50 films you need to see at TIFF this year
“This is your film festival,” TIFF’s slogan boasts this year, and to prove it, they’ve got nearly 400 films, something for every conceivable viewer. But how to winnow it all down to find the ones to suit you best—especially with individual tickets going on sale this Sunday, August 31? We’re here to help.
TIFF made its most Hollywood-y choice for opening night in many years when it gave the honour to The Judge, a comedy-drama by director David Dobkin about a high-profile lawyer who returns to his Indiana hometown to defend his crusty judge-father from murder charges. Though the bland title doesn’t bode well, the impressive cast—with Downey and Robert Duvall flanked by Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton—raises hopes, as does the prospect of having the coolest of A-listers inaugurate the fest’s cavalcade of stars.
What with Aniston looking so wan in the early stills, Daniel Barnz’s caustic drama Cake has the trappings of a showcase for a celeb eager to be taken far more seriously. The story—about a woman in a chronic-pain therapy group who becomes obsessed with another patient’s suicide—promises heavy-duty thespian action, too. And yet Aniston is also better at this kind of thing than she ever gets credit for, having successfully shown off a flintier side in Friends With Money and The Good Girl.
With all This Is Where I Leave You’s verbal jousting and big, relatable emotional moments that put the D in dramedy, Jonathan Tropper’s original 2009 novel seemed specially built for a Hollywood adaptation with a seasoned ensemble cast. It gets one here, with Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver starring as warring siblings brought together by the death of their father. Fonda, working steadily again after years away from the spotlight, gets a similarly juicy role as their mom.
Who could’ve thunk that Ethan Hawke would’ve survived his grunge-era heartthrob status and underwhelming literary forays to become a big-screen MVP? The man’s been on his best game lately, regardless of whether his mission is classing up thrillers like The Purge and Sinister or helping his friend Richard Linklater mint masterpieces with Before Midnight and Boyhood. He does double duty at this year’s festival, starring in the political drama Good Kill and presenting his debut doc Seymour: An Introduction, a portrait of Seymour Bernstein, a brilliant pianist and well-treasured New Yorker who foreswore the glories of a professional career to enjoy a humbler life as a music teacher.
If you think of his career just in terms of his frat-boy-friendly comedies, you might think Sandler is the laziest man on Earth. But that’s overlooking his braver ventures, like playing the high-strung sadsack in Punch-Drunk Love or baring the anxieties all too common among comedians in Funny People. A contemporary fable about a shoe-repair man who discovers a talent for slipping into his customers’ lives via their footwear, The Cobbler risks being overloaded with whimsy but will hopefully be saved by the savvy of director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) and the penchant for melancholy that Sandler doesn’t display often enough.
Eager to make viewers forget the risible pie-making-as-sexual-metaphor scene in Labor Day, director Jason Reitman aims for something rawer and realer with his latest, Men, Women & Children. Adam Sandler (see above), Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer star in Reitman’s adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel about Internet-era mores among a group of high schoolers and their equally bewildered parents.
Anna Kendrick—who stars in two more TIFF titles—headlines Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years, which became a critical darling when it debuted off-Broadway in 2002. The songs sketch out the history of a romance in reverse chronological order, starting with the end of a marriage and moving back through happier times. In other words, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
You may be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen Escobar: Paradise Lost before—Entourage already devoted much of a season to an arc about Vinnie Chase starring in a glossy biopic about Colombia’s most infamous drug lord. Nevertheless, Benicio del Toro was not dissuaded from his long ambition of playing Pablo Escobar. The Hunger Games’s Josh Hutcherson stars as a wide-eyed newcomer to Escobar’s decadent and violent world.
Shifting away from the snarky political satire that has long been the forte of The Daily Show, Stewart makes his directorial debut with the keenly anticipated drama Rosewater. Like Then They Came for Me, the memoir on which it’s based, the movie recounts the experiences of Maziar Bahari, the London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist who endured a brutal jail stint in Iran due to charges stemming from an appearance he made on (you guessed it) The Daily Show.
