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The Red Turtle is coming in January.
The Red Turtle is coming in January.
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15 fall movies you need to see: from La La Land to Moonlight to The Handmaiden

After a disappointing summer, we’re about to have the best fall movie season in years.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

With another Toronto International Film Festival wrapped, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: It’s going to be one of the best falls in recent memory at movie theaters. From independent documentaries to would-be blockbusters, from Oscar contenders to foreign animated releases, there’s a little something for everybody coming out this fall.

I’ve collected 15 of my favorite upcoming films that played in Toronto, organized by release date, then added bonus lists of movies coming next year and movies that received great buzz at Toronto but which I didn’t get to see. And read our complete Toronto coverage here.

If you’ve got a moviegoing calendar, mark it accordingly. If you don’t, start one, because you’re going to want to go to a theater sometime very soon. Just a warning: All of these release dates may change or be for limited releases. Make sure to check local theater listings.

American Honey (September 30)

British director Andrea Arnold travels across the Atlantic, then keeps going, winding up in the American heartland with this intimate epic. In it, an 18-year-old girl (Sasha Lane) falls in with a magazine crew — groups of young people who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions at substantial markups — and travels north from Oklahoma through the Great Plains. Along the way, she nurses a crush on Shia LaBeouf and develops a contentious relationship with boss Riley Keough. That doesn’t sound like a story that would sustain a film for two hours and 45 minutes, but American Honey’s success lies in the magnifying glass it places on what it’s like to grow up poor and female in America.

The Handmaiden (October 21)

Korean director Park Chan-wook’s lesbian romance slash crime drama The Handmaiden proved one of the biggest surprises at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the buzz has only built since then. Set in the 1930s, the film is loosely based on novelist Sarah Waters’s modern classic Fingersmith. In it, a young Korean woman and a con man conspire to bilk a young Japanese heiress out of her considerable fortune by having the young woman pose as the heiress’s new handmaiden — so she can assist in the con man’s seduction of the heiress. Things get trickier when the heiress and the young woman begin to fall in love — and then there are 50 more twists.

Moonlight (October 21)

Director Barry Jenkins's trembling, beautiful breakthrough just might be the best-looking film of the year. Following a young black man as he grows from boy to adolescent to adult, Jenkins’s camera and script dig deep into what it means to grow up amid inner-city poverty while also trying to come to terms with your sexuality. As protagonist Chiron first learns of and then tries to deny his homosexuality, he becomes an aching symbol of repression itself, and just how harmful it can be. There are few sequences as moving in film this year as the final 15 minutes of Moonlight.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (October 28)

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House Netflix

Horror buffs, take note: Not all of you are going to like this unsettling psychological scarefest, but those of you who do will really like it. The story is so simple as to seem almost like a myth or legend: A hospice nurse (Ruth Wilson) moves into a creepy old house to care for the older woman who lies in her bed above, slowly dying. Said older woman was a top horror novelist in her time, and the audience might start to wonder if some of her ideas were inspired by real events. Director Osgood Perkins plays fair from frame one: There’s a ghost in this house, and it’s going to kill the nurse. That story may prove too slight for some, but it will be intensely terrifying for others. And since the movie will debut on Netflix, anybody can watch it on the day of its release.

Image credit: Netflix

Loving (November 4)

It’s surprising that Richard and Mildred Loving — the couple whose Supreme Court case legalized interracial marriage throughout the United States in the late 1960s — haven’t had a movie made about them before. They’re the very best sort of movie protagonists: ordinary people who discover that the system doesn’t want them to exist, and, as such, they’re going to have to change that system. Loving is perhaps a little padded — director Jeff Nichols never met a shot of the two gazing lovingly at each other he didn’t like — but in its stripped-down simplicity and intense focus on the Lovings, it becomes deeply moving in the end.

Arrival (November 11)

The best movie I saw in Toronto was this intricate sci-fi puzzle, directed by Denis Villeneuve (of Sicario fame), about what happens when aliens land all over the planet — and then wait for humanity to come to them. Amy Adams plays a languages expert who attempts to figure out how to communicate with the aliens, all the while having piercing memories of her dead daughter. That the film works both as a satisfying sci-fi story and as an emotional tale of moving through loss — and that it avoids the usual pitfalls of using a dead child as a plot device — is sort of remarkable. That it ties those two stories together as skillfully as it does in the end feels like a miracle.

