The 14 Must-See Films at This Year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Trust Us

The 14 Must-See Films at This Year's Toronto International Film Festival, Trust Us
The 14 Must-See Films This Year's Toronto International Film Festival, Trust Us

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence”

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s surreal portraits of alienated people in indescribably strange situations exist in a class of their own: “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living” are comprised of bizarre sketches that turn the notion of tragicomedy into a brilliant sustained punchline. The luxuriously-titled “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence” concludes the director’s peculiar trilogy of encounters, and early buzz out of Venice suggests that it continues to showcase Andersson’s marvelously off-kilter vision.

“Big Game”

Samuel L. Jackson in a TIFF discovery? That’s right: “Big Game,” which heads up the festival’s Midnight Madness section, isn’t your typical studio action-drama. Or maybe it’s a throwback to a better time in the genre’s history — namely, the late eighties/early nineties, when movies like “Die Hard” were the industry standard. Marking the English-language debut of Finnish director Jalmari Helander (whose hunt-for-the-evil-Santa-Clause thriller “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was a cult sensation), “Big Game” stars Jackson as the President of the United States in a far more extreme struggle than anything Harrison Ford endured in “Airforce One”: Trapped in the icy Finnish wild, Jackson must join forces with a 13-year-old survivalist in the midst of a quest to prove his independence. That’s a first-rate selling point, whether or not Jackson drops the F-bomb.


The feature-length debut of Quebecois director Mathieu Denis takes place in the 1960’s, tracking the experiences of confused teenager who ultimately develops terrorist inclinations in the early days of the Quebec Liberation Front — the separatist group responsibile for the 1970 October Crisis when several government officials were kidnapped. Steeped in the generational conflicts of territory’s history, the movie promises a breakthrough performance from Anthony Therrien in the lead role, with more than one insider calling it the most significant Canadian breakout since Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies.”


French director Mia Hansen-Love has quickly established a talent for understated dramas littered with textured moments: “Goodbye First Love” was a tender ode to heartbreak, while “The Father of My Children” portrayed the tragic life of a loving family man with suicidal inclinations. With “Eden,” the director brings the same gentle touch to an unlikely topic: the history of French House music. Tracking the experiences of a French DJ (Felix de Givry) responsible for a pioneering form of electronic music in the nineties, Hansen-Love’s film stretches from Paris to New York as it covers soul-searching and heartbreak against the backdrop of lively dance sequences. With bit parts by Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet, cameos by the members of Daft Punk and a thumping soundtrack that covers more than 20 years of events, “Eden” marks the most ambitious project in Hansen-Love’s filmography, but retains her assured control of tone. The result is a miraculous blend of hard-partying attitude and bittersweet lament.

“Heaven Knows What”

The Safdie brothers are among the few New York-based filmmakers to capture the city’s grimy, subterranean qualities without diminishing its livelier ingredients, as their first two narrative features “Daddy Longlegs” and “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” make clear. But the masterful “Heaven Knows What” takes that potential to a new level, showcasing the pratfalls of a young heroin addict — played by newcomer Arielle Holmes and based on her actual experiences — as she contends with her destructive boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones). Think “Kids” meets “Panic in Needle Park”: a ruthless account of addiction that’s fully believable and compelling, portraying a world of characters simultaneously close to death and fighting hard to evade it.

“The Keeping Room”

Daniel Barber’s South Carolina-set period drama finds a trio of women fighting for their lives at the close of the Civil War when a group of deranged Yankee scouts discover them on a desolate farm. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play sisters who join forces with their slave (Muna Otaru) to fend for their own while the men of the household vanish on the battlefield. Early buzz suggests tense, involving performances from the three leads and a story that follows suit. Considering that Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” features a female-centric Western earlier this year, it seems as though the genre is on the rise — and “The Keeping Room” may end up being the best example to date, an involving look at gender politics and American history in the midst of major change.

“La Sapienza”

The premise of the “La Sapienza” could easily provide fodder for a clichéd indie drama: an estranged couple travels to the countryside in a desperate attempt to raise their weary spirits, bonds with a pair of troubled teens and by helping them work through their problems, finds a renewed sense of hope. Gag. But in the hands of French-American filmmaker Eugéne Green (“The Portuguese Nun”), whose movies blend understated storytelling with literary themes, “The Sapience” is anything but familiar. Instead, the writer-director crafts a work that’s both weighted with scholarly inquiry and an undercurrent of poignancy unlike anything else.