Another in a bounty of movies directed by guys better known as actors (see also: Paul Bettany’s Shelter, Alan Rickman’s closing-night gala A Little Chaos), Before We Go is a pet project for Chris Evans, who’s had a big year already thanks to the surprisingly superb Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Bong Joon-ho’s cult fave Snowpiercer. Though Evans’s non-Marvel movie choices have tended toward the dark side (check out his gonzo performance in the true-crime drama The Iceman), here he serves as the romantic lead in a drama that blends heart-tugging elements of Once and Before Sunrise.
Though most widely renowned for his social-realist dramas set in contemporary Britain, Mike Leigh’s not so shabby when it comes to period pieces, either. Indeed, the English director’s famous methodology—which involves months of rehearsal and improvisation with his actors in order to create an unusually keen degree of naturalism—may work even better when he delves into the past, as he does here with Mr. Turner, a look at 19th-century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner’s last 25 years of life. Admirers of Leigh’s 1999 masterwork Topsy-Turvy have been duly impressed by the director’s latest study of an iconic artist’s struggle to balance personal and creative challenges. Timothy Spall already earned a best-actor prize from Cannes for his labours.
Alan Turing’s too-short life was nothing if not rich with biopic-ready incident. A brilliant mathematician who broke Nazi codes during WWII and devised the groundwork for modern computing and artificial intelligence, he was also prosecuted for the then-crime of homosexuality and hounded into suicide at the age of 42 in 1954. Though ubiquitous at last year’s TIFF with 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate and August: Osage County, Cumberbatch is likely to generate at least as much buzz on the sole basis of his central role in The Imitation Game.
Viewers of the great 2011 doc Bobby Fischer Against the World already know just how much was riding on the 1972 match-up between the increasingly eccentric American chess master and his Soviet counterpart Boris Spassky. Given the richness of the material, director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) will certainly strive to capture all the true-life drama that surrounded the battle on the board in Pawn Sacrifice. Trust the two actors playing the combatants—Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber—to spend a lot of time glaring at the pieces.
Another movie that netted a major prize at Cannes—in this case, a best-actress award for Julianne Moore, who plays a star in meltdown mode—Maps to the Stars, the latest by Toronto’s most reliably provocative auteur, has been billed as his most commercial movie in many years. Then again, it wouldn’t be hard to beat his first teaming with Pattinson, 2012’s chilly adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Instead, there are bona-fide laughs (albeit queasy ones) to be found in this black comedy about the moral vacuum of contemporary Hollywood, which was based on a script by Bruce Wagner, long one of the movie world’s most ruthless observers.
A lot has changed for Xavier Dolan since he was a child actor doing commercials for Jean Coutu. Now the floppy-haired 25-year-old actor, writer and director has five features to his name, all of which have played the world’s most prestigious festivals. An intense mother-son tale with echoes of his stroppy 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, Mommy has been touted as his international breakthrough since winning a major award at Cannes. His hot streak when it comes to kudos and prizes seems unlikely to end.
The former Daily Show regular has tried to go serious before—even his character in Little Miss Sunshine could hardly be considered upbeat, what with his suicide attempt. But Foxcatcher sees him go deeper into the abyss as he plays John du Pont, a mentally troubled heir to the chemical company fortune who develops a dangerous fixation on two Olympic wrestling champion brothers, played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. With Capote and Moneyball, Bennett Miller gave smarts, nuance and texture to movies that could’ve been merely showy star vehicles—by most accounts, he’s done the same with this true-life story from a little-known corner of the sports world.
Having played both Die Hard’s best villain and Hogwarts’s most misunderstood faculty member, Alan Rickman was surely running out of challenges. To rectify that matter, he sought out this daunting task. In A Little Chaos—selected to close out TIFF’s slate of galas—Rickman not only plays Louis XIV opposite Winslet as a landscape gardener at work in the court of Versailles; he was also the director in charge of ensuring the film boasts all the necessary pomp and pageantry.
Matthew McConaughey may have reaped the greatest rewards from his efforts in Dallas Buyers Club, but the film—one of TIFF 2013’s big breakouts—owed much of its vitality to the stylish direction of Jean-Marc Vallée. The Quebecois filmmaker may repeat his success with Wild, a drama based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-seller about her 1,100-mile solo trek along America’s Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon—who optioned the rights to Strayed’s book before it was published and collaborated with a different French-Canadian filmmaker for another TIFF entry (see below)—dons the troubled heroine’s backpack and develops a taste for trail mix.
