September 29, 2023
WRITTEN BY: NICK
This year, I had the honour of covering my second consecutive Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto local, TIFF has always been a favourite event of mine, thanks to its quality and variety of films, as well as its focus on the fan experience. I haven’t covered many film festivals in person, but this one sets a very high bar to beat.
With the SAG-AFTRA strike taking place (keep up the good fight!), the celebrity involvement this year was limited, which made for some quieter Q&A sessions and muted red carpets. It may have even had an effect on the final slate of films. That said, there was still a lot of quality on hand, even if some genres were lacking (I'm looking at you, horror).
So, what did I think of the 38 films I had the chance to check out this year? Well, let me tell you...
Also, in case you missed it, check out how Adriano ranked the 49 movies he saw at the festival HERE.
38. THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER
The idea of an animated documentary is an interesting one, but the execution of They Shot the Piano Player left me wanting. What begins as a mystery about the disappearance of Francisco Tenório Júnior, soon devolves into a repetitive cavalcade of interviews with everyone saying a lot of the same thing. The interviews in question are conducted in both Portuguese and Spanish, but it’s the dulcet tones of Jeff Goldblum's English narration that nearly lulled me to sleep. The novelty of the animation also wears away quickly due to its appearance. Perhaps a motion comic without speech animation would’ve better served the subject matter.
37. WILDCAT To make a good biopic, you need to leave the audience caring about the focal point of the film. Sadly, Wildcat did nothing to make me care about Flannery O’Connor (Maya Hawke). Although this is a subject both Hawkes (Ethan and Maya) are passionate about, that passion never translates to the screen. Instead, we have a film bogged down by religious undertones (and overtones) that ramble on in aggressive southern accents without saying anything particularly concise. The Hawkes are both clearly committed in their roles, but aside from a surprise cameo, they fail to turn that into an entertaining watch.
I don’t entirely know what director Chris Pine was going for with Poolman, but he misses the mark. Perhaps this throwback love letter to Los Angeles is too niche, but I think it’s just too quirky for its own good. It features lackluster writing, failed attempts at humour, and a notable supporting cast who don’t add anything worthwhile. On screen, Pine is committed to the lead role, but even his charm wears thin quickly. Although this will likely flop, Pine will still get another shot behind the camera, except now it’ll come with the lowest of expectations.
35. SORRY/NOT SORRY
There’s a clip in Sorry/Not Sorry of Jon Stewart on The Howard Stern Show contemplating what he would have done had he known about Louie C.K.’s actions. This clip highlights the two biggest flaws of this documentary. First, the archival footage used is far more interesting and insightful than anything new. Second, it spotlights the most interesting angle from which to tackle this story, which the film fails to use. Instead, it uses clips from notable right-wing personalities to almost force-feed an opinion down your throat. If you want to see this subject matter handled properly, I suggest you watch We Need to Talk About Cosby.
34. MOTHER COUCH
I’m not entirely sure what to say about Mother Couch. The story begins with a quirky…family problem… that three siblings are tasked with handling. Ewan McGregor (who continues to play befuddled really well) is the focus of the story, but both Ellen Burstyn and Taylor Russell are the highlights. The story is almost dream-like in its execution, and it certainly isn’t afraid to take risks, even if most don’t pay off. The problem is that once the intentions finally become clear as it reaches its more fantastical finale, it had already lost my interest.
What did I just watch? Finestkind begins as a fairly straightforward story about brotherhood and fishing boats that seems to be building into an indie-feeling family drama, anchored by strong performances from Ben Foster and Toby Wallace. Then, about halfway through, it evolves into… some attempt at a crime thriller, with the tone making a complete 180. Perhaps the second half would have worked if it started that way, and I think there is a chance the first half would have worked had it stayed on track; however, put it together, and all you have is a mess.
The story of Origin is one of importance, but it’s hidden inside a very tedious film. Director Ava DuVernay brings us something that feels more like a college lecture than a concise and interesting narrative. This has nothing to do with the performances, but in the way the subject matter is approached in such a dry manner. It truly felt like I was watching The History Channel at times, and although I sympathize with the trauma Isabel Wilkinson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) faced, everything surrounding her is lethargic. Wilkinson writes “a world without caste would set everyone free;” a lasting message that deserved a better film.
