TIFF ’16: The 16 films on my must-watch list


mark ruffalo

Every September film stars, directors, producers, and visitors from all around the world converge on the city for the 10-day Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Three years ago, I worked in the film industry and TIFF time was the craziest time of the year. Passes to premieres were easy to come by, unlike the time to actually attend.

These days, I’ve fallen in love with film all over again. TIFF has once again become my favourite annual event and I pack as many screenings as I possibly can into the 10 days.

The curtains open on the 41st edition of the fest on September 8 and close on September 18. With an impressive lineup of over 75 feature films, shorts, and documentaries, it’s a film lover’s paradise.

I’ve narrowed down the list of films I can’t wait to catch during this year’s fest…

150 Milligrams

150 Milligrams | Special Presentation | Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot | Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Benoît Magimel | France | World Premiere

Based on Irène Frachon’s bestselling memoir Médiator 150mg, La Fille de Brest is set in Brittany — a key element of the film as there is a constant tension between Paris and the provinces — and revolves around Irène (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a hospital lung specialist who begins to suspect a connection between recent patient deaths and medications being prescribed. After she turns to the hospital’s head of research, Antoine (Benoît Magimel), for help, Irène’s investigation leads her to a powerful drug company. Of course, that’s when things start to get ugly. Antoine’s research unit is suddenly threatened with funding cuts, and Irène’s colleagues begin to view her derisively as a meddlesome crusader.

All I See Is You

All I See Is You | Special Presentation | Directed by Marc Forster | Starring Blake Lively, Jason Clarke | USA / Thailand | World Premiere

James (Jason Clarke) and Gina (Blake Lively) are a happily married couple living in Bangkok. Gina has been virtually blind since the childhood car crash that destroyed her sight and killed her parents. Despite her difficulties, Gina lives a full life, depending on James for help navigating the raucous bustle of the city.

When Gina has the opportunity to have sight-restoring surgery on her right eye, she jumps at the chance. After the procedure, her world is changed. Not only does she see everything around her, but she sees herself in a new light. Their lives change in a million ways both large and small, and James’ surprising response to the new status quo will reveal the troubling power dynamics underpinning their relationship.

American Pastoral | Special Presentation | Directed by Ewan McGregor | Starring Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning | USA | World Premiere

Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Ewan McGregor’s feature directorial debut transports us to a time of great upheaval and its lacerating effect on a seemingly ideal American family. With McGregor in the role of Seymour “Swede” Levov and a powerhouse cast that includes Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, David Strathairn, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), and Molly Parker (also appearing at the Festival in Weirdos), American Pastoral conjures a cataclysmic clash of perspectives.

Arrival | Gala Presentation | Directed by Denis Villeneuve | Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg | USA | Canadian Premiere

Visionary Quebecois auteur Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) directs Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in this sci-fi drama about the panic that follows a wave of mysterious spacecraft landings across the globe.

When 12 alien spacecraft land around the world, linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, also appearing at the Festival in Nocturnal Animals) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the US military to obtain the answer to one question: “What do they want?” Arriving in Montana, working under the leadership of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise and Ian are only remotely aware that their lives and the future of humanity are about to become inextricably linked. As the unlikely pair collaborate to solve this extraterrestrial translation puzzle, 11 other teams around the world are attempting to do the same.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay | Special Presentation | Directed by Alex Lehmann | Starring Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson | Canada | World Premiere

Meeting by chance when they return to their tiny California hometown, two former high-school sweethearts (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) reflect on their shared past through the lens of their differently dissatisfied presents, in this tender, wise and affecting chamber drama from first-time feature director Alex Lehmann.

Former high-school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) have been out of touch for more than 20 years — but by sheer coincidence, they run into each other at a grocery store back in their alpine hometown of Crestline, California. Jim’s mother has died and he’s here to put her house on the market. Amanda is visiting her pregnant sister. They get to talking, first over coffee, then over beer and jellybeans. Before they know it they’re at Jim’s mother’s house, where everything sends them spiralling back into the past. Jim and Amanda’s lives have taken different directions, yet here they are, reconnecting like nothing has changed.

Boundaries

Boundaries | Contemporary World Cinema | Directed by Chloé Robichaud | Starring Macha Grenon, Emily VanCamp, Nathalie Doummar, Rémy Girard | Canada | World Premiere

A tiny island nation off Canada’s east coast enters the global arena when its natural resources become the focal point for international wheeling, dealing and politicking, in this energetic political satire from Quebec director Chloé Robichaud (Sarah Prefers to Run).

The fictional island country of Besco (population 170,000) is a place just off Canada’s east coast that seems to have frozen in time a few decades ago. Now Besco’s natural resources are up for imminent exploitation by a foreign company. Emily Price (Emily VanCamp) is an American mediator of the negotiations between Besco’s president, Danielle Richard (Macha Grenon), and a Canadian government minister, who is aided behind the scenes by his deputy, Félixe (Nathalie Doummar).

Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire | Special Presentation | Directed by Gerard Barrett | Chloë Grace Moretz, Thomas Mann, Richard Armitage, Tyler Perry, Carrie-Anne Moss | Ireland / Canada | World Premiere

A New York Post journalist (Chloë Grace Moretz) suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder is repeatedly misdiagnosed following a series of violent outbursts and severe amnesia, in Gerard Barrett’s adapation of Susannah Cahalan’s bestselling memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

I read and abandoned this memoir halfway through because it just felt too real and it scared me. But I’m really curious about the movie.

Deepwater Horizon | Gala Presentation | Directed by Peter Berg | Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez | USA | World Premiere

Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich and Kate Hudson star in this high-octane drama that tells the story of the largest oil spill in US history and one of the world’s most devastating man-made environmental catastrophes. Riddled with tension and teeming with terrific characters, director Peter Berg’s tale of corporate negligence and inspiring heroism offers a rare blend of big-budget spectacle and thought-provoking commentary.

It is April 2010. The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit lays some 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. An air of unease hangs in the air as workers clash with British Petroleum executives over questions of due diligence. Eyes clearly fixed on the bottom line, BP’s bullying bigwig (Malkovich at his snarling best) wants to expedite the tests and get drilling.

Meanwhile, the veteran foremen (Wahlberg and Russell) are primarily concerned about their co-workers’ safety — but will they defy orders when millions of dollars are on the line?

india-in-a-day

India In a Day | TIFF Docs | Directed by Richie Mehta | Executive Produced by Ridley Scott | India / United Kingdom | International Premiere

October 10, 2015 was a day like any other. It wasn’t a national holiday or anniversary, and it held no major religious significance. But on this day, through an initiative backed by Google, millions of people across India turned on their cameras and smartphones and recorded their lives, then uploaded their footage to a website. From these thousands of hours of footage, director Richie Mehta has constructed a lyrical portrait of modern India that allows for a multitude of voices — male, female, transgendered, young and old, rural and urban — to make themselves heard.

Set to an upbeat score, by Stephen Warbeck (Proof, The Other Man) India in a Day is a celebration of a diverse nation. Mehta edits the varying perspectives into a film that’s sometimes a fast-paced symphony of traffic jams, and sometimes as quiet and serene as a scenic pastoral landscape. It’s a country of women demanding their rights with steadfast determination, of children relishing the opportunity to learn — and, of course, of men taking a break for a game of cricket. In one affecting scene, a mother takes a momentary break from childcare to express her deepest thoughts to the camera.

Executive produced by Ridley Scott, India in a Day uses crowdsourcing to create an exciting new form of non-fiction filmmaking. The result is not only a breathtaking, kaleidoscopic view of a fascinating country, but a testament to the ways in which the internet and the digital realm are reshaping our view of the world, one day at a time.

La La Land | Special Presentation | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt | USA | Canadian Premiere

An ambitious jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom, in this dazzlingly stylized homage to the classic Hollywood musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle.

Drawing upon studio-era spectacle, La La Land ushers the musical into the 21st century in all its brightly coloured, anamorphic splendour, telling the story of two star-crossed young dreamers determined to make it big on the silver screen. It’s either stardom or bust!

A devotee of the jazz legends Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) plays a mean piano himself and is determined to uphold the values of the old masters. His plans include opening his own club, but to make ends meet he’s stuck playing tepid cocktail jazz in a humdrum Los Angeles restaurant. Mia (Emma Stone) is a movie buff with an eye for the classics who aspires to be a serious actress. For the moment, the closest she comes to seeing stars is serving lattes in the canteen on the Warner Bros. lot.

Sebastian and Mia meet cute no less than three times before diving headlong into a life-altering romance, but is their love strong enough to weather disappointment, compromise, and ever-burgeoning periods apart?

Loving | Gala Presentation | Directed by Jeff Nichols | Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga | USA | North American Premiere

Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in 1958 for the crime of getting married. According to the state of Virginia, she was “colored,” he was “white,” and their marriage was illegal. Both were sentenced to a year in prison — a sentence that was only suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia. The couple fought that judgment before the US Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in their favour, bringing an end to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. This inspiring film from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) tells Mildred and Richard’s story of romance and injustice with tenderness and wisdom.

The Civil Rights movement is still in its infancy when Richard (Joel Edgerton), a construction worker, proposes to Mildred (Ruth Negga) on the same Virginia acreage where he plans to build their home. It should be the beginning of a blissful period, but trouble is already brewing. Someone informs the authorities of Richard and Mildred’s union. It is not long before police break down the couple’s door and drag them off to the county jail. They face this indignity with stoicism, but the worst is yet to come.