Elle (November 11)

A downright risible blast of misanthropic dark comedy from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Elle begins with Michele (Isabelle Huppert) being raped by an intruder in her home. After he leaves, she calmly and quietly cleans herself and her house up, and later scolds her cat for not even clawing her attacker. But otherwise, she goes on with her life as normal, not reporting the attack to the police. And then things get even weirder. This movie has a few too many plots to work as well as it could, and it seems guaranteed to piss off everybody who watches it at least once. But it’s also a provocative film that reflects the conversations we have about rape in reality, and a tremendous showcase for Huppert, who gives one of the performances of the year.

The Edge of Seventeen (November 18)

TIFF closed with this incredibly charming teen comedy written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. But when I say "teen comedy," think Say Anything, not American Pie. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a high school junior whose life is torn apart when her best friend begins dating Nadine’s popular older brother and seemingly switches cliques overnight. Hollywood has struggled to know what to do with Steinfeld since her breakthrough, Oscar-nominated work in 2010’s True Grit, since she’s a little bit more taciturn and weirder than the usual roles the industry offers for teen girls. But she and Craig make a terrific team, and Seventeen has far more emotional depth than the genre usually offers.

Manchester by the Sea (November 18)

It’s rare for a movie this sad to actually earn that sadness. But Kenneth Lonergan's story of a man (Casey Affleck) who returns to the hometown that whispers suspiciously about him behind his back to bury his brother builds intricately and patiently to a shattering revelation about why he simply can’t live in that town any longer. Lonergan’s perfectly calibrated script interrupts the sorrow with humor and even romance, and when the movie reaches its final catharsis — which arrives in beautifully understated fashion — you might leave thinking (as I did) that it’s just about perfect.

Nocturnal Animals (November 18)

I saw many better films in Toronto, but I didn’t see one as fun to argue about as this film, which, depending on your point of view, is either a hilariously successful blend of camp comedy and dark revenge thriller, with a healthy dash of metafiction, or a complete boondoggle that bites off far more than it can chew. To my mind, it’s director Tom Ford's gigantic bites — few of which he can swallow — that make this film as successful as it is. We’ve seen lots of stories of people trying to get revenge for the horrors done to them, but few have structured that revenge tale as a novel within the film, being read by a different protagonist entirely.

La La Land (December 2)

Been waiting for a gigantic movie musical to call your own? Damien Chazelle has you covered with his follow-up to 2014’s Whiplash. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a guy and girl who fall in love and sing about it. And then, as so often happens, life starts to get in the way. But they keep singing. La La Land seems to have enchanted every audience that has seen it, and even if you could quibble with some of its creative decisions, the film’s too much fun to really care. Of all the movies on this list that could become legitimate national sensations, this seems the most likely.

Jackie (December 9)

Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy in Chilean director Pablo Larraín's abstract take on the days immediately following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Jackie attempts to find a way to keep her husband’s legacy alive by giving him the best presidential funeral she can, all while staving off her grief and fears about her own obsolescence now that she’s no longer first lady. Those looking for a straightforward Kennedy take will be disappointed. Those looking for a creative rumination on who Jackie Kennedy was will be very pleased indeed.

Julieta (December 21)

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is known for his wild flights of fancy, for films that soar into the sky and don’t stop until they’ve headed into deep space. That’s what makes him a bit of an odd choice to adapt a series of short stories by the Canadian master Alice Munro. But Munro’s subdued tales prove the perfect match for Almodóvar’s excess, and this film proves to be the director’s best since 2006’s Volver. A woman, reminded abruptly of an adult daughter she hasn’t seen in decades by an old friend, reflects on everything that’s brought her to this point, all leading to a climax that seems at once sweetly surprising and unexpectedly inevitable.

Paterson (December 28)

Jim Jarmusch is one of America’s most idiosyncratic directors. His films — which often unspool as long series of conversations that don’t seem to have an underlying structure until one sneaks up on you — capture very specific worlds and characters. Paterson introduces viewers to a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) from Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry on the side. The poems (from poet Ron Padgett) are a great way to break up this slice-of-life story, the dialogue is crisp and funny, and Driver will remind you why he’s such an in-demand actor. This is a film filled with warmth, kindness, and wisdom.

