The Best of Toronto International Film Festival, 2019 Edition

Another year, another glorious time at the 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

While I know there were a lot of people trying to celeb-spot or spend hundreds of dollars on flashy premieres, I was in the trenches seeing one movie after another for 11 days straight. I saw a delightful mix of big world premieres, indie films, Canadian features and of course, the always wonderful Midnight Madness program which ended 10 of my 11 days at the festival. 

TIFF is an absolute monster, and I mean that in a good way. There are so many movies to see from all walks of life, and it’s a true testament to the programming team to have a mix of major studio fare, foreign films, genre, experimental and short films. As always, I venture into the fest and really mix it up for myself too.

The following are my favourite films based off of the 76 features that I watched over the course of eleven days in Toronto. Yes, I saw that many, as there were so many to choose from and I couldn’t resist taking in as many as possible. And away we go….

#1. Western Stars (Dir. Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen)

A few months ago, Gurinder Chadha made a decently entertaining movie called BLINDED BY THE LIGHT which was about a young kid who falls in love with Springsteen music. While the movie was a fun effort it was ruined by telling me it was based on an actual person (complete with creepy photos of the real people that influenced the movie). What I wanted was a REAL movie on Springsteen in some form that truly shows his work. 

And here we are. WESTERN STARS is a stunning out of body experience that is this generation’s answer to STOP MAKING SENSE, Thom Zimny (who co-directed with Springsteen himself) not only create a loving tribute to a unique new album experience by Springsteen but takes it into another unique stratosphere of grand entertainment by treating it with respect in the film medium. Not just a “concert film” like STOP MAKING SENSE was, this shows the joy of performance, the communication of music and feeling that absolutely pulls you in to what it FEELS like to be performing music, right there in the moment. 

Not only that, the music itself is just a pure slice of heaven, a fascinating ode to Americana, the desert, Americana and learning as you age. Between every song there is an interlude by Springsteen ruminating about his life that reminds me of some of the inbetween song talks he tells in his live albums that I grew up to, especially his E-Street Band live recordings. They are short and sweet as they lead back into one fascinating music piece after another that left me breathless every time, not wishing for it to end.

WESTERN STARS is the type of movie that should win the Best Documentary Oscar, play on 4000 screens (preferably with an optimal sound system, turned up very loud) and make $500 million in its opening weekend. This movie left me wandering into the streets of Toronto, completely out of breath and floating with extreme happiness. In such a troubled and difficult world right now, spiritual gems like WESTERN STARS are exactly what we need right now. 

#2. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (dir. Marielle Heller)

I was not prepared for Marielle Heller’s incredible follow-up to last year’s excellent CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, yet here we are with a stellar motion picture experience that is nothing like what the theatrical trailers are advertising. 

For starters, the movie is partially about Rogers at the height of his game but it’s also about a reporter (Matthew Rhys, wonderful here) who is dealing with an incredible amount of personal loss and family trouble; Rogers comes along right at a moment in his life where a friendly voice is needed and an unusual bond is forged between the two. How this transpires is such a unique and powerful cinematic experience that left me shaking and in tears as the credits rolled. 

The movie opens on Fred Rogers (played here in an Oscar worthy turn by Tom Hanks) in a moment of pure, tear-shedding joy as we get a boxy, 4×3 recreation of the original show then completely blindsiding us by how it introduces us to its story. The movie takes wonderful moments and adds upon them throughout with unpredictable joy, and even the film itself has a style and drive that reminded me of the original show. It also showcases the brilliant work of director Marielle Heller who has a completely different style and design than CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME which shows how brilliant of a filmmaker she is.

I am fearing that children and families will be buying tickets to see this expecting a kid’s movie featuring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and that will be light and entertaining. When you see this movie, please have an open mind on what the film is trying to say and how it is telling its story; this is an intense and unforgettable story of personal redemption and finding yourself, with a little help from your best friend.

#3. Marriage Story (USA, dir. Noah Baumbauch)

As much as I have loved the cinematic output of Noah Baumbach over the last two decades, MARRIAGE STORY may be his most mature and dedicated work yet; at a near epic two-and-a-half hours this brutal and unflinching look into the deterioration of what appears to be a perfect couple (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in their very best work here) and the effect a custody battle has on both of them is a fascinating character study as they go through a custody battle. 

