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Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Thoughts On The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Lineup

Amidst a challenging time between WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in the entertainment industry, the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival is continuing this fall. Following earlier announcements of world premieres, including Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins,” Ladj Ly’s “Les Indésirables,” and Atom Egoyan’s “Seven Veils,” TIFF has revealed the first wave of Gala and Special Presentation programming for its 48th annual edition. The 60 official selections take us around the world, across compelling-sounding narratives and through various styles of filmmaking.

From feature debuts and anticipated follow-ups to starry Hollywood ensembles and 2023 Cannes crossovers, some films are missing that I was hoping to see (Marielle Heller’s “Nightbitch,” Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” and Ethan Coen’s “Drive-Away Dolls” spring to mind), this year’s lineup is stacked as it is in many ways. Plus, we still have more announcements to look forward to in the coming days and weeks. Maybe even a few killer surprises are in store.

TIFF continues to live up to its name, with the majority of selections being international films (such as Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera“) and a handful of Canadian filmmakers represented (such as Chloé Robichaud’s “Days of Happiness”). The festival’s commitment to spotlighting women in film shines through with a strong selection of female-directed titles, from Ellen Kuras’ Lee Miller biopic “Lee” to Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning “Anatomy of a Fall.” TIFF is also welcoming new films from Richard Linklater (“Hit Man”), Kitty Green (“The Royal Hotel”), Maggie Betts (“The Burial”), John Carney (“Flora and Son”), Alexander Payne (“The Holdovers“), and Hirokazu Kore-eda (back with “Monster” following last year’s “Broker,” which had me weeping at the Royal Alexandra Theatre). I must emphasize my excitement for “The Royal Hotel,” Green’s follow-up to her astonishing feature debut “The Assistant” (which also stars Julia Garner). Plus, as a passionate fan of the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy, whenever Linklater has a new film out, I’m there.

The Gala Presentations, made mostly of world premieres, give a balance of what the overall festival has to offer: Hollywood presence (Craig Gillespie’s hedge fund comedy “Dumb Money“), star-crossed dramas (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s swimmer biopic “NYAD”), world cinema (Um Tae-Hwa’s natural disaster thriller “Concrete Utopia”), and emerging Canadian talent (Sophie Dupuis’ drag scene character study “Solo”). There’s plenty more to find with the Special Presentations, which include a noticeable outpouring from actors-turned-directors (Chris Pine’s “Poolman,” Kristin Scott Thomas’ “North Star,” Ethan Hawke’s “Wildcat,” the list goes on).

The deeper I dove into the festival’s lineup, the more my anticipation grew, especially regarding the Cannes crossover, the number of films based on intriguing true stories, and standout discoveries that hadn’t previously been on my radar.

From Cannes To Canada
One of the more exciting elements of festival crossover is the traveling buzz. Cannes competition standout “Anatomy of a Fall,” for which director and co-writer Justine Triet won the Palme d’Or, premiered to enthusiastic praise for the film and its star Sandra Hüller. Acquired by NEON, the courtroom drama is about a woman suspected of her husband’s murder and their blind son as the only witness. The film will have its Canadian premiere at TIFF alongside another Cannes standout, Grand Prix winner, “The Zone of Interest,” co-written and directed by Jonathan Glazer. The film comes highly anticipated being Glazer’s first feature since 2013’s unforgettable “Under the Skin.”

Joining the carryover from France, Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera,” starring Josh O’Connor and Isabella Rossellini, follows archaeologists through the world of artifacts in 1980s Italy. Rohrwacher’s distinctive style, seen most recently last year in her Oscar-nominated short “Le pupille,” makes me all the more excited for a new project. Speaking of excitement, auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to TIFF with the North American premiere of “Monster,” winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes. The film stars Ando Sakura, Nagayama Eita, Kurokawa Soya, and Hiiragi Hinata. Another crossover on my radar is Warwick Thornton’s “The New Boy,” starring Aswan Reid and Cate Blanchett and produced by Blanchett.

Familiar Faces & Feature Debuts
TIFF has its share of starry ensembles. Nearly every year, the closure of King Street in Toronto makes room for waves of fans eager to spot their favorite celebrities. From last year’s Rian Johnson mystery “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” to Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” the year before, to the first “Knives Out” in 2019. Numerous selections in this year’s lineup have stacked ensembles that spark interest by name alone.

The cast of Christos Nikou’s “Fingernails,” having its international premiere at the festival, sounds like a dream come true. Riz Ahmed, Jessie Buckley, Jeremy Allen White, Luke Wilson, Annie Murphy, need I say more? Nikou’s English-language feature debut about reliance on technology could be a timely one. As well, the pharmaceutical-driven story of David Yates’ “Pain Hustlers,” adapted from Evan Hughes’ 2022 novel “The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup.” The film stars Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, Andy Garcia, and our Canadian queen Catherine O’Hara, whose presence in films is always welcome and not nearly as common as I would like.

