If there’s one thing Torontonians can afford to be smug about, it’s TIFF. No event on the planet offers a richer bounty of cinema than the Toronto International Film Festival. Each year it culls the best from Cannes, Sundance and beyond, and unveils a motherlode of world premieres. This is where the Oscar race truly begins. Everyone will be looking for the next Slumdog Millionaire—it caught fire at last year’s festival and won the audience prize for most popular film—or better still, a hard-edged gem that’s just too good for the Oscars.
TIFF rolls out the red carpet on Sept. 10 with the world premiere of Creation, a movie about Charles Darwin, and one of 335 titles from 64 countries that will unspool in 10 days. I’ve been advance-screening TIFF selections for the past few weeks, and saw a bunch in Cannes last May. It’s still too early to compile a list of the best films at TIFF. But based on what I’ve seen—and on the buzz about films that I’m dying to see—here’s a Hot 12 tip sheet of must-see movies at the festival. Why 12? I couldn’t limit it to 10.
1. Up in the Air: Native son Jason Reitman launched his career at TIFF with Thank You for Smoking (2005) and the massively successful Juno (2007). Like a ballplayer milking a winning streak, he’s refusing gala treatment and premiering his latest film at the same modest Ryerson University theatre where his two previous features were unveiled. His star, George Clooney—playing an obsessive frequent flier who fires people for a living—will be on hand. So expect this little campus lobby to become a paparazzi zoo. I haven’t seen Up In the Air yet, but those who have say it takes both Reitman’s filmmaking and Clooney’s acting to a new stratosphere.
2. An Education: This utterly delightful coming-of-age story should make a star of Carey Mulligan. She plays a sharp 16-year-old schoolgirl from a London suburb who’s hoping to land a spot at Oxford when she’s derailed by a dubious but debonair older man (Peter Sarsgaard). He tempts her with a much racier education. Written by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and directed by Lone Scherfig, the story is set in 1961, in post-war, pre-Beatles England. As its impressionable ingenue is seduced by art, jazz, nightclubs and everything French, the film captures a world on the cusp of a cultural revolution.
3. Fish Tank: A darker companion piece to An Education, here’s another film by a female director about a teenage girl flamboyantly coming of age in a dour English suburb. But this is tougher, bleaker fare. Its young heroine, a dance-mad delinquent played with abrasive brilliance by Katie Jarvis, is at war with her party-girl mother, and too easily charmed by her flirtatious boyfriend. Bad things happen, but striking visuals and a reggae-spiked soundtrack keep our spirits high. Andrea Arnold directs like a female Ken Loach with Jonathan Demme’s sense of rhythm.
4. Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands: Canadian director Peter Mettler, who served as cinematographer on the exquisite Manufactured Landscapes, picks up where Edward Burtynsky left off, exploring the aesthetics of havoc with this bird’s-eye canvas of industrial devastation. Running just 43 minutes, Petropolis is not a feature, but those who have seen it tell me it has an epic poetry that is so disturbing, and beautiful, it begs disbelief.
5. The Road: While we’re on the subject of finding stern beauty in environmental apocalypse, director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitizer-Prize-winning novel is harrowing, haunting and remarkably faithful to its source. An intense Viggo Mortensen wins father-of-the-year in the role of the fiercely protective dad trying to lead his young son out of danger as they roam a cold, charred landscape ravaged by cannibals. Despite a sentimental coda that over-sweetens the ending, this mesmerizing thriller taps the primal core of human hope and despair.
6. Les Herbes Folles (Wild Grass): You don’t expect to see an exhilarating film from an 87-year-old director. But Alain Renais (Hiroshima mon amour), turned a lot of heads in Cannes, including mine, with this wonderfully off-kilter comedy of errors. It’s about an elderly married man who finds a woman’s wallet in a parking lot, takes pains to track down its owner, and then feels compelled to court her. An old man has succeeded in reinventing French romantic comedy—no mean feat—and never for a second does it feel like an old man’s film.
7. Hadewijch: It seems to be a banner year for female coming-of-age films. Haven’t seen this one, but festival programmers swear up and down that it’s brilliant. A decade ago, Bruno Dumont shocked Cannes audiences with L’Humanite, a weird and brutal tale of homicide, and David Cronenberg’s jury rewarded him with a passel of prizes. Hadewijch is apparently more accessible—the story of an extremely devout Christian girl who hooks up with a Muslim. TIFF programmer Piers Handling calls it, “an entirely hypnotic study of the possibilities and consequences that arise from an absolute belief in the love of God.” Bring it on.
8. White Material: Sorry to recommend another French film that I haven’t seen, but I am a huge fan of the director, Claire Denis, and this one takes her back to Africa, where she shot her first feature, Chocolat, 20 years ago—no, not the Chocolat with Johnny Depp. Isabelle Huppert stars as the besieged manager of a coffee plantation in a post-colonial country that where child soldiers roam the streets with automatic weapons.
9. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire: Yes, that subtitle is part of the movie’s official title, as precious as that may seem. Before the year is out, you’re going to get sick of hearing about Precious. Oprah is behind it, and it’s gathering momentum that will undoubtedly take it to the Oscars. But the hardest cynic can’t help but be moved by the performances in this caustic slice of urban ghetto life. As Precious, a teenager pregnant for the second time by her father, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is extraordinary. Mo’nique is knocks us for a loop as her abusive mother. And even Mariah Carey is no slouch in the role of a teacher trying to save the teen heroine through literacy
10. Bright Star: A lot of critics in Cannes were dismissive of this immaculate offering from Jane Campion, her first feature in six years. They found it too conventional. It is, after all, just a simple romance beautifully rendered. But these days, pure romance without comic contrivance is rare indeed. Campion tells the story of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) falling in love with Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is literally the girl next door. Because he’s a poet, he has no income and is not husband-material. Worse still, he is about to die young. Their courtship is the ultimate slow-burn love affair.
11. The Young Victoria: Another period film about young romance. And talk about surprises. This is the festival’s closing-night gala. At any film festival, closing night is usually the booby prize; no one wants it because it’s too late to generate buzz. The other surprise: a Québecois has made a dignified period piece exalting British royalty. Jean-Marc Vallée, who made a splash with C.R.A.Z.Y., directs a sublimely self-possessed Emily Blunt as the young Victoria, who out-maneuvers a court of vipers to achieve her regal independence, and enjoy a hot romance with Belgium’s Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
12. Daybreakers: Hey, it’s a vampire movie and it’s in the wacky Midnight Madness program, but I thought this film was a hoot, and very stylishly directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. The story’s ingenious conceit imagines a world that has been taken over, more or less, by vampires. Humans are an endangered species, there’s a global blood shortage, and the vampire industrial complex is rounding up the mortal survivors and enslaving them in factory blood farms. Ethan Hawke stars as a good vampire who allies with Willem Dafoe, a bad-ass rebel leader in the human underground. The vampire-killing weapon of choice? A crossbow!