In The Good Lie, on the other hand, Witherspoon hews closer to Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning playbook for The Blind Side. She’s the brassy but unsurprisingly bighearted woman who helps a foursome of Sudanese “Lost Boys” learn about the American way of life. The chances it could all be sugary-sweet are high but it should be saved by director Philippe Falardeau—who earned an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar—and his forte for unfussy naturalism.
TIFF 2014 ought to be rife with bad Pacino impressions given how much time audiences will be spending with him. Firstly, the American icon has two new movies here—David Gordon Green’s new drama Manglehorn, as well as an adaptation of Philip Roth’s final novel, The Humbling. He’s also the special guest for TIFF’s third annual fundraising gala on September 3, tickets for which can be yours for a mere $1,500. The Humbling is the most promising of the two flicks, with Pacino as a famous stage actor whose skills have abandoned him. Roth’s adaptations may be notoriously difficult to adapt (the 2003 take on The Human Stain is an example of how not to do it) but the script by Buck Henry should give Pacino plenty to chew on.
A Toronto director whose past credits include Force of Nature—a very fine David Suzuki doc whose title could’ve been repurposed here—Sturla Gunnarsson spent three months crisscrossing India on a quest to capture stunning images of the annual rains and chart the impact they have on nearly aspect of the country. The result is Monsoon. Shot with an ultra-vivid 4k camera, it promises to inspire the same kind of awe as Watermark, last year’s standout Canadian eco-doc.
One of the most talked-about films at TIFF two years ago, The Act of Killing publicized a little-acknowledged genocide in Indonesia by introducing viewers to men who proudly recounted (and sometimes reenacted) the murders they committed nearly fifty years ago. Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer follows it up with The Look of Silence, an equally provocative account of a family driven by a viewing of the original film to seek out the whole truth of what happened to a murdered loved one.
A family ski holiday encounters a serious hitch in the Swedish feature Force Majeure, a critical hit at this year’s Cannes and one of the most anticipated new European films at TIFF. Ruben Östlund’s drama centres on a dad who—when threatened by an avalanche—makes the rash decision to save his own skin rather than protect his loved ones. By all accounts, the ramifications of this what-would-you-do scenario are arresting.
From Malaysia comes Men Who Save The World, an often hilarious crowd-pleaser about a community whose members succumb to fear and superstition when they come to believe a house has been hijacked by evil spirits. That the house is actually being used as a hideout by an African immigrant is one surprise in store for the skittish townsfolk in this potential breakout by director Liew Seng Tat.
The director of the revealing 2004 doc Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter returns for another cinematic investigation of the people and politics of the wine business. His heroes in Natural Resistance are a group of Tuscan winemakers who are determined to resist the economic and political pressures that are homogenizing the Italian wine industry and discouraging traditional, natural and chemical-free growing methods. Nossiter also uses the opportunity to look back on wine’s place in Italy’s culture and its movies.
Recent hits like Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and All Is Lost all cater to moviegoers’ appetite for high-seas adventures. Atlantic, an intriguing entry in TIFF’s Discovery program by Dutch director Jan-Willem van Ewijk, offers a unique variation with its tale of a young man who sets out to make the treacherous 300-kilometre voyage between his village in Morocco and the European coast using only his sail and his surfboard. Of course, he does it for love, but sharks aren’t interested in his motives.
French director Olivier Assayas has made a long run of incisive, stylish dramas, and Clouds of Sils Maria, his recent Cannes competition entry, is no exception. Besides boasting great performances by his Summer Hours star Binoche and Twilight-saga escapee Kristen Stewart—who play a famous but troubled actress and her assistant holing up in a Swiss town to rehearse for a challenging role—the film is remarkable for its gorgeous mountain scenery.
While nearly all of the actors and filmmakers with new works at TIFF are more than eager to accept credit and kudos for their work, the people who made this anthology of five short films aren’t so fortunate. Based on the true stories of queer Kenyans who suffer discrimination, ostracization and worse for their sexual orientation, Stories of Our Lives is a creative act of resistance and militancy that should be an eye-opener to viewers in the rest of the world.