Festival favorite Jessica Chastain returns in Michel Franco’s “Memory,” a drama co-starring Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Josh Charles, Elsie Fisher, and Jessica Harper. Also returning with a festival film is Taylor Russell; her breakout role in Trey Edward Shults’ drama “Waves” premiered in Toronto back in 2019. Russell joins Ewan McGregor and Ellen Burstyn this year in Niclas Larsson’s “Mother Couch.” The vague plot — estranged children united by their mother refusing to get off a couch — sounds like it could go in so many different directions.

This year, a handful of actors are in the director’s chair, covering an exciting range of material, from amateur sleuthing and game shows to 1860s western and family dramas. Specific titles I’m gravitating towards include Chris Pine’s “Poolman,” about a pool cleaner who finds a way to rob water from the city of Los Angeles. After years of enjoying Pine’s performances, seeing what he brings behind the camera will be fun, particularly with a more comedic story. Kristin Scott Thomas is bringing on the family drama with her feature directorial debut “North Star,” starring Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, and Emily Beecham as sisters. Michael Keaton’s “Knox Goes Away” has me at its cast: Al Pacino, Marcia Gay Harden, and James Marsden, not to mention Keaton himself.

More feature directorial debuts caught my eye as well. Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play,” a standout of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, could build on its buzz here at TIFF. I love a good two-hander; the film stars Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich make me even more intrigued. Writer Cord Jefferson (known for his television work on “The Good Place,” “Watchmen,” and “Station Eleven“) makes his directorial debut with “American Fiction.” The film has an incredible cast, including Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Adam Brody, Sterling K. Brown, and Tracee Ellis Ross. Mahalia Belo’s “The End We Start From” is on my must-see list as well, not only for its brilliant star Jodie Comer but also the film’s co-writer Alice Birch (whose credits include 2016’s “Lady Macbeth,” 2020’s “Normal People” miniseries, 2022’s “The Wonder,” and this year’s “Dead Ringers” limited series). Count me in.

Inspired By Non-Fiction
A film that immediately caught my attention, considering it is the world premiere of one of my most anticipated films this year, is Ellen Kuras’ feature directorial debut, “Lee.” Kuras, the director of photography on such titles as Spike Lee’s “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” Martin Scorsese’s “Pretend It’s a City,” and Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” re-teams with Kate Winslet in a new capacity. Winslet stars as American photojournalist Lee Miller, a fashion model who became a prolific WWII photographer. The film, which has been in development since 2015, is Winslet’s passion project and includes an all-star cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Marion Cotillard, Josh O’Connor, Noémie Merlant, Andrea Riseborough, and Andy Samberg.

“Lee” is among a handful of festival selections based on true stories. George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” stars the great Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, gay civil rights activist and organizer behind the 1963 March on Washington. The film’s wonderful cast includes Glynn Turman, Jeffrey Wright, Audra McDonald, Bill Irwin, Chris Rock, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Wolfe, who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” could have another strong contender here. Other highlights include Annette Bening and Jodie Foster starrer “NYAD” (from the Oscar-winning team behind “Free Solo“), about the first woman who swam from Cuba to the U.S. Azazel Jacobs (“French Exit“), will have his first TIFF premiere with “His Three Daughters,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, Carrie Coon, and Natasha Lyonne. The trio plays sisters who reunite when their father falls ill; this one will hit hard. Another standout from the lineup is “The Burial,” written and directed by Maggie Betts (“Novitiate“). With a cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Alan Ruck, Jurnee Smollett, and Bill Camp, this is undoubtedly one to watch.

Under The Radar
TIFF’s lineup may be missing some of the heavy hitters (new films from Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, William Friedkin, Yorgos Lanthimos, Michael Mann, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Ava DuVernay). But in their absence are still a wide range of films and smaller gems that sound compelling. The story of Bertrand Bonello’s “The Beast” is a futuristic melodrama set across various decades. The film stars Léa Seydoux, George MacKay, and Guslagie Malanda (who gave one of last year’s best performances in Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer“). From the team behind Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent” comes another hand-painted animation, “The Peasants.” Having seen Dominic Savage’s “I Am Ruth,” an emotional episode (starring and co-written by Kate Winslet) in his “I Am…” anthology series, his film “Close to You” (starring and co-written by Elliot Page) is on my radar. Ning Hao’s meta-sounding movie industry satire “The Movie Emperor,” starring Andy Lau, rounds out the festival’s varied Gala Presentations.

One of my favorite festival memories is walking into Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” based purely on me being a Saoirse Ronan fan, not knowing what to expect. It wasn’t on my radar and caught me completely off guard in the best way. What I’m most looking forward to about TIFF is the sense of discovery. Whether the element of surprise comes through in titles I’ve already mentioned, or ones waiting in the wings to be announced soon, the 2023 TIFF lineup is off to a solid start.

What do you think of the films announced so far? What other titles do you think will screen at this year’s TIFF? Are you planning on going? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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