TIFF 2017: Whatever Your Passion, There’s a Film for That

By Kim Hughes

Even with its newly slimmed-down roster, the 2017 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is a beast with some 339 films — 255 features and 84 shorts — competing for eyeballs.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all that choice. Yet much like closet clutter, TIFF is manageable if you break it down, compartmentalize, and cap it off with a bone-dry martini. It’s only film after all.

 Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me

Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me

You could take a tactical approach, skipping the marquee titles ultimately destined for multiplexes and focusing instead on the foreign or obscure entries that may never screen here again. Or you could be guided by specific personal interest which is as sure a way as any to avoid disappointment. Well, that and leaving expectations at the door, which is sound advice for all movies.

After weeks of exhaustively reviewing the 2017 TIFF official film schedule, Original Cin proudly offers a can’t-miss guide on what to catch, handily grouped by subject. While we always recommend taking chances and following whims, this list — a kind of cinematic GPS — is an excellent place to start. Yeah, you’re welcome.

TIFF tickets go on sale to the general public Monday, Sept. 4 at 10 am: http://www.tiff.net/tickets/

 

For history buffs…

Darkest Hour

Winston Churchill’s hero status wasn’t always assured. Indeed, he was a controversial choice for British prime minister after Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign less than a year into WWII. Gary Oldman is utterly transformed into Churchill in director Joe Wright’s docu-drama charting Churchill’s transition into office. (The film is doubtless indebted to historian John Lukacs’ extraordinary Five Days in London, May 1940, essential reading for WWII enthusiasts). The luminous Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife.

The Current War

Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon star, respectively, as real-life inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, whose friendly/ferocious battle to harness the widespread use of electricity quite literally changed the world. Shannon fans can also catch the actor in director Guillermo del Toro’s Toronto-shot fantasy The Shape of Water, which is already snagging strong buzz.

Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me

Sure, he was a brilliant entertainer and a member of the legendary Rat Pack. But Davis was also an agitator whose interracial romances and seemingly odd political affiliations (he shilled for Richard Nixon in Vietnam!) singled him out as a fearless rebel as a time when Facebook wasn’t around to have his back. Interviews with the late Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal bring this extraordinary man into focus.

 

For hopeless romantics…

Call Me By Your Name

This sumptuous adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel by director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) could also be filed under ‘coming of age stories’ or ‘summer flings’ except that it chronicles a gay romance. You just don’t see that every day, especially with mainstream actors like Armie Hammer in the lead. Wistful songs by Sufjan Stevens underscore a stunning northern Italy that tourists can only dream of, much like the fantasyland Paris of Amélie.

Breathe

 Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield in Breathe

Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield in Breathe

Real-life polio victim Robin Cavendish opened doors for disabled people in the 1970s by refusing to be marginalized but it was the enduring love affair with his wife Diana providing the momentum. Andrew Garfield  and Claire Foy play the doe-eyed couple in this nifty adaptation produced by Robin and Diana Cavendish’s son, Jonathan. It’s also the directorial debut of Andy Serkis — that’s Gollum to you.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Fascination with May/December romances just never get old… providing the woman is the senior partner. Just ask the president of France. Or witness this film, in which the great Annette Bening plays faded (and real-life) Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, whose affair with much younger British actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) launched the powerful memoir upon which this movie is based.

 Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the reality-based Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the reality-based Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

 

For tabloid junkies…

I, Tonya

Film-goers of a certain age will howl over (and clamour for a peek at) this drama chronicling the infamous 1994 incident where ice skater Tonya Harding and her co-conspirators sought to handicap her opponent Nancy Kerrigan by literally handicapping her in an attack meant to keep her off the ice and out of competition. There’s no trailer yet but interweb scuttlebutt suggests Margot Robbie has been thoroughly fuglied to play Harding. Tee hee!

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Former Vanity Fair scribe Matt Tyrnauer's documentary adaptation of Scotty Bowers' salacious 2012 memoir about how he covertly catered to the (often not hetero — quelle surprise!) sexual desires of A-list actors and actresses during buttoned-down, studio-controlled Golden Age Hollywood is just too juicy to pass up. But be warned: you will never watch another Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn or Spencer Tracy movie the same way again.

 

For remake fans….

Thelma

It’s not officially a remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie, based on the chilling Stephen King novel. But director Joachim Trier's supernatural thriller checks a whole bunch of the same boxes: smothering parents, fundamentalist religious beliefs, and a comely young woman with terrifying powers. This time out, Oslo is the backdrop. Will there be pig’s blood? Only one way to find out…

The Upside

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star in this Americanized redo of the smash French film The Intouchables from 2011 about a wealthy but paralyzed white man whose unlikely friendship with a marginalized black man radically changes them both. Nifty trivia: the directors of The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, return to TIFF 2017 with their latest comedy, C’est la vie!

