50 buzziest films of TIFF 2011: we slice through the hype so you don’t have to

50 buzziest films of TIFF 2011: we slice through the hype so you don’t have to

We’ve already told you about the celebs filing into town for TIFF and the extended-licence nightspots they’ll be frequenting. But with more than 300 movies being screened, the actual “film” part of the festival can be hard to navigate. Enter our handy guide, in which we scope out the buzz on the most hotly anticipated flicks of the fest.

See all our picks and rejects »


Rating Legend

5 – Make sure you see it
4 – Solid bet
3 – Worth a gamble
2 – Doesn’t look promising
1 – Only a mother could love it

Albert Nobbs
How could Glenn Close not land a Best Actress nod for this one? Adapted by Close and Booker Prize–winning author John Banville from a short story by George Moore, the movie is about a 19th-century Irishwoman who disguises herself as a (male) butler in order to escape destitution. As if that weren’t enough, it was directed by Rodrigo García (HBO’s In Treatment), a man known for drawing great performances out of his female leads. The film got mixed reviews at the recent Telluride Film Festival, but Close’s performance was well-received. Score: 3

Hello, what’s this? Schlockmeister Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) forsaking explosions for a tale of the Bard? Yes, but this is an extreme tale of the Bard, focusing on the scandalous and universe-upsetting theory that Shakespeare didn’t actually write all those plays! Noted thespians Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis and Derek Jacobi will survive with their reputations intact, but don’t expect much beyond a Best Costume Design nod. Do note, however, the movie’s undeniably award-worthy tagline: “We’ve all been played.” Score: 2

The Ides of March and The Descendants
George Clooney will surely be pulling awards season double-duty this year with these two flicks. The Ides of March (which Clooney directed, co-wrote and, naturally, co-starred in) is a political drama featuring Ryan Gosling as an upstart media strategist who uncovers damaging secrets about a Democratic presidential candidate (Clooney). The movie didn’t knock ’em dead when it opened the Venice Film Festival last week, but it still earned solid praise. The Descendants, meanwhile, wowed just about everybody at the recent Telluride Film Festival and is now being proclaimed a certain Best Picture nominee. It’s the latest from Academy fave Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), and features Clooney as an absentee dad forced to take care of his daughters after his wife falls into a coma. Aw. Score: 3 (The Ides of March) and 5 (The Descendants)

The Eye of the Storm
Australian Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Six Degrees of Separation) is arguably one of the greatest living film directors, but because he occasionally has to pay the bills (ahem, It Runs in the Family), he never gets the credit he deserves. His latest, about a brother and sister vying for their mother’s inheritance, got rave reviews at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, as did his sterling cast: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis and Charlotte Rampling. The film doesn’t have a U.S. distributor yet, but that’s sure to change post-TIFF. Score: 5

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a Hollywood movie about a hunky young cancer patient, so it’s hard to know how this one will go over. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the lead, while Seth Rogen plays a thinly veiled version of himself in the best friend role. (The screenplay is by Rogen’s real-life pal Will Reiser, who battled cancer in his 20s.) The studio has been holding advance screenings of 50/50 for months, trying to build early buzz. Word is that the mom character, played by Anjelica Huston, has the most award potential. Score: 3

Machine Gun Preacher
Have you seen the poster for this one? Has World Vision? Score: 1

Martha Marcy May Marlene
The recipient of very strong reviews at Sundance in January, writer-director Sean Durkin’s debut film is being talked about as this year’s Winter’s Bone. Elizabeth Olsen (yes, of those Olsens) plays the title character, a young woman trying to extricate herself from the clutches of a religious cult led by John Hawkes (whom you may remember from, yes, Winter’s Bone). Score: 4

Having read the Michael Lewis book this Brad Pitt vehicle is based on, we have our doubts about whether it can work as a film—it’s less about the game of baseball and more about the business of stats and draft picks. But word is that director Bennett Miller (Capote), who replaced Steven Soderbergh on the project, refused to deliver a conventional sports-flick narrative. Plus, the screenplay was given a polish by Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin. Who better to turn data-crunching into dialogue? Score: 3

