The writers and actors strikes ensured that the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival would not be as starry as in years past with most performers and even some directors staying away from the festival. But what the red carpets lacked in stars it made up for on the screen with an array of thoughtful, sometimes dazzling storytelling. There were some misses to be sure (there always are) but TIFF presented a strong slate of films, some that will be in awards consideration, others just waiting to entertain audiences this fall and beyond. Here is a look at 15 titles that made an impression.
Flora and Son
John Carney, the Irish filmmaker behind Once, returns with another drama blending irresistible music with emotional manipulation. That’s his jam and no one can fault him for keeping with what works, since resistance is pretty much futile, since he can pull the heartstrings so tight it is impossible not to feel the tug. Eve Hewson is glorious as Flora, a single mom whose gift of an acoustic guitar to her techno-loving 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) is rejected. So, she opts for online lessons herself with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the best he’s been in years), a dreamy singer-songwriter in Topanga Canyon. What begins as a lark (and a crush on the teacher) inspires Flora to get creative—in music and mother-son relations.
Nearly 20 years after their triumphant Sideways, director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti unite with this fantastically entertaining drama that leaves the earlier film in the dust. Giamatti is Professor Hunham, a pompous, alcoholic teacher at a New England boarding school in 1970, whose favorite activity is failing his students, dashing their future prospects. At Christmas break, he finds himself in charge of Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, a smash in his screen debut), a student abandoned by his mother over the holidays. Accompanying them in their lonely misery is the school’s kitchen manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is grieving the recent loss of her son. The arc of the story may be predictable—Walls will come down! Emotions will be spilled! There will be trouble and adventures!—but it scarcely matters. The film is an utter delight, funny, sometimes moving, performed by three actors at the top of their game.
In the Rearview
The set up for Maciek Hamela’s documentary debut is simple, as he creates a snapshot of Ukrainians fleeing the 2022 Russian invasion. He shot the film from the front seat of a car as a driver ferries people—some elderly, others families with young children—through the Ukrainian countryside to safety. As the car travels along, the people in back tell their stories, some mourning loved ones lost to the war, all grieving the loss of their homes and a peaceful existence. The film gathers emotional power with each story. Meanwhile, outside the car windows, military vehicles, bombed out cars, and destroyed buildings tell a more concrete saga of devastation. The film is a poignant and enraging depiction of war’s toll on civilians who become victims to political ambition and global politics.
Aboriginal director Ivan Sen lost three female cousins to violence; their murders only ever indifferently investigated by police. That worldwide phenomenon of Indigenous women dying or disappearing with little attempt to solve the crimes is at the root of Sen’s tense, tactile neo-noir set in the lunar landscape of Coober Pedy, an Australian opal-mining town. The town itself where many motels, churches, and homes are built underground becomes a character in the film in which the title is both the name of a motel and the state in which the characters live. Simon Baker (The Mentalist) stars as Travis, a detective dispatched to the town to see if there is any reason to reopen a 20-year-old cold case, the disappearance of an Indigenous girl, perhaps murdered by a local. Travis has his own demons, but they are nothing compared to the pain and tumult the girl’s surviving siblings, Charlie (Rob Collins) and Emma (Natasha Wanganeen), have endured and that come rushing back with Travis’ questions. Shot in eerie black-and-white in real locations with tremendous performances from all three actors, Limbo is a masterwork of character-driven, location-specific suspense.
Saudi director Ali Kalthami makes an impressive feature debut with this drama set in Riyadh. Mohammed Aldokhi is Fahad, the “mandoob” of the title, a night courier, although his main form of employment is in a call center. After he loses that job, he is desperate for more cash and when he stumbles onto a liquor bootlegging operation, he thinks he has found a goldmine. An impulsive man who doesn’t stop to think, it never occurs to him the type of people who would manufacture alcohol in a place where it is strictly prohibited and where punishments are harsh and punitive are those that might do him serious harm. Aldokhi is excellent as a well-meaning striver in way over his head in a film that creates layers of suspense out of one man’s bad choices.
