrupt Nevada town.

French-Canadian flower seller Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps) and Danish carpenter Holger Olsen (Mortensen) meet in San Francisco. Vivienne is irreverent, fiercely independent, and refuses to wed, but agrees to travel with Holger to his home near the quiet town of Elk Flats, Nevada. There, they begin a life together — Vivienne grows roses and waits tables at a tavern and Holger builds barns, until the couple are separated by Holger’s decision to fight for the Union in the burgeoning Civil War. Left on her own, Vivienne must fend for herself in a place controlled by corrupt Mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston) and his business partner, powerful rancher Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt). Alfred's violent, wayward son Weston (Solly McLeod) aggressively pursues Vivienne, who is determined to resist his unwanted advances.

“Dicks: The Musical”

Larry Charles (Borat) conducts an uproarious musical-comedy riff on “The Parent Trap” that follows a pair of identical twins who conspire to reunite their divorced and disturbingly deranged parents (Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally).

There’s no business like show business — except perhaps the business of selling the bristles and brushes for robot vacuums, a cutthroat industry that pits “confident heterosexual” salesmen like Craig and Trevor against each other on a daily basis. But before Craig can shove a hose in Trevor’s mouth and turn on the water, these two big-dicked blowhards come to the startling realization that they are f**king identical twins raised apart since birth.

Fortunately, these are the perfect conditions to mount an old-fashioned parent trap, and so the pair swap lives to restore the nuclear family that they have long been denied. But can love still bloom between their eccentric mother (Megan Mullally), who is so old she carries her vagina around in a purse, and their closeted father (Nathan Lane), who is obsessively preoccupied with cannibalistic, humanoid, underground-dwelling sewer boys? Hey, I ain’t bringing around a cloud to rain on their parade, not with songs this catchy and choreography that features Megan Thee Stallion domming worker drones as she lays down bars about how she “out-alphas the alphas” in her midst.

“Dream Scenario”

This satirical swipe at celebrity and groupthink from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli and co-producer Ari Aster stars Nicolas Cage as an inconspicuous academic who is thrust into the limelight after he starts inexplicably appearing in people’s dreams.

Nicolas Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a listless family man and tenured professor with an affinity for evolutionary biology and anxiety regarding his own anonymity. One day, he discovers he has begun to appear in other people’s dreams at an exponential rate. As in life, his presence in these dreams is banal and non-intrusive — he’s simply there, staring indifferently at the fantasies and nightmares of strangers. Nonetheless, he becomes an overnight celebrity, and is soon showered with the attention he has long been denied. But when Paul encounters a dreamer whose visions of him differ substantially from the norm, he finds himself grappling with the Faustian bargain of fame as his dream-selves start inexplicably becoming violent within their respective subconsciousnesses.

“Dumb Money”

Director Craig Gillespie returns to the Festival after 2017’s “I, Tonya” with the story of another real-life scandal that stars Paul Dano and Seth Rogen on opposite ends of a tug-of-war within one of America’s biggest institutions: Wall Street.

Everybody expects GameStop to fail. With this struggling bricks-and-mortar business further drained by the pandemic, it feels like it’s only a matter of time. Hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Rogen) bet billions on the hope that it does. Keith Gill (Dano) thinks otherwise. Operating out of his basement as an amateur investor, he’s been adamant for years that the company is undervalued, posting regular updates and videos online to make his case. When a few average citizens start to pay attention, it sparks a bonfire. Keith’s wager becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as big-name investors like Gabe feel the squeeze of its rising stock price. It isn’t long before big money does everything in its power to throw water on the grassroots movement.

“Ezra”

Both an unpredictable family dramedy and a road movie that runs on mischief, the latest from director Tony Goldwyn (TIFF ’10’s “Conviction”) stars Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, and Oscar winner Robert De Niro as three adults with wildly divergent opinions about what’s best for one precious little boy.

New Jersey stand-up Max (Cannavale) tells stories, not jokes, about ordinary chaos. And there is no better source of chaos in his life than his son, Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald). Diagnosed with autism, Ezra is precocious and precarious: he’s been reading The New York Times since he was five, but his impulsive behaviour often gets him into trouble and sometimes even poses a danger to himself and others. A doctor insists Ezra be sent to a special school and medicated. Ezra’s mom, Jenna (Byrne), who shares custody with Max, is inclined to go along with the program, but Max will have none of it. One night, Max, who has been promised a spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” takes Ezra on a cross-country excursion — without the permission of Jenna or his father (De Niro), whose car Max has “borrowed.”