When the Weinstein Company acquired Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort earlier this year, word was that it was a legitimate Oscar contender. But when audiences finally got a look at W.E. at the Venice Film Festival last week, buzz predictably turned to boos. Apparently, Madge’s look at the relationship between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (recently featured in The King’s Speech) is at best a new camp classic, and at worst a reprehensible whitewashing of the couple’s well-documented Nazi sympathies. If you’re already slated to attend the screening, bring hydrangeas. Score: 1

We have nothing against former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson—she was the only good thing in the simpering Dreamgirls—but isn’t it a bit premature for her to be playing the wife of Nelson Mandela? It’s like when Madonna forced her way into the role of Eva Perón—aren’t you supposed to earn iconic parts? And it sure doesn’t help that Winnie Mandela has spoken out against the movie. Score: 2


Rating Legend

5 – Make sure you see it
4 – Solid bet
3 – Worth a gamble
2 – Doesn’t look promising
1 – Only a mother could love it

Dark Horse
The cognoscenti seem to have cooled on Todd Solondz in the 13 years since Happiness, but his under-seen last film, Life During Wartime, was a great leap forward and arguably his best to date. His latest is about a 30-something man-child (Jordan Gelber) who puts away his action figures when he falls for a woman with a secret (Selma Blair). This one could go either way, but the poster is already a classic. Score: 3

The Deep Blue Sea
In his long, storied career, British director Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth) has made only one less-than-great film (The Neon Bible), which has to be some sort of record. His latest, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a woman (Rachel Weisz) who abandons her husband for a young fighter pilot, is ideal Davies material and almost sure to keep his record intact. Score: 4

This thriller about a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who commits a crime in order to help out a neighbour (Carey Mulligan) has already been anointed the next big thing by critics who saw it at Cannes. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson) apparently pulls out all the stops and shows today’s Hollywood hacks how to do action right. Let’s hope the critics weren’t just drunk on French wine. Score: 5

Habemus Papam
The gentle Italian satirist Nanni Moretti (Caro Diario, The Son’s Room) returns with a comedy-drama about the machinations behind the election of a new pope (Michel Piccoli). Promising material, to be sure, and Piccoli is one of the great screen actors, but early reviews out of Cannes were very meh. Score: 2

The Kid with a Bike
Yet another Cannes alumnus, this new work from Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, L’enfant) is said to be a departure—in that it isn’t relentlessly grim—and even features sun-dappled cinematography and a perky colour scheme. Some critics called it a betrayal of the brothers’ art, others called it a revelation and still others considered it the same ol’ Dardennes wrapped in a new package. Guess we’ll just have to see for ourselves. Score: 3

Killer Joe
Veteran American director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) had been given up for dead by most filmgoers, but in 2006 he surprised everyone with a truly odd, low-budget adaptation of playwright Tracy Letts’s Bug. It wasn’t particularly good, but it was a good try, and now Friedkin is back with yet another Letts adaptation. This one’s about a desperate guy (Emile Hirsch) who hires a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to off his mom so he can claim the insurance. The play is filled with clever yet nasty twists, so consider yourself warned. Score: 3

We haven’t trusted Danish provocateur Lars von Trier since the heinously overrated Breaking the Waves, but even we’re looking forward to his latest, which won Kirsten Dunst the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Word is that von Trier has toned down his masochism and misanthropy and produced a beautiful, even touching work. Of course, it is about the end of the world, so he hasn’t gone completely soft. Score: 4

Sony Pictures Classics was set to release Gus Van Sant’s latest last January, but the release was postponed after the film was invited to open the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in May. All sounded promising, but the move backfired when festival-goers gave Restless a big thumbs down. About a gloomy young man (Henry Hopper) who meets a sprightly beauty (Mia Wasikowska) at a funeral, Restless is said to be so preoccupied with referencing old films (such as Harold and Maude) that it doesn’t develop an identity of its own. Score: 2

