Big film festivals are always a somewhat surreal experience. You spend a few days or even a week mostly stuffed inside of a theater, trying to cram in as many films as possible. Then, you have to sort through them and pick your favorites.
It’s a fun challenge, and it’s particularly tough at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is huge; this year’s edition featured movies from 70 different countries. We managed to squeeze in quite a few features — between the two of us, we saw a total of more than 30 movies during the festival — but still couldn’t see everything. So this list of our favorite films from TIFF comes with some caveats, namely that there are definitely some gaps in what we managed to watch, which is impossible to avoid. Also: this list does not include Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron since we already reviewed it earlier this year to coincide with its Japanese premiere.
Much like last year, the best films from TIFF 2023 are a diverse bunch, not just in terms of geography but also genre and style. There are darkly tragic Korean dramas, stylish Saudi crime capers, and a French romance that doubles as an AI dystopia. Here’s what we loved the most in Toronto this year.
Directors: Xu Haofeng and Xu Junfeng
Wide release: TBD
Set in Tianjin in the 1920s, just a few years after the first official martial arts school was established in the region, 100 Yards is a gorgeous, unrelenting action flick. Though the story spreads its tendrils into many lives, it’s essentially about two men vying for control of the school after its master’s death: his apprentice Qi (Andy On) and his son Shen (Jacky Heung). Like in most martial arts films, disputes are worked out solely through combat. As someone says early in the movie, “fighting is the divine judgment.”
100 Yards spends a lot of time building up the duo’s martial arts bonafides, particularly when it comes to Shen; as the son of the master and someone who was supposed to live outside of the dangerous world of martial arts (at one point, he becomes a banker), Shen constantly has to prove himself. And he does so through incredibly choreographed fight sequences that are both inventive and powerful. Some martial arts movies like to turn combat into a beautiful dance, and others like to emphasize the brutality of violence. 100 Yards manages to do both at the same time, with fighting that both looks sleek and beautiful but where you can still hear the powerful thuds of a harsh blow landing.
It’s also a movie that keeps one-upping itself, moving from one impressive set piece to the next, all filled with creative new takes on martial arts combat. Early, there’s a battle where wooden weapons clang together to create music and another where Shen has to learn how to use a short sword as he fights for his life. It all culminates in a stunning, lengthy battle where an army’s worth of foes are taken down using all kinds of weapons and fighting styles. It’s the kind of movie where you need to catch your own breath while watching. —AW
A Normal Family
Director: Hur Jin-ho
Wide release: TBD
Not since Parasite has the twist in a drama hit me quite so hard. It’s especially jarring in A Normal Family because it starts out almost like a comedy. It’s the story of two brothers; one a high-priced lawyer named Jae-wan (Sol Kyung-gu), the other, Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun), a doctor who never turns a patient away. Initially, the film is almost comical in how stereotypically it presents its characters. There’s the do-gooder brother, the sketchy defense lawyer, the young trophy wife, etc.
A Normal Family kicks off with a brutal bout of road rage that brings the two not-exactly-close brothers together; Jae-wan finds himself defending a rich kid who rammed into a family’s truck, while the victim is a patient at his brother’s hospital. But that’s just a table setting, and eventually, the family is confronted with a second tragedy, this one involving their kids.
As the story gets moving, all of those stereotypes get thrown out the window — as does the lighter comedic tone. What follows is a dark and tragic look at what lengths people will go to save those they love and how even seemingly firmly cemented morals end up malleable. I won’t spoil anything here, but A Normal Family has the kind of ending that I just can’t get out of my head. —AW
Director: Cord Jefferson
Wide release: select theaters on November 3rd; wider on November 17th
To read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, one might think that adapting it into a feature of any length would be almost impossible. But that’s precisely what writer / director Cord Jefferson manages to pull off with MGM’s aptly named American Fiction. As a talented scribe who rightfully thinks of himself as containing multitudes, there are few things Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) hates more than when people automatically assume that everything he writes is about race simply because he’s a Black man.
While other, far more famous Black writers like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) might be comfortable being known for penning books about overwrought Black poverty that make Good White People™ feel good about themselves, Monk sees himself as being above that kind of thing and inherently better than the people who do. But when a sudden family tragedy calls Monk home and forces him to consider what it might take to support the people he loves, he finds himself rethinking his stance on “selling out” — partially to make a nuanced point, but mostly because it seems to be exactly what the market will reward him for.
As keenly focused on the challenges Black writers working in the publishing industry found themselves facing in the early aughts as Erasure was, both Jefferson’s screenplay and direction infuse American Fiction with a stinging dynamic clarity.