“Finestkind”

Ben Foster, Toby Wallace, and Tommy Lee Jones pull you onto their crew in this rousing crime drama by writer-director Brian Helgeland (“Legend,” TIFF ’15) about a group of fishermen who make a habit out of pushing the line.

Charlie (Wallace) is looking to get away from his dull college education when he begs his older brother, Tom (Foster), to let him work on his fishing trawler for a summer. There’s no deterring him, even after their first expedition almost ends disastrously. Charlie becomes fast friends with the group, making a place for himself in New Bedford as he starts dating Mabel (Jenna Ortega), who’s trying to make her own future. In this town, scallops are gold, and more is never enough as Tom’s crew encroaches into Canadian waters to continue fishing. Trouble follows, and with debts piling up, the men are forced to come up with a way to make some fast cash. Wrapped up in a dangerous drug deal, they get more than they bargained for, forcing Tom’s father, Ray (Jones) ― famous in the community for his cantankerousness ― to step in the only way he knows how.

“His Three Daughters”

When their father’s health worsens, three estranged sisters come together to try to plan for the inevitable. The eldest is high-strung Katie (Carrie Coon), who talks a hundred miles a minute and stresses about all the practical details. The middle sister, Rachel (Natasha Lyonne), is ready to check out after spending a year taking care of the man. And the youngest sibling, Christina (Elizabeth Olsen), seems always on the verge of tears, trying her best to clumsily keep the peace while they’re all stuck in their father’s small apartment.

“Lee”

Oscar-winner Kate Winslet stars in this fascinating portrait of the great American photojournalist Lee Miller, whose singular talent and ferocious tenacity gave us some of the 20th century’s most indelible images.

The story begins in Paris, 1938, where Miller lives with a bevy of artists and bon vivants. Already a model, muse, and mentee to the avant-garde photographer Man Ray, Miller is now focusing exclusively on her own work. Everything changes, however, with the outbreak of war. Miller and her lover, art dealer Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsgård), move to London, where she begins working for British Vogue. Unsatisfied with documenting life on the home front, Miller teams up with fellow photographer David E. Scherman (Andy Samberg) and goes on assignment for Life. The pair record one of the first uses of napalm, the liberation of Paris, and Hitler’s abandoned Berlin home — where Scherman captures Miller bathing in der Führer’s tub. They are also among the first photographers to enter the camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, where Lee crafts a series of horrifying, urgent images that will sear themselves into history.

“Next Goal Wins”

Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, and Oscar Kightley star in Taika Waititi’s comedy about the American Samoa soccer team’s attempt to make a World Cup — 12 years after their infamous 31-0 loss in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match.

Whip-smart, playful, and deeply rooted in Pacific culture, Taika Waititi is the perfect filmmaker to adapt the unlikely true story of “Next Goal Wins”. Last at the Festival in 2019 with “Jojo Rabbit,” which won TIFF's People's Choice Award before scoring the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Waititi brings his irresistible mix of big emotion and hilarity to tell the tale of a soccer team best known for being absolutely hopeless.

“North Star”

For her feature directorial debut, Kristin Scott Thomas leads Scarlett Johansson and Sienna Miller in a charming family drama about three sisters who are hung up on the men in their lives, as their mother prepares for her third wedding.

On the eve of their twice-widowed mother’s third wedding, three sisters return to their home in the English countryside for a tenuous reunion. Having lost their father and their stepfather, both perishing while serving in the British Royal Navy, the women continue to grapple with complex feelings left behind by these mythologized men.

“One Life”

In 1938, Nicholas Winton was a mild-mannered British stockbroker who became increasingly unsettled by the news of what was happening in continental Europe. After a spur-of-the-moment decision to join friends in Prague to help a growing number of refugees, his life — and the lives of hundreds of Jewish children facing the threat of Hitler’s regime — changed forever. Resolving to take whatever action he could, Winton returned to London and conscripted his indefatigable mother, Babette (Helena Bonham Carter) for what would become years of fundraising and fighting bureaucracy in order to begin transporting children to safety in the UK.

Sir Anthony Hopkins masterfully portrays the deeply humble and almost-anonymous Winton of the 1980s. When his ever-patient wife Grete (Lena Olin) asks him to declutter his office, Nicholas uncovers the long-buried folders and notes that hold the many names of all the children he saved, sparking memories of his wartime efforts. We then follow the younger Nicky, played by Johnny Flynn (“Clouds of Sils Maria,” TIFF ’14), in his sincere and rallying race against an impending war.

