Yes, the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival was devoid of its usual star power due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike.
That’s not that the cinematic confab was an utter wasteland. Actors like Jessica Chastain (Memory), Colman Domingo (Sing Sing, Rustin) and Finn Wolfhard (a co-director on Hell of a Summer) scored exemptions that allowed them to attend; filmmakers like Ava DuVernay (Origin), John Carney (Flora and Son) and Pedro Almodóvar (Strange Way of Life) mingled at parties; and such notable musicians as Paul Simon (In Restless Dreams), the Talking Heads (the 40th anniversary of Stop Making Sense), Lil Nas X (Long Live Montero) and Nickelback (Hated to Love) popped up on red carpets.
In the end, however, what makes a film festival is the lineup of films. And Toronto had plenty of good — no, great — films.
It was American Fiction, first-time director Cord Jefferson's razor-sharp satire of racial depictions in pop culture, that left TIFF as the biggest winner. The dramatic comedy scored the much-coveted Audience Award Sunday, with Alexander Payne's The Holdovers and Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron notching runner-up mentions. How notable is that for a film that wasn't previously considered a major awards player? TIFF's last 11 Audience Award winners have all gone on to at least land a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, with three of those — 12 Years a Slave, Green Book and Nomadland — ultimately winning Best Picture.
From other surefire Oscar contenders like DuVernay’s Origin to the impressive directorial debut of Anna Kendrick (Woman of the Hour) to films with top-rate performances from Nicolas Cage (Dream Scenario), Colman Domingo (Rustin), Jamie Foxx (The Burial), here are our 10 favorites from Toronto 2023.
Jeffrey Wright broke out in a big way in the title role of Julian Schnabel’s fittingly artful 1996 biopic Basquiat, but Hollywood has tended to employ him more as a character actor than leading man in the 27 years since. American Fiction shows that has been a grave mistake. Adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, writer/first-time director Cord Jefferson (The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, Watchmen) delivers a stinging, subversive and laugh-out-loud-funny racial satire with a blistering Wright as a disgruntled author whose dumbed-down, trope-laden social experiment of a book turns into a bestseller. Imagine Alexander Payne’s Sideways meets Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, but even better. — K.P.
How/when you can see it: In select theaters Nov. 3, wide Nov. 17
The Boy and the Heron
Master anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki emerges from his decade-long hiatus with one of the most visually sumptuous — and thematically rich — movies of his storied career. Set against the backdrop of World War II, the dreamlike narrative sends a young boy into a lushly drawn spirit realm in search of his late mother with the titular heron as his unreliable guide. While The Boy and the Heron contains echoes of past Studio Ghibli triumphs like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, it also finds the 82-year-old director contemplating questions of mortality and creative lineage within the context of a family-friendly fantasy adventure where our hero confronts sword-wielding parakeets and ancient wizards. As tempting as it is to view The Boy and the Heron as Miyazaki’s grand farewell to filmmaking, reports of his retirement appear to have been greatly exaggerated: the director is already back at work on another project. — E.A.
How/when you can see it: In theaters Dec. 8
Someone call Gordon Ramsay, because Jamie Foxx is absolutely cooking in Maggie Betts’s crowdpleasing courtroom drama. The Oscar winner plays famed real-life lawyer, Willie E. Gary, who stepped up his legal game from personal injury cases to contract law when he agreed to represent a Southern funeral home owner (Tommy Lee Jones) in a David vs. Goliath case against a major Canadian corporation. Foxx’s showmanship lends an electric charge to all of the trial scenes, where he’s well-matched opposite Jurnee Smollett’s equally savvy defense attorney. The Burial’s world premiere was frequently interrupted by cheers and applause from a beyond-enthusiastic Toronto audience, demonstrating just how effective the courtroom genre can be on the big screen when it’s executed with as much precision as Betts brings behind the camera and as much flair as Foxx brings onscreen. - E.A.
How/when you can see it: In theaters Oct. 6 and on Prime Video Oct. 13
Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World
It may be a film-snob cliche to single out a nearly three-hour Romanian film as one of the best offerings at a film festival. But in this case, the cliche is absolutely true. Radu Jude’s marvel of a movie is vibrant, alive and, above all, incredibly funny as it follows a low-level production assistant criss-crossing Bucharest while working on her latest project, a workplace safety video made for a shady corporation. Taking a page from Steven Soderbergh’s masterful 1999 thriller, The Limey, Jude also incorporates footage from an early ’80s Romanian film whose characters become part of this movie’s reality. It all culminates in one of the most bravura endings you’ll see this year: a nearly 45-minute single shot where history is literally rewritten in front of your eyes. Jude’s previous film, the wickedly amusing Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, put him on the global cinema map and this creative grand slam confirms that we should expect big things from him going forward. — E.A.