Though the former Miss World winner is one of Bollywood’s reigning glamour queens, Priyanka Chopra tries to toughen up her image in this biopic about the first Indian woman to become an Olympic medalist in the sport of boxing: Mary Kom. Included in TIFF’s Special Presentations program, Omung Kumar’s feature has the makings of an inspirational underdog story, a category of films that always thrives in the fest’s hothouse environment.
Independent movies from Cuba are such a rarity that this one, among all of TIFF’s usual bounty of Latin American cinema, is most definitely worth a look. In Venice, a female-bonding comedy by Kiki Álvarez, three hair salon employees set out for a night of adventure that takes them deep into the darkest corners of Havana’s nightlife. Good times are not necessarily had by all.
Before The Walking Dead, the freshest signs of life in the flesh-eater genre came courtesy of [REC], a Spanish found-footage thriller. One great and one not-so-great sequel later, we arrive at the fourth installment, [REC]4 APOCALYPSE, a sure-to-be-bloody franchise closer that promises several new twists for TIFF’s Midnight Madness viewers, who’ll be the first to witness the mayhem.
If you thought the camera bugs who collect clips for TMZ were pond scum, then you may be thoroughly dismayed by the activities of the characters in the thriller Nightcrawler, a story set among L.A.’s clique of freelance crime-scene photographers. Putting his off-putting gaze to good use, Gyllenhaal plays a new addition to their ranks in this Special Presentations pick.
Genre-movie fans are particularly intrigued by Haemoo, a seafaring thriller about a fishing-boat crew that runs into serious trouble while ferrying a group of illegal immigrants from China to Korea. The reason for all the excitement is that the film involves Bong Joon-ho, the fanboy favourite behind the inventive and brutal science-fiction head-trip Snowpiercer. He co-wrote and produced this dark and stormy directorial debut by his friend Shim Sung-Bo.
Well, you’ve got to be happy about the results. Starring Jemaine Clement (one half of the Kiwi comedy duo), who wrote and directed with his longtime creative partner Taiki Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows is a grisly and wickedly funny mockumentary about a group of not-especially-menacing vampires who—when not stalking their prey on the sleepy streets of Wellington—grouse about mundane roommate problems. Dracula was lucky he never had to deal with a chore wheel.
The master of mob movies has indeed given his blessing to Revenge of the Green Dragons, a saga about Chinese immigrants who rise through the ranks of New York’s Asian crime syndicates in the ‘80s. As well Marty should: the film was co-directed by Andrew Lau, a Hong Kong action-cinema veteran whose earlier hit Infernal Affairs became the basis for Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed. An appearance by Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta adds a little more goombah cred.
It’s about time we saw Jackson on Air Force One, even if Snakes on a Plane should probably have turned him off air travel for life. Sure enough, in Big Game he ends up the only survivor of a mid-air hijacking, and it’s up to a bow-toting Finnish teenager to get him out of the wilderness and away from the terrorists in hot pursuit. A cheeky Scandinavian homage to ‘80s action cinema, Big Game is itself determined to outsmart and outgun the bigger-budgeted Hollywood counterparts that typically provide Jackson with his paycheques.
Like the cult classics The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson, Alleluia, by Belgium’s Fabrice Du Welz, is inspired by the true-life crimes of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, a serial-killer couple who wooed and murdered a series of lonely women in the ‘40s. Du Welz both modernizes the story and ups the ante with his take on this tale of twisted romance and savage violence.
There’s a big buzz around Gabe Polsky’s account of the ups and downs of the USSR’s fabled hockey squad of the 1980s, Red Army. Even if names like Slava Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak mean as little to you as the minutiae of defensive formations, you may be enthralled by the meaty stories of interpersonal rivalries, propaganda schemes and political intrigues that happened on and off the ice.
An erotic British melodrama with a sadomasochistic streak, The Duke of Burgundy highlights the peculiar sensibility of director and musician Peter Strickland, whose TIFF 2012 entry Berberian Sound Studio was an ingenious homage to the sleazy Italian giallo genre. Here, he fashions something similarly twisted and idiosyncratic from the tale of a wealthy lady lepidopterist and her housekeeper. During a TIFF that’s otherwise low on truly adult-themed films (nudge-nudge), this may be the one most worthy of scrutiny.