Papillion

Whether the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman gem from 1973 can be bettered is questionable but it sure will be fun to see. Charlie Hunnam (The Lost City of Z) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) star in this new adaptation of Henri Charrière’s memoir of his imprisonment and repeated escapes from the notorious penal colony of Devil’s Island.

 

For revenge nerds….

Brawl in Cell Block 99

A crazily menacing Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson star in this hotly tipped — and apparently blood-soaked — thriller about a former boxer turned drug runner who lands in prison after a deal goes south. Much chaos and death ensue. S. Craig Zahler, whose offbeat horror-western Bone Tomahawk knocked the socks off genre fans in 2015, writes and directs this white-knuckle Midnight Madness entry that programmer Peter Kuplowsky says “descends into a nightmare so deranged that it will slack-jaw even the most jaded Midnight maven.” Yowzers.

Revenge

It’s just such a bitch when people won’t die, huh? Especially those who have been brutally assaulted before being killed, thus bearing a sizeable grudge. Like Brawl in Cell Block 99, this sun-baked thriller courtesy writer/director Coralie Fargeat — also a Midnight Madness selection — is poised to raise the bar on gory delights for genre fans. In other words, don’t eat directly before going to the show.

 

For Ian McEwan aficionados…

On Chesil Beach

McEwan’s slim but quietly explosive novel about a sexually naïve young couple on their honeymoon in 1962 stars Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk) and promises to upend notions of what makes people smart, decisive, and fuckable.

The Children Act

Emma Thompson stars in this bound-to-be-brilliant reading of McEwan’s 2014 book about a British high-court judge whose life comes undone when she is asked to rule on a young Jehovah's Witness who refuses a blood transfusion on religious grounds. McEwan also wrote the screenplay; Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) directs. What else do you need?

 

For art-house geeks…

The Other Side Of Hope

Acclaimed (but, let’s face it, acquired taste) director Aki Kaurismäki’s dramedy, which snagged a Silver Bear award at the recent Berlinale, tells the story of a restaurateur who befriends and assists a group of Syrian refugees newly arrived in Finland. Obviously timely, Kaurismäki’s tale will also be dependably angular.

Happy End

A sequel of sorts to 2012’s widely celebrated Amour, this family drama directed by Michael Haneke stars the dependably great Isabelle Huppert as the grim but steadying rock of a dysfunctional European family. Don’t believe the title.

 

For culture vultures…

The China Hustle

We tip our hats to the TIFF blurb writers, who describe this chilling documentary thus: “An unsettling and eye-opening Wall Street horror story about Chinese companies, the American stock market, and the opportunistic greed behind the biggest heist you’ve never heard of.” In other words, a fitting bookend to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room on the doc side, and The Big Short on the fictional front.

Loving Pablo

Javier Bardem doesn’t so much play as embody notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in this unlikely drama based on — of all things — a memoir by Escobar’s lover, Virginia Vallejo played here in a bit of wink-nudge casting by Bardem’s real-life wife Penélope Cruz. Life imitating art or what? Bardem also hits TIFF 2017 in Darren Aronofsky's freaky mother! alongside Jennifer Lawrence.

 

For director die-hards…

Manhunt

John Woo’s latest action/adventure follows a man wanted for a crime he didn’t commit. You can bet bullets will fly. See the original now before the inevitable American remake arrives in a year or two.

Submergence

White-hot stars Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy play star-crossed lovers in Wim Wenders’ undoubtedly gripping and slightly surrealist new drama based on the novel by former war correspondent J.M. Ledgard. Vikander is also at TIFF 2017 opposite Eva Green in Swedish writer/director Lisa Langseth's Euphoria.

 

For music fans…

Long Time Running

There won’t be a dry eye in the house when the lights go up on this intimate doc about the Tragically Hip’s 2016 coast-to-coast tour, likely their last, which launched on the news of singer Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

With no archival footage, director Sophie Fiennes’ look at the life of singer, model, and cultural icon Grace Jones barrels past documentary convention, offering an up-close look at Jones’ life from the perspective of the present. Nifty trivia: Fiennes also directed Hoover Street Revival, a doc on Jones’ L.A.-based preacher brother Noel Jones. And the director is the sib of actors Ralph and Joseph.


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Kim Hughes

An entertainment/lifestyle writer and editor of an exquisite vintage, Kim has written about film, music, books, food, wine, cosmetics and cars for the Toronto Star, NOW Magazine, Report on Business, Amazon.com, hmv, Salon, Elevate, CBC, Spafax and many other marquee properties. She lives in Toronto and is a proud volunteer with Annex Cat Rescue.