TIFF 2019: Expansive and Engaging Festival Lineup Offers the World's Best Cinema

By Kim Hughes and Liam Lacey

It’s at once unnerving and exhilarating to realize another year has passed and the 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is around the corner. So many films! How do they all get scripted and financed and cast and shot and distributed? It really is a marvel.

As with any festival of this size, there’s room for all sorts of viewing strategies. You could target the small, obscure films that may never screen again, tour the world vicariously (as OC’s Liam Lacey likes to do) or go gonzo for blockbusters that will dominate from now until awards season. Whatever your tack, the main thing is to try and see something between September 5 and 15, possibly with a mind to taste-testing from various programming buckets, all striving for something unique.

For instance, Midnight Madness titles tend to be weird or violent (or both) whereas Contemporary World Cinema offers “compelling stories [with] global perspectives” (a.k.a. films not from Hollywood) while Discovery showcases filmmakers widely viewed as emerging. Documentaries, galas, and shorts are self-explanatory. At every program, there is guaranteed to be a break-out hit and a colossal dog; finding out which is which is half the fun.

And if further incentive is needed for conspicuous consumption, consider these fun facts:

- 333 titles are screening in the Festival: 245 features, 82 shorts, six series

- 229 features or series are World, International, or North American Premieres: 133, 25, and 71, respectively

- 84 countries and regions are represented

- 36 percent of titles are directed, co-directed, or created by women

- 23 examples of LGBTQ+ stories and 87 languages and dialects are represented

- 51 first-time narrative feature filmmakers are represented

Like phew, right? Individual tickets can be grabbed here and start at $19 per screening. After exhaustively reading the lineup, Original-Cin offers a sneak peek of a few recommended titles grouped by general interest. We hope it sparks some thought. Be sure to take a chance on something with an intriguing title or country of origin. You may stumble on something amazing.

If you prefer to base your cues on the reception afforded to films that also screened at other international festivals, then scroll down to read Liam Lacey’s roundup of what dazzled at Cannes, Berlin, Teluride and Sundance.

Note also that as TIFF gets underway, your intrepid Original-Cin writers will offer daily capsule reviews and heaps of interviews to help movie-goers navigate the Festival with, if not grace, then at least humour.

Lesbian Films Are a Thing

Multiple films thoughtfully explore lesbian relationships. What’s notable is the diversity of the telling. From Georgia comes Comets, director Tamar Shavgulidze's contemporary and tender story of two women — deeply smitten in their youth — who follow separate paths, only to reconnect years later to discover the flame of passion still burns bright. Set in 18th-century Brittany, director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows a female artist commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman but who ends up creating something much more. Also from France comes Two of Us, about women who for decades hide their love from the outside world by dividing their time between neighbouring apartments. When that arrangement is upended, they must decide whether or not to reveal their relationship.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Real People Make Great Subjects

TIFF can typically be counted on to include a biopic or two; this year is no exception. Leading the pack is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks literally embodying (according to those who’ve seen advance screenings) TV icon Mr. Rogers in Can You ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller’s hotly anticipated drama. Renée Zellweger conjures Judy Garland in Judy, which follows the tragic final year of the singer and actress as she tried to gain control of her spiralling life via a performance residency in London. And the rise of Australian singer Helen Reddy is explored in I Am Woman, the film’s title inspired by Reddy’s 70s-era feminist anthem.

Gael García Bernal is, Like, A Category

The Mexican superstar is everywhere this year. Again. He appears as an actor in two brand new films: director Olivier Assayas's Wasp Network about Cuban dissidents during the country’s 1990s post–Soviet Union economic collapse. Bernal also stars in Ema, Chilean director Pablo Larraín's tale of a family fractured by a terrible accident.

But wait, there’s more! Bernal attends TIFF as the director of Chicuarotes, a tense drama about two youths whose desperation to escape a Mexico City slum plunges them into lawlessness. And director Larraín’s classic No from 2012 — which chronicles a campaign designed to depose Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and starring our man Bernal — screens as part of TIFF’s Cinematheque retrospective. GGB should get a time-share.



Fast Fashion Is Evil…

Two very different films explore the far reaches of the garment industry, which makes some very rich while others toil in desperation. Director Rubaiyat Hossain’s Made in Bangladesh follows a young woman who attempts to organize the workers in a Dhaka factory after a co-worker is killed in a fire. Needless to say, management isn’t on board with that idea. And Michael Winterbottom’s satire Greed follows a retail billionaire, played by Steve Coogan, whose lavish birthday celebration on a Greek island is disrupted by the arrival of pesky refugees. Both might make one rethink the real price of what’s hanging in the closet.

…And So Are Cults

From Finland comes Maria's Paradise, director Zaida Bergroth’s “intense, intelligent, and often chilling study of cults based on a scandal that took place in Finland in the 1920s.” From Norway comes Disco, about a devout young woman and dance champ (Josefine Frida Pettersen, from the international hit series Skam) which “concentrates on the structure of contemporary Christian cults with their all-consuming, impenetrable environments.”

Last but not least, The Other Lamb — Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s English-language debut — traces the slow awakening of a girl raised in an all-female cult by man with sinister intentions for his flock. Uneasy viewing to be sure.

Big Stars in (Potentially) Risky Roles

Three films featuring marquee actors have the distinct veneer of films that could be great… or really grisly. Edward Norton stars in and directs Motherless Brooklyn, a crime drama set in the 1950s about a private detective living with… Tourette syndrome. Mmm. On one hand, if anyone can pull that off, it’s Norton. Then again, he is directing himself so perhaps not quite as objective about his performance as one might hope.

Then there’s Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, described as “electrifying crime thriller about… a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score.” Somehow the words “Sandler” and “electrifying” seem oxymoronic but hey, people said the same about John Travolta pre-Pulp Fiction so you never know.

