Oh, heavenly TIFF.
The Toronto International Film Festival is a stunning behemoth that is a complete celebration of film, so many of them, in the busiest and most populated city in Canada. Out of all of the film festivals I attend every year, there is just something special about Toronto’s film culture. Of course there are the celebrity events, the red carpet premieres and all of the film fans and industry from all over the world clashing against each other.
For me? I was dashing in-between screening rooms with a mission, to see as many movies as humanly possible to hopefully spread the word about in my own backyard. My cinematic journey took me all over the downtown core of Toronto utilizing the subway, the PATH and a good pair of walking shoes to discover many, many great movies over the course of 11 days. I did a few interviews, snapped a lot of Instagrams and took MANY detailed notes of everything I saw.
The following represent NOT the official “best” of Toronto, but my favorite twenty movies that I saw in the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto, Bell Lightbox, Princess of Wales, Elgin & Winter Garden Theatres and the Ryerson Theatre during TIFF 2018.
THE BEST OF TIFF 2018:
#1. GREEN BOOK (dir. Peter Farelly, USA)
Heading into TIFF I never would have thought my favorite movie of the festival would be the new movie by the DUMB & DUMBER master himself, Peter Farelly, but here we are. GREEN BOOK, which also won the Grolsch People’s Choice Audience Award, is a giant warm hug of a movie. It’s a road trip story set in the 1960s that creates the most unlikely of a best friend pairing, featuring two great lead performances by Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a no-nonsense, gun-toting “public relations” bouncer who lucks into getting a job driving black classical jazz musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who is doing a tour in the deeply racist south of the time.
What’s brilliant about GREEN BOOK is the absolute conviction of both Tony and Shirley and their characters; Viggo at first comes off as “dumb” and overweight and a lesser movie would have taken great joy in making fun of him, but we soon learn that he really does have a heart of gold, is a provider for his family, absolutely loves his wife and is also a true professional at his job, and Don is a well educated man who is also aware of the culture surrounding him and fights for his rights. That these opposites attract in such a way is a joy to watch on screen, and the movie gets a lot of mileage (no pun intended) out of the great performances of the two who create an unlikely but unforgettable friendship.
Mr. Farelly, who we all remember from his landmark 1990s comedies DUMB & DUMBER, KINGPIN and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, is responsible for my biggest laughs from that era. With GREEN BOOK he has fully educated into grand storytelling, classy style as well as still keeping big laughs running throughout. This will definitely be on my end of the year “Best Of” list.
#2. OUTLAW/KING (dir. David McKenzie, UK/Scotland)
A grand entertainment on the level of BRAVEHEART, OUTLAW/KING opened the festival and I can absolutely see why. David McKenzie, who made my favorite movie of 2016 (HELL OR HIGH WATER) has followed up with another one of the best movies of the year, this time a period piece set in 14th Century Scotland right after the fall of William Wallace (who Mel Gibson played in BRAVEHEART, natch) as a newly minted King Robert The Bruce (Chris Pine) and his wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) battle a significantly larger English army.
Truly a stunning design throughout, the movie immediately wowed me with a long-take opening shot that seemed to never end as I couldn’t believe the attention to detail that McKenzie and his team have created. The battle scenes in this movie are some of the best ever put down on film; fully immersive, graphic, bloody, dirty and real and it’s a huge testament to his cast as well, including a great turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of the battle happy clan.
#3. PETERLOO (dir. Mike Leigh, UK)
On the anticipation level, I was the most excited to see Mike Leigh’s newest movie. It was the first movie I scheduled to see. Every movie of his is a gift, and PETERLOO is a far departure from his last two movies, MR. TURNER (about a conflicted painter) and my still favorite movie of the decade, ANOTHER YEAR, about a conflicted group of family friends in London featuring the legendary performance by Lesley Manville. Here, Leigh depicts the famous Waterloo Massacre of 1813 and all of the characters leading up to the horrific event. The details here are stunning; all of the characters come to life and are absolutely authentic and natural, right down to the bad teeth and chins (a Mike Leigh special). There is also a great performance by Rory Kinnear — recently who appeared in the National Theater Live presentation of MACBETH — that is worth the price of admission alone.
