Toronto International Film Festival: The 13 Best Movies of TIFF 2016

Thirteen of our absolute favorites from this year’s annual Toronto International Film Festival!

The 40th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is over and done, and possibly with fewer acquisitions than previous years. Still, there were clearly lots of fantastic movies that are already being talked about and will continue to be discussed over the next few months as we head into awards season.

We’ve decided to showcase 13 of the best movies that screened at this year’s festival (out of the ones we managed to see), and good news: Even if you weren’t able to get up to Toronto this year, most of these movies will be released over the next few months into theaters near you, so you can check them out for yourselves!

1. La La Land (Lionsgate – December 2)

After Whiplash, I think everyone realized Damien Chazelle was a special kind of filmmaker, and he really proved it with this full-on singing and dancing musical, which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a jazz pianist and struggling actress who fall in love in crazy modern day LA.

The songs are catchy, but it’s really Chazelle’s sense of humor, and absolute passion for old Hollywood musicals and jazz music that comes through in every scene, winning over audiences everywhere it’s played over the past few weeks—audiences were even applauding after the opening number! This is a shoe-in to be leading the Oscar race for Best Picture right now, having just won the coveted People’s Choice award at TIFF, putting it in the same company as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.

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Full Review 

2. I, Daniel Blake (IFC Films – December 23)

A lower-key movie at TIFF, Daniel Blake still has already won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in May and is this newest film from the underrated British filmmaker Ken Loach. This one stars Dave Johns as the title character, a widower who was injured on the job and is told he can’t go back to work. Yet, his efforts to continue his disability insurance are hampered by the clueless and incompetent local agents.

His bleak life lifts up when he meets a single mother (Hayley Squires) in a similar situation, and he spends time with her and her daughter, trying to help them improve their lives. It’s a surprisingly charming and entertaining film, partially because it’s easy to understand Daniel’s frustrations with government bureaucracy. More than anything, it’s another fantastic look into the human condition by Loach, which hopefully means more people will check it out than his past films. (Screenwriter Paul Laverty is also overdue for an Oscar nomination for his writing; it’s crazy.)

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3. A Monster Calls (Focus Features – December 23)

Juan Bayona’s third film, an adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, was a fantastic mix of fantasy and coming-of-age drama with young Lewis MacDougall playing Conor, a boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. So he turns to a giant tree creature, voiced by Liam Neeson, to help him understand how to deal with it. Like Arrival below, it’s best to see the movie without knowing much more than that.

Still, Bayona (like Denis Villeneuve) is one of the best up and coming filmmakers with the way he’s able to blend genres so effortlessly, making a movie full of CG feel so well grounded in the real world. Next up for him is the sequel to Jurassic World, and I can’t wait!

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Full Review 

4. Arrival (Paramount  – November 11)

This science fiction film from director Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario) stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a linguist and a mathematician. The two PhDs are commissioned to decode the language of a visiting alien race in order to find out what they want on earth, making the movie part Close Encounters of the Third Kind and part The Day the Earth Stood Still. But in fact, everything about this alien invasion movie is so unique and original.

Part of that is because it deals with aliens arriving on earth in a logical way by having two people trying to figure out their language to communicate with them, which is actually far harder than you might think. Adams is incredible in the film as a woman who… actually I’m not sure I can say more about her since so much of this film is about the joy of discovering things, like peeling away the layers of an onion. It’s best not know much about it, other than it’s one of the most thoughtful and intelligent science fiction films since last year’s Ex Machina.

Full Review 

5. The Edge of Seventeen (STX Entertainment – November 18)

This year’s TIFF Closing Gala was a movie that’s more likely to have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, being that it’s Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, stars Hailee Steinfeld, and is indeed a teen comedy. But it’s one with such a unique and distinctive voice.

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In some ways, it reminded me of last year’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, although unlike that film—which had a lot of different things going on—it deals more directly with a teen girl’s angst: Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) playing Nadine, a 17-year-old who feels alienated from the world after her best friend starts dating her popular older brother. Between her performance and Craig’s script, this was just an immediately enjoyable film. Additionally, you get Woody Harrelson as a snarky history teacher not willing to put up with Nadine’s whining, giving audiences a truly unique entry into the high school comedy hall of fame.

Full Review

6. Lion (The Weinstein Company – November 25)

Another surprise was this film starring Dev Patel that starts out quite a bit like his breakout film Slumdog Millionaire before turning into something far more emotional. It’s based on the life story of Saroo Brierley, who as a very young boy got trapped on a decommissioned train that took him a thousand miles away from his small village to the city of Calcutta. Unable to get back to his mother and brother, Saroo was adopted by a kindly Australian couple (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), but 20 years later, he starts to remember his childhood and with the help of Google Earth, becomes obsessed with finding out where he came from—so he can finally seek out his family.

There’s something about this film directed by Garth Davis, making an impressive feature debut, that really sticks with you. It opens as this sprawling India-set epic and then turns into something intimately poignant. The performances by Patel, Kidman, and Rooney Mara (as Saroo’s girlfriend trying to cope with his obsession) are fantastic, so hopefully The Weinstein Company can figure out how to market this fantastic crowd-pleasing film.  (It got the runner up prize for People’s Choice this past weekend, so that could help.)