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals | Special Presentation | Directed by Tom Ford | Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer | USA / United Kingdom | North American Premiere

Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer headline the second feature from director Tom Ford (A Single Man), about a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband.

Susan (Amy Adams, also appearing at the Festival in Arrival) is a successful Los Angeles art-gallery owner who wants for very little, yet she finds her paradise troubled by the frequent absences of her second husband (Armie Hammer, also at the Festival in The Birth of a Nation and Free Fire), a handsome young doctor, due to his incessant travelling. Susan is rattled further when a manuscript arrives on her desk, written by her long-estranged first husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Alone, with her current husband away in New York, Susan opens the manuscript and is propelled into the fictional life of a teacher (also Gyllenhaal) whose drive to his summer house with his family is about to turn into a nightmare. As Susan gets deeper into the book, she is forced to examine her own past. Oscillating effortlessly between Susan’s reality and the story within a story, Ford slowly and meticulously turns the screws, delving into suspense while keeping a firm hand on the disturbing drama.

the-promise

The Promise | Gala Presentation | Directed by Terry George | Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale | USA / Spain | World Premiere

Featuring soaring performances from Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, and Academy Award winner Christian Bale, this epic romance from the director of Hotel Rwanda transports viewers back to a time of international upheaval. The First World War and the decline of the Ottoman Empire form the backdrop for a heart-wrenching tale of love, loyalty, and survival.

A humble Armenian apothecary, Michael (Isaac), leaves his village in southern Anatolia to study medicine in the capital. Michael has betrothed himself to a village girl in order to bankroll his studies with her dowry. His mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) warns him not to marry for money, but Michael feels confident that, with time, he and his wife-to-be will come to love each other.

But that is before Michael meets Ana (Le Bon). Graceful, Paris-educated, and talented at both drawing and dance, Ana seems the girl of Michael’s dreams. But Michael is determined to keep his promise. What’s more, Ana is already in a relationship with Chris (Bale), a worldly American photo-journalist. These three souls are swept up in a drama greater than any of them could have imagined when the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers and widespread violence begins.

Snowden | Gala Presentation | Directed by Oliver Stone | Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Timothy Olyphant and Nicolas Cage | Germany / USA | World Premiere

Patriot, dissident, or traitor? Few contemporary public figures are as contentious as National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. His decision to leak classified information, exposing the astonishing breadth of the NSA’s global surveillance programs, alerted the world to how seriously its privacy had been compromised. Snowden’s story is a controversial one — and there is no one better suited to tackle it than Oliver Stone.

Based on the Guardian book by Luke Harding, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus, this powerful film — part biopic, part fact-based espionage thriller — follows Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the army to the CIA, and eventually to his post as an analyst for the NSA. As the plot progresses, we are plunged ever deeper into a labyrinth of eerie revelations: in a world teeming with devices, every one of them has the capacity to monitor our activities — whether or not we have committed any wrongdoing.

Snowden is a film about the brave new world we’ve come to inhabit — a world many of us did not know existed until Edward Snowden had the courage to tell us.

Una

Una | Special Presentation | Directed by Benedict Andrews | Starring Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn | United Kingdom | Canadian Premiere

Rooney Mara (Carol) and Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind, Netflix’s Bloodline) star in this adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, about a young woman who arrives in the workplace of an older man from her past, seeking answers for the long-ago events that have fatefully shaped both of their lives.

A psychological thriller with elements of a revenge plot, this intense character-driven film is rooted in its performances. Rooney Mara (also at the Festival in Lion and The Secret Scripture) is the titular Una, and Ben Mendelsohn is Ray, the neighbour who sexually assaulted her when she was 13. A decade later, Una tracks Ray down in search of answers — but she doesn’t find the ones she’s searching for. Uncomfortable with the path she’s set out on, but unable to change course, Una must face the fact that Ray is now, in many ways, a different person from the man who abused her. But he still refuses to accept responsibility, and her anger has not abated.

Unless

Unless | Special Presentation | Directed by Alan Gilsenan | Starring Catherine Keener, Matt Craven, Hannah Gross | Canada / Ireland | World Premiere

Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener and Hannah Gross (I Used to Be Darker) star in this adaptation of the final novel by the late, great Canadian novelist Carol Shields, about a writer who discovers her runaway daughter panhandling on the street and seemingly deprived of speech.

An accomplished writer and translator, Reta Winters (Keener) is blindsided and flummoxed by the recent actions of her eldest daughter, Norah (Hannah Gross). For no discernible reason, Norah has dropped out of university and now spends her days panhandling on the sidewalk outside of Toronto landmark Honest Ed’s. The cardboard sign she affixes to her chest features only one word: GOODNESS. Reta fears losing her connection to her daughter, but is it possible Norah is seeking some way of reconnecting to the world?

Which films are you most looking forward to watching?

Visit tiff.net for the full list of Festival films, official film schedule, and to buy tickets.

(All film details from TIFF.)

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