What a whirlwind experience that the 2023 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was, and to my delight I had a great experience overall this year. This was a dramatic improvement in the Festival experience in comparison to 2022 which I felt was a pretty lousy experience and one that made me a little weary about returning to cover for Get Reel Movies. I’m glad I made the arrangements, however, as this was the first real “we’re back” year of the festival.
This was such a great and diverse year of movies with talents from all over the world showcasing their latest works on the big screen, right where they belong, by a world class festival that once again made me feel like an honoured guest in many ways.
The 2022 edition was plagued with problems, several of which were out of the festival’s control. Since it was at a Talking and cell phone use was at such an epidemic that I spent a lot of screenings either yelling at guests to put their phones away or shut up, or just leaving to go see something else. I was also sold out of so many screenings and stuck seeing something else, or shows starting late. Then there was Midnight Madness, which had so many disruptions (and a fight that broke out at one of the later shows) that I stopped going mid-way through and watched the movies during regular timed screenings.
Thankfully, this year most of those problems went away. Sure, there were a couple of people talking like two women at my screening of FAIR PLAY who needed to verbalize everything they thought in their heads out into the void of a packed movie theatre, and ignored all requests from people around them to stop. An old man nearly sat on a young lady next to me at a press and industry screening of Midnight Madness title BOY KILLS WORLD when an industry delegate walked out the movie freeing up a seat, and swore at a volunteer when he refused to sit in the only available seat in the front row. At a screening of THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER, I had the misfortunate of sitting next to someone who slowly (and loudly) shovelled popcorn into his mouth at such a slow pace that it made the movie feel a lot longer than it already was.
With that said, these were about the only issues I encountered in the 11 days of the festival. I am sure other things happened to other moviegoers throughout TIFF, but I otherwise lucked out with quiet audiences and guests who truly cared about the theatrical experience. And I did so many movies a day that the regular volunteers would recognize me and help get me into my next screening faster. They knew I was working!
I also want to believe that a big reason that the screenings were better is that there were far less celebrities attending due to the current conditions in the industry in Hollywood. Most actors and filmmakers were on the picket lines, yet a few big names like Jessica Chastain, musician Lil Nas X and the Talking Heads were all on hand, among others. I even got to shake the hand of Viggo Mortensen, who I ran into on my way out of his encore screening of THE DEAD DON’T HURT.
By the end I somehow saw between 75-80 features & and shorts at TIFF which is NOT breaking my record, but it certainly kept me busy for all of the 11 days of the festival. I simply just locked myself in many Press & Industry screenings during the day and public screenings in the evening and had such a great time. Now let’s look at my top picks of the 2023 edition of TIFF!
My favourites of TIFF 2023:
#1. Hit Man (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)
By far the most joyous and entertaining movie experience at this year’s TIFF, Richard Linklater’s comedy of manners and errors has an outstanding and star-making lead in Glen Powell (recently making a mark on wide audiences as Hangman from TOP GUN: MAVERICK) as Gary Johnson, a teacher who gets one very interesting night job going undercover as a hit man. When he starts up a relationship with a beautiful woman named Madison (Adria Arjona who is a real find) it creates a lot of conflict in hilarious ways. Gary Johnson is a real man and told in Linklater’s traditional character style that is VERY reminiscent of his wonderful movie BERNIE starring Jack Black, and it has some truly original and entertaining moments; one of which involves an iPhone and the Notes app as a character that had thunderous applause at the screening I attended. Linklater has a lot of his traditional style and focus on character here, and for my money this should have been the audience award winner at TIFF this year. At least I know this will be a small hit when it gets released as Netflix acquired the movie during TIFF. This should get a strong theatrical release first and is best enjoyed with an audience.
