In the middle of summer, when moviegoing options are slim, it’s hard to visualize the sheer scope of films that will screen this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. No single film commands all the buzz, nor can one lineup, and so the first big announcement — featuring the Galas and Special Presentations — can only begin to provide some insight into the titles worthy of anticipation.
Still, there’s a lot to dig through: Oscar hopefuls looking to gain momentum (“The Birth of a Nation,” “Loving” and more detailed here); big-budget studio efforts hoping to earn some upscale cred (Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon,” Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi “Arrival”); veteran filmmakers still pursuing the kind of topics that put them on the map (Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe”).
Beyond these obvious standouts, however, several titles from these programs hold a lot of potential for reasons that have nothing to do with marketing-driven hype. These are the real movies that make TIFF worthwhile — a broad spectrum of international efforts ranging from curiosities to safe bets. Here’s a look at some of the more intriguing possibilities.
Rising Stars, Supernatural Tales
France’s Rebecca Zlotowski has been steadily gaining traction on the international festival circuit, first with 2010’s teen party drama “Belle épine” and then the 2013 Cannes favorite “Grand Central,” which chronicled an unlikely love story against the backdrop of a nuclear power plant. Her proven ability to make familiar scenarios seem new is likely to continue with the long-awaited “Planetarium,” which focuses on a pair of sisters (played by Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp) who have the ability to commune with ghosts. Set in the 1930s, the film’s fantastical premise suggests another atmospheric mystery of human behavior from a rising star.
Also on the rise: Spain’s J.A. Bayona. While almost a decade has passed since his eerie supernatural debut “The Orphanage” (which still has a planned English-language remake in the works), Bayona has completed just one feature since then, the tsunami survival drama “The Impossible.” The film was met with a mixed reaction at TIFF, but nonetheless confirmed Bayona’s skill at crafting intense cinematic suspense that treasures images over words. Needless to say, he’s already gearing up for the biggest-scale effort of his career by directing 2018’s sequel to “Jurassic World” — but before then, he’ll come to TIFF for the premiere of “A Monster Calls.” The Focus Features–produced fantasy revolves around a young boy who befriends a tree giant while dealing with his dying mother. Opening later this year, it stands a good chance of introducing Bayona’s style to broader audiences as he works his way into blockbuster territory.
Stepping Up to the Big Leagues
To date, Garth Davis’ biggest accomplishment has been directing several episodes for Jane Campion’s beloved miniseries “Top of the Lake.” With “Lion,” he makes his feature-length debut, in an adaptation of of Saroo Brierley’s novel about a young Indian boy who loses his contact with his parents and grows up in Australia — only to rediscover them decades later through modern technology. Rumored to be a real heartbreaker, “Lion” has been quietly gathering momentum behind the scenes for months, and could turn Davis into one of this year’s overnight discoveries.
The same goes for British director Adam Smith, who has directed UK television and short films but enters the feature world with “Trespass Against Us.” The film, written by Alastair Siddons, focuses on a conflicted young man (Michael Fassbender) struggling to break away from his criminal relatives. It’s exactly the kind of gritty material that Fassbender excels at tackling, and he’s not exactly the easiest actor to land these days. That’s reason enough to look forward to a tough, memorable character study bound to generate some attention.
Meanwhile, Turkish-American director Onur Tukel is overdue for wider acclaim. For years, the witty, neurotic filmmaker-star has been churning out hilarious low-budget urban comedies ranging from “Richard’s Wedding” to the horror satires “Summer of Blood” and “Applesauce.” Now he stands a chance at gaining more attention with “Catfight,” a black comedy about the ill-fated reunion between old friends that stars Sandra Oh, Anne Heche and Alicia Silverstone. The notable cast should work as a Trojan Horse for introducing more people to Tukel’s twisted brand of humor.
While Cannes is the first high-profile showcase of international cinema on the calendar, TIFF always has an equally impressive spread of filmmakers from around the world. In the current lineup, however, some of the major names stand out because they’re changing directions. Preeminent Korean genre filmmaker Kim Jee-woon is best known for outrageous thrillers such as “I Saw the Devil” (along with his single American effort, the underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Last Stand”). With “The Age of Shadows,” he steps out of that safety zone for a large-scale period piece set in the Japanese occupation of the 1920s, where a double agent attempts to take down a group of freedom fighters. The premise suggests a more nuanced effort from the usually zany Kim.
Japanese stalwart Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Cure”) shifts away from the horror genre and the Japanese language with “Dageurrotype,” a French-language romance about a photographer who uncovers a ghostly power. It will be exciting to see whether Kurosawa’s creepy storytelling techniques can work in a new linguistic and narrative context.
Long-Awaited Second Features
Some filmmakers jump on the enthusiasm surrounding their first features and keep churning out more. Others take their time. It’s been five years since Vikram Ghandi’s quasi-documentary “Kumaré,” in which the filmmaker posed as a new-age guru and deceived his numerous followers. Now he’s working a more conventional mode with “Barry,” which focuses on a young Barack Obama (Devon Terrell) during his college days. An accidental prequel to this year’s Sundance favorite “Southside With You” (the so-called Barack/Michelle date movie), “Barry” also features Ashley Judd and “The Witch” breakout Anya Taylor-Joy in key roles. It’s a formidable cast and equally exciting subject matter that couldn’t be more timely. While this kind of real-life material is often hard to nail down, Gandhi’s just the sort of meticulous storyteller who could make it worth checking out.
Another festival breakout several years back was British actor-director Garth Jennings, whose 2007 debut “Son of Rambow” made a splash at Sundance, where it landed distribution with Paramount. The charming tale of a young boy attempting to make a movie based on “First Blood,” it was the rare example of a whimsical coming-of-age tale done right. A decade later, Jennings has finally made his follow-up with “Sing,” and it’s quite the step forward: an animated 3-D musical, the film features animal characters (including a koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey and his sheep pal voiced by John C. Reilly) who conspire to keep their theater from closing its doors. If it sounds a bit too much like “The Muppets Movie,” just wait until you hear about the pig named Rosita (Reese Witherspoon). And think twice about it, because that comparison isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There are many established filmmakers in the program so far, but only a few films you can pretty much assume will deliver on expectations. Chief among them is Jonathan Demme’s “JT + The Tennessee Kids,” a Justin Timberlake concert film from the director of the greatest concert film of all time, “Stop Making Sense.” It’s easy to assume that Demme, whose ability to use snazzy camerawork and other effects to capture energetic live performances, has the ability to win over viewers who may not otherwise care for Timberlake’s music. (Fans will be smitten from the start.).
Working in a completely different mode, TIFF regular and perennial French director François Ozon (“Swimming Pool”) returns with “Frantz,” a romantic two-hander set in post-WWII France involving the widow of a dead soldier and the enigmatic Frenchman she meets at the dead man’s grave. The versatile Ozon has shown his ability to juggle all kinds of genres with ease, and this delicate premise suggests it won’t be any sort of exception.