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13 standout movies from TIFF to look forward to

A smart teen comedy, a sharp political satire, and a great movie about the world's worst movie are all worth keeping on your radar.

James Franco in The Disaster Artist, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
James Franco in The Disaster Artist, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Toronto International Film Festival has concluded, having screened hundreds of films for hundreds of thousands of moviegoers and launched more than a few awards hopefuls onto the path to the Oscars.

Some of the best or buzziest movies from the festival are already available for the public to see. Two such films were widely available before the festival even finished — Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! in theaters and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father on Netflix — and Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris, a documentary about the New York Public Library, is playing in limited release as well. Several more, including the Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Stronger and the tennis drama Battle of the Sexes, are due in theaters this weekend.

But a number of other movies that premiered at Toronto, or had their first big public screenings at the festival, won’t be in theaters for weeks or even months. Not all of them will end up in the awards race, but many of them are sure to generate buzz in the weeks ahead, and all of them are worth your time and attention.

Here are 13 films from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival to watch out for.

Faces, Places

The unusual documentary Visages, Villages (Faces, Places) turns on the friendship between the accomplished French street artist JR and legendary Belgian film director Agnès Varda, whose work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement. The pair (whose difference in age is 55 years) met after years of admiring each other’s work and decided to create a documentary portrait of France — by making a number of actual portraits. The film chronicles a leg of the “Inside Outside Project,” a roving art initiative in which JR makes enormous portraits of people he meets and pastes them onto buildings and walls. In the film, Varda joins him, and as they talk to people around the country, they grow in their understanding of themselves and each other.

Faces, Places opens in limited US theaters on October 6.

The Florida Project

Tangerine director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, unfolds at first like a series of sketches about the characters who live in a purple-painted, $35-a-night motel called the Magic Castle down the street from Disney World. The film is held together by the hysterical antics of a kid named Moonee and her pack of young friends, as well as long-suffering hotel manager Bobby (a splendid, warm Willem Dafoe), who tries to put up with it all while keeping some kind of order. But as The Florida Project goes on, a narrative starts to form, one that chronicles with heartbreaking attention the sort of dilemmas that face poor parents and their children in America, and the broken systems that try to cope with impossible situations.

The Florida Project opens in US theaters on October 6.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer shared the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, where it premiered earlier this year. It’s co-written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) and stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman — identified only by the titles “Surgeon” and “Surgeon’s Wife” — as the well-off parents of two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The family lives in an ordinary, affluent American suburb and appears to be mostly normal, if a little formal with one another, until a menacing stranger enters their midst. To craft the story, Lanthimos twisted the elements of the Greek myth of Iphigenia into something modern and nightmarish. The result is fascinating, and horrifying.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens in limited US theaters on October 27.

Lady Bird

My favorite film from TIFF, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is set in 2002 and stars Saoirse Ronan as a Sacramento high school senior who’s nicknamed herself Lady Bird. As it chronicles her last year before she goes to college (which, she desperately hopes, will be in New York), the movie hits a lot of the same beats as other teen movies: trouble with parents, with boys, with grades, with sex, with plans for the future. The economic divide between her financially struggling family and her well-off friends is hard to navigate, and Lady Bird’s attempts to be cool mixed with her naturally rebellious spirit make for both high comedy and very relatable drama. The film’s take on that pivotal last year of high school is startlingly fresh, and like last year’s stellar The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird dares to take the emotional lives of teenagers and adults seriously without sacrificing wit or warmth.

Lady Bird opens in US theaters on November 10.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The winner of the prestigious People’s Choice award at TIFF — considered a strong predictor for a good performance during the upcoming awards season — Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri bears a strong resemblance to a Flannery O’Connor story in its dark and even startling humor and scathing, grace-filled take on human nature. It’s actually written and directed by In BrugesMartin McDonagh (who shares O’Connor’s Catholicism-influenced storytelling bent) and stars Frances McDormand as a bereaved mother in small-town Missouri who has finally had it with the injustices of the world: the ineffective justice system, the racists, the hypocrites, the men who do bad things and get away with them. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are also stellar in the film, which is bound to stay on everyone’s radars.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in US theaters on November 10.

The Breadwinner

Directed by The Secret of Kells co-director Nora Twomey and executive-produced by Angelina Jolie, The Breadwinner is a tale of bravery and heartbreak set in Kabul (and voiced in English, presumably to increase its accessibility to younger audiences). Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is the middle child in a poor family struggling to make ends meet in an Afghanistan increasingly oppressed by the radical Taliban. One day, her father is jailed by the Taliban after he offends a former student who’s joined the radical group. And because the regime doesn’t allow women to go into the marketplace — or, indeed, to leave their homes at all without a man — the family begins to fear starvation. So Parvana cuts her hair and poses as a young boy, and finds that the world is very different than she thought. It’s a story of courage, but also realism, and it does a good job depicting how much of the Taliban’s recruitment strategy — as with other radical groups around the world — is based on capturing the attention of disaffected young men.

The Breadwinner opens in US theaters on November 17.

Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman will rake in awards this fall with his depiction of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but that’s not at the expense of the movie around him. In what is the third movie this year to tackle the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk (along with Their Finest and, well, Dunkirk), Joe Wright — who also previously depicted Dunkirk in his 2007 film Atonement — directs Oldman in a colorful, moving, often funny film that brings to life Churchill’s tactical brilliance and personal idiosyncrasies. It works well as a companion piece to Dunkirk, but it’s a crowd pleaser on its own too.

Darkest Hour opens in US theaters on November 22.

Molly’s Game

Aaron Sorkin does a poker movie” is a flat-out terrific idea, and so obvious a fit for his talents that it’s hard to believe he hasn’t done it before. For Molly’s Game, Sorkin is venturing into new territory, on two fronts: He’s written a poker movie, and for the first time, he’s directed it too, with Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba turning in fun, dynamic performances. And the movie makes it pretty clear that gambling on directing his own screenplay is a bet Sorkin ought to take again.

Molly’s Game opens in US theaters on November 22.

Call Me By Your Name

This film was the unmitigated critical favorite at Sundance and a hit once again at TIFF. From director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), it’s an intimate, lush romance set in the Italian Riviera in 1983 that features, by all accounts, a star-making turn for Armie Hammer. But the film’s younger star, Timothée Chalamet, is also positioned to become a huge star; he appeared in two other projects at TIFF, opposite Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird and Christian Bale in Hostiles.

Call Me by Your Name opens in US theaters on November 24.

The Disaster Artist

It’s hard to overstate how much fun this film was to see at TIFF in a crowd full of amped-up fans delighted to watch director-star James Franco retell the story of the infamous “best worst movie ever made,” The Room, which has attained cult status at midnight screenings around the country since its 2003 release. Franco is brilliant playing The Room director Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic and bizarre figure with an apparently unlimited supply of money who befriends Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) and sets out to make a movie. Based on Sestero’s book by the same name, The Disaster Artist is fast, funny, light on its feet, and filled to the brim with cameos from Franco’s many actor friends. It’s pure fun — a great movie about the worst movie.

The Disaster Artist opens in limited US theaters on December 1 and wide on December 8.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water, set in Cold War-era Baltimore, is a romance full of characters who are different and lonely and struggling to connect with one another. The movie has all of director Guillermo del Toro’s signature flourishes — strange creatures, colorful images, sudden hints of horror mixed in with the fantasy — and tells a story of love that crosses borders and barriers, challenging what’s “normal” and what’s “strange.” Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon are stellar, but as Eliza — a mute woman who falls in love with a fish-man — Sally Hawkins is especially superb.

The Shape of Water opens in US theaters on December 8.

I, Tonya

A scene from I, Tonya
Margot Robbie stars as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

Craig Gillespie’s hilarious and gut-punching I, Tonya is a nearly pitch-perfect black comedy that distills a sensational news story more than two decades old — of Harding’s career and involvement in an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 — into two potent insights very relevant to 2017. It’s a movie about class, and about the nature of truth — and somehow, it’s also a supremely entertaining sports movie. Margot Robbie stars as Harding, but it’s Allison Janney as Harding’s hard-bitten, chain-smoking mother LaVona who really steals the show.

I, Tonya will open in limited release on December 8 and wide in January 2018.

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin, from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, tamps down the unrelenting joke delivery of Iannucci’s earlier work in favor of a more complex, almost nihilistic rendering of what politics is: a team of bumbling and weak-minded people who lack any real conviction other than a desire for power and position. The film (which is entirely in English, no accents) is based on the true events following the Soviet leader’s death and scuffle over his succession, and most of its comedy is situational rather than textual, which is to say that it’s funny because it’s true. Once you’ve climbed the ladder to kiss the ring of power, you can’t go back — but you’ve placed a big target squarely on your forehead.

The Death of Stalin is slated for release in 2018.

The Final Year

Samantha Power and Barack Obama in The Final Year
Samantha Power and Barack Obama in The Final Year.
Official White House photograph

Greg Barker’s documentary chronicles a part of American government that’s often opaque to, or simply ignored by, most American citizens: the team that handles foreign diplomacy and policy. The Final Year focuses on four key figures in the previous presidential administration — Secretary of State John Kerry, White House adviser Ben Rhodes, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Barack Obama himself — as they navigate the challenges of the foreign crises and opportunities in the last year of Obama’s administration. It walks and talks like a defense of a controversial diplomacy-first Obama doctrine, and while it doesn’t shy away from those arguments — particularly around Syria — it does make clear that there were frequent disagreements even on the president’s team about the best course of action, and shows how tricky the business can be.

The Final Year is awaiting a US release date.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke stars in a meditative and unnerving movie from director Paul Schrader about a former military chaplain, Pastor Toller, having a crisis of faith while trying to lead a tiny, shrinking flock in upstate New York. One day, a young couple knock at Toller’s door; the husband, a radical environmentalist, engages Toller in conversation about the inevitability of a man-made apocalypse and his despair. As the story unfolds, Toller’s own state of mind shifts and changes, with him questioning the very shreds of faith that are his lifeblood. Stark and haunting, First Reformed deeply understands how doubt is the companion to, rather than the enemy of, faith — and it’s one of the strongest, clearest depictions of that contrast in modern cinema.

First Reformed is awaiting a US release date.

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