#4. A STAR IS BORN (dir. Bradley Cooper, USA)
A take on the classic 1954, Bradley Cooper makes an outstanding directorial debut here with incredible style. Cooper himself plays famous country singer Jackson Maine who happens across a hotel worker named ALly (Lady Gaga) at a bar who has a helluva voice and talent to match. The two strike up a relationship out of this which of course is put to the test with Cooper’s intense addiction to alcohol.
This story has been set-up before but rarely have I seen it put to such effective use, and the movie handles the current music celeb music celeb culture very well. Many of the music performances are absolutely realistic and made me feel like I was actually there (of course a huge shoutout to the TIFF venue at the Bell Lightbox, which presented the movie in Dolby Atmos sound which took the experience to the next level).
Lady Gaga, who I was a casual fan of until she wowed me when she performed at the Oscars a few years ago, will convince anyone on the fence that she’s the real deal in her stunning lead performance. You almost instantly fall under her spell when you meet her, as that voice and her natural beauty will knock you aside. A star is born, indeed.
#5. WIDOWS (dir. Steve McQueen, USA)
Oh, what complex FUN this movie was, and all from prolific director Steve McQueen (SHAME, 12 YEARS A SLAVE) no less. After a group of robbers are all killed in a heist, their widows are surprisingly put into the mix to reclaim all of the lost money, and are forced to put together a heist themselves. Involving nearly at the first frame and led by a great lead performance by Viola Davis, WIDOWS almost feels like a classy 1990s major studio thriller that takes its time setting up the heist, admires its characters good and bad, and I also really loved and admired the very real depiction of the final act and the fun twists along the way.
#6. WILD ROSE (UK, dir. Tom Harper)
I fell in love at TIFF this year. And the recipient was Jesse Buckley in the fascinating lead role of Rose, an aspiring Country singer…living in Scotland. She has a helluva voice, an adorable smile and wit to spare, and all she wants to do is go to Nashville to sing professionally; but with two kids, no money and a troubled family, she is unable to go until one of her friends is able to support her dream. I feel like we have all had a dream in a way that Rose has had and needed help to get there, and Buckley is truly remarkable here as a woman who is strong, smart and confident in her quest. Like GREEN BOOK, this movie grabs you, holds you, makes you smile for its entire running time and refuses to let go.
#7. AMERICAN WOMAN (dir. Jake Scott, USA)
It is a great year for lead female performances at TIFF, and Sienna Miller is no exception as a tough, no-nonsense mom trying to do the right thing with her two kids and the men that come in and out of her life. The beauty of AMERICAN WOMAN is showing Miller warts and all; she is not perfect, she makes mistakes (especially a few towards the end) but she LEARNS from them, takes no nonsense from anyone and absolutely learns throughout her journey. Mention must also be given to Aaron Paul in a strong performance as a man who does tend to win over Miller, but has many issues of his own. A strong and memorable family drama from director Jake Scott that refuses to take the easy way out.
#8. THE WEEKEND (dir. Stella Meghie, USA)
Reminiscent of not only old school Eric Rohmer movies but even a touch of the Linklater BEFORE trilogy in the way it holds onto dear life for its characters, we meet a comedian (a terrific Sasheer Zamata from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE) as she spends a weekend together in a malibu home with her ex and new girlfriend and much character building commences. It doesn’t feel like much of a setup but slowly, the movie grabs its hooks into you as it holds on these characters, flaws and all, and we learn more about a past relationship that went sour. Director Meghie quite impressed me with her studio movie EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and it is interesting to see what she does with her indie charm. I really like the mix here.
#9. HOLD THE DARK (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, USA)
A movie that had an understandably mixed reception at TIFF; no surprise at all as all of Saulnier’s movies have had this reaction, especially GREEN ROOM, I nevertheless found myself fascinated by the twisting narrative of a wolf expert (Jeffrey Wright) who is summoned to Alaska by a woman (Riley Keough) who may be able to help figure out what happened with her missing son, and suddenly becomes entangled in a mass-murder and racial conflict. Adding to all of this is a really fascinating balance between cop and killer parable that has rarely been shown in a movie before. Adding to that is a shootout sequence mid-movie that is raw, unflinching, graphic (featuring a kill shot I have never seen before in a movie that made me gasp out loud) and puts you right in the moment. Throughout, however, the movie sings from a creative bond between Saulnier and the always amazing Macon Blair, who wrote the script.