The Red Turtle (January 20, 2017)

A young man, stranded on a desert island, attempts to escape by building a raft. But every time he sets sail, his boat is broken up by a gigantic red sea turtle, which seems intent on confining him to his island prison. And that’s just the first 15 minutes of Michael Dudok de Wit's animated fairy tale, produced by Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio that’s brought film fans some of the best animated movies ever made (including Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro). Red Turtle’s story — such as it is — will prove too slight for some, but the gorgeous animation should be easy to love.

7 movies with unspecified 2017 release dates worth keeping an eye out for

My Life As a Zucchini GKIDS

My Life as a Zucchini.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography is master documentarian Errol Morris's latest film. It’s one of his more minor efforts, but it somehow turns an old woman going through her photographs into a bittersweet rumination on the aging of the counterculture and the death of analog technology.

Colossal turns cult favorite director Nacho Vigalondo loose on the world of kaiju — those giant Japanese monsters that topple buildings and cause destruction everywhere they go. Except this monstrous tale posits that there are no monsters bigger than people in their early 30s. Which is probably accurate, actually.

The Girl With All the Gifts will be out in the UK on September 23. But it lacks a US distributor or release date, which is too bad. Its eerie post-apocalyptic setting and surprisingly deep character work is all fodder for an ending that’s at once stunningly bleak and weirdly hopeful. To say more would be spoiling too much.

I Called Him Morgan feels like an Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature just waiting to happen. It traces the rise, fall, and rise of jazz musician Lee Morgan, as well as his seemingly perfect marriage to a woman named Helen — a marriage that ended in her killing him. This is both handsome to look at and a great feat of reporting.

My Life as a Zucchini may be animated, but it’s proved so winning to so many audiences that Switzerland has submitted it as its official entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Its tale of troubled kids living and bonding in a group home somehow makes "Peanuts meets Short Term 12" work. Terrific distributor GKIDS is handling the US release.

Tramps has yet to receive a distribution deal, and that’s a darn shame. This movie somehow blends a crime caper and a romantic comedy into a completely winning story of two kids trying to make a big score — and it does it all on a shoestring budget. This is a Netflix date-night standby just waiting to happen.

The Unknown Girl is the latest from beloved Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. A young doctor becomes haunted by the thought of a girl she didn’t let into the hospital after hours one night — a girl who later turned up dead. She takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of the girl’s identity, while also treating her patients.

Image credit: GKIDS

Plus 7 movies I didn’t get to see that had warm notices

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids Netflix

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.

It’s impossible to see everything you want to see at any film festival — even with a full week to work with. Here are seven I was sad to miss. (Most with "no release date" will be out in 2017.)

Certain Women (out October 14) weds the vision of director Kelly Reichardt to the rural short stories of Maile Meloy, in three short tales of women living in the Rocky Mountain wilds.

Graduation (no release date yet) is the latest film from Romanian genius Cristian Mungiu (of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days fame). Here, a father and daughter’s relationship is tested when she is assaulted.

I Am Not Your Negro (no release date yet) proved the surprise sensation of the festival, wedding the words of author James Baldwin to footage of black history in America, for what many have dubbed an overwhelming experience.

Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids (out October 12) is headed to Netflix in just a few weeks, so be sure to check out the latest concert film from director Jonathan Demme, who previously made Stop Making Sense, the gold standard for concert films.

Lady Macbeth (no release date yet) had one of the festival’s most buzzed-about performances in young Brit Florence Pugh. It’s the story of what happens when a 19-year-old is married off to a middle-aged man. Probably only bad things.

Raw (no release date yet) sounds trashy but fun — and it has the added bonus of having revolted enough people at its debut screening to require paramedics to show up. A vegetarian is forced to eat raw meat, then develops a taste for all sorts of flesh.

Toni Erdmann (out December 25) was a sensation at Cannes, where viewers gladly gobbled up the German film’s epic comedic vision. (Yes, this is a comedy made in Germany. Somehow.) A woman’s relationship with her father devolves into a prank war. It’s heartwarming, we’re told!

Image credit: Netflix

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