Kids and horror movies are always a provocative combination. That’s why the edgiest Midnight Madness selection of the year could be Cub, a Belgian thriller in which a group of preteen Cub Scouts are menaced by an unseen threat deep in a patch of booby-trap-laden woods. The Hunger Games have nothing on this kind of nastiness.
Having won major prizes for three previous films in competition at Cannes, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was bound to claim the top honour at some point. He earned it with Winter Sleep, a lengthy (196 minutes, to be precise) and weighty chamber drama about the decaying relationship of a married couple who own a small hotel in an Anatolian town. Art-house devotees whose tastes were minted in the heyday of Bergman and Antonioni will be enthralled, others possibly less so.
And who’s Pedro Costa, you might ask? Though his name may only be revered by the sort of cinephiles, critics and programmers who consort at international festivals and care not a jot for populist fare, it ought to be more widely known. So what if Costa’s precise, painterly and patience-demanding features—which principally concern the lot of poor Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon—may always be an acquired taste? Great art isn’t always easy, and his latest, Horse Money, provides ample proof of that.
The addition of a third dimension means yet another layer of complexity for an auteur who’s never been one for spoon-feeding. The artist in question is, of course, Jean-Luc Godard, who remains one of the movie world’s most adventurous and divisive figures 54 years after the critic–turned–New Waver changed the game with Breathless. In his first feature since 2010’s Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language 3D, he tackles all the big themes, from the nature of time to the morality of war to love and lust. And yes, there will be an exam to follow.
Since he’s only made five features since 1975, any new film by Swedish master Roy Andersson is a major event in some quarters. His appeal lies in his meticulously designed and exquisitely deadpan brand of absurdism, which reached full flight in 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and continues with A Pigeon Sat On A Bench Reflecting On Existence, a new series of darkly comic vignettes that variously involve bickering rubber-fang salesmen, a long-dead king of Sweden, marital spats and a musical number.
Back on form with his sprightly TIFF 2012 entry Frances Ha, Noam Baumbach hopefully continues his hot streak with While We’re Young, a reunion with Stiller, who played a painfully neurotic ex-rocker in the director’s brittle 2010 satire, Greenberg. Here, Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker who befriends a twenty-something hipster couple (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and tries to adopt a similarly youthful lifestyle—with mixed results.
A young French filmmaker who proved her mettle with the heart-wrenching Father of My Children and the winsome coming-of-age romance Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve pays homage to the club culture of the ‘90s with Eden, an ensemble drama set among a group of rising DJs and musicians in the nascent electronic-music scene. While seeing Greta Gerwig’s name in the credits may be a selling point for some, others will be more impressed with a jam-packed soundtrack that includes Daft Punk (whose members are characters in the film), Frankie Knuckles and Joe Smooth.
In Jauja, the hunkiest denizen of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth plays a Danish military officer who loses his beloved daughter somewhere in 19th-century Patagonia. Having spent part of his youth in Argentina, Mortensen may know the territory better than you’d expect. He’s also more than willing to submit himself to any challenge posed by Jauja’s always compelling director, Lisandro Alonso.
Set almost entirely at a Hilton adjacent to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, the ensemble drama Bird People doesn’t exactly have the makings of a wide-screen epic. But filmmaker Pascale Ferran—whose 2005 film Lady Chatterly is the finest-ever adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s story—is rarely one to miss an opportunity for a surprising insight or a flight of fancy.
Making his TIFF debut after a series of marvelously idiosyncratic features, French director Eugène Green is here with La Sapienza, a new film that demonstrates a keen interest in buildings, especially the works of 17th-century Italian architect Francesco Borromini. All these matters of space and form come to bear on the relationships of two couples, resulting in another heady drama by a filmmaker who’s just beginning to get the attention he’s due internationally.
For TIFF’s most hardcore cinephiles, a new film by Lav Diaz is a major event. The Filipino master’s fondness for gargantuan running times (eight hours is not unusual) means this will inevitably the most demanding work they’ll see at the festival. A melodrama set against the backdrop of Ferdinand Marcos’ rise to power, From What Is Before runs a daunting 338 minutes, but critics hailed it as a masterwork when it debuted at the Locarno festival, where it won the top prize.