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The 20 best movies at the Toronto Film Festival 2015

The awards season begins – with premieres, new docs, indies and galas – at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival

The Toronto Film Festival is fast approaching, officially kicking off the long race to the Oscars. We’ve scoured the 11-day event’s line-up of a whopping 289 films – including 132 buzzy world premieres – and picked 20 highlights. These are the films that will be making a big splash at Toronto before arriving in our cinemas over the next year, including Oscar hopefuls like ‘The Danish Girl’, Eddie Redmayne’s follow-up to ‘The Theory of Everything’ and Michael Moore’s new documentary ‘Where to Invade Next’.

1
Black Mass
1/20

Black Mass

Remember Johnny Depp? He used to be an actor. Well, it’s looking like he’s back in a big way with this gangster epic, in which the artist formerly known as Jack Sparrow transforms into Boston’s notoriously violent criminal-turned-informant, Whitey Bulger. All signs point to Depp’s best performance since he played an undercover cop in 1997’s ‘Donnie Brasco’.

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2
I Saw the Light
2/20

I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston, last seen as a hipster vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, has a magnetic appeal that can’t be faked. His crafty refinement made him perfect as the impish Loki in ‘The Avengers’ – but will it stand him in good stead as legendary country singer Hank Williams in this biopic? Don’t bet against it – Hiddleston is said to have committed to the part to a scary degree, singing all the songs himself and embracing Williams’s self-destructive impulses.

3
The Martian
3/20

The Martian

It’s ‘Gravity’ on the red planet with this one-man sci-fi thriller based on the popular (but, to be fair, pretty awful) best-selling novel. When his colleagues on the Ares 3 spacecraft are forced to make an emergency take-off, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind to fend for himself. Will space captain Jessica Chastain turn around and come back for him before his food runs out? Ridley Scott directs – which, in the wake of ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, isn’t the draw it once was. But Damon should add some heft to the thin air.

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4
Legend
4/20

Legend

Good news for anyone who’s itching to see another great Tom Hardy performance after the glory of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: In Brian Helgeland’s ‘Legend’, we get two. Playing both of the real-life Kray twins, who ruled the Swinging London underworld of the 1960s, Hardy gets the perfect chance to showcase the fearlessness – and the dementedly endearing machismo – that’s seen him lunge out of Batman’s shadow and become one of the world’s most interesting leading men.

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5
Anomalisa
5/20

Anomalisa

It’s been seven long years since screenwriter Charlie Kaufman directed one of his own scripts, and ‘Synecdoche, New York’ still remains one of this century’s most ambitious and polarising films. For a guy who always zigs when you think he’s going to zag, it can only be so surprising that his next trick (co-directed with Duke Johnson) is a sexually explicit stop-motion animated feature about a motivational speaker in the midst of an existential crisis. Hopes are justifiably high: As ‘Being John Malkovich’ fans can attest, Kaufman can work miracles with the right puppets.

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6
Beasts of No Nation
6/20

Beasts of No Nation

Between ‘Sin Nombre’ and ‘True Detective’ (the first season, at least), it’s no secret that Cary Joji Fukunaga has a knack for telling brutal and unsparingly violent stories – even his take on ‘Jane Eyre’ is draped in a wounding darkness. Be that as it may, the horrors of Fukunaga’s latest film seem poised to reframe his previous work as a bit of throat clearing. The grim story follows an orphaned child soldier in a war-torn West African country as circumstances force him to serve under a notoriously lethal commandant (Idris Elba).

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7
The Danish Girl
7/20

The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne, fresh from his Best Actor Oscar for ‘The Theory of Everything’, teams up with It girl Alicia Vikander (‘Ex Machina’) for this sumptuous biopic about a Copenhagen artist who so vividly painted her husband as a woman that he was inspired to become one. Let's hope that director Tom Hooper is able to tell this important trans story with more sensitivity than he brought to ‘Les Misérables’.

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8
High-Rise
8/20

High-Rise

The unclassifiable JG Ballard was responsible for penning some truly disturbing novels, two of which were turned into film classics: David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’ (about sex-and-death car cultists) and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun’, an odd WWII film about a young boy’s bomber fetish – like nothing else the director ever attempted. Add British phenomenon Ben Wheatley (‘Kill List’) to this short list of courageous filmmakers. ‘High-Rise’ takes place in an ultramodern apartment tower in which the residents go nuts. This world premiere is arguably the festival’s hottest ticket.

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9
Equals
9/20

Equals

Time will tell if this sci-fi dystopia set in a future when untidy human emotions have been bred out of existence plays like an artier version of ‘Divergent’ – or something better. In the pro column: Kristen Stewart has bloomed in recent years (‘Clouds of Sils Maria’) and Nicholas Hoult made a serious impression in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (‘Oh, what a lovely day!’). And director Drake Doremus (‘Like Crazy’) knows his way around a doomed love story like few indie filmmakers today. Let’s hope these white, perfectly clean interiors contain something raw.