For me, I never felt MARRIAGE STORY took a “side” on this marital conflict; it presents the highs and lows from both perspectives with honesty and leaves us to ponder their true sides on each situation. Both sides have their own points to why they want to separate and both don’t know completely what they are doing either, which is very real. As well, Baumbach still makes this such a cinematic joy with wonderful direction and style and is absolutely intended for the big screen; here’s hoping that Netflix, the film’s distributor, will get this out into a few theaters before its November release on the streaming service. 

#4. About Endlessness (Sweden, dir. Roy Andersson)

I have been following Roy Andersson’s lyrical, poetic work ever since I was floored by SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR all the way back in the early 00s. The filmmaker’s painterly like shots and storytelling are so unique and fascinating and he has carried that onwards in his career ever since. ABOUT ENDLESSNESS continues his trademark style and flows throughout. It is about feelings and manners and how we reflect on them, set in always fascinating single take, wide-angle shots that feel like paintings that you want to study for days. Like with all of his work, 100% of his visuals are all created on a stage and not in natural locations which gives it a Kubrickian, dream-like effect at times. It is not a movie you go to rely on “plot” but something you take in and experience. 

#5. Dolemite Is My Name (dir. Craig Brewer)

Quite possibly the most FUN I had at TIFF this year was watching Eddie Murphy in one of his very best roles as Rudy Ray Moore, the eager-to-please, driven comedian turned filmmaker who starts out making ahead-of-his-time raunchy comedy albums then evolves into an indie filmmaker, on his own terms. Through every moment, from realizing his true potential to even showcasing the business and exhibition aspect of movies (something that does not always get depicted accurately but is nearly flawless here), this is a movie-lovers delight and a wonderful throwback to Black-cinema of the 70s. It also showcases a very inspiring individual in Rudy Ray Moore, who is someone we should all aspire to be in dedication and passion. And it is great to finally say that Eddie Is Back and actually mean it, as Murphy really gives some of his best work here and a total, loving throwback to his 80s wink. I only want the laugh, too, but we can’t have it all. 

#6. Knives Out (USA, dir. Rian Johnson)

Speaking of FUN, KNIVES OUT absolutely delivers in every bright, colourful frame of this modern whodunit. Director Rian Johnson, who went into major status when he helmed the last STAR WARS movie (which made my Top 10 list that year) but has always kept his indie roots and love for characters. This reminded me of the fun of BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM and even the complexity of LOOPER in how it showcases a lot of fine acting work set against a twisty, complicated plot. As always, the less you know going in, the better, so please avoid all trailers, reviews and such before you go to see it. Except for this one, of course. As wel, while there is a major international cast at play here, the star is the stunning Ana De Armas as the housekeeper who does have a major connection to the proceedings. It’s just HOW she is connected I will leave it for you to discover. 

#7. The Sound Of Metal (dir. Darius Mauder)

As someone who has dealt with temporary deafness in the past, the idea that you can suddenly lose your hearing at any moment is a terrifying one to me, and it just so happens to Riz Ahmed’s character; he is a metal drummer who suddenly loses the majority of his hearing and finds himself joining a “Farm” of a deaf community and friendly sponsors who help him adjust into the next stage of his life. . From this point, the movie takes on a unique life of its own and presents most of the films from the aural perspective of its protagonist; all of the movie contains open captions and much of the sound mix is exactly what the lead is hearing, which can be disorienting to some viewers. THE SOUND OF METAL deals with this issue in a complex, fascinating manner; Ahmed is absolutely perfect here as a man who goes through all of the stages of losing his hearing and somehow betters himself out of it, too. 