7. Nocturnal Animals (Focus Features – November 23)

Similarly tough to explain without spoiling too much is the second feature from fashion icon Tom Ford after 2009’s A Single Man, which earned Colin Firth an Oscar nomination. This one stars Amy Adams as a woman who is ingrained into the LA art scene when she receives a manuscript from her ex-boyfriend, an author with whom she separated from years earlier. Most of the film involves her reading his book, a thriller about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose wife and daughter are kidnapped while driving on a desolate highway, leading to his search to find them and get justice on the kidnappers. As it happens, Gyllenhaal also plays her ex, and the film fluctuates between telling the story in his book she’s reading and her reflecting on moments from their relationship.

This is not going to be for everyone because, essentially, the movie is about Amy Adams reading a book (and she’s actually better in this than Arrival!), but Ford proves that he doesn’t just have an eye for fashion and design but actually is a damn great screenwriter and director. (Michael Shannon also appears in the film as the sheriff helping Jake find his wife and daughter.)

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8. Denial (Bleecker Street – September 30)

Based on historian Deborah Lipstadt’s personal accounts, this film about Holocaust deniers is about as good as you’d expect when it has a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright David Hare and the likes of Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) as its primary cast. Weisz plays Lipstadt, a college professor who is sued by Timothy Spall’s David Irving for libel when she basically implies that he’s a racist by denying that Jews were killed in the Auschwitz work camps.

To most sane people, that would seem quite insane, but Irving is so sure he’s right that he sues Lipstadt in England where the defendant is assumed to be guilty unless they prove their innocence. Along with her lawyer, played by Wilkinson, the high profile case becomes almost as much about proving that the Holocaust happened and that Irving is wrong. Weisz is great as always, but it’s the dramatic fireworks by Spall and Wilkinson that really make this film a fantastic experience. That and, again, David Hare screenplay. Denial is also notable as the first theatrical release from director Mick Jackson, of The Bodyguard fame, in over 12 years.

9. The Red Turtle (Sony Pictures Classics – January 20, 2017)

Studio Ghibli has long been considered one of the most innovative and creative animation houses alongside Pixar Animation, and it’s nice to see them branching out into animation from other countries. In this case, it’s with Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s wordless tale of a man stranded on a deserted island. There, he faces the elements and creates a life with a beautiful woman who once was a giant tortoise. It makes more sense when you watch this beautifully animated (and scored) tale for yourself.

10. Jackie (Fox Searchlight – December 9)

For a while, it looked like this would be Darren Aronofsky’s next movie with his Oscar-winning Black Swan actress Natalie Portman, but his stepping aside to produce allowed Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No) to come in and make a fantastic portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.

Portman’s performance is quite fantastic, especially in delivering Jackie’s stiff and stoic way of speech, but she’s also surrounded with great actors like Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Larrain gives the film a dream-like, hypnotic feel as it spends time on Jackie both before, during, and after the assassination. But the real star of the film might be Mica Levi’s stunning soundtrack which brings so much to the film.

11. Bleed for This (Open Road – November 23)

While many have been lamenting the amount of boxing movies in recent years, and this one played at the festival concurrently with The Bleeder, starring Liev Schreiber, the story of world champion boxer Vinny Paz as played by Miles Teller is an amazing one. Paz got in a horrible car crash that nearly left him paralyzed, and yet he came back from it to win another belt in a different weight glass (against Roberto Duran, no less).

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What makes this film written and directed by Ben Younger is that it’s not a dead-serious boxing drama a la Million Dollar Baby; it actually has quite a lot of humor thanks to Teller and Aaron Eckhart as his trainer Kevin Rooney, who needs a comeback as much as Paz does.

12. The Sixth Beatle

One of the few docs I caught at this year’s TIFF was this film by Tony Guma and John Rose that might be seen as controversial by long-time fans of Liverpool’s most famous export, The Beatles. It starts out as a movie about Liverpool concert promoter Sam Leach, who booked the band’s first shows as the Quarrymen. As you listen to more and more people around in the early days talking about them, you start to realize that maybe Brian Epstein wasn’t the only one who should be getting credit for their success.

What was really interesting about the film’s TIFF premiere is that it was preceded by a statement about Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn disputing some of the film’s claims due to personal agendas. Apparently, Lewisohn (who plays such an integral part in the doc), might be removed from future edits since he never signed his waiver, but also, the filmmakers have had trouble getting the Beatles music licensed probably for the same reason—that it questions Brian Epstein’s impact on the band’s career. (The fact that Epstein went from being a record store clerk from a wealthy family to manage one of the world’s biggest bands is quite astounding.)

This is a fantastic prequel companion piece to Ron Howard’s The Beatles: 8 Days a Week (still playing in theaters!) and will hopefully see the eventual light of day.

13. The Salesman (Cohen Media/Amazon Studios – December 9)

Back in 2011, Persian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for his drama A Separation, and his latest film has a similar character and dialogue-driven story that keeps you captivated from the opening scene of a potential building collapse. It involves a married couple, both actors who are starring in a new version of Arthur Miler’s Death of a Salesman, but shortly after moving into a new rented apartment, she’s attacked while taking a shower and he has to investigate who did it and find out what really happened. As with A Separation, part of what makes the story so captivating is to see how religion and tradition in Iran affects everyday life in ways we can never imagine as Westerners.

Honorable Mentions (click on title for full review): Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate), The Magnificent Seven (Sony), Loving (Focus Features), American Pastoral (Lionsgate), The Girl with All the Gifts (Since I didn’t review this last one, it’s a clever twist on zombie films in the vein of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).