#2. Chuck Chuck Baby (UK, dir. Janis Pugh)
Set and filmed in North Wales, I got major Mike Leigh and Ken Loach vibes out of this little indie masterpiece that feels real and honest, yet also incredibly cinematic. It’s set in a chicken factory where Helen (Louise Brealey) is dealing with her work along with her personal life including caring for her ailing mother-in-law (Sorcha Cusack, outstanding here). Then when a former friend of hers, Joanne (Annabel Scholey) comes back into town it causes some major conflict in everyone and rekindles a relationship with Helen. Everything in CHUCK CHUCK BABY plays real, and the movie also fixes a cliche in movies where characters sing along to music while driving in a car (I’m looking at you, recent BARBIE movie) and actually has a reason for the music connecting to its characters, and a love story that features two women but never mentions the word “gay” once nor is out to make any kind of statement. It features a fearless lead performance by Brealey who has such an original presence and the way she interacts with her potential love is intoxicating viewing, but I was also more moved by the relationship with her mother in law where we can feel such a deep connection. While there is so much realism and honesty, there are big moments featuring characters connecting to music, especially in one timeless sequence where it feels like all of the women at the factory are playing “hooky” and resulting in a sing-along in a grocery cart and a boombox that lifted my spirits. This is filmmaker Janis Pugh’s third movie and I do plan to see her other titles out just to see what her style is like, as it is absolute perfection here. This is a great reason why I attend film festivals.
#3. The Holdovers (USA, dir. Alexander Payne)
The new movie by Alexander Payne feels like an old beat up print that has made the rounds since the 1970s, starting with a Rated R logo on screen and followed by a scratchy mono soundtrack. Paul Giamatti wonderfully plays a professor at an Eastern university who is stuck supervising students who can’t go home for the holidays, and forges an unlikely friendship between a rude student. This feels like a mix between MOONLIGHT MILE and WONDER BOYS but Payne’s attention to character detail is incredible here including some truly hilarious moments. It’s a bit more restrained than some of Payne’s earlier works like ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS, however Payne still has his emphasis on three dimensional characters all across the board and noting the little details in the room. Now if only I could see a movie like this projected in 35mm!
#4. Robot Dreams (Spain, dir. Pablo Berger)
The power of the animated movie is very much alive in this dialogue free story about friendship between a dog (simply named Dog) and the robot that he buys to help cheer him up, and that story gets more deeper and philosophical as it plays. It’s also set in circa 1980s New York with a complete analog feel throughout. There are moments of pure joy here, along with some moments of pure pathos as Dog and Robot have to live without each other for an entire season once the robot accidentally gets stuck on a beach that is closed for the season and takes completely unpredictable turns as the two learn to live without each other. Even though there is no actual dialogue between the two, everything is here to completely bond you to the material including some truly outstanding animated sequences (one involving a family of birds had our entire audience applaud as it ended). Where this all leads goes down a deeply emotional path but is also incredibly funny and memorable, and the positive and life affirming experience lingered with me throughout my entire time at TIFF this year.
#5. Perfect Days (Japan, dir. Wim Wenders)
Wim Wenders is known for his minimalism and holding on scenes, and PERFECT DAYS is no exception, about a toilet cleaner who really loves his job and his interactions, and a lot of the joy in PERFECT DAYS is just how we follow his personal journey and his connections to the people he meets along the way. Of course I always think about workers on my journey (one example during TIFF is seeing the lone Subway collector at Toronto stations before and after my movie days; I always wonder what their life is like as they just sit there selling the occasional fare where endless people walk by them every day). The movie is less about the process of the job but more about how the routine and perfectionism every time is a valuable asset to a person and how sometimes, there’s also freedom and personal happiness even in this journey. It finalizes on the last few perfectly framed shots I have seen in a movie all year.
#6. The Zone of Interest (United Kingdom, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
THE ZONE OF INTEREST understandably had mixed reactions this year and even I had a few nitpicks with some of the pacing at times, but ultimately Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, UNDER THE SKIN) really put my imagination to the test as the power is in what we don’t see and more of the reaction of the the lives of people during the holocaust. This is a far cry from a movie like SCHINDLER’S LIST where we witness an execution right on screen, and Glazer refuses to show us any carnage. All we pretty much see is the forefront of the day to day lives of the people who work there with an enormous chamber factory looming in the background. There are some very small moments where we get a bit closer but it normally focuses on their facial reactions, and Glazer is a master at really getting under our skin (no pun intended) with emotions. A few have compared Glazer to a modern day Kubrick and I echo these statements, most notably the end credit music in my life again which is a dizzying level of aural chaos comparable to the late master’s work, something of which made me feel everything that was going on behind that wall, something much more powerful than any explicit images could show.