There is no universe in which Scottish Ewan McGregor, Welsh Rhys Ifans, and American Lara Flynn Boyle, all speaking in their natural accents and looking as differently as they do, would be credible as siblings. Nor is it believable that Ellen Burstyn as their mother would somehow wander into an out-of-business furniture store, settle down on a couch, and refuse to go, leaving her children, the store’s owner (F. Murray Abraham), and his daughter (Taylor Russell) to try to coax her back home. The actors are game and the story is entertaining enough but the surrealism is so forced in writer-director Niclas Larsson’s first feature that it begins to grate after a while, a film that is buoyant enough at first growing leaden as the minutes tick by.
The Movie Teller
Danish director Lone Scherfig travels to Chile for her latest film, set in a saltpeter mining community in the Atacama Desert. It is the late 1960s. Television has not yet come to the town but there is a cinema that entrances Maria Margarita (Sara Becker). After her father (Mario de la Torre) is disabled in an accident and her mother (Bérénice Bejo) abandons the family, Maria Margarita helps support her dad and three brothers by reenacting the movies for people in the community. So far, so good as the film in its earliest scenes develops into a love letter to cinema a la Cinema Paradiso as Maria Margarita acts out everything from Some Like It Hot to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But, eventually, the movie collapses under its own weight as one calamity after the other befalls the family and the community, leading up Augusto Pinochet’s military takeover of Chile in 1973, dooming the idealistic union men toiling in the desert. It’s an unfortunate waste of Becker’s bravura performance.
Ava DuVernay’s latest film is nothing short of a stupendous achievement. In 2020, journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson published Caste, a book in which she argues that racism is only one aspect of a caste system that enforces social stratification in the United States and compares the caste system in the US to those of India and Nazi Germany. It is a scholarly work that ought to be unfilmable. Yet, using Wilkerson’s own life as she researched and wrote the book, DuVernay found her way into a powerful drama that distills Wilkerson’s thesis while relating the moving story of the writer’s personal struggles as she endures a period of loss. Aunjanue Ellis delivers a soulful performance as a woman who creates some of her most important work while grappling with grief.
Japan’s 2023 entry for the international Oscar is an intimate drama made by a German, Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas), and a worthy selection it is. Kôji Yakusho stars as a Tokyo toilet cleaner, a quiet man with a rich inner life that reveals itself through his habits: listening to ‘60s and ‘70s rock music (one senses Wenders dove into his own record collection, emerging with songs by The Animals, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Patti Smith, and so much more, including the Lou Reed song “Perfect Day” that lends the movie its title), reading, photography (studies of the same tree), and simply hanging out, although even when he is with others, he is self-contained. Yakusho is moving as a man who has found contentment in isolation. This is Wenders’ finest narrative work in years, a precise and evocative observation of a man’s life.
Shame on Dry Land
Years ago, Swedish fraudster Dimman (Joel Spira) dropped out of sight one step ahead of the authorities, leaving his best friend and business partner Frederik (Christopher Wagelin) holding the bag. Dimman has spent the intervening years hiding in plain sight at sea, materializing in Malta two months before the statute of limitations has run out as an uninvited guest at Frederik’s wedding. An uneasy reunion is the least of their problems—Frederick has dangerous secrets, and Dimman’s alliance with old friend Kiki (Jacqueline Ramel) pulls him into a mystery with ramifications for his life and freedom. Spira is the charismatic center of Axel Petersén’s sun-kissed thriller: A seedy Maltese milieu, characters who all seem to be hiding something, and complex storytelling add up to a tense, satisfying mystery.