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10
Heart Of A Dog (Sobache Serdtse)
10/20

Heart Of A Dog (Sobache Serdtse)

Art-music icon Laurie Anderson broke hearts at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, saluting her late husband Lou Reed: ‘I found out what it is to love and to be completely loved in return.’ Now Anderson takes her reflections on music and loss (and her dog Lolabelle) and assembles them into a cine-essay that’s sure to captivate. No mere collage-maker, Anderson always comes with a point: Expect the political and the personal to swirl together.

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11
Room
11/20

Room

‘Oscar nominee Brie Larson.’ It rolls right off the tongue, and soon it might even be true. The ‘Short Term 12’ actor is front and centre like never before in this claustrophobic family drama, adapted by ‘Frank’ director Lenny Abrahamson from the Emma Donoghue novel of the same name. Playing a woman who’s held captive with her young son in a single room for five years, Larson could be the talk of the autumn so long as anyone can stomach the harrowing movie around her.

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12
London Fields
12/20

London Fields

The crux of Martin Amis’s reputation, 1989’s comic crime novel ‘London Fields’ was the moment when this bad boy of British letters became a bona-fide literary giant. Directors as varied as David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom have since tried to adapt it for the screen – we’re a little surprised that video stylist Matthew Cullen might be the one to have succeeded. Still, with Billy Bob Thornton and the underrated Amber Heard on board in major roles, we’re hopeful.

13
Office
13/20

Office

A certain pocket of film nerds lost their minds when they learned that Johnnie To, a Hong Kong director and producer responsible for roughly 9,000 incredible movies over the last three decades – was creating a musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy, ‘Design for Living’. Turns out he wasn’t, but this 3D musical romance about rival CEOs during the 2008 recession (actually adapted from a Sylvia Chang play) sounds every bit as exciting, particularly when you factor in ‘Hard Boiled’ star Chow Yun-fat as the singing leader of a sinking company.

14
Sunset Song
14/20

Sunset Song

When Terence Davies is ready to unveil a new film, it's an event. The English master (‘The Deep Blue Sea’, ‘The Long Day Closes’) has only released six features during the last 27 years, but every single one of them has been an indelible landmark of British cinema. Needless to say, that makes his latest – a meditative adaptation of a Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel about a Scottish farming family – a guaranteed event.

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15
Our Brand is Crisis
15/20

Our Brand is Crisis

Based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 doc of the same name – and featuring a cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and many more – David Gordon Green’s latest explores a curious episode in which outspoken political commentator James ‘Ragin' Cajun’ Carville was hired to sway a political race that took the famous southerner a little farther south than he was used to. Guaranteed to be the year’s best film about the 2002 Bolivian election.

16
Spotlight
16/20

Spotlight

If you’re one of those people who thinks there hasn’t been a truly great newspaper-room drama since ‘All the President’s Men’, prepare for a rethink. Already, the awards buzz is deafening for this ensemble-driven thriller about the Boston Globe’s courageous investigation of child abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese. Among the actors bound for attention: Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, ‘Mad Men’ star John Slattery and a post-‘Birdman’ Michael Keaton, re-energised for the long term.

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17
Trumbo
17/20

Trumbo

Take us anywhere, Bryan Cranston. We’ve missed you so much since ‘Breaking Bad’, we’d watch you rearrange your sock drawer if you wore the Walter White hat. This drama promises to be a lot more interesting than that: It’s about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who was still able to make a mark with classics like ‘Exodus’, ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Roman Holiday’.

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18
Truth
18/20

Truth

Toronto looks like it should be a goldmine for political-news junkies: Apart from a new Michael Moore documentary, ‘Where to Invade Next’, and the Boston Globe-related ‘Spotlight’, there’s this taut-sounding drama about the rushed ‘60 Minutes’ investigation into George W Bush’s draft-dodging. A dramatisation of the embarrassing yet emblematic rush for viewers, ‘Truth’ stars Robert Redford as anchor Dan Rather and the mighty Cate Blanchett as segment producer Mary Mapes. Reputations hang in the balance and no-one emerges unscathed.

19
Where to Invade Next
19/20

Where to Invade Next

For such an outspoken film-maker, Michael Moore knows how to keep quiet about what he’s cooking up next – the first anyone heard of his latest documentary was when it was announced as part of the TIFF line-up. ‘Where to Invade Next’ – in which Moore explores America’s habit of occupying foreign countries without justifiable cause by transforming himself into a one-man army – should be a return to form for one of the liberal media’s loudest voices.

20
The Whispering Star
20/20

The Whispering Star

Sion Sono (‘Tokyo Tribe’, ‘Suicide Club’) made six movies this year. But even so, the renegade director has never knocked it out of the park so consistently. His latest (for the moment) is a stark black-and-white fable about an interstellar humanoid robot who crashes into post-Fukushima Japan and tries to make sense of the world.

More film festival highlights

The 30 films you need to see at the 2015 London Film Festival

The 2015 London Film Festival (October 7-18) is fast approaching. But the 12-day event will show hundreds of films from all over the world – so how to choose what to see? No fear: we’ve sifted through the mammoth line-up and picked 30 highlights

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By: Cath Clarke

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