It makes American Fiction play like a scathingly clever, depressingly timeless reflection on the different things it can mean to be pigeonholed — both by one’s self and by a society that isn’t truly invested in letting marginalized people exist in their fullness. That quality alone is sure to leave some viewers more uncomfortable than they care to admit, but between American Fiction’s impeccable sense of humor and refusal to pull any punches, it’s hands down one of the strongest projects to play at this year’s TIFF. —CPM
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Wide release: TBD
AI stories in science fiction are nothing new, but they’re bound to make more of an impression given the current climate around the technology. Part of what makes The Beast so fascinating is how different — and much more subtle — it is compared to the majority of AI fiction. It takes place in 2044, a time when AI has helped turn the world into a much less volatile place but does this through a procedure that sands off some of the rough edges from humans.
Going through this process involves revisiting past lives, a little like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Beast’s story ends up following two occasional lovers — played by Léa Seydoux and George MacKay — through multiple time periods, including (the film’s) present. Essentially, the movie uses its sci-fi conceit as a way to explore different kinds of love using the same two people but in three different times, all with very different circumstances. It starts out quietly sweet and romantic before eventually twisting itself into something darker and more disturbing, all while presenting the future as a kind of quiet dystopia. —AW
The Dead Don’t Hurt
Director: Viggo Mortensen
Wider release: TBD
Reading about The Dead Don’t Hurt, you might think it’s just a chance for Viggo Mortensen to show off: he’s the writer, director, star, and composer. But, despite a wonderfully understated performance, he still manages to be overshadowed by an amazing Vicky Krieps.
The film is set in the western frontier in the 1860s, and it starts with a seemingly senseless, bloody crime: a man clad in black wipes out an entire saloon, followed by the town deputy. It’s presented initially with no context. What follows is a lengthy explanation of what exactly happened, told through the lens of a love story between quiet Danish cowboy Holger (Mortensen) and his much more forceful French counterpart Vivienne (Krieps).
In some ways, The Dead Don’t Hurt feels like a typical Western, with its gritty tone and unflinching violence. But it’s elevated by the tenderness of its romance and how Krieps and Mortensen bring it to life. Yes, I wanted to watch to the end to see just how things ended up so bad. But more than that, I wanted to spend time with these two, a rare bright light in a bleak world. —AW
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Wider release: November 10th
Paul (Nicolas Cage) is a tragically boring professor, the kind of person who makes little to no impression when he meets someone new and whose work constantly goes unrecognized. Which is what makes it so strange when Paul starts appearing in people’s dreams — not just those he knows, like his kids, but eventually, it seems, everyone.
It starts out fun and as a chance for Paul to maybe, just maybe, get his foot in the door with that book he’s been meaning to write. After all, he quickly becomes arguably the most recognizable person in the world, the first one to experience a new kind of viral fame. But the dreams start to turn into something else, and with them, the world’s feelings about Paul. Dream Scenario could be called a comedy at first, the kind that trades on awkward existential jokes (and even a rare good fart gag), but by the end, it’s a full-on horror nightmare.
And it’s all anchored by a strong performance from Cage, who manages to embody the meek, sniveling Paul in a way that’s equal parts hilarious and terrifying. —AW
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person
Director: Ariane Louis-Seize
Wider release: TBD
Into every generation, a slew of vampire-focused films are born that pull from the rich canon of bloodsucking stories in search of new ways to excite and terrify theatergoers. But rather than trying to fundamentally reinvent the wheel or make classic characters from the genre feel fresh, Quebecois director Ariane Louis-Seize’s Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person instead tells the darkly comedic story of Sasha (Sara Montpetit), an ordinary “teenaged” (read: 68-year-old) vampire who wants nothing more than to enjoy her undead life without really hurting humans.
As the youngest member of a nuclear family of vamps, Sasha knows that preying upon the living to maintain their immortality is her people’s whole schtick. The fact that Sasha will starve to death if she doesn’t feed is something her mother (Micheline Bernard) and cousin Denise (Noémie O’Farrell) are always trying to get her to internalize. As a vampire born with an abnormal aversion to violence, though, killing people is one of the last things Sasha would ever dream of, and when she decides to put her foot down about it, she finds herself out in the cold and seeking solace in a support group full of unsuspecting, suicidal humans like highschooler Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard).—CPM
Director: Ali Kalthami
Wider release: TBD
Out of all the movies playing at this year’s TIFF, co-writer / director Ali Kalthami’s debut feature Mandoob felt especially tapped into our ongoing moment of reckoning with the gig economy and disruptive platforms like Uber that have left workers across the entire globe struggling to make ends meet.
Like all call center workers who spend their days stuck at desks while dealing with customers who don’t see them as people, there’s so much more to Fahad Nassir (Mohammed Aldokhi) than his ability to read scripts over the phone. He’s got hopes for romance and dreams of becoming the kind of person that his ailing father and entrepreneurial sister can rely on when they need help. But when Farhad’s fired from his dead-end job, the only way he can think to make money is becoming one of the many countless underpaid delivery people driving around the streets of Riyadh for Mandoob, a fictional delivery service popular across Saudi Arabia.
