The Toronto International Film Festival is back in action, even if the stars who traditionally crowd its red carpets might be instead walking the picket line down south. However the SAG-AFTRA strike plays out, though, TIFF is going just as big as ever this year, with 200-plus selections. Which means that ticket-buyers need all the help they can get in knowing where to focus their attention, and which films to keep on their radar post-TIFF. To that end, The Globe and Mail’s Arts team has been busy picking through this year’s slate to bring you our most anticipated TIFF 2023 titles. Catch ‘em all, if you can.
Dumb Money: Even though I have watched The Wolf of Wall Street half a dozen times – great movie! – I still know next to nothing about how the stock market actually works. So I expect to walk out of director Craig Gillespie’s new comedy about the memefied “GameStonk” scandal of 2021 – in which amateur, Reddit-savvy traders somehow managed to pull one over on the billionaire hedge-funders of the world – fully and woefully confused. But also, quite possibly, wildly entertained. It helps that the real-life drama is still fairly hot in the zeitgeist – judging by the speed of which Dumb Money made it from real life to the big screen, we’re due for a Sam Bankman-Fried biopic to open next year’s TIFF. And then there’s the stacked cast that Gillespie has assembled, including Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Shailene Woodley, Pete Davidson, Sebastian Stan, America Ferrera and Nick Offerman. The only question will be whether Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) limits himself to a dozen needle-drops or two-dozen.
Dream Scenario: The Nicolas Cage Renaissance 3.0 – or whatever we’re calling the latest reassessment of the actor’s career – has yet to truly take shape in pop culture, no matter how hard the dreadful comedies Renfield and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent tried. Maybe it will be Oslovian director Kristoffer Borgli who pushes the Cage needle forward, casting the always-intense star in this film about an academic who, according to TIFF’s logline, “is thrust into the limelight after inexplicably appearing in people’s dreams.” Between Borgli’s reputation for outré comedy (his 2022 satire Sick of Myself has already become a cult phenomenon of sorts) and the imprimatur of taste-making distributor A24, I’m crossing my fingers for the next stage of Cage.
AGGRO DR1FT: By this point in his controversial career, there should be a clear demarcation of audiences who either love or hate Harmony Korine. Yet the American filmmaker is constantly upending expectations, seemingly intent on alienating new-found fans at every turn by oscillating between palatable indie tastes and barf-bag cinematic provocations. Will the all-cap-titled AGGRO DR1FT, an action film reportedly shot entirely on infrared camera, be another must-see cultural moment like Spring Breakers, or will it be a middle finger to convention like Trash Humpers? A stoner epic like The Beach Bum, or a no-budget nightmare like Gummo? There is only one way to find out, and TIFF has appropriately slotted that discovery time to take place during the darkest hours of the evening, with the film vying for this year’s Midnight Madness crown.
The Holdovers: I have a complicated relationship with the films of Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Election). The writer/director is undeniably brilliant and makes smart adult dramas, of which there are precious few these days. But he’s hard on his characters, often crossing the line from exploring their human foibles into mocking them (see: his cruelty to Kathy Bates in About Schmidt). Still, I can’t resist the sound of The Holdovers: widely-disliked teacher (Paul Giamatti, who helped Payne win an Oscar for Sideways) stuck at his New England prep school over Christmas 1970, babysitting a clever-but-troubled 15-year-old whose mother would rather vacation with her new husband. Throw in the school cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who just lost her son in Vietnam, cover everything in heaps of snow, and I am there.
The Royal Hotel: Kitty Green was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel) when her first fiction feature, The Assistant, broke out in 2019. Starring Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark), it was a subtle, exacting examination of how systemic misogyny fosters workplace predators like Harvey Weinstein. Green continues to ring that alarm in The Royal Hotel, a social thriller inspired by true events. Out of money in a remote Australian Outback mining town, backpackers Hanna (Garner again) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) take live-in jobs at a pub frequented by hard drinkers. But when the riotous adventure turns nasty, the women are trapped in an unnerving situation escalating out of their control. Like all of Green’s work, it reminds us that creating a world that devalues women leads to terrible things.
Lee: How could you read the Wikipedia intro for Elizabeth (Lee) Miller, Lady Penrose (1907-1977), and not say, “She’s a movie”? A top model in 1920s New York, she moved to Paris, worked with Man Ray, befriended Picasso and became a fashion and fine-art photographer. When the Second World War hit, she was a war correspondent for Vogue, covering the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Aptly, the film’s director, Ellen Kuras, is a lauded cinematographer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and documentary director (The Betrayal/Nerakhoon) making her feature debut. And the cast is a dream: Andy Samberg as a Life photographer Lee teamed up with, Andrea Riseborough as Lee’s editor at British Vogue and the glorious Kate Winslet as Lee.