#7. Dream Scenario (USA, dir. Kristoffer Borgli)
DREAM SCENARIO tripped me out big time. This is one of the most telling movies I have seen in a while, especially in the current culture where if someone ELSE is offended or bothered by something that happens to them, it’s YOUR fault and you have to take the blame for it. Cage plays Paul Matthews, a professor who runs into people that have had very intense dreams about him, which starts off a chain reaction that leads to comments on social media outrage, cancel culture and also how this can affect someone’s life for the worst, all in wildly unpredictable ways. It’s truly amazing to watch others have problems with Cage’s character and he can do nothing about it but suffer. That it also tells the story in a dreamlike, fun way makes it even more memorable. Bonus points to the always reliable Julianne Nicholson for a terrific supporting role as Paul’s wife.
#8. Knox Goes Away (US, dir. Michael Keaton)
While HIT MAN was about a guy pretending to take people out, this one is about a very well aged Hit Man, in this case Knox (Michael Keaton) who is dealing with rapid memory loss, all at the same time reconnecting with his son who has committed a serious crime out of anger. This very pulpy indie is directed by Keaton himself in a very impressive director turn. It does have a slight low-budget look and feel but I also kind of felt this is the 2023 version of one of those great direct-to-video John Dahl movies like RED ROCK WEST from the early 1990s and more of the indie vibe that I want to see. I became very involved, loved how all sides were given three dimensions and there were no easy answers at the end either. He gets a lot of mileage out of his actors too; Al Pacino does great work here as one of Knox’s partners, James Marsden has a complicated role as his son who is in a lot of trouble of his own, and in particular I loved Suzy Nakamura as an officer that who you could feel had such a life and history behind her. This is the type of actor-turned-director movie I saw a lot of at TIFF this year, and it’s one of the strongest.
#9. Riddle of Fire (USA, dir. Weston Razooli)
This was the most fun that I had with all of Peter Kuplowsky’s Midnight Madness titles in that in its roots has one of the most bizarre premises I have ever seen for a movie, and the lengths that three kids have to go through just to be allowed to play video games. The three kids give three of the best youth performances I have ever seen in the movies, in the most part because all three of their acting styles are completely original, slightly unhinged, very improvised, and each with a weird sense of humour that I have no idea where any of it could have possibly come from. Even the filmmaker, the wonderfully named Weston Razooli, I’m sure gave some direction but the kids themselves had to create the acting-is-reacting from somewhere. The entire movie is also just about the process of finding ONE particular egg to bake a pie for their sick mom, all to play two hours of a video game. It all goes down such a wonderfully entertaining rabbit hole.
Special note: RIDDLE OF FIRE was shot in Super 16mm film stock and thankfully, Razooli decided to have 35mm blow-up prints struck, and the screening I attended was lovingly shown in the format at the Bell Lightbox with the changeover cues that I sorely miss, and even a lab splice at one point. Even though I had countless terrific digital presentations, I was happy I chose the morning screening over the Midnight Madness one to be treated to a 35mm presentation on the last day of the festival.
#10. American Fiction (USA, dir. Code Jeffries)
The always wonderful Jeffery Wright is in top form here as a professor and book writer who starts off as conservative and is weary of his younger students being so sensitive, and then comes up with an idea, after frustration, to publish a book under the name of a prisoner that has all of the musings of what everyone wants to read these days. Winner of the People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year, this wonderfully entertaining comedy has a lot of current social commentary in the way that DREAM SCENARIO also did, and the frustration of having other people’s “opinions and feelings” possibly getting in your way and making it your problem. Of course we’re all here to see the wonderful Jeffery Wright and he does some of his very best work as the incredibly conflicted writer who is at his wit’s end with a lot of modern society, something of which I think a lot of us can identity with.
Special Jury Awards & Honourable Mentions:
As always, I love to mention two titles that were so close to making the Top 10 as I saw so many movies at the festival this year.
#11. Anatomy Of A Fall (France, dir. Justine Triet)
This was the very first movie I saw at TIFF this year and I knew it wos going to have a place somewhere on this list. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and even though I feel it was mostly a procedural after a husband falls out of his window killing himself, the majority of Justine Triet’s new movie focuses on the wife, in an extraordinary performance by Sandra Huller (also in THE ZONE OF INTEREST, but more famously known for TONI ERDMANN from a few years ago) that runs a lot deeper the longer the investigation and trial goes on. I always love the process, and this movie takes its time (nearly 2.5 hours) to process.