#10. THE MAN WHO FEELS NO PAIN (dir. Vasan Bala, India)
An ode to 80s and 90s action filmmaking about the title character, who indeed has the inability to feel anything bad, wants nothing more than to become an action hero and wants to defeat 100 opponents in a tournament. Throughout the movie you see worn VHS tapes, lovable nods to action films of the genre and a warm, smile on its face for its entire running time. My ONLY quibble was a few too many slow-mo shots during the action set pieces, but the movie is so charming throughout and lead Abhimanyu Dassani makes a stellar debut here. This won the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award and I couldn’t help but agree.
#11. ROMA (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)
One of the most prolific filmmakers of this generation, Alfonso Cuaron (all the way from Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN to GRAVITY with a HARRY POTTER movie thrown in for good measures) has created a stunning and personal work that owes a lot to the Neo-Realist features of the 1960s, all entering around a young woman Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) living in Mexico City just trying to make it in the world and support her family despite a political upheaval forming around her. Features some subtle but ultimately haunting sequences set against a black-and-white, large-format shot vista, ROMA beautifully shows a past that is deeply personal to Cuaron himself.
#12. BEN IS BACK (dir. Pete Hedges, USA)
Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) is brilliant here as a young adult who has a deep and troubling past from his addiction, is temporarily ostracized from his family creates conflict when he comes back for the holidays and tries to prevent a conflict with his family that he is still recommended to stay away from. Julia Roberts is also in top form here as a deeply conflicted mother who IS welcoming to Ben’s return but with strong trepidation; there’s a scene where she confronts a doctor that made me gasp out loud in the theater. Also a big mention to young Emily Newton (from the recent BLOCKERS as Leslie Mann’s daughter) in a strong performance as the emotionally conflicted sister.
#13. MONSTERS & MEN (dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green, USA)
A stunning directorial debut from Reinaldo Marcus Green told from three perspectives around a shooting; this movie has a lot of powerful social commentary on current race politics while also being a very personal and involving work. The movie wisely balances three wholly different perspectives of this event and the social challenges each have in their own unique ways is very compelling to watch. While this concept HAS been done before, I loved the rawness and intensity of the three different storylines that bounce on and off each other and how it makes a timely comment on current race politics. This was the first movie I saw at TIFF this year and I knew it would be one of the best.
#14. BOY ERASED (dir. Joel Edgerton, USA)
In his follow-up to THE GIFT (one of my favorite movies of 2015), Joel Edgerton has crafted a very different story about a gay conversion therapy group and the effects it has on a teenage boy (Lucas Hedges). I love seeing director works where the style and tone change from one to the next, and Edgerton is no exception here creating a challenging think-piece on how sexuality is still perceived in our society. Hedges is as great as he was in BEN IS BACK (and also a solid performance in Jonah Hill’s MID 90s, which I also saw at the fest), Nicole Kidman is outstanding as his mother, and there is a quiet but great award-worthy performance ifrom Russell Crowe, who is utterly fascinating as Ben’s conflicted and deeply religious father.
#15. THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK (dir. Henry Dunham, USA)
Strong echoes of RESERVOIR DOGS here with the single location setting (in this case a small warehouse outside of Dallas), SPARROW CREEK gets its strong footing right out of the gate with a shooting that happens far off screen. A militia group all meet in a warehouse to find out what happened, and it is slowly revealed that one of them may be responsible. The movie is nearly all talk with sharp dialogue, strong characters and fine acting, in particular James Badge Dale (who was also in my #9 pick, HOLD THE DARK) who commands the screen for most of its running time as one of the key militia who can definitely investigate better than anyone.
#16. HER SMELL (dir. Alex Ross Perry, USA)
Definitely a movie you really must take a chance with and stick through to the bitter end, Alex Ross Perry’s nervous new feature first starts with a vibrating, intense music score as we witness the personal destruction of a singer (an outstanding Elisabeth Moss whose talents are fully on display here) and the effect she has on everyone around her. This segment, while horrifying to watch uncover as a booming music score plays, is nevertheless a fascinating experience, and the movie rewards you on these sequences with a subsequent and final act that features the real reasons of her problems in the first act and the resolution. It only needs a new title, but HER SMELL becomes a very personal and revealing look at the real issues a musician can face over the years.