“Pain Hustlers”

Based on the real-life story of capitalism run amok — chronicled by journalist Evan Hughes in his 2022 narrative non-fiction book, The Hard Sell — “Pain Hustlers” lures you into the glamour and excitement of success, however it may be achieved. Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) is a single mom working as a dancer at a bar when she meets Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a greasy drug rep for a pharmaceutical startup on the verge of bankruptcy. With a hunch about her talent, he recruits her to peddle a new kind of opioid designed to give pain relief to cancer patients.

Completely out of her depth, Liza struggles to make a dent before convincing one doctor to favour her company’s drug, cracking the code and writing a new (unscrupulous) playbook for getting physicians to prescribe medication. She quickly makes her mark and forms a dazzling team that starts applying the scheme across the country. It rockets the company and Liza’s life to heights she could have never imagined. Liza eventually wakes up to the harm she’s sowing, which only complicates her relationship with Brenner, as he begins to see her as more than just a sales quota.

“Quiz Lady”

There’s been little constancy in the personal life of quiet, cardigan-clad Anne (Awkwafina). Her mother left long ago on an extended casino tour, and her volatile, wayward sister Jenny (Sandra Oh) decamped to pursue her entrepreneurial ambitions. The stability in Anne’s muted life is provided by two things: her overweight pug, and a daily television program called “Quiz Show”. She never misses it, and this unwavering dedication means that she’s a true trivia expert, something that even she admits has no practical value whatsoever.

Until one day, that is, when a telephone call comes revealing that Anne’s mother has absconded on a large gambling debt to an unsavoury group of lenders, and they want their money back. The unexpected return of Jenny adds a further chaotic element to the situation. When Anne’s beloved dog is kidnapped, the sisters set out on a cross-country road trip to get the cash owed the only way they know how: by turning Anne into a game-show champion.

“Reptile”

Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, Justin Timberlake, and Alicia Silverstone star in this moody, enigmatic, intricately plotted noir set in New England. The fiction feature debut from director Grant Singer, “Reptile” seethes with a captivating, doom-laden ambiance on par with the best of David Fincher or Denis Villeneuve.

When a realtor is stabbed to death in a show home, homicide detective Tom Nichols (Del Toro) has no shortage of suspects to investigate. The body was discovered by the victim’s boyfriend and colleague, Will (Timberlake), with whom she fought the night before. The victim’s ex (Karl Glusman), to whom she was still married, is possibly a drug dealer. Meanwhile, an eccentric man (Michael Pitt) with a longstanding grudge against Will and his family seems to take an unhealthy interest in the case.

“Silver Dollar Road”

For generations, the North Carolina waterfront property known locally as Silver Dollar Road was passed through the hands of an African-American family, the Reels. Family members describe it as an idyllic spot where they could earn a living from fishing and growing their own food while isolating themselves from the violence of white supremacy.

But the Reels family’s fortunes changed in the 1970s when developers sought to drive out Black landowners and profit from the real estate. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Raoul Peck tells the story of how the Reels battled over several decades to save their land. He draws upon the in-depth reporting of Lizzie Presser, published by ProPublica and The New Yorker.                                              

“Stamped from the Beginning”

Inspired by the book of the same name by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ “Stamped From the Beginning” explores the history of anti-Black ideas in a way that helps us grapple with present-day racism.

In his book Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi explored the history of anti-Black racist ideas and their impact on the United States. Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams takes inspiration from Kendi’s work to explore those themes with an array of powerful film techniques. Music and visual sampling are injected to create vivid storytelling with a hip hop sensibility.

As the director of television series such as “The 1619 Project” and “High on the Hog,” Williams has steeped himself in Black American history. He’s also proven himself fluent in pop culture with films such as “Life, Animated” and “Love to Love You, Donna Summer”. This new work shows him marshalling all of his talents at the peak of his power.

“We Grown Now”

Constructed over several decades beginning in the late 1940s, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex embodied contemporary thought on housing and urban development. By 1992, however, the community — and the world — had changed significantly. That’s captured in the latest film from director Minhal Baig (“Hala,” TIFF ’19).

Along with his mother Dolores (Jurnee Smollett) and grandmother Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson), 12-year-old Malik (Blake Cameron James) has lived in this community all his life. The same is true for his best friend Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) and together the boys know every nook, stairway, and rooftop — all of these a playing field for their (sometimes forbidden) adventures. But change is intruding on their childhood idyll. Drugs and crime are seeping into the neighbourhood and, when a sudden tragic event further shakes the families, the children’s future becomes uncertain. As Dolores weighs a new job that would take them to the unfamiliar suburbs, Malik and Eric struggle with accepting that they may have to say goodbye to each other. (Note: This film is also opening the Chicago International Film Festival next month.)

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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