31. PAIN HUSTLERS
I find difficulty in enjoying movies where all the characters are despicable people doing despicable things, which is exactly what Pain Hustlers is. There is just no one to root for, so I was left watching things unfold, quietly waiting for everyone to get their comeuppance. It doesn’t take the opioid crisis very seriously, which would be fine had it leaned further into the comedy, but it approaches things too straight-faced (same issue as Dumb Money). This made it all feel… cruel. That said, there likely will be an audience for this B-movie version of The Wolf of Wall Street, but I’m not it.
30. KNOX GOES AWAY
Although Michael Keaton gives a good performance in Knox Goes Away, he tends to get in his own way as the director. It’s not so much the writing of the film that’s the issue, but the odd stylistic choices Keaton makes. The portrayal of dementia feels more like John Knox (Keaton) is on a hallucinogen, while the dark and shadowy colour palette clashes with the tone. Also, for a film about a man running out of time, there is a surprising lack of urgency. Things do pick up in the final act, but it's sadly too late to salvage the film.
There’s no doubt that Kate Winslet gives a spectacular and awards-worthy performance as Lee Miller; however, the film that features her, Lee, has its share of challenges. The approach taken in recounting her story feels like a cheap way to bypass plot points and make up for the lack of a cohesive narrative. Had the moments it focused on been more riveting, perhaps that could be overlooked, but the pacing is actually fairly slow. It is evident Lee Miller was an accomplished and nuanced photographer, so it’s very frustrating to see that a film about her work lacks artistic creativity.
28. DUMB MONEY
If you're going to tackle a true story as recent as the events of Dumb Money, you better bring something new or innovative to the table. Not only does director Craig Gillespie not do that, but he focuses on the most surface level aspects of the events that unfolded. However, the biggest sin is in how seriously the subject matter is handled. The movement that brought us "stonks," "gay bears," and "tendies" shies away from its absurdity (save for some memes and TikToks flashed on screen), while Pete Davidson provides the only real comic relief. This one could’ve been fun, but instead it’s kind of forgettable.
Not every story about love needs to be a love story, and that’s something Fingernails director Christos Nikou looks to explore. The notion of sacrificing one’s fingernail just to learn if one’s love is true is a great commentary on our need for reassurance and reliance on “the one.” Unfortunately, Nikou focuses on this with everyone except Anna (Jessie Buckley) and Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), the film’s lead relationship. The focus on these two is lacklustre, and you’re never really given a chance to invest in them, which dampens the introduction of Amir (Riz Ahmed), and in turn, his entire storyline.
26. NEXT GOAL WINS
As someone who loves Jojo Rabbit (also directed by Taika Waititi) and also played soccer for 20+ years, it felt like Next Goal Wins was made for me to love it. Turns out, this wasn’t the case. The childlike humour mostly misses the mark, and Waititi’s treatment of the transgendered Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana) is mishandled. On top of that, this is a sports film that failed the main objective of the genre: get me invested in the team. I just couldn’t get myself to care. Admittedly, the bar is higher coming from Waititi - it’s not a complete lost cause - but this can only be seen as a disappointment.
25. HATE TO LOVE: NICKELBACK
Hate to Love: Nickelback is promoted as a study on how the group became the most hated band in the world and the effect that has had on its members. In actuality, that’s really only a segment of this documentary. It’s more the story of the band overall: their origins, the moment they hit it big, the lows (both personally and professionally), and where they are now. That said, it is very well shot, and as far as music documentaries go, it does its job. I just wish they dissected the fan reaction with more depth.
24. THE DEAD DON’T HURT
With his sophomore directorial effort, Viggo Mortensen shows a lot of growth in the way he crafts a film, particularly in how he takes full advantage of the landscapes the film inhabits to create a beautiful western. Where the issues start is in telling the story through a non-linear timeline, a decision that makes things unnecessarily confusing without benefiting the film. It’s also a little sleepy, as it’s not very event filled. At times, it feels like you’re in between missions while playing Red Dead Redemption. The Dead Don’t Hurt is certainly an improvement for Mortensen in the director’s chair, but there’s still some ways to go.