#8. The Vast of Night (dir. Andrew Patterson)

My favourite title out of Peter Kuplowsky’s Midnight Madness program not only for the movie itself, but how this movie managed to completely silence over 1200 people in attendance, all completely enraptured. I adored the setup, which is set in a small New Mexico town and focuses on two teenagers (Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in two outstanding lead performances) who encounter a strange frequency signal on the radio and the way they go about finding out what it is is such a fascinating concept. The movie is mostly talk, calm framing, long takes then quick ones and a unique sound design that draws you in right from the get-go. As well, it was an award winner at Slamdance earlier this year and through its TIFF screening has been picked up by Amazon and will really be getting out there (including a screening at Fantastic Fest, which I am also covering here at Get Reel Movies). I can’t believe the vision that Patterson has here and can’t wait to see where he points his camera next. 

#9. Uncut Gems (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

Adam Sandler, who somehow looks and sounds exactly like a 1990s John Turturro, is fascinating as a hustler/con-artist who tries to get a boatload of cash out of a unique gem stone from Africa. What fascinated me is that filmmakers Josh & Benny Safdie, New Yorkers who have their finger on the pulse of the American Indie scene right now (if you haven’t seen their films GOOD TIME and HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, get on it), have taken their go-for-broke approach to indie storytelling, score a major actor in a leading role and make a larger studio-style picture on their own terms. This is by no means an easy film to watch; it’s nervous, kinetic, equal parts hypertension and comedic and there are moments that you will never see coming, either. This is a busy and complex narrative that reminds me of the best of Aaron Sorkin as well as last year’s HER SMELL where its visual and audio design completely draw you in and refuse to let go. 

#10. The Twentieth Century (dir. Matthew Rankin)

A Canadian experience so bizarre and unique, I made time in my schedule to watch THE TWENTIETH CENTURY twice at TIFF, something that I NEVER do. Earlier this year I programmed Matthew Rankin’s short THE TESLA WORLD LIGHT in a film series that I program as I knew this Winnipeg-based talent was someone to watch. Watching this movie, which is a crazy fun Canadian bio-pic on Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King told in ten chapters, all of which get stranger after the other and get even more perverse and strange, wanting you to just watch it again to see what you missed. Everything about its design, from the 4×3 aspect ratio, the grainy 8mm and 16mm film stock all complement the zany Canadian history that I don’t even feel much of our own country even knows about. This should be required viewing for all Canadians, but also just because it’s a wonderful entertainment. 

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! These were not only the great films that I saw over the course of 11 days! 

Special mention must be given to Terrence Malick’s stunning war-time love story A HIDDEN LIFE which is one of his most personal and accessible works yet, the terrific entertainment THE TWO POPES by Fernando Merilles starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as two competing Popes in Italy that is coming to Netflix this fall, the outstanding Canadian feature CLIFTON HILL which is a who-dun-it set in Niagara Falls and featuring David Cronenberg as a podcaster (!), Gabriela Coperthwaite’s stunning BLACKFISH followup THE FRIEND featuring a powerful family story on dealing with cancer and loss featuring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johson and a career best Jason Segel, Robert Egger’s insane followup THE LIGHTHOUSE featuring Robert Pattison and an amazing Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse-keepers in a riff on classic Melville, the crazy dramedy BAD EDUCATION from Corey Findlay (THOROUGHBREDS) on a $11 million-plus school scamming scandal that actually happened and starring Hugh Jackman as the fated teacher that nearly got away with it, James Mangold’s grand, loud and furiously entertaining car picture FORD V FERRARI starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale which is a classy big-screen experience coming to theaters this fall, Tom Harper’s stunning THE AERONAUTS featuring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as meteorologist and pilot, respectively, James Glashier and Amelia Wren who take to the sky for a scientific adventure, Armando Iannucci’s period piece THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD featuring Dev Patel as the title character in a funny and lively Dickens adaptation, and finally Ken Loach’s brutal and unflinching SORRY WE MISSED YOU which focuses on a financially strained family in London and a dad who will do anything to save his family. One of the bleakest films I have seen in years, but Ken Loach’s assured political commentary and filmmaking skill is always amazing. 

And these are just SOME of the amazing movies I saw at TIFF this year! Watch for full reviews on Get Reel Movies for these titles throughout 2018 and 2019, and watch your local theaters for showtimes. 

Special thanks to the programming team, staff and volunteers at TIFF this year for such an amazing experience! See you at TIFF 2020. 


Leave a Reply