Finally, Eddie Murphy stars in Dolemite Is My Name, Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer’s period piece about a Blaxploitation-era comedian who gets a shot at stardom through cultivation of an outlandish persona. Your guess on each of these is as good as ours.

Films Torn from the Headlines

That old saw about truth being stranger than fiction certainly applies to the movies. From Oscar-nominated director Feras Fayyad (Last Men in Aleppo) comes The Cave, an elaborately shot documentary following a highly committed doctor working to save lives, many of them children, in a besieged Syrian hospital carved out of the underground. That the doctor is also a woman — and facing institutional sexism — doesn’t make the job any easier.

Elsewhere, Adam Driver stars in veteran screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ political thriller The Report, chronicling an investigator tapped by the U.S. Senate to probe the CIA’s use of torture tactics after 9/11. And the infamous Panama Papers scandal gets the big-screen treatment in Steven Soderbergh’s starry The Laundromat, with Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, and Meryl Streep and adapted by the before-mentioned Mr. Burns from investigative journalist Jake Bernstein’s book, Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.

Also of note, and certain to be heartbreaking, is veteran filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger which documents the story of the young Indigenous boy of the title, who suffered from a rare muscle disorder but was forced to spend all five years of his painfully short life in hospital while the Canadian federal and provincial governments argued over which was responsible for his care.

The Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch.

Bestsellers on the Big Screen

Donna Tartt’s sweeping drama The Goldfinch — which, though thoroughly engaging, rather inexplicably won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, IMHO — is adapted for the screen by director John Crowley, who certainly worked magic translating Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn from page to cinema, albeit with a screenwriting assist from Nick Hornby. Still, The Goldfinch is suitably starry, with Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, Sarah Paulson and Jeffrey Wright leading the ensemble cast.

Canadian author Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly is also primed for its close-up, with Dakota Fanning starring as an altruistic and peripatetic woman navigating the disparate worlds of England and Ethiopia. Peter Carey’s Booker Prize–winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang — about notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly — is also grist for the filmmaking mill, in a promising-looking “gloriously fictionalized tale” starring Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult.

The Best of the Fests…

By Liam Lacey

From the first 18 years of its existence, the Toronto International Film Festival was known as the “Festival of Festivals,” a title that reflected the founders’ ambition to have an event — inspired by the multicultural food festival International Caravan — that offered the best of international film festivals such as Berlin, Cannes, and Venice.

These days, the Festival, or at least the media focus, tends to be more about Oscar publicity. But beneath the idol amusements, it is still the first chance most of us will have to see the most acclaimed films in global cinema this year.

My cheat sheet starts with the Cannes festival, one of Toronto’s major feeding streams. As many commentators noted last May, Cannes 2019 saw a pronounced trend — genre-blending films focusing on social injustice and unrest. These were led by Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho’s Palm d’Or-winning social satire Parasite, about a family of grifters who insinuate themselves in a rich family’s home.



The runner-up Grand Jury winner was Atlantics, a supernatural romance about African migration from first-time director Mati Diop (you might remember her as an actress in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum), who has broken ground as the first black woman filmmaker in competition at Cannes.

Split for the third Jury Prize was between Bacurau, another surreal neo-Western political allegory, set in Brazil, co-directed by Kleber Mendoca Filho and Juliano Dornelles. In a remote community, the residents notice their town has disappeared from the map and shortly after, armed mercenaries arrive. Another jury prize went to Les Misérables, which takes the title of Victor Hugo’s novel of injustice for what Justin Chang of the L.A. Times calls a “crackling police thriller” inspired by the 2005 suburban Paris riots.

The best screenplay went to a critical favourite, Céline Sciamma for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, an 18th century same-sex love story. Best actor to Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s well-received entry about a filmmaker suffering from a creative block.

The Cannes jury gave a special mention to Palestinian filmmaker Elia Sulieman’s wistful personal comedy, It Must Be Heaven about a Palestinian in exile. Sulieman’s film also won the juried International Critics prize (FIRPRESCI) as the best film in the competition. The critics’ jury gave its top overall prize to Robert Eggers’ out-of-competition The Lighthouse, a psycho-drama starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. The jury praised their “stormy, career-best performances.”

Overall, the critics’ polls this year’s at Cannes festival were: Parasite, Pain and Glory, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Top films in the Un Certain Regard sidebar were The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (Karim Ainouz), Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe), and Personalien (Albert Serra, not playing TIFF) which won jury prizes.

From the Berlin film festival, way back in February, the standout film at TIFF this year is the Golden Bear winner Synonyms, from Israeli director Nadav Lapid. The film, based on the director’s life, stars Tom Mercier as a former Israeli solider trying to leave his past, and his Israeli identity, by moving to Paris. Jay Weissberg in Variety wrote that the film takes “a Kalashnikov to the nation’s military culture and its carefully nurtured persecution complex.”

I Was At Home, But…

I Was At Home, But…

Berlin’s best director prize went to Angela Schanelec for I Was At Home, But... a drama about a widowed mother, whose 11-year-old son disappears to live in the woods for a week. And both best actress and best actor prizes went to Beijing Bicycle director Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, a drama exploring the legacy of China’s Cultural Revolution and one-child policy.

Several films from last January’s Sundance festival have already come to theatres, but one that hasn’t is the Grand Prize Winner, Clemency. The film is directed by African-American woman director, Chinonye Chukwu and starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden preparing for the death of an inmate, a movie that The New York Times’ Manhola Dargis says “transforms a character study into an indictment of institutional murder.” It’s scheduled for release on December 27, just in time for awards consideration.

And what they all have in common is that you can watch them in Toronto during the next 10 days. For more information about these films and tickets, go here.