Seagrass is a grounded story. One of marital strife, racial differences growing up, and knowing who you are both personally and culturally. It’s told against the backdrop of the Pacific Coast, which enhances the film’s beauty (though director Meredith Hama-Brown’s reliance on extended scenic shots can feel a little laborious), and it features deliberate performances from its leads, Alli Maki and Luke Roberts. Although it may not always be the most interesting thing, Hama-Brown opts for honest performances over big emotional outbursts, which makes the cast’s heightened emotions feel more powerful, including a hell of a closing shot.
I don’t want to take anything away from Memory. It’s a well-crafted film that features some heartfelt performances from Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard. It just doesn’t feel… special. There are times when director Michel Franco presents a devastating idea, but then be seemingly gun-shy of tackling it. There’s a few of these missed opportunities in the film, so what we’re left with is a well-acted story that doesn’t feel wholly unique. The great performances of Chastain and Sarsgaard do almost all the heavy lifting, which is necessary because this story would certainly be lacking without them.
21. STRANGE WAY OF LIFE
At only 31 minutes, Strange Way of Life feels like the prologue to a longer story. Both Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal provide instantly interesting characters, but they’re never given the chance at deep exploration. Their passion is often relegated to longing looks and helpless pleas that feel like they’re bubbling towards the climax of a full-length feature film that never comes. Although the story may fall short, Pedro Almodóvar’s direction suits the Western genre wonderfully, and he handles this queer love story with care. Considering the cast and scope, I understand why this was made as a short film, but it’s an incomplete tale.
Reptile is at its strongest when focused on Benicio Del Toro’s Tom Nichols. Whether he’s being a hard-nosed cop or embracing his inner shopaholic, he commands the screen. Where the film falters, however, is in some of the more unnecessary directorial choices (extreme close-ups, jarringly loud effects) and its slow build. This could have worked if the story was supplying something new, but that’s not the case. You’ll find the same clichés that you find in every other cop drama throughout its relatively generic script. Luckily, Del Toro is able to elevate the words on the page to push things to above average.
19. THE END WE START FROM
The End We Start From has a lot to say about climate change, survival, and motherhood, and it gives a view into the world our children may be inheriting if we don’t smarten up. However, it moves quite slowly. Jodie Comer gives a solid performance as a young mother with a newborn trying to navigate this borderline apocalyptic world, and it’s nice to see Joel Fry in a non-comedic role; I just wish more happened. First time director Mahalia Belo does, however, show some promise behind the camera thanks to some deliberate directorial decision-making.
18. THE ROYAL HOTEL
The Royal Hotel succeeds mainly due to its commentary on toxic masculinity and predatory culture. This is enhanced by the way director Kitty Green contrasts the present and assumed fears women deal with in male-dominated environments with the consequences (or lack thereof) many men face for their actions. Green particularly excels in showing the varying “levels of evil” of the men Julia Garner's Hanna and Jessica Henwick's Liv cross paths with on their journey. The Royal Hotel may not be the most exhilarating film, but it has a lot to say which deserves to be heard.
17. FAIR PLAY
At the start, Fair Play is an erotic thriller that is neither erotic nor thrilling. As it goes through the motions in its early going, I settled in for what I assumed would be a standard workplace-relationship power struggle, akin to a spur-of-the-moment Blockbuster rental. Then, everything changes. The story evolves into something with more teeth, and the highly praised Alden Ehrenreich performance I’d heard about kicks into gear. I wish it had gotten there sooner, but Fair Play pays off with heaps of tension and great lead showings, particularly from the underrated Ehrenreich.
Much like Netflix’s Arnold earlier this year, Sly plays it too safe. Its strength is in discussing everything that went into the Rocky franchise from the mouth of Sylvester Stallone himself, and it’s evident how much thought and care has been put into the iconic character. Beyond that, it’s a little unremarkable. It zooms past his non-franchise film career, and it never dives into his hardships with any depth. I understand that Stallone tries to maintain a level of optimism and was likely very hands-on with this project, but I don’t feel like I know the man any more than I did going in.
