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London Fields
London Fields

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

By Joshua Rothkopf and David Ehrlich
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Nothing short of the most comprehensive and significant movie showcase in North America, the 40th Toronto International Film Festival will present 289 features over its run from September 10–20—including 132 buzzy world premieres, an impressively high number. As these films screen (we’ll be there!), expect the Oscar season to take shape with titles like The Danish Girl, actor Eddie Redmayne’s follow-up to The Theory of Everything; Michael Moore’s sure-to-be-provocative documentary Where to Invade Next; and a host of hotly anticipated contenders. We’ve scoured the Toronto Film Festival lineup and have our 20 favorites: the ones that will make us line up early for the good seats.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Best Toronto Film Festival movies

1. Anomalisa

Movies Animation

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 polarizing 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 slammed with an existential crisis. Hopes are justifiably high: As Being John Malkovich fans can attest, Kaufman can work miracles with the right puppets.

2. Beasts of No Nation

Movies Drama

Between Sin Nombre and True Detective (that is, the first season), 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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3. Black Mass

Movies Drama

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. All signs point to Depp’s best performance since he played an undercover cop in 1997’s Donnie Brasco.

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5. Equals

Movies Science fiction

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 seared 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.

6. Heart of a Dog

Movies

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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7. High-Rise

Movies Drama

The unclassifiable J.G. 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—nothing like the director ever attempted. Add British phenom Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) to this short list of courageous filmmakers. High-Rise takes place in an ultramodern apartment tower in which the residents go nuts. Toronto’s world premiere is arguably the fest’s hottest ticket.

I Saw the Light

8. 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 British refinement made him perfect as the impish Loki in The Avengers—but will it put him in good stead as legendary country singer Hank Williams in this biopic? Don’t count the guy out. 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.

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9. Legend

Movies Drama

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.

London Fields

10. 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 to the screen—we’re a little concerned that video stylist Matthew Cullen is the one to have succeeded. Still, with Billy Bob Thornton and the underrated Amber Heard on board in major roles, we’re hopeful.

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11. The Martian

Movies Action and adventure

It’s Gravity on the red planet with this one-man sci-fi thriller based on the popular (but, to be fair, kind of awful) best-seller. When his colleagues on the Ares 3 spacecraft are forced to make an emergency takeoff, 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.

Office

12. 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 3-D 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’s Chow Yun-fat as the singing leader of a sinking company.

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13. Our Brand Is Crisis

Movies

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 “Ragin Cajun” James Carville’s 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.

Room

14. 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 center 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 fall season so long as anyone can stomach the harrowing movie around her.

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15. Spotlight

Movies Drama

If you’re one of those people who thinks there’s hasn’t been a truly great newspaper-room drama since All the President’s Men, prepare to break out your red pen for some radical editing to your personal list of principles. Already 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’s John Slattery and a post-Birdman Michael Keaton, re-energized for the long term.

16. Sunset Song

Movies Drama

When Terence Davies is ready to unveil a new film, he means it. 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 (perhaps in spite of its premise).

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17. Trumbo

Movies Drama

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.

18. Truth

Movies

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 dramatization of the embarrassing yet emblematic rush for viewership, 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.

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Where to Invade Next

19. Where to Invade Next

For a guy with such a big mouth, Michael Moore sure knows how to keep his lips shut about what he’s cooking up next—the first anyone heard of his latest doc was when it was announced as part of the TIFF lineup. Where to Invade Next, in which Moore satirizes 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 liberal media’s most outspoken voice.

The Whispering Star

20. The Whispering Star

Sion Sono (Tokyo Tribe, Suicide Club) made six movies this year. As in: one, and then five more. But whatever drugs he’s on these days are working wonders, as the renegade director has never been knocking 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. Whatever you say, Sono-san.

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