“May Allah Bless France!”

Not every first-time feature from a known quantity is a reason to get excited, but this debut effort from French writer and rapper Abid Al Malik holds serious potential. A black-and-white adaptation of his 2004 autobiography, the movie chronicles Malik’s eighties-set coming-of-age experiences in a single parent household, where he split his time between performing well in school, developing a promising hip hop career, and dipping into a life of crime. Based around the salvation he finds in the discovery of Islam, Malik’s cinematic account of his experiences has the potential to be as involving as his compositions.


Screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) makes his directorial debut with this alluring neo-noir tale of a thief (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers the art of chasing ambulances and cop cars to capture amateur footage of crimes and accidents in progress. The premise finds Gyllenhaal delving so deep into the process that he winds up getting dangerously close to his subjects — and potentially playing a role in their outcome. Beyond suggesting a dark, involving look at Los Angeles nightlife, “Nightcrawler” reportedly features Gyllenhaal in one of his most distinctive performances in years.


German director Christian Petzold is hardly a newcomer. His eighties-set East German drama “Barbara” showcased his remarkable ability to construct a quiet tale with an urgent center. That movie starred Nina Hoss as a passionate doctor who copes with pressure from the Stasi and attempts to save a young woman from neglect. For “Phoenix,” Petzold reteams with Hoss for a period of far greater upheaval in German history — the aftermath of WWII, when a concentration camp survivor (Hoss) attempts to track down her husband despite the possibility that he may have betrayed her to the Nazis. That fascinating premise takes expectations out of the usual Holocaust/WWII mold and suggests a broader rumination on the internal conflicts that marred German society during the second half of the twentieth century. Despite the big historical themes at play, however, early reports suggest that “Phoenix” is a deeply intimate work sustained by another memorable turn from the ever-reliable Hoss. 

“Roger Waters The Wall”

Last year, TIFF received a much-needed boost of energy from the presence of Metallica in the 3-D documentary “Metallica Through the Never.” This year, another musical legend promises to bring a similar volume of auditory satisfaction with this concert film co-directed by the Pink Floyd legend and Sean Evans. Chronicling Waters’ recent The Wall Live tour, the movie is said to capture the imaginative set-driven performance in all its visual magnificence, tapping into Waters’ personal investment in the material. The movie also contains footage of Waters recalling his father’s death in WWII and his grandfather’s death in WWI, which means that even diehard Pink Floyd fans have never experienced “The Wall” like this.

“Seymour: An Introduction”

Ethan Hawke’s first stab at directing a documentary is a touching ode to creative authenticity. Focused on retired pianist Seymour Bernstein, who teaches music lessons in New York City but left behind on his own acclaimed career on the stage years ago, the movie offers an elegant look at the psychology of an artist. Hawke briefly surfaces in the movie to explain his own quandaries over the purpose of his art, but mainly cedes control to his subject, an eloquent fountain of wisdom whose philosophies stretch beyond the realm of music to address the challenges of life itself.

“The Yes Men Are Revolting”

Prankster-activists the Yes Men have been the center of several documentaries in which they manage to trick powerful figures into revealing their corruption, but this latest portrait — which Yes Men duo Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano co-direct with Laura Nix — offers a more personal dimension. The movie covers five years of pranks as they aim to spread the word about climate change, but also delves into their fractured relationship as they ponder their next stages in life. That’s right: The Yes Men have taken on a lot of menacing foes, but this time they’re facing the biggest hurdle of all — a mid-life crisis.


British documentarian Morgan Matthews makes his narrative debut with this potentially significant discovery item. The story features “Hugo” star Asa Butterfield as an ostracized teen who finds his calling as a member of the International Mathematics Olympiad, which sends him to a training camp in Taipei. Featuring a supporting role by the always-dependable character actor Eddie Marsan as the group’s squad leader, “X+Y” is said to deliver on its crowd-pleasing premise, which means that critics and distributors alike will be clamoring to check it out.

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