15. WICKED LITTLE LETTERS
Wicked Little Letters is one cheeky little fucker of a film. The surprisingly funny and crass affair is headlined by the devilishly good Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley at their most raunchy. Colman, in particular, shines, with even just her facial expressions bringing on the laughter. The mystery may show its cards a little early in the film, but that can be forgiven as the “who” never feels like the point. Instead, just go for the ride of this sure-to-be crowd-pleaser. I’m not saying you need to see Wicked Little Letters, but some may think you’re a bloody wanker if you don’t.
14. HEY, VIKTOR!
Instead of working as a full The Office-style mockumentary (which is a little played out), Hey, Viktor! thankfully sprinkles in the testimonial interviews. This both helps the film overall and enhances the mockumentary moments. Also, it’s really funny. The concept is dumb: a bit player from the 1998 cult classic Smoke Signals attempts to make a modern-day sequel revolving around his character, but it has charm and many quality jokes. It’s also a deserved spotlight on both indigenous film and indigenous actors, especially Cody Lightning, who shows solid comedic ability. Hopefully, this leads to future roles for him.
13. GONZO GIRL
Patricia Arquette’s directorial debut feels like Almost Famous by way of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. This drug-fueled barrage examines a Hunter S. Thompson-type (played masterfully by Willem Dafoe) in his later life through the eyes of his assistant (Camila Morrone, who more than holds her own). It’s a two-pronged character study that’s one part comedy, one part drama, and one part tragedy, succeeding at all three. Gonzo Girl is a great example of how quality filmmaking can still be done on a small budget, and it’s a very promising first foray behind the lens for Arquette.
12. HUMANIST VAMPIRE SEEKING CONSENTING SUICIDAL PERSON
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person is a new take on a vampire subgenre that is difficult to tackle. This independent feature out of Québec has the gothic whimsy of The Addams Family, plus a ton of heart behind its premise. Sara Montpetit as Sasha gives an engaging performance, particularly excelling in her expression work, maintaining engagement without dialogue. Together, her and Félix-Antoine Bénard (Paul) make for an entertainingly quirky duo. This may not be on a lot of people’s radars, but hopefully, once some good word-of-mouth comes out from the festival circuit, it will rightly be seen by more.
11. DREAM SCENARIO
Whatever you want to call this phase of Nicolas Cage’s career, it is by far the most interesting. With films like Mandy, Pig, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and Renfield, he's been running the genre gamut. His latest, Dream Scenario, is a surreal comedy where everyone constantly dreams about Cage's Paul Matthews. As the phenomenon goes on, Cage is able to carry both the humour and horror elements, but the gag can become a little repetitive. As much as I enjoyed the film, there’s been a nagging “what if?” for alternate directions to take things, a thought that haunts me whenever I close my eyes.
Honestly, there’s nothing overly unique about Rustin, save for the performance of Colman Domingo. But Domingo is excellent as he brings a sense of optimism and humanity to Bayard Rustin, a man I admittedly didn’t know much about. Unlike prior civil rights films, this one doesn’t focus on the turmoil. Rustin was a pacifist, so it was only fitting to give him a film with such a positive gaze on the events. There are a couple cliché moments, and some of the casting is a little suspect (Chris Rock feels out of place), but Rustin succeeds in bringing eyes to the story of this influential man.
9. WOMAN OF THE HOUR
There’s a lot that works great about Woman of the Hour. Much like Patricia Arquette’s directorial debut, Gonzo Girl, Anna Kendrick shows great sensibilities behind the camera as she covers renown murderer Rodney Alcara’s appearance on The Dating Game, but with the focus placed on his victims. The only hiccup is the performance of Daniel Zovatto as Alcara. Not only is he lacking the necessary charm, but he fails to feel truly menacing in the tense moments. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very solid feature, but I would have liked to see where someone else would have taken things with the role.
