Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Top 20 Recommendations for TIFF 2019

Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto, at TIFF 2018

Founded in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 5-15 this year, screening 245 features and 82 shorts in a highly diverse program representing 84 countries and 87 languages and showcasing voices from across the great breadth of humanity. Though I will only be on the ground from late evening on Thursday, September 5, through late afternoon on Monday, September 9, I will do my best to see as many films that I can (I’ve already seen 12 via advance screener). As I saw last year (my first in attendance), Toronto is a vibrant city unto itself, irrespective of special events, and the festival makes it even more so. I look forward to my return.

What follows is a list of my recommended (from those I’ve watched, labeled with an *) and most-anticipated features, in alphabetical order, with a very brief description of what makes each film special or what makes me want to see it. Enjoy! I hope to see you there.

Film poster: “The Audition”

*The Audition

Starring Nina Hoss (Summer Window) as a violin teacher whose own music career stalled long ago, and directed by Ina Weisse (The Architect), The Audition is a powerful meditation on creative passion, in which Hoss’ character struggles between the competing forces of family, art and talent.

Citizen K

The prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley) returns with a film profiling the rise and fall of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who dared confront Vladimir Putin, only to pay a steep price for his actions.

Film poster: “Collective”

*Collective

This Romanian documentary chronicles the aftermath of the horrific 2015 fire at the Collectiv nightclub in Bucharest, director Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters) creating a gripping observational film that follows journalists and politicians as they try to fix the widespread state corruption that contributed to the tragedy.

Coming Home Again

From director Wayne Wang (Last Holiday) comes a family drama based on an essay by Korean American writer Chang-rae Lee, in which the author cares for his cancer-stricken mother while learning how to cook a Korean holiday meal, parent and child revisiting a lifetime of memories as they approach an uncertain future.

Guest of Honour

Director Atom Egoyan (Chloe) here examines, as he does in so many of his films, trauma and its effect on the human psyche, giving us David Thewlis (Wonder Woman) and Laysla De Oliveira (Lea to the Rescue) as a father and daughter whose relationship frays when one of them is accused of a crime.

Film poster: “Harriet”

Harriet

This biographical film about the great Harriet Tubman, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity), stars Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) in what looks to be a rousing epic of bravery and liberation. Unfortunately, I will miss it, as it screens after I leave, but I look forward to seeing it when it comes out in theaters on November 1.

*Heimat Is a Space in Time

An slow chronicle of director Thomas Heise’s family trajectory through East Germany’s tumultuous 20th-century ride, Heimat Is a Space in Time reveals its greatness with each passing one of its 218 minutes, never less than gripping despite its languorous pace, Heise (Condition) revealing the power of cinema to bring the past to brilliant life. 

*Hope

Director Maria Sødahl (Limbo) takes a story about cancer and a tired marriage and constructs a paean to the glories of living, thanks to a sharp script and wonderful performances from leads Andrea Bræin Hovig (An Affair) and Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor).

Hustlers

A serious movie about female strippers? So it seems, as director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) gives us a tale, based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 article for New York Magazine, where a group of exotic dancers reclaim agency and power from their male clients. With Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez (Second Act), Keke Palmer (PIMP), Julia Stiles (The Great Gilly Hopkins) and Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), the film seems like a winner. 

Film poster: “Jojo Rabbit”

Jojo Rabbit

Actor/director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) brings his cheeky sensibility to a story, set during World War II, about a Nazi youth boy, his imaginary best friend Adolf, and the dilemma he faces when he discovers that his mother is providing safe harbor to persecuted Jews. Sure to be both unsettling and humorous, the film stars Waititi as the Führer and Scarlett Johansson (Rough Night) as the mother. Prepare for crazy. 

The Lighthouse

Speaking of insanity, director Robert Egger (The Witch) offers Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) and Robert Pattinson (Good Time) in an atmospheric thriller, shot in black and white, where two men guard a lighthouse and begin to experience odd happenings around them. Are they real or are they just in their heads? Stay tuned … 

Film poster: “Love Child”

*Love Child

Love Child, from Eva Mulvad (The Good Life), is a documentary about an Iranian couple forced to flee Iran for Turkey, along with their child, lest they be executed for adultery (they are not married to each other). At present safe, they worry that should they not receive official refugee status, they will be sent home. An intimate observational film, Love Child places us right in the heart of real-life drama.

My Zoe

Actress/director Julie Delpy (Lolo) casts herself as a divorced, co-parenting scientist mother forced to drastic action after an accident that leaves her little choice. Though her relationship with her ex-husband, played by Richard Armitage (The Hobbit), is less than pleasant, she soldiers on, consequence be damned. Always engaging as a performer, she here promises to mesmerize.

The Other Lamb

Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska (In the Name Of) makes her English-language debut in a disturbing fantastical tale about a cult of women led by a man, starring Raffey Cassidy (Vox Lux) and Michiel Huisman (The Age of Adaline). Another film, like Hustlers, about blossoming female empowerment, this one looks to impress. 

The Perfect Candidate

As a perfect segue, I also recommend The Perfect Candidate, from Haifaa al-Mansour (Nappily Ever After), Saudi Arabia’s first woman feature-film director. This movie follows the travails of a provincial doctor named Maryam who, angry at the chauvinistic laws that prevent her from traveling to a medical conference, decides to run for local office. The future is female.

Dev Patel in “The Personal History of David Copperfield” ©FilmNation Entertainment

The Personal History of David Copperfield

And the future is also rooted in the past (witness Heimat Is a Space in Time, above). Director Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) updates Charles Dickens’ classic19th-century novelfor our present-day sensibilities with an all-star cast that includes Dev Patel (Lion) and Tilda Swinton (Suspiria).

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” ©Neon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) also jumps back into the past – in her film it’s the 18thcentury – to revisit our assumptions about historical love and desire through a lesbian lens, in a movie that won the Best Screenplay Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Proxima

Another French director, Alice Winocour (Augustine), brings us Proxima, a story about a woman astronaut, played by Eva Green (Perfect Sense), struggling between her duties to the training and her duties as a mother. I always enjoy Green, and the premise here compels.

Robert Fisk in “This Is Not a Movie” ©Blue Ice Docs

*This Is Not a Movie

Documentarian Yung Chang (China Heavyweight) serves up a comprehensive portrait of the great British investigative journalist Robert Fisk, who since 1979 has lived in Beirut as a foreign correspondent, first for The Times of London and today for The Independent. Never frightened of entering conflict zones, he has a lot to say about our world, past, present and future.

Film poster: “While at War”

While at War

If he had made no other film than The Others, Alejandro Amenábar would forever have a place in my cinematic heart; that eerie and evocative ghost story affected me deeply. He has not been the most prolific of directors, but his other few works include some of equally solid quality, such as Open Your Eyes (the original Vanilla Sky) and The Sea Inside. In While at War, he tells a story set in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, when right-wing nationalists demand a change in regime to help make their country great again. Sound strangely familiar? Watch on …

That concludes my recommendations. Once the festival is over, I’ll be back for a recap of how things went. Will I see you in Toronto? Hope so!

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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