The Boy and the Heron: For the first time in its history, TIFF opens with an animated film. The Boy and the Heron is the latest from the renowned Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro; Princess Mononoke; Spirited Away; Howl’s Moving Castle.) It’s his first feature in 10 years and also, coincidentally, the first time TIFF has ever opened with a Japanese film. Released without fanfare at home earlier this year, it has taken Japan by storm while TIFF will host its international premiere. Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films are known for their fantastical worlds and strong stories: The Boy and the Heron charts a teenage boy’s psychological development in a new town as he discovers a magical world in an abandoned tower and makes friends with a talking grey heron.
The New Boy: Warwick Thornton’s outback western Sweet Country was one of the revelations of TIFF 2017, a tale of vengeance on the Australian frontier that hauntingly incorporated memories and premonitions as it exposed colonialism. That style bodes well for spiritual thriller The New Boy, a film about a kidnapped Aboriginal boy brought into a remote nunnery. Speaking no English, he declines the trappings of colonial civilization but embraces its Christian religion as he reveals signs of mystical powers. Cate Blanchett returns home to play the nun in charge of his care while newcomer Aswan Reid stars as the boy.
The Tundra Within Me (Eallogierdu): In her debut feature, Norwegian performer Sara Margrethe Oskal probes the tension between cultural heritage and assimilation in a romantic drama set amongst the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. Oskal spent 10 years as reindeer herder before she came south to Oslo to study performance; similarly, the film follows an Oslo artist as she returns to her northern hometown for a project about female reindeer herders but finds the locals are wary. Another film on the TIFF roster this year, Homecoming (Máhccan), might make for an informative double bill: It’s a documentary about the process of returning Sami cultural artifacts in museums to their original communities.
Dicks: The Musical: If the phrase “A24′s first-ever movie musical” feels sort of like a siren song to you, you’re likely in the target demographic for Dicks: The Musical, an offering from the decidedly offbeat film studio making its world premiere at this year’s fest. The movie is based on Fucking Identical Twins, the 2014 off-Broadway show written by Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson that was itself a take on The Parent Trap. In the film, two business rivals (played by Sharp and Jackson) realize that they’re twins, and join forces to reunite their divorced parents, played by Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane. Also featured are rapper Megan Thee Stallion and SNL and Fire Island star Bowen Yang, playing – naturally – God. If that all doesn’t sound deliciously campy enough, one final note: It’s directed by Larry Charles, the man behind Borat.
Solo: Quebec director Sophie Dupuis helms this feature centring on Simon (Théodore Pellerin), a drag artist whose life as a performer – and burgeoning romance with fellow drag artist Oliver (Félix Maritaud) – is upended when his estranged mother, opera singer Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux), returns to Montreal for a show. Dupuis is known for her thoughtful, nuanced onscreen explorations of humanity, and this character study – more Hedwig than RuPaul – looks to be no exception.
Close to You: Elliot Page produces this film about Sam (played by Page), who travels home for his father’s birthday for the first time since his transition. It is, not coincidentally, Page’s first major onscreen role since his own transition, and the themes in director Dominic Savage’s film – of returning home as the most authentic version of yourself, but one that is perhaps unrecognizable by, and unwelcome to, the people you grew up with – are as specific to Page’s experience as a trans man as they are universal to the experience of anyone who has outgrown the person they were raised to be.
Hate to Love: Nickelback: A year ago, director Leigh Brooks made The Sound of Scars, a documentary on the American alt-metal band Life of Agony. Now Brooks is back with a documentary on Nickelback, a band that sounds as if its members are in agony. Commercially successfully but critically reviled, the Alberta-bred rockers are a case study in poor taste in music. While I enjoyed Penny Lane’s similarly themed Listening to Kenny G (which screened at TIFF in ‘21), Hate to Love might be more fun, only because Nickelback doesn’t blow its own horn half as seriously as the smooth-jazz saxophonist does.
In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon: TIFF is billing this music documentary from Alex Gibney as the “definitive portrait” of Paul Simon. Apparently, Wynton Marsalis, Lorne Michaels and Simon’s musician-wife Edie Brickell are tapped for insights. But can a definitive portrait of Simon be complete without input from his former music partner Art Garfunkel? The sound of silence from him is deafening.
Seven Veils: I spoke to director Atom Egoyan a few months ago while he was shooting this film. “It’s insane,” he said about the numerous projects he was working on simultaneously. The fog of his hectic schedule eventually lifted, and now the curtain is about to rise on Seven Veils, an Amanda Seyfried-starring psychodrama about a production of Salome – an opera which Egoyan first mounted for the Canadian Opera Company in 1996 and not coincidentally revived again this year while shooting this film. Insane!