#12. His Three Daughters (USA, dir Azazel Jacobs)
This one quite surprised me and I saw this right after a disappointing “three sisters” drama from Kristin Scott Thomas called NORTH STAR and I was a little weary about seeing another one. That said, filmmaker Azazel Jacobs (TERRI, THE LOVERS, FRENCH EXIT) goes full on Woody Allen mode here with the emphasis on the difficulties of sisterhood in the same way that HANNAH & HER SISTERS did, and achieves a wonderful balance of character in how three sisters deal with the forthcoming death of their father. Here we never see the father until the end (he’s always just one room away), and even in that case it’s still all about the different sisters and their projections off of each other. Carrie Coon and Elizabeth Olsen are outstanding here with a very complicated performance but the true, Oscar worthy performance in HIS THREE DAUGHTERS comes from Natasha Lyonne as the constantly weed-smoking apartment renter who has had the longest connection to their dad. All of their scenes together are powerful, of course, but just the simple shots of Lyonne sitting outside her apartment while the NYC subway powers behind her are some of my favourite images of TIFF this year (and of course fueled my rail-fanning). It really is a memorable movie experience that left me stunned as the credits rolled.
Special Mentions, in no particular order:
The Boy & The Heron – Miyazaki’s final film is not my favourite and it drags a little in the middle, but overall I was still in love with his painterly images and storytelling set during World War II. A young boy named Mahito connects with a Heron after he moves to the countryside to see his family, and of course I want to skirt around the details as many of the details of the movie are intentionally kept under wraps. After its successful release here at TIFF, GKids will give this movie the release it deserves this fall.
Great Absence – One thing I love doing at TIFF is simply taking a chance on a movie I have never heard of, or even just sitting in on a movie because it works on my schedule. GREAT ABSENCE, Kei Chika-ura’s new movie, is one that I just walked into a press and industry screening for and was completely wowed for its entire running time. It’s a lovely human story of connections, past living and moving forward, mostly about a young man reconnecting with his ailing father, with a truly amazing few final sequences where it all comes together. Be patient with this one when you watch it, but I know if you seek this one out you will be rewarded.
Ezra – I have always loved and admired Tony Goldwyn’s acting performances (he was recently in a small but pivoltal role in OPPENHEIMER) but I have always admried his directing efforts and in EZRA, he does another beautifully performed character comedy that focuses on an autistic boy of the movie’s title and his relationship with his family. This also includes a terrific lead performance by Bobby Canavale, a strong supporting role by Rose Byrne (also Canavale’s wife in real life) and a surprisingly good turn from Robert DeNiro, free from all of his nasal-breathing comedic turns as the boy’s very friendly grandfather. It even has a weird cameo by Jimmy Kimmel and the show and it’s a bit flat at times, but I was surprised how much of this affected me.
Memory – Another great turn from Jessica Chastain and featuring Peter Saarsgaard in a unique performance about two adults who meet after having a troubled past history and the connection they make a generation later. Michel Franco’s movie takes some very daring and original turns and isn’t afraid to shy away from more explicit details about everyone’s past. I do feel it might be a difficult sell for more mainstream audiences so not sure where this one will head down the road, but do seek it out if you can.
Wicked Little Letters – Despite a few anachronisms and complete falsehoods in the case of diversity, I still enjoyed two great lead turns by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley (also here with FINGERNAILS, where she’s also excellent) in this comedy of manners and what happens when you sent profanity laden letters in a small town where everyone already talks to each other. I still wasn’t buying that an Indian woman would be allowed to be a police officer in that era, and some vulgar outbursts in public are not met with utter scorn by the locals that would have never happened. And yet I was still entertained throughout for Colman and Buckley working incredibly well off of each other.
Flora & Son – Even though it’s coming out on Apple TV+ shortly, I wanted to keep my tradition of seeing John Carney’s movies at film festivals (having seen BEGIN AGAIN many years ago at TIFF and SING STREET at SxSW) and this lovely story, set in Dublin, features Eve Hewson in a terrific performance as a mom reconnecting with her son through music by way of learning how to play the guitar online (by way of a terrific performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) through Carney’s traditional music as storytelling. It’s a bit more slight than his previous movies but still so involving and finalizes on a sequence so heartwarming that it’s impossible to resist.
A huge thanks to the entire team of TIFF for such a great experience overall for covering the festival this year and to TIFF Media for assisting me with credentials for the 2023 edition. Watch our site over the next couple of weeks for some more reactions from TIFF along with some festival reactions and contests!
(NOTE: All images are provided through the TIFF media site and images are used with permission.)