#17. THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (dir. Kim Nyguen, Canada)
One of the most bizarre subjects I saw at TIFF this year, I ask you to stick with me as I describe the premise; a cable is being built via a pipeline from Kansas to New York City. Inserted into this pipeline is a fiber optic cable that will transfer Stock Exchange information faster than the competitors and thus make investors more money. Leading this project is Vincent Zalesky (Jesse Eisenberg in one of his very best performances) and his cousin Anton (Alexander Skasgard) to make this dream a reality. It’s a bizarre concept that gets stranger as it goes along, and director Kim Nyguen (director of TWO LOVERS & A BEAR) keeps a delirious pace throughout as we witness the effects this race-against-the-clock story has on Vincent and Anton. Really compelling work.
#18. HER JOB (dir. Nikos Labôt’, Greece)
This was one of my “wild-card” titles at TIFF this year; a movie that I knew absolutely nothing about and my press & industry schedule pretty much forced me to see it in-between two other titles. I’m glad this happened, as I greatly enjoyed this simple but effective story of a hard-working woman Panayiota who gets a simple job working as a cleaner at a mall and not only does her job very well, she loves it all the same. The biggest joy of HER JOB was watching her not only be passionate about what she does but always happy, positive and even inspiring her management. The story does take a sharp turn in the end that I feel didn’t exactly stick, but I was with the lead so much and her love of work that I couldn’t help but be inspired myself. I really hope it plays more festivals in the future and finds an audience.
#19. FAHRENEHIT 11/9 (dir. Michael Moore, USA)
While I have never always agreed with all of Michael Moore’s politics, his documentaries have always been entertaining and thought-provoking, and FAHRENHEIT 11/9 is one of his best, as he documents the presidency of Donald Trump and how we got here. Like with SICKO, Moore’s documentary is almost entirely in essay form, presenting all of his outlook with passion and dedication, even if a lot of it is just opinion. I will admit that even I am not 100% knowledgeable on politics but I do know I disagree with some of what Moore says here in this film. That said, I admire his dedication and the documentary itself is very entertaining and will provoke discussion no matter which side you are on. This documentary is now in limited release.
#20. THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (dir. David Lowery, USA)
You could not have un-glued the smile I had on my face for 93 minutes as I witnessed the ultimate swan song of Robert Redford’s final performance as he plays Forrest Tucker, one of the last “Gentleman” bank robbers of the 1960s and 1970s. He not only robbed banks for fun, but absolutely loved doing them. He was never violent and never too aggressive, and seemed to enjoy the thrill of the act more than the financial rewards. What’s wonderful about David Lowery’s movie is just how engaged we are with Tucker and his absolute charm, and Redford is simply a joy to watch. Like with my top selection GREEN BOOK, THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is just as much a warm hug and a crowd pleaser, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Mention also must be given to the powerful and challenging BEAUTIFUL BOY starring Steve Carell as a worried father and Timothee Chalamet as his son battling with addiction, THE FRONT RUNNER featuring some of the best work from Jason Reitman about Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) and how his 1988 Presidential run fell apart, Julianne Moore in Sebastien Leilo’s GLORIA BELL about a woman trying to find love at her age, the newest HALLOWEEN remake by David Gordon Green which is visually arresting, fiercely violent and featuring a great performance by the ultimate scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, the powerful THE HATE U GIVE about a young girl (Amandla Stenberg, the “IT” girl of TIFF this year) dealing with her high school peer pressure after she witnesses a shooting, the immensely powerful HOTEL MUMBAI which presents the 2003 hotel attack in India in breathtaking detail, Barry Jenkin’s latest film IF BEALE ST. COULD TALK about a love affair in New Orleans, Paolo Sorrentino’s deeply visual and challenging LORO which I found a stunning look at modern Italian politics, Mia Hansen Love’s MAYA featuring a multi-cultural love relationship in India that looked and played all too real, A PRIVATE WAR featuring a career best from Rosamund Pike as journalist Marie Colvin covering the war in Syria over many years, the Midnight Madness opener THE PREADTOR which was a total blood-soaked blast of sci-fi, visual fun from beginning to end, and finally Kore Eda’s Palme D’Or winning SHOPLIFTERS which was a slow-burn family story that stayed with me long after the credits rolled.
This Top 20 was based off of the 80 (yes, 80, don’t ask) movies that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and is not intended to represent the entire TIFF, just the movies that I watched and evaluated. Even with this amount I still missed many of the movies of the festival that I still hope to see as the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival, which we are covering at Get Reel Movies and will be in release in 2018 and 2019. Did you see any other great movies at TIFF? Leave a comment below.
— Jason Whyte, Get Reel Movies Managing Editor —