The Best of TIFF 2019

Art House Film Wire left for the Great White North on Friday, Sept. 6 to soak up the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival for nine days, and as usual, this massive celluloid celebration did not disappoint.  After drinking lots of coffee, taking copious notes and catching 32 movies, here are our top 10 films!

“A Hidden Life” – Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) enjoys a beautiful life with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their kids in the quiet Austrian village of St. Radegund, but trouble begins when World War II breaks out, and he refuses to pledge loyalty to Hitler.  Writer/director Terrence Malick dives into the true story of the Jagerstatters by reaching to nature, classical music and the heart of Franz and Franziska’s relationship that gel into a dreamlike concoction of operatic splendor.  A masterpiece.

“About Endlessness” – Writer/director Roy Andersson’s unique on-screen perspective is back, as he bestows a series of oddball sketches that feature mankind’s everyday collisions with modern society.  A deliberately bland, brown color palette, stiff deliveries by the (mostly) amateur actors and bleak, minimalist sets run throughout the film’s 78-minute runtime.  “About Endlessness” feels like a surreal trip to Whoville, if the collective Who-population was in dire need of Prozac, and their surroundings – although cartoonish – are devoid of whimsy.  Repeat viewings are required.

“Jojo Rabbit” – Growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) loves his mom (Scarlett Johansson) and plays with his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates).  In many ways, Jojo is a typical 10-year-old boy, except for one glaring difference: he’s a prideful Hitler Youth member.  Jojo, however, begins to question everything, when he discovers that his mom is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.  Director Taika Waititi also dons a Nazi uniform to play Adolf Hitler, so he pushes boundaries, but with hilarious slapstick, sarcasm and delicate touches of humanity.

“Joker” – Director Todd Phillips takes a stark departure from comedies and ventures into a dark, dystopian 1981 Gotham City to tell the origin story of Batman’s foremost nemesis.  Filled with crime and grime, Gotham is a miserable, hopeless mess, and so is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man suffering from mental illness and surrounded by negative influences and triggers in all directions.  Arthur eventually cracks, and in turn, Joaquin should break into Best Actor Oscar-status with his hypnotic performance.  Quite frankly, another actor will have to give a superhero-like effort to wrestle Oscar gold away from Phoenix.

“Knives Out” – An extremely clever and entertaining whodunit!  Writer/director Rian Johnson thought up this murder/mystery story about 10 years ago, and after creating “Looper” (2012) and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), he saved his best for last.  Crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies on his 85th birthday, and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives on the scene to assess any foul play.  Johnson turns the genre on its head a bit and keeps us guessing, laughing and gasping in suspense, while an all-star cast – including Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, and more – seem to be having as much fun as the audience.

“Proxima” –  Sarah (Eva Green), a French astronaut, prepares for the mission of her life, as she’s part of a three-person crew heading to the International Space Station.  She’s also a mom to an elementary school-age daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant), so while Sarah looks to the stars, she also feels the pull here on Earth.  Writer/director Alice Winocour gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Sarah’s training while keeping Stella ever-present – but compartmentalized – in her mother’s thoughts.  So, while Sarah deals with frequent, subtle slights of sexism, she also copes with her out-of-this-world job taking time away from her daughter.  Green gives a very strong and graceful performance.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” – A wildly affluent art collector (Mick Jagger) invites a struggling critic (Claes Bang) to his massive Italian villa and offers a proposal that he cannot refuse.  James (Bang) brings along his brand new love interest (Elizabeth Debicki), but they barely know each other.  When high stakes are in play, the unknown can dramatically cloud and complicate the immediate present, and director Giuseppe Capotondi muddies the waters for James and Berenice (Debicki) in this twisty, nifty thriller.  Donald Sutherland co-stars.

“The Song of Names” – Twenty-one years ago director Francois Girard brought “The Red Violin” to the screen, and now in 2019, he offers a different story on the same instrument in “The Song of Names”.  As kids, violin players Martin (Tim Roth) and Dovidl (Clive Owen) share a friendship and a love of music.  As adults, Martin looks for his friend, who disappeared decades before.  With World War II as a focal point and accompanied by an exceptional string score, Girard’s intricate drama sneaks up on you and strikes the right emotional beats.

“The Two Popes” – Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have personality and philosophical differences that reach a mile-long, but they both share the same job title and therefore, are card-carrying members of a most exclusive club.  Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God” (2002)) gives us an insightful look at these two men through Anthony McCarten’s script that is generally conversational in nature.  Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins play Francis and Benedict, respectively during the Vatican’s transition of power in 2013, and the two Welsh actors might just share numerous conversations at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.

“Waves” – An affluent, hardworking family appears to have all the answers, but one’s teenage years – no matter how much support is felt – are anything but straight-forward.  Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school wrestler and his life is falling into place, but after an initial misstep, he takes a much larger plunge.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha” (2015), “It Comes at Night” (2017)) pushes a modern score and free flowing camerawork that dives into the characters’ souls, as they struggle for answers.  This heavyweight drama packs a wallop.


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