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Our favorite films of TIFF 2016

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Arrival, La La Land, The Girl With All the Gifts, and more

Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures

From the moment our boots hit Canadian soil for the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, we were rushing out dispatches, writing reviews, talking to filmmakers, and — most importantly — seeing lots and lots of movies. Some of the TIFF screenings were world premieres, others were making their domestic debuts, and others may already be in your local multiplex (or on Netflix). With this year’s festival now behind us, we take a look at our favorites. These are the films we haven’t been able to stop thinking about — and that you’ll want to see as soon as you possibly can.

Courtesy of TIFF

Nocturnal Animals

First of all, can we agree that this is one of the most user-friendly film fests currently in operation? The relative ease of getting to the movies I wanted to see helped my appreciation of the films themselves; I wasn’t viewing them through the lens of "I waited two hours in a freezing tent for this!?"

My peak TIFF experience probably hit between Tom Ford’s sophomore directorial effort Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villenueve’s Arrival — aka The Amy Adams Double Feature. Both were hot tickets that I was pleasantly surprised to get into, and both were devastating in their own way. Nocturnal Animals stars Adams as a depressed LA gallerist who begins reading a manuscript of a novel that her ex-husband wrote after she cheated on him and left him, and it’s by turns suspenseful, upsetting, funny, and glamorous. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both her ex in flashback, and the protagonist of the novel, who goes searching for justice after some Texas yahoos abduct and murder his wife and daughter. About midway through Nocturnal Animals I had one of those pleasant movie-watching moments of self-awareness where I realized I was watching Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon (a grade-A Texas cop in a year full of them at the movies) essentially play out what should have been the second season of True Detective, and was so ineffably satisfied by watching their interaction. (There is also a killer Jena Malone cameo. I want next year to be Jena Malone’s year.) –Emily Yoshida

Jan Thijs / Paramount Pictures

Arrival

I left the theater reeling from Nocturnal Animals’ gut-punch ending, then turned right back around and reentered the Princess of Wales theater to see Arrival. I was nervous about this one — I had built it up impossibly in my imagination, though I had kept myself from the finer plot points of the Ted Chiang short story on which it is based. As the film unspooled, all slow and stately pans and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s almost biological score, it dawned on me that this was my perfect film. Villeneuve, more optimistic here than he’s ever been before, deals with abstract ideas of language and sociology with astounding visual economy, and memorably conveys the completely disorienting paradigm shift of its titular first contact scenario. By the time Arrival starts closing in on its central reveal — and the implication it has for geopolitics, the human race, and time itself — I started all-out bawling. It’s rare for a sci-fi film to capture the very real human implications of typical genre fodder like ETs and paranormal phenomena, even rarer for an actor to be able to keep such far-flung material grounded. Amy Adams, this is your year. Enjoy it before Jena Malone’s 2017. –Emily Yoshida

Courtesy of TIFF

La La Land

Expectations are a dirty game in general. So with all the buzz coming out of Venice for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, I admit I went in with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I loved his last film, Whiplash, but that movie was a far cry from a full-fledged musical love story about a would-be actress and jazz pianist. But from the very first frames that hit my eyeballs — the faux-retro logo for distributor Summit Entertainment, and a "Shot in Cinemascope" reveal — it was clear that I was watching something extraordinarily special. And that feeling just built, scene by scene, song by song, beat by beat.

La La Land made me shiver with the romanticized ideals of love and art that years of watching movies have instilled in me, and when I wasn’t doing that I was either a) smiling, or b) crying. (Even as I write these words, days after seeing the film, the lyrics to "Audition" are running through my head, causing the hairs on my arms to stand on end. Maybe that’s why the film took home the Audience Award at TIFF.) I was lucky enough to see a lot of films I really loved in Toronto, but the wonder, joy, and heartbreak in La La Land is unique unto itself. I didn’t see anything else like it, and my only regret is that I have to wait until December to see it again. (Paging all publicists: Bryan does not want to wait until December to see it again.) –Bryan Bishop

Courtesy of TIFF

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Emily already discussed another of my favorites, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, but I had one of my most surprising experiences of the festival away from the hubbub of downtown, at the Hot Docs Cinema on Bloor Street. (Side note: this also happened to be the third or fourth time I saw something while sitting in a balcony. Toronto, you love your balconies, and I love you for it.) Written and directed by Osgood Perkins, I Am the Pretty Thing is an atmospheric ghost story about a young nurse (The Affair’s Ruth Wilson) that lands a job as caretaker of an eccentric old horror author, loosely modeled on Shirley Jackson.