We could pretend we’re interested in this one because it’s by lauded U.K. director Steve McQueen (Hunger), but that would be a horribly transparent lie. Who can think about McQueen when the movie features Irish stud Michael Fassbender as a New York sex addict? Wish-fulfillment casting strikes again! Score: 4

The Skin I Live In
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar returns with this twisted gloss on Georges Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face. Antonio Banderas plays a wealthy plastic surgeon who keeps a beautiful young woman (Elena Anaya) locked in his home as a guinea pig for a new skin-strengthening therapy. We’ve already seen the film, and for the first two-thirds it feels as if Almodóvar is just lazily cycling through his usual obsessions. But then a narrative shift in the final third propels the movie into memorably demented territory. Score: 3

Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde has been filmed a number of times—most notably by the great Max Ophüls in 1950—so this loose adaptation by director Fernando Meirelles and writer Peter Morgan faces an uphill battle. On the one hand, both Meirelles (City of God) and Morgan (The Queen) are hugely talented, but on the other, their last pictures—Blindness and Hereafter, respectively—were spectacularly, painfully bad. And something tells us the sheer number of stars involved here (Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, Jude Law, Ben Foster, etc.) will feel like quantity over quality. Score: 2

After spending the last few years making small, “personal” pictures nobody saw (Youth Without Youth, Tetro), Francis Ford Coppola appears to be aiming for popular acceptance again with Twixt, a Gothic horror film featuring Val Kilmer as a hack writer encountering ghostly visions in a New England town. The trailer looks promising, as does Bruce Dern’s performance as the town sheriff. But did Coppola have to go playing around with 3-D just when we’d all gotten totally sick of it? Score: 3


Rating Legend

5 – Make sure you see it
4 – Solid bet
3 – Worth a gamble
2 – Doesn’t look promising
1 – Only a mother could love it

Afghan Luke
That’s right—the director of Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day is tackling the war in Afghanistan. Nick Stahl stars as a freelance journalist who returns to the Middle East primarily for a scoop, but also to pick up a shipment of primo hashish. No, really. Director Mike Clattenburg’s film sounds like a war comedy à la M*A*S*H or Three Kings, but the TIFF notes describe it as a straight-up drama, which should perhaps be cause for concern. Score: 2

Café de flore
Montreal native Jean-Marc Vallée made one of the best Canadian films of the last decade, C.R.A.Z.Y. After a brief foray into Hollywood-style Anglophilia (The Young Victoria), he returns to French-language filmmaking with Café de flore. The film consists of two overlapping narratives: one about a modern-day Montreal DJ and the other about a ’60s-era single mother. Sounds a little high-concept, but we have faith in Vallée’s ability to pull it off. Score: 4

A Dangerous Method
The last time David Cronenberg adapted a play, the result was the disappointing M. Butterfly. All the more reason to be concerned about his latest, an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, which looks at the relationship between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender). Still, Cronenberg has been on a hot streak of late, and word out of Venice is that the picture works, somehow. Mortensen and Fassbender are said to be in fine form, but most of the talk has been about Keira Knightley’s love-it-or-hate-it performance as the disturbed Sabina Spielrein. Score: 3

Goon and Breakaway
Oh, Telefilm Canada, when will you stop funding hockey-themed comedies? After the fiasco that was last year’s Score: A Hockey Musical, we now get two more flicks destined for late-night TMN sampling: Goon, about a hockey fan (American actor Seann William Scott) hired to be a hooligan on the ice; and Breakaway, about a Sikh-Canadian man (Vinay Virmani) who wants to play the great Canadian sport despite his deeply traditional father’s disapproval. Big, big sigh. Score: 2 (Goon) and 1 (Breakaway)

Monsieur Lazhar
Winner of the audience prize at the recent Locarno International Film Festival, French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is about an Algerian man hired to replace a teacher who committed suicide at a Quebec elementary school. Falardeau’s little-seen previous picture, It’s Not Me, I Swear!, was a neglected gem, and if this one’s anywhere near as good it could turn out to be his breakthrough film. Critics who’ve seen it have described it (admiringly) as Incendies meets The Class. Score: 5

Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley returns to the director’s chair after her great Alice Munro adaptation Away From Her. Those who’ve read the script for Take This Waltz, about three Queen West types (Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby) who get caught up in a summer love triangle, say it’s an utterly different film, but every bit as nuanced. It’s also supposed to be quite the love letter to Toronto, which is clear in the three clips that recently debuted online. Score: 4

388 Arletta Avenue
Honorary Canadian Nick Stahl (see Afghan Luke) stars as an affluent advertising exec whose wife goes missing from their lavish Toronto home after a routine domestic spat. Director Randall Cole shot entirely from the perspective of surveillance and hand-held cameras, which might have been novel if the gimmick hadn’t been worn out already by Paranormal Activity parts 1, 2 and 3. Score: 2


Rating Legend

5 – Make sure you see it
4 – Solid bet
3 – Worth a gamble
2 – Doesn’t look promising
1 – Only a mother could love it

Las acacias
When Film Comment scribe Amy Taubin saw Argentinean director Pablo Giorgelli’s debut feature at Cannes, she wanted to watch it all over again the minute it ended. According to Taubin, the 85-minute film about a truck driver and the young mother he picks up on the road to Buenos Aires isn’t filled with memorable scenes—it’s more like one long, extended memorable scene. Could be patience-testing, but note that the film also won the Caméra d’Or for Best Debut Feature. Score: 4

If you saw Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous picture, the Academy Award–nominated Dogtooth, you know to expect all manner of weirdness from his latest. The titular characters are two men and two women hired by bereaved individuals to impersonate dead loved ones in the hopes of helping with the grieving process. Fine with us; just no more cats impaled by garden shears, please. Score: 5 for the sickos, 1 for the squares

Chicken With Plums
Persepolis filmmaking duo Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud return with a live-action film starring French actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as an Iranian musician who succumbs to daydreams after his beloved violin is destroyed. The French-language trailer promises a phantasmagorical work along the lines of Amélie or Heavenly Creatures, but those who caught it in Venice downgraded it to a mere Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Score: 2

Winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar’s latest is a comedy-drama about father and son Talmudic scholars competing for the same accolades. We’ve seen the film, and it’s much more lively than that plot description suggests. If anything, Cedar’s direction is a little too lively for his sharp, engaging screenplay, which doesn’t need all the pyrotechnics. Score: 4

Goodbye First Love
French actress-turned-director Mia Hansen-Løve (last year’s The Father of My Children) returns with this film about an ill-fated romance between a 15-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy. The movie was a surprise selection for the highly choosy New York Film Festival (which kicks off a few weeks after TIFF) and has already been released to excellent reviews in France. What more do you need to know? Score: 4

In Darkness
Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s new film is a World War II drama about a Lvov man named Leopold Socha who kept a group of Jews hidden in the city’s sewers for over a year. We saw an advance screening of this one, too, and while it’s well-intentioned, it suffers badly from a lack of interesting characters. None of the Jews below ground are fleshed out—they’re just cardboard victims—and Leopold’s transformation from mercenary to saviour follows the usual uninspired beats. Score: 2

Life Without Principle
Leaving behind action pictures for the moment, Hong Kong auteur Johnny To’s TIFF pic is about three ordinary individuals caught up in the recent financial crisis. To’s a great stylist, but online clips from Life Without Principle look a wee bit histrionic, like he’s trying to do for the financial meltdown what Crash did for race relations. Score: 2

Michael and Snowtown
The former is an Austrian film about a child molester who keeps a 10-year-old locked in his basement, and the latter is an Australian film (based on real events) about a serial killer who takes a young boy under his wing. Hijinks, presumably, ensue. Score: anywhere from 1 to 5, depending on your child-in-jeopardy tolerance