Though Mandoob quickly becomes a gripping story about Farhad stumbling into the world of liquor bootlegging for Riyadh’s rule-bending elites, Kalthami’s desire to tell a story about Saudi Arabia’s oft-unseen working class is palpable from the jump. That focus creates an immediate kind of familiarity to Farhad’s world and sets the stage for Aldokhi to deliver a stunningly nuanced performance as a well-intended pathological liar who really just wants to support his loved ones.
What truly stands out about the film, however, is the way cinematographer Ahmed Tahoun’s eye for crafting small moments of human intimacy makes Kalthami’s take on Saudi Arabia feel that much more grand, imposing, and exactly like the sort of place that can swallow a person up no matter how hard they’re fighting to survive. —CPM
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Wider release: TBD
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been particularly prolific of late — his Korean film Broker made an appearance at TIFF just last year — but he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, Monster might be his most subtly heart-wrenching story to date. It starts out as what appears to be a straightforward film about school bullying. All the signs are there: Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) is a young kid who will come home from school missing a shoe or with a water bottle full of dirt or cuts his hair as soon as he gets back. But while Monster might seem obvious at first, it’s more of a multi-layered puzzled.
We see the story play out from three different perspectives. First up is Minato’s mother (Sakura Andō), who becomes convinced something terrible is happening at school (and with good reason) before we see things from his teacher’s (Eita Nagayama) view and then Minato himself. Nothing is quite what it seems at first, but the film lays out clues that misdirect — and can even seem confusing — at first, before cleverly revealing just what is going on. What seems like a story of tragedy becomes one about love and acceptance, and it’s all the more satisfying for how it comes together. —AW
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Wider release: TBD
Smugglers is kind of like what would happen if you took an Ocean’s 11-style heist, crossed it with an Oldboy-style revenge story, and then also threw in a shark for good measure.
Set in Korea in the ’70s, the film is centered on a team of divers known as haenyo, who find their livelihoods destroyed by pollution from a new factory that’s killing local sea life. So they end up getting caught up in the smuggling business just to get by: cargo ships drop off packages in the sea to avoid customs, and the women dive down to bring them back to shore. It’s a good racket until they’re inevitably caught.
A few years later comes the one last job that a heist movie needs. And while you do get an elaborate caper that amazingly takes place mostly underwater, Smugglers also turns into a violent revenge story, as the women take their chance to get back at those who wronged them. There is a very complex web of betrayal here that will keep you guessing all the way through. In short: Smugglers is an absolute blast. —AW
Working Class Goes to Hell
Director: Mladen Đorđević
Wider release: TBD
To the poor, religious laborers at the center of director Mladen Đorđević’s horror-comedy Working Class Goes to Hell, it feels like God’s deserted their small, rural Balkan town after a local factory fire leaves multiple people dead, and many more suddenly without jobs. Though the company’s executives and local politicians insist they have plans to get the town back on its feet, labor organizer Ceca (Tamara Krcunovic) knows that what they really want is to drive the working class out in the name of capitalistic progress.
As focused as Ceca and her peers are on protesting and spreading the word about how they’re being driven deeper into poverty, the bleakness of their situation makes them hold that much faster to their Christian faith. But when a mysterious pagan man named Mija (Leon Lucev) joins their cause and begins to introduce them to an unorthodox, seemingly Satanic faith, Ceca and the others can’t help but consider switching teams as Mija begins working curious, dark wonders that seem very much like answers to their prayers for retribution.
Though Đorđević paints a bleak picture of life in the modern age of rampant corporate greed, Working Class Goes to Hell leads with dry humor as it smoothly shifts gears between being a truly dark horror and a pointed piece of social commentary. By leaving you guessing just how real its supernatural elements are, the movie puts that much more focus on how its story is truly one about the power of collective action and putting one’s faith in other people. —CPM
Woman of the Hour
Director: Anna Kendrick
Wider Release: TBD
Though Anna Kendrick both directs and stars in Netflix’s Woman of the Hour, the true crime thriller puts a uniquely chilling focus on the multiple women whom serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) murdered in the years before he made an appearance on The Dating Game. As an aspiring actress who’s been struggling to book solid gigs, Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick) knows that an unexpected offer for a guest spot on The Dating Game could be her big break. To Cheryl, the mostly scripted TV appearance is an opportunity to get her face out there and maybe to meet a nice guy to go on an unscripted date with afterward. But to Rodney — bachelor number three — his chance, televised encounter with Cheryl’s an invitation to kill again.
With its chilling moments of brutality, Woman of the Hour highlights the multitudes of ways that women are forced to move through the world defensively — in fear of men like Alcala and the culture that enables their monstrosity. —CPM