The film is heavy on mood and restraint, sketching out the outlines of a traditional horror narrative while resisting the urge to go for obvious scares or genre conventions. That opens up room for Wilson’s delightfully weird performance, while forcing the audience into the same place of skewed perceptions and self-doubt that her character soon finds herself contending with. More than anything else, the film is terrifying because it is so patient — something spelled out in the opening shot, which lingers on the vaporous apparition of a young woman, just out of focus, as the audience squirms to make sense of it. –Bryan Bishop

Courtesy of TIFF

The Girl With All The Gifts

I saw more ambitious and significant and groundbreaking films at TIFF than this zombie movie, but the experience of seeing it was the most fun I had at the festival. It was my only visit to TIFF’s Midnight Madness section, where the viewers tossed around LED-filled balloons before the screening, let out a hearty collective "Arrrrr!" at the anti-piracy warning, and treated all the opening PSAs and festival bumpers like Rocky Horror Picture Show, with perfectly timed shouted one-liners. And then the second the film started, they were the perfect audience — silent and respectful, except when certain events on-screen merited a collective moan of anguish or a cry of shock. Before the screening, international programmer Colin Geddes got up and talked about how great and well-mannered TIFF audiences were, and I thought he was just stroking our egos, but he was right — this was a fun group to watch a movie with. I could feel the electricity in the room, that feeling of rapt totally-into-it attention, but no one was disruptive about it.

And the movie itself was everything I wanted out of an adaptation of Mike Carey’s bestselling novel. I don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read or watched it, because so much of the story is about discovery. But Sennia Nanua is just preternaturally great as the protagonist, a young girl who starts the movie in heavy restraints, listening to a teacher read Greek myths in an underground military bunker full of angry, paranoid soldiers. Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton, and Glenn Close round out the cast, but so much of this movie is about what Nanua plays and how she plays it. It’s a weird, painful, daring story with some interesting twists on the zombie-horror genre, and it makes zombies scary again — though more so if you’re watching with a crowd that’s really feeling it. –Tasha Robinson

Courtesy of TIFF

The Unknown Girl

Belgium’s Dardenne brothers — Jean-Pierre and Luc — are some of the most reliable names in the arthouse industry. Every three years, like clockwork, they put out another sensitive, thoughtful, exquisitely performed, personal story, almost exclusively about younger adults dealing with knotty social issues involving family, class, work, money, and friendship. The latest one stars Adèle Haenel as a young doctor just starting a new practice. One night someone bangs on her clinic doors after hours, and she refuses to answer. The next day, she finds out the woman who knocked is dead. Racked with guilt, she starts investigating.

The film is somewhat of a procedural, as Haenel’s character asks questions and follows a trail of information. But more than that, it’s what the Dardennes always do well: it’s an intense emotional character study that’s aware of class issues without heavily underlining them, and aware of moral messages without spelling them out. This is a terrific film. I’ve never seen a Dardennes movie that didn’t stick with me, and this one has as well. –Tasha Robinson

Courtesy of TIFF

Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee

I walked into the theater to watch Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee feeling sufficiently familiar with the ins and outs of the McAfee saga. Ninety minutes later I came out stupefied by what I’d seen. With no pretense, no self-aggrandizement — and seemingly little concern for her own well-being — director Nanette Burstein managed to pull off something remarkable, gathering damning, on-the-record interviews that speak to McAfee’s guilt in two murders and a rape case. And she did it all in less than a year of filming. It is everything a true crime doc should be: timely, thoughtful, and with enough revelations to poke holes through at least some of your previously held assumptions. Burstein begins the film with a voice-over in which she discusses her interest in how the privileged manage to evade the harsh realities of life and justice. As you watch McAfee reestablish his name and reputation in public media, Gringo feels all the more urgent. There’s no smoking gun or confession, but this is The Jinx-level stuff here. –Michael Zelenko

Courtesy of TIFF

Karl Marx City

In the years following 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall, residents of East Germany learned the details of the massive surveillance state they’d inhabited for half a century: the government employed almost 100,000 agents and nearly 500,000 informants to document even the most trivial movements of their lives. In their documentary Karl Marx City, Petra Epperlein — who grew up in East Germany — and Michael Tucker dissect that oppressive infrastructure, and overlay it with a hauntingly personal tragedy: the suicide of Epperlein’s father. Was Epperlein’s father one of the half a million informants the country employed to police his neighbors, and did that have something to do with his death? It’s not the first time we’ve gotten a look inside East Germany’s Stasi, but as Epperlein and Tucker attempt to reconstruct the contours of a lost nation and a deceased family member, Karl Marx City is beautiful, raw, and haunting in a way that a fictionalized account like The Lives of Others could never be. –Michael Zelenko