The Sundance Film Festival kicks off the year with a slate of indie films and acquisitions that slowly wind their way to audiences over the ensuing months (or years). The Toronto International Film Festival is its polar opposite: a showcase where star-studded studio films are often the rule rather than the exception, and where many of the fall’s films kick off their awards season campaigns in earnest.
This year, movies like The Magnificent Seven, Arrival, and Oliver Stone’s Snowden will all be in the lineup. But all that star wattage isn’t the only attraction. Like any festival, Toronto is filled with quirky outliers and weird surprises, the kind of movies that make even people who are seeing four movies a day for 10 days straight sit up and take notice. The day before TIFF 2016 kicks off, The Verge’s Bryan Bishop and Tasha Robinson talk about which films they’re most excited about this year, and what surprises they hope they’ll find.
Bryan Bishop: One of the things I’m most looking forward to about Toronto is the festival’s tendency to program just a little bit of everything, from the biggest awards season contenders to the weirdest, strangest indies you can think of. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t have one film in particular at the top of my list: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. With Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve has emerged as one of the more fascinating directors of the last few years. Starring Amy Adams as a linguist called in to advise the military when aliens make first contact with humanity, Arrival has all the markings of a measured, Oscar-worthy sci-fi story — and the expectations to match.
My must-see list is a muddle of really hard scheduling choices
Tasha Robinson: I admire your resolution to put just one film at the top of your list. My must-see list is a muddle of really hard scheduling choices. The festival’s first full day of press-and-industry screenings includes so many things I really want to see: the new Jim Jarmusch (Paterson), Thomas Vinterberg (The Commune), Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Oliver Assayas (Personal Shopper), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), and half a dozen more. And they’re playing in more than 14 theaters simultaneously, so there’s no way to catch more than a couple of them. You remember Burgess Meredith at the end of the old Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last," alone after the apocalypse with endless books to read, and then he breaks his only pair of glasses? That’s how I feel, looking at the TIFF schedule. But if you forced me to pin down one list-topper, it’d be Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, which I wrote up for our fall movie preview. The director of Oldboy (one of my favorite films) tackling the scheming and betrayal of Sarah Waters’ tremendous novel Fingersmith? I can’t wait. You mentioned Toronto’s gap between awards contenders and strange indies. From all reports, The Handmaiden rides the line between those extremes by being tasteful, arty, trashy, and surprising at the same time, like so many of Park’s films.
Bryan: One of my fondest film festival memories was watching the original Blair Witch Project premiere at Sundance, back when people really didn’t know if it was all made up or not. So there’s definitely some nostalgia talking when I say I can’t wait to see its surprise sequel, Blair Witch, at Toronto — but there’s good reason, too. The film is directed by Adam Wingard, and written by his creative partner Simon Barrett. With movies like You’re Next, the pair have demonstrated a serious awareness of audience expectations — and the ability to subvert them with tremendous results. If anybody can make Blair Witch relevant again, it’s Wingard and Barrett.
Tasha: I’m down for the big names and the big franchises, but at film festivals, I’ve consistently found that some of the best festival-movie experiences are the complete surprises. Looking into festival films just because they fit into the limited slot between two must-see movies has become my favorite way to fall in love with new directors and little films like Felix Thompson’s King Jack or Lou Howe’s Gabriel or Chris Sullivan’s dreamy animated nightmare Consuming Spirits. So far this year, my biggest hadn’t-heard-of-it schedule surprise has been The Red Turtle, produced by Japan’s Studio Ghibli and directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. Check out the gorgeous trailer, which doesn’t look like Ghibli’s usual visual style, but does have some of its usual aura of warmth and joy. I’m so excited for this one.
Bryan: The variety of genre and horror films at Toronto this year has really surprised me, and it’s an area of the schedule I keep returning to. Along with the movies we’ve already mentioned, high on my list is Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a dystopian cannibal movie called The Bad Batch. Then there’s the strangest, oddest, WTF record-scratchiest one of all: Sadako vs. Kayako. It’s where the villains from the original Japanese versions of The Ring and The Grudge face off. Given that I’ve seen Freddy vs. Jason, I have no idea how this was even made, much less programmed at a festival. Except that… perhaps it’s actually good? Color me surprised, intrigued, and ready to watch.
Tasha: I always feel juuuuust a little guilty about the urge to prioritize midnight movies over solemn arthouse pictures, but I’m with you on Blair Witch and The Bad Batch, and I’m especially hyped up for The Girl with All the Gifts, a post-apocalyptic zombie movie adapting one of my favorite books of 2014. This is such a distinctive and different take on the zombie thriller, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like on-screen, with Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, and Paddy Considine in the lead roles.
Bryan: I’m going to absolve everyone from guilt with the next film on my must-see list, because it may just be the biggest guilty pleasure of them all: The Magnificent Seven. Antoine Fuqua? Directing Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, and Vincent D’Onofrio? From a script by True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto? It seems like a such a summer-friendly blockbuster, that it’s hard to believe the film is arriving in September — much less using an international film festival for its splashy debut. But that seems to be the fun of a festival that mixes the biggest and the most obscure names in one flashy, 10-day movie celebration.
Tasha: I should probably acknowledge some more of the big names on our hit list: Pulse director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has a French-language ghost story about old-school photography, and Pedro Almodóvar is back with an anthology adapting Alice Munro short stories. I’m deeply curious about Ewan McGregor’s star-packed directorial debut, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel, and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follow-up La La Land, which is already a festival hit. And one more thing: The Dardennes brothers’ new feature The Unknown Girl sounds fascinating. Their films (The Son; La Promesse; Two Days, One Night) are always intimate, exquisitely crafted studies of people struggling with decisions that hurt other people. This one, a film noir about a doctor unraveling the mystery of what happened to a patient she fatally ignored, sounds unusually dramatic, while well inside their wheelhouse.
One bonus about the big awards-hungry movies: many of them are already scheduled to hit American screens soon, so our TIFF coverage doubles as a more extended preview of America’s fall-to-winter prestige season. We’ll be seeing plenty of films that are still looking for distributors, and we’ll be hoping to be part of the process of drumming up interest for the best of them.
Bryan: I think your last point is going to end up being the most interesting part of Toronto this year. Depending on where somebody works in the entertainment industry, a film festival like this can be many things: a business opportunity, a place to close a deal, an opportunity to catch a break, or an occasion for a career to be resuscitated. But from a cultural perspective it’s something more. Films and television are the two most predominant forms of visual storytelling we have, and the issues and themes that movies tackle both reflect our own cultural struggles — it’s not simple coincidence that Jeff Nichols’ film about the couple behind Loving v. Virginia is coming out the same time as Birth of a Nation — and have the ability to shape our larger discourse.
In that sense, watching the films at Toronto this year will be a little bit like peeking into the future; a barometer check that will let us know what new voices are emerging, what issues filmmakers worldwide are moved by, and even what direction mainstream entertainment as a whole is headed. It’s an opportunity to have tomorrow’s conversations today, because no film — no matter the genre, budget, or star power — happens entirely in a vacuum. Not in how it’s conceived of or made, and never in how it is received.