The Best of TIFF 2023 – Part Two

Following the Sept. 15 “The Best of TIFF – Part One” article, here are five more of my favorites from the 48th Annual Toronto International Film Festival.  Now, yours truly didn’t catch the TIFF Audience Award winner, “American Fiction” starring Jeffrey Wright, but I did watch 46 other movies over 11 days and highly recommend that you seek out this cinematic quintet, films that will hopefully soon arrive at a theatre or streaming service near you! 

“Anatomy of a Fall” – Samuel (Samuel Theis), a husband and father, falls to his death from the top floor of his French countryside home, and an investigation dissects the anatomy of his fall.  However, the inquiry soon reveals the anatomy – and the complex layers – of the relationship between Samuel and his wife, Sandra (Sandra Huller).  Director Justine Triet’s absorbing and knotty courtroom drama keeps us guessing over 150 minutes, and this 2023 Palme d’Or winner deserves – at a minimum – Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress Oscar nominations.  Huller is flat-out outstanding and gifts her character with deep nuance and striking bravado.  It’s the finest lead actress performance of the year so far.  

“The Holdovers” – Alexander Payne (“Election” (1999), “Sideways” (2003)) is back to form in his hilarious – and sometimes heartfelt – story about an unlikable boarding school teacher (Paul Giamatti) who stays over Christmas break – against his will – to look after the kids who aren’t going home.  Set in 1970, Payne leans into the period with an engaging soundtrack, rustic automobiles, and sobering dialogue about the Vietnam War.  Speaking of dialogue, Mr. Hunham (Giamatti) teaches Ancient Civilizations and doesn’t hesitate to frequently apply his knowledge of the subject inside and outside the classroom.  Giamatti is a legend.

“The Settlers” – In his stunning first feature, Felipe Galvez Haberle galvanizes a raw, brutal journey across the Chilean and Argentinian landscapes, where a pair of vicious mercenaries (Mark Stanley and Benjamin Westfall) and a principled hired hand (Camilo Arancibia) run a long-distance errand for a demanding, wealthy landowner.  Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film’s deliberately grainy, muddy look and wide-open spaces stir feelings of Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” (1972), a Werner Herzog production, and 1960s spaghetti westerns.      

“The Teachers’ Lounge” – Leonie Benesch (“The White Ribbon” (2009), “Persian Lessons” (2020)) leads a talented ensemble of child and adult actors in a rapid-fire, restless tale of a teacher (Benesch) stepping over the line to investigate a wave of recent thefts at a German middle school.  Ilker Catak’s movie triples as an ethical narrative, whodunnit, and claustrophobic thriller while also examining the modern-day relationships between parents, students, and educators.  The 98-minute runtime zips by, and before you know it, the last bell rings, and the end credits roll.       

“Toll” – Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) has a problem.  Well, she thinks she does.  Suellen discovers her teenage son, Antonio (Kauan Alvarenga), is gay and wants to set him “straight” at a conversion program, but she is a broke toll booth worker and doesn’t have the money.  As luck would have it, her boyfriend includes her in a lucrative robbery ring, so her difficulties are now behind her, right?  Carolina Markowicz’s (“Charcoal” (2022)) unconventional and frank second feature is constantly engaging, and her lively script and Jinkings’ and Alvarenga’s million-dollar performances are infinitely more valuable than a pocketful of loose change or the price of a movie ticket.

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