8. THE BURIAL
I’ve always been a sucker for a courtroom dramedy, so The Burial certainly had my interest. Plus, after Jamie Foxx’s resurgent turn in They Cloned Tyrone, I was curious to see if he was back-back. Oh, he’s BACK. Foxx is electrifying every second he’s on screen, which is only enhanced by the quiet demeanor of Tommy Lee Jones. Together, the pair had me fully invested in their case as it went through ups and downs. Yes, it’s a little formulaic, but that’s forgivable when bolstered by good performances and solid storytelling, which is exactly what The Burial supplies.
7. RIDDLE OF FIRE
Shot on gorgeous 35mm film, Riddle of Fire has a vintage look to it that really enhances the picture. A modern day fairy-tale, this is an exploration of a child’s imagination and that time in our lives where anything could become an adventure. The humour is on point – Skyler Peters (Jodie), in particular, embraces his Kids Say the Darndest Things vibe – and it’s easy to get swept into the children’s mischievous ways. Riddle of Fire is bound to fly under the radar, but it makes for a fun watch and harkens back to 80s films like The NeverEnding Story. It’s just a good time.
6. FLORA AND SON
Headlined by the underrated Eve Hewson, Flora and Son mixes a dysfunctional family drama with a modern-day love story. Hewson's Flora works well with all characters, but none as strongly as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Jeff. This is thanks to director John Carney coming up with creative ways to make sure we aren’t just staring at a laptop screen for half the runtime, as well as the perfect casting of Gordon-Levitt. It’s just such a pleasant surprise, and as unlikely as it may be, I’d genuinely be interested in seeing the continuation of this story.
5. SEVEN VEILS
As a last-minute addition to my TIFF schedule this year, I was not expecting Seven Veils to floor me like it did. The way director Atom Egoyan explores trauma by using parallels between life and the remounting of Salome is sensational, and it’s all held together by a fantastic performance from Amanda Seyfried. Egoyan takes you through the inner workings of the opera, with a focus on everything from the cast to the props designer, and manages to make it all gripping in what must be viewed as his career highlight. A true triumph across the board.
4. HIT MAN
Who knew director Richard Linklater could be so sexy? What he’s crafted with Hit Man is an edgy rom-com that features dynamite chemistry between stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona, both of whom made every one of their scenes together bubble with an underlying eroticism. The performance of Powell, in particular, impresses as the role requires some serious range. If there was any question after Top Gun: Maverick and Devotion as to whether Powell could be a star, that’s silenced here instantly. This is Linklater at the top of his game, presenting something that will not only appeal to his fanbase, but reach beyond that.
3. SING SING
Colman Domingo's transition from television to the big screen is happening at a rapid pace, and it feels like he’s only going to get bigger thanks to his dynamic lead performance in Sing Sing (as well as Rustin). This is a heartwarming story that truly surprised me. I’m notably stingy on non-actors getting feature roles, but that doesn’t apply here because these real-life graduates from the ATC program ARE actors, as their real-world performances show. Though it’s set in a prison, Sing Sing doesn’t need to rely on violence to work. Instead, it’s a beautiful story of brotherhood and camaraderie amongst common men.
2. MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE
As with many Canadians, I grew up watching Mr. Dressup. He was our Mister Rogers, which is fitting as he began as Fred Rogers’ protégé. That is one of many things I learned about Ernie Coombs in this documentary. Told through numerous interviews with a Canadian Who’s Who, this walk down memory lane features the highs and lows of Coombs’s life, as well as exploring a little children’s show that became a juggernaut by amassing 4000 episodes. This terrific documentary makes for the perfect companion piece to Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a spotlight put on another man who helped shape many generations. Have tissues nearby.
1. AMERICAN FICTION Talk about making your debut with an exclamation point! American Fiction is a brilliantly written satire about the way the Black experience is viewed and desired in mainstream (read: white) media. Writer/director Cord Jefferson has crafted a smart and hilarious film around Jeffrey Wright, who instantly makes you question why he doesn’t lead more projects. Jefferson said one of his goals with this film was to amplify underused actors, and he takes full advantage of the likes of Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, and the rest of this talented supporting cast. I can’t wait for others to get to see this one.
Photo Credits: Toronto International Film Festival