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The Best Movies From the Toronto International Film Festival

The Best Movies From the Toronto International Film Festival

One of the most underrated aspects of the cinemagoing experience comes when you emerge from the theater, turn to the person you came with, and realize they’re as excited as you are to talk about what you just saw. Although I missed plenty about going to theaters when they were closed during the pandemic, the absence of those shared moments stands out the most.

After a year when most festivals were either canceled or done entirely remotely, the movie calendar has returned to semi-normalcy this summer, and big titles for the awards-centric fall have made their debuts to live audiences. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was a hybrid affair, offering both digital and in-person screenings. I “attended” virtually, but I still saw movies that provoked an urgent, thrilling response—the desire to turn to my seatmate and ask, “What did I just watch?”

still from 'Titane'
Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau (in theaters October 1)

Nothing better exemplifies that feeling than Ducournau’s latest, which arrived at TIFF having already won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—only the second time a female filmmaker has taken home that award. Titane mashes up genres and lurches from one shocking plot point to the next every 15 minutes, in defiance of audience expectations. The film follows Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a woman with a metal plate in her head who, in the movie’s first minutes, has sex with a car and is impregnated. It gets weirder from there.

Ducournau has long been fascinated by stories of women who feel alienated from normal society and rebel in extreme ways. While her debut was the gory cannibal thriller Raw, Titane is leagues gnarlier. Alexia’s strange odyssey involves serial murder, unexpected physical transformation, and the company of a grieving firefighter named Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Ducournau accompanies every visceral surprise with an emotional one, transforming Titane into something more than a button-pushing piece of shock cinema.

Kristen Stewart in "Spencer"
Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín (in theaters November 5)

Another nightmarish tale with just a tinge of body horror, Spencer is a biopic of Princess Diana with an atmospheric aesthetic that will make the viewer’s skin crawl. After the last season of The Crown, one might wonder if there’s room for another story about her; Larraín’s film proves there still is. He focuses on one specific weekend (Christmas of 1991) as the Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) struggles with life in the royal family and her crumbling marriage, nailing the outsize dramatics necessary for such a tale.

Spencer has the same moodiness as Larraín’s previous hit biopic, Jackie, with a groaning Jonny Greenwood score and a misty, dreamlike setting. But Stewart’s take on Diana gives this film a wicked sense of humor too, emphasizing how her mordant sarcasm clashed just as uncomfortably with the royal family as her independent streak did. It’s a witty piece of acting that, like the movie around it, isn’t afraid to go over the top, befitting the trappings of royal life, and the tragic arc of Diana’s.

Two men sit on a couch in "The Humans"
Wilson Webb; A24
The Humans, directed by Stephen Karam (in theaters and on Showtime November 24)

In this grandiose yet intimate adaptation of a Tony Award–winning play, a gruff Catholic family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, gathers in the dingy New York apartment of their daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) to meet her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), for Thanksgiving. Awkward dynamics, strained conversation, and muttered squabbling ensue. Karam, the play’s director and a debut filmmaker, shoots it like a haunted-house film, layering in jump scares; freaky, distorted imagery; and an overwhelming sense of dread as tensions rise. The movie captures the frightening atmosphere of the play without feeling at all stagebound.

Jessica Chastain in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Michael Showalter (currently in theaters)

Inspired by the 2000 documentary of the same name, Showalter’s biopic about the disgraced televangelists Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), takes a sympathetic but satirical storytelling approach. The film emphasizes Faye’s warmheartedness and her embrace of people with AIDS in the 1980s, in defiance of evangelical norms. But given the notorious destruction of the couple’s faith-based broadcast empire, most viewers will have an idea early on that Jim is up to no good. Showalter takes too long to get to the couple’s decline, whizzing by the more sordid details. While the resulting narrative feels disappointingly routine, the movie is worth watching for Chastain’s makeup-caked and brassy performance alone.

The central couple from "Bergman Island" looks into the distance.
Bergman Island, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (in theaters October 15)

Hansen-Løve is one of the keenest observers of friendship and intimacy (I recommend her prior terrific works Goodbye First Love and Eden), and Bergman Island is no exception, sensitively portraying a relationship that has burned down to its last embers. While on vacation on a Swedish island once visited by Ingmar Bergman, the central couple (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) discuss a fictional tale of lost love. Hansen-Løve follows the two, who are both filmmakers, as they create this movie together in their minds. Both the couple and the story they’re imagining are melancholic wonders, and the director weaves fiction and reality together beautifully, keeping the audience guessing while never resorting to cheap plot dramatics.

still from "The Power of the Dog"
Kirsty Griffin; Netflix
The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion (in select theaters November 17 and on Netflix December 1)

After 12 years, Campion has returned to cinema, making what is maybe the most exciting TIFF film, and one that’s sure to get a lot of awards attention. An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, this Western ripples with anger and sadness, following a charismatic, frightening rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who dominates the lives of his meek brother (Jesse Plemons) and sister-in-law (Kirsten Dunst). Campion understands the genre she’s working in, setting the roiling emotions of her characters against the striking landscapes; Cumberbatch’s performance is as immense as the peaks and valleys around him. Right now, it feels like a Best Picture front-runner.

cave from "The Rescue"
National Geographic
The Rescue, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (in theaters October 8)

My favorite TIFF documentary came from Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin, the team behind the Oscar-winning mountain-climber film Free Solo. This film focuses on the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand, where divers pulled out 12 youth-soccer players and their coach who were stranded in a flooded underground system, but, like their previous movie, it’s just as interested in the highly dangerous hobby of cave-diving, and the adrenaline-seeking brains that pursue it as a lifestyle.

the two little girls in "Petite Maman"
Petite Maman, directed by Céline Sciamma (U.S. release date not yet announced)

Sciamma’s follow-up to the wonderful period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire is only 72 minutes long, has a small cast, and is set in a few sparse locations. Despite its slightness, the movie is both a touching family drama and an innovative sci-fi, following a little girl who just lost her grandma and who starts playing in the woods with another mysteriously similar little girl. Petite Maman, which will be distributed by Neon in the U.S., has the deft, graceful mix of sweetness and sadness that Sciamma excels at, this time in a story that is appropriate for all ages. It’s the kind of small discovery that makes festival-going worthwhile, even as organizers are still working to find the perfect approach in a pandemic-influenced world.