A Separation
This Iranian film won the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and the award was well-deserved. Director Asghar Farhadi (About Elly) has fashioned a gripping and humane portrait of life in contemporary Iran by focusing on a fiercely personal legal battle between two couples. We can’t think of another recent film that more convincingly illustrates the limits of the law in achieving truth and justice. Score: 5

The Student
Argentinean screenwriter Santiago Mitre wrote last year’s black-as-pitch festival highlight Carancho (directed by Pablo Trapero), and now he’s back with this directorial debut about an aimless student at the University of Buenos Aires who discovers a talent for political thuggery. If the film is even half as entertaining and pointed a commentary on Argentinean life as Carancho, it’ll be a knockout. Score: 4


Rating Legend

5 – Make sure you see it
4 – Solid bet
3 – Worth a gamble
2 – Doesn’t look promising
1 – Only a mother could love it

The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius’s look at a silent film star (Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) whose career evaporates with the arrival of the talkies was the toast of the Croisette, and is currently being positioned for an awards-qualifying run in November. But is the North American public really ready to embrace a black-and-white picture about silent movies that itself is silent? Regardless, it’ll surely go over well at TIFF. Score: 4

One of the biggest question marks on the TIFF schedule is this comedy from director Jim Field Smith (She’s Out of My League), which stars Jennifer Garner as a Midwestern woman who thinks winning the local butter-carving contest is the first step to the presidency (you read that right). The script, by Jason A. Micallef, was once on Hollywood’s annual Black List of the best unproduced screenplays, so maybe it’s better than it sounds. Then again, the script for Mel Gibson’s The Beaver was on the Black List, too. Score: 2

Damsels in Distress
We’ll know more about this one when it closes the Venice Film Festival on September 10. In the meantime, here’s what we do know: it’s director Whit Stillman’s first film since The Last Days of Disco more than a dozen years ago; it stars indie stalwart Greta Gerwig as ringleader of a group of oddly idealistic college girls; it features dance numbers. And if that’s not enough, it’s a great opportunity to re-popularize the word “damsels,” which we’ve greatly missed. Score: 3

Kill List
One of the most buzzed about Midnight Madness entries this year, Kill List was written and directed by U.K. filmmaker Ben Wheatley, the man behind last year’s unusually sharp, intricate crime-family picture Down Terrace. His latest is about an ex-soldier who returns to his old life as a contract killer, and it was greeted with whoops of approval at Texas’s South By Southwest festival earlier this year. Apparently, it switches genres several times before culminating in some deeply weird territory. Score: 4

Having screened at Sundance in January, this debut feature from Dee Rees—about a young black woman coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian —was immediately (and rather unimaginatively) declared the logical successor to Precious in terms of mainstream audience appeal. Reviews were mixed, but those who liked it loved it, and cinematographer Bradford Young won the festival’s Excellence in Cinematography award. Score: 3

Sleeping Beauty
This debut film from Australian novelist Julia Leigh was supposed to be the next succès de scandale at Cannes, but when critics there got a look at it they gave it a big ol’ collective shrug. Still, the French are so hard to scandalize, and surely a tale of a young college student (Emily Browning) hired to sleep in a big bed while rich white men do dirty things to her will ruffle some Torontonian feathers. Score: 3

Every year, the TIFF programmers slip a totally obvious stinker into the Gala selections, like card-playing kids trying to pass off the old maid. This year, the stinker is sure to be the Nicolas CageNicole Kidman home-invasion thriller Trespass, directed by unrepentant Hollywood hack Joel Schumacher (Batman and Robin, 8mm).  Even though it’s a commercial thriller, the movie is set for limited release in October with a simultaneous video-on-demand option. Never a good sign. Score: 1

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver’s ultra-grim 2003 bestseller about the mother of a Columbine killer–like son is now an ultra-grim feature film by respected Irish director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar). No matter what Ramsay did with the material, this was going to be a highly divisive film, and sure enough it divided audiences at Cannes. But Shriver herself has come out in support of the film, calling it “a brilliant adaptation” of her novel, and everyone seems to agree that Tilda Swinton—shocker!—is magnificent in the lead role. Score: 3