The Toronto Film Fest’s best films weren’t biggies

Amy Adams in The Arrival

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

On my eighth year attending the Toronto International Film Festival, I saw around 50 of the over 350 films shown. I picked the event’s buzzier titles (with one exception: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals) and whatever else I could fit in my calendar. With that caveat, here is the best of TIFF.

BEST MOVIE: ARRIVAL BY DENIS VILLENEUVE In a year of racially-charged films and female directors (both great trends) it was a traditional (though low-key) sci-fi movie that made the biggest impression. Arrival takes an over-used plot (aliens visiting Earth for the first time) and makes it fresh by tackling it from the communication angle. It’s fresh, complex and ultimately satisfying. In a way, it’s sort of like Inside Out, in that it gets you rethinking the way mind works. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Oscar favorite La La Land; Paul Verhoeven’s genre mash Elle; the heavy drama Manchester by the Sea.

MOST DISAPPOINTING: JACKIE BY PABLO LARRAÍN No film developed more buzz during the festival than this biopic about the famous U.S. First Lady biopic. I was turned away from the press and industry screening because the theatre was at full capacity. I got to see it on my second try and it was… okay. Natalie Portman is strong as Jackie Kennedy (once you get past the accent) and the President’s assassination scenes are powerful. Sadly, the rest of the film is a slog and the central journalist is thoroughly unbelievable. DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: The Cannes favorite Toni Erdmann, amusing, but ridiculously long; Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, style over substance; Larraín’s other movie at TIFF, Neruda.

BEST CANADIAN FILM: WINDOW HORSES BY ANN MARIE FLEMING A superb animated drama that proves you don’t need millions of dollars or Pixar-like precision to trigger an emotional response Window Horses was major surprise. This compelling story of a young writer invited to a poetry festival in Iran is further improved with the incorporation of traditional sonnets and dollops of history. The film’s looks are deceptively simple (Rosie is a stick figure, but there’s a good reason for that) and allows for guest animators in the most lyrical sequences. Window Horses will open across Canada starting March next year, so prepare the tissues. HONORABLE MENTION: Ashley McKenzie’s impressive first feature, Werewolf. Chloe Robichaud’s sophomore effort, Boundaries.

MOST OVERRATED: IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD BY XAVIER DOLAN I think I have Xavier Dolan figured out. Because he got an early start as a director (his 2009 movie I Killed My Mother came out when he was 20), he only trades on emotions. This is all well and good for a couple of films, but the continuous praise has stunted his evolution and his latest is frankly unbearable. The most impressive francophone cast imaginable (Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye) is wasted by having them yelling at one another constantly. Their characters are unrecognizable as human beings. Only Dolan’s stand-in — Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising) — survives this smorgasbord of overacting, mostly by staying quiet. DISHONORABLE MENTION: American Honey, also known as “the movie that never ends”.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: ISABELLE HUPPERT, ELLE AND THINGS TO COME The reliably edgy French actress had a banner year with two films that pushed her beyond her zone of comfort (if you’ve seen The Piano Teacher, you know this is not a small feat). Elle in particular is a tour de force: The credits haven’t even finished rolling in when Michele (Huppert) is raped at home by an intruder. Reporting the attack is low in her list of concerns: her son is adrift, her videogame company is on the tipping point, and her long-jailed father is up for parole. You would think Michele is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but she remains in control and more together than everyone else around her. Empowering tales don’t get more twisted than this, and Huppert anchors it to reality. HONORABLE MENTION:  Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper and Certain Women.

BEST INTERVIEWEES: ROSSY DE PALMA AND ADRIANA UGARTE, JULIETA Almodóvar’s latest is a genuine pleasure, and talking to the lead Adriana Ugarte and frequent collaborator Rossy De Palma just enhanced the experience. Candid like few stars, they talked on top of each other, went on tangents and sung a Spanish pop song. Can’t tell if this experience will translate to paper, but I had a blast. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Paul Verhoeven, who doesn’t measure his words; Jim Jarmusch, who does.

MOST DECEIVING: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN At first sight, this comparatively sharp teenage comedy seems to share the same DNA with John Hughes’ greatest hits: gorgeous outcast (Hailee Steinfeld) goes on a tailspin when her best friend starts dating her brother. A deeper dive reveals the film has also adopted the less palatable aspects of Hughes’ ouvre: while multicultural, the cast is impossibly attractive and rich (Steinfeld’s character “only” has a small pool at home) and their problems are profoundly pedestrian. If you don’t have model physique and a suburban home, this movie is likely to make you feel terrible. HONORABLE MENTION: Snowden. If it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

MOST DISTURBING TREND (MOVIES): BONZO SUICIDES At least two movies use self-immolation by fire as source of inspiration. Two young women embark on self-destructive activism that scars them further. One of these films is American Pastoral, the other one, well, it would be a spoiler to reveal it. HONORABLE MENTION: Graphic autopsies. CSI has nothing on The Autopsy of Jane Doe or Interchange.

MOST DISTURBING TREND (PRESS): ROUNDTABLES I can’t begin to tell you how much I detest the roundtable interview format. While I understand PR departments want the star du jour to talk with as many journos as possible, it creates a free-for-all environment where only the pushiest thrive. It also foster embarrassment-by-proxy whenever someone asks a dumb question (there’s always one). DISHONORABLE MENTION: Cell phones at screenings. If you don’t call them out, you are part of the problem.