Longtime Bay Area theater performer and director and the current artistic director of Magic Theatre, Sean San José, costars in this drama that recreates the Arts Through Rehabilitation drama program for inmates in New York’s Sing Sing Prison. Colman Domingo stars as Divine G, who has thrived in the program and become its star performer even as he works to clear his name of the murder charge that led to his incarceration. Change arrives with the arrival of angry younger inmate Divine Eye (Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin), confident and quick to challenge Divine G’s authority. Despite their differences, a bond forms as the group works on its latest production, its first comedy penned by the troupe’s civilian mentor Brent (Paul Raci). Most of the cast beyond, Domingo, Raci, and San José (playing Mike Mike, Divine G’s closest friend and another member of the group) are people have gone through the ATR program or one like it. Pros and first-time movie actors alike come together seamlessly in Greg Kwedar’s richly realized drama that depicts the humanity of the incarcerated and the power of art to restore and transform.
They Shot the Piano Player
Chico & Rita’s makers Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal return with another animated drama, this one focused on Francisco Tenório Júnior, a Brazilian jazz pianist and composer who disappeared while on tour in Buenos Aires in 1976 and is presumed to have been murdered by Argentina’s military regime. Jeff Goldblum voices a New York journalist who travels to South America to find out more about Tenório and unravel the mystery of his death. Eye-popping artwork and a soundtrack that includes selections by Joâo Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, Caetano Veloso, and others are more than enough reason to see the film. And maybe the only reason to see the film, which is ultimately a disappointment. Despite the built-in suspense of the questions surrounding Tenório’s fate, the drama is flat, as the filmmakers try to marry narrative with documentary as the musician’s real-life colleagues like Gilberto reminisce about his life and times. Also, while it might seem like a no-brainer to cast the voice of one jazz pianist in a film about another, Goldblum’s voice is so distinctive that it never melts into the character he is portraying and simply becomes a distraction.
London’s exuberant “gaysian” underground is among the stars of Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd’s romantic drama. Musician and performer Jason Patel makes an auspicious debut as Aysha, a drag queen initially mistaken for a cis woman by mechanic Luke (Ben Hardy). A hot kiss followed by Luke noticing Aysha’s Adam’s apple sends the boy scurrying but Aysha is not easily discouraged. She hires Luke to be her driver, introducing him to her world while giving them the space to get to know each other. Each has troubles. He is a struggling single dad. She keeps herself closeted around her strict Muslim family and has a penchant for pissing people off. The chemistry between Hardy and Patel is white-hot in this richly textured film full of beguiling musical numbers.
In 1981 as the South African rugby team prepares to tour New Zealand, protests erupt in outrage at the country allowing in athletes from a nation practicing apartheid. For Māori teen Josh (Julian Dennison, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople), all of that seems very far away. The only Māori in an all-white school where his brother Jamie (James Rolleston) was a rugby star, he doesn’t fit in, in many more ways beyond race. But as the protests heat up and Josh begins to discover himself in drama club, change is coming for the shy boy. Minnie Driver costars as Josh’s overwhelmed, widowed mother in Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett’s drama that is both a visceral recreation of a historical moment and a moving character drama. Dennison is wonderful as a youth working out what’s right for himself and his community, one tentative step at a time.
Woman of the Hour
Actor Anna Kendrick makes a dazzling directorial debut in this efficient, sharply etched drama that recounts the story of 1970s era serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), a man so charming he was able to book a spot on The Dating Game even as he was in the middle of his murder spree. The film moves seamlessly between Alcala’s violent interactions with a handful of his victims—Alcala was definitively linked to eight victims but is thought to have slain up to 130 women in a coast-to-coast campaign—and aspiring actress Cheryl Bradshaw’s (Kendrick) career frustrations as she reluctantly agrees to take part in the game show where Alcala is among her potential dates. Kendrick masterfully recreates Alcala’s murders, getting the horror across without graphic violence, allowing the victims and the women portraying them their dignity. It’s a star-making turn for Zovatto as Alcala’s seeming empathy and charisma disappear in a flash when he gets down to business. Kendrick’s self-casting is not vanity. She is terrific as a woman faced with the decision to trust her gut or be the good, accommodating girl society conditions women to be.