How/when you can see it: In theaters this fall
Dream Scenario sounded great on paper: Nicolas Cage plays a dull college professor eager for some kind of attention in the world of academia who finds his life turned upside down when he inexplicably begins appearing in everyone’s dreams. It’s even more glorious, hilarious, dark and wildly original on the screen. With an assist from A24 darling Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), writer-director Kristoffer Borgl delivers the best Charlie Kaufman meta surrealistic trip-fest since the days of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, while also exploring the phenomenon of celebrity, fame, groupthink and, most topically, cancel culture. — K.P.
How/when you can see it: In theaters Nov. 10
Alexander Payne presents his best film his 2004 Merlot-soaked masterpiece Sideways. Intent on making not just an 1970s-inspired movie, but a movie that, a century from now, could very easily be mistaken as a movie actually made in the 1970s, the dramatic comedy stars Paul Giamatti as a curmudgeonly boarding school professor forced to stay at work for the holidays to watch over a student (Dominic Sessa) whose mother and stepfather decide not to pick him up. It’s sharply funny and ultimately deeply touching, reinforcing Giamatti as a national treasure while also featuring a revelatory supporting turn from Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name). — K.P.
How/when you can see it: In limited theaters Oct. 27, wide Nov. 10
In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon
Alex Gibney’s expansive portrait of the legendary singer-songwriter behind “Mrs. Robinson,” “Graceland” and “The Obvious Child” may have arrived at TIFF without a distributor, but some lucky streaming service — looking at you, Apple TV+ — is almost certainly going to bring the only living boy in New York home. Unfolding over three-and-a-half hours, the documentary marries fresh footage of Simon in the studio recording his latest album, Seven Psalms, with a mesmerizing treasure trove of archival material dating back to his early days with Art Garfunkel when they recorded “Hey Schoolgirl” as the teenage duo Tom & Jerry. If the documentary has a flaw, it’s that Gibney stops the clock at The Rhythm of the Saints, overlooking a nearly three-decade period that found Simon producing such compelling and sonically rich works as his Broadway show, The Capeman, and the Brian Eno collaboration Surprise. Here’s hoping the director is just saving all of that material for the sequel. — E.A.
How/when you can see it: In Restless Dreams is still seeking distribution
Ava DuVernay has made some great work. Middle of Nowhere. Selma. 13th. When They See Us. But Origin is her best, most powerful opus to date. It’s a challenging film, no doubt — a retelling of the strife author Isabel Wilkerson (a phenomenal Aunjanue Ellis) faced while writing her 2020 bestseller Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents that incorporates docudramatic flashbacks to the Trayvon Martin murder, Deep South segregation and Holocaust. But its slow-burn first two acts lead to an emotionally eviscerating third act certain to leave audiences in tears. And like 13th, it’s a stunningly eye-opening film that will also challenge viewers to rethink how they look at race and class. — K.P.
How/when you can see it: In theaters late in late 2023
Colman Domingo has gradually become one of the industry’s most reliable and sought-after actors, with impressive turns in If Beale Street Could Talk, Euphoria, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Zola, among much more. He finally has the lead in Rustin, and it’s a match made in heaven. In this inspiring biopic from his Ma Rainey director George C. Wolfe, Domingo plays civil rights hero Bayard Rustin, whose role as the architect of 1963’s March on Washington was diminished because of his sexuality, and he delivers a knockout performance that makes him an instant Oscar contender for Best Actor. How poetic that both Rustin and Domingo get their flowers together with this one. — K.P.
How/when you can see it: In select theaters Nov. 3, on Netflix Nov. 17
Woman of the Hour
Anna Kendrick serves up a pitch-perfect directorial debut with a ripped-from-the-headlines true-crime yarn that Netflix snapped up at Toronto after a wave of enthusiastic reviews and audience reactions. In 1978, struggling actress Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick) appeared on The Dating Game and picked a bachelor who happened to be a notorious serial killer named Rodney Alcala, chillingly played by It Follows star Daniel Zovatto. Moving back and forth in time, Woman of the Hour reveals how ineffective law enforcement and a general disregard for women’s stories allowed Alcala to hide in plain sight despite his mounting body count. Kendrick’s direction is sharp and exact, and she stages one of the year’s single scariest sequences — a nighttime encounter between Cheryl and Rodney in an empty parking lot that’s terrifyingly authentic in its menace. — E.A.
How/when you can see it: TBD on Netflix