Want to know why the Toronto International Film Festival is so special?
Consider that on September 9, an army of breathless fans lined up on the downtown streets for hours just to catch a glimpse of Taylor Swift as she walked into the TIFF Bell Lightbox auditorium. That’s where she was due to give a talk about her award-winning “All Too Well” video. Two nights later, the fans returned to King Street and shrieked even louder: This time, her ex Harry Styles was the one waving and posing for photos before the premiere of his film, My Policeman.
And they’re only part-time actors!
Fact is, you couldn’t blame festival-goers for being extra-frenzied up north. Because of the pandemic, TIFF has been ostensibly closed for business since 2019. So, this year, the star shined brighter, the carpet looked redder and the parties lasted longer. And never again will we take the celebrity sightings — like George Clooney hanging with then-girlfriend Stacy Keibler at the Soho House pop-up until 3 AM in 2011 — for granted. Yes, friends, that really happened. I may or may not still have the stealth stalker photo.
Best of all? The films themselves were capital-f fantastic. No morose and obscure indies here: We’re talking accessible hits and acclaimed gems in the making, featuring everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Viola Davis (in The Woman King, which I didn’t see) to Michelle Williams to Daniel Craig to the Encino Man himself, Brendan Fraser. Only now you could say we’re all thawing out and enjoying the fun.
Scroll down to see 10 of the buzziest offerings from the September 8-18 festival. You’ll know them, ahem, all too well soon enough!
A glossy rom-com set in New York City? We’ve been there, laughed at that a gazillion times. This one stands out because it’s the first studio pic to feature gay men as the leads. It also happens to be flat-out funny. Billy Eichner is Bobby, a 40-year-old cynic convinced that he’s better off hooking-up with randoms on Grindr. Then he locks eyes with stud Aaron (Luke McFarlane) at a crowded club, and the two tentatively decide to be emotionally unavailable together. The dialogue pops thanks to razor-sharp wit and pop-culture name drops, many of which jab at how queers are portrayed in Hollywood. But at its heart is a genuinely sweet story that embraces all the hallmarks of movie romances (and Hallmark movie romances!) we know and love. (In theaters, September 30)
Catherine Called Birdy
Director Lena Dunham spent years developing the adaptation of the popular YA novel, in which the feisty heroine flits around a medieval English village circa 1290. Lady Catherine, i.e., “Birdy” (Bella Ramsey, Game of Thrones), is the only daughter of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott). Her youthful adventures are upended when her financially strapped dad decides to marry her off to a wealthy man in a bid to reap money and land. The ever-clever Birdy shoos away her potentials — only to learn that her most appalling suitor (Paul Kaye) is determined to be The Chosen One. Dunham, who also adapted the screenplay, provides a fiery spirit befitting her unconventional leading lady. With a rebel yell, you’ll want more, more, more. (In theaters September 23; Amazon Prime Video, October 7)
The Good Nurse
Here’s a gripping true-crime thriller so unbelievable that it requires a post-screening Google deep dive. It’s the shocking story of how a New Jersey nurse (Jessica Chastain) — a blue-collar single mom with a heart condition — risked her career and life to uncover the truth behind a series of mysterious patient deaths at her hospital in the early 2000s. Turns out her mild-mannered colleague (Eddie Redmayne) is the monster responsible, and his sinister work reached further back than anyone imagined. Both Oscar-winning stars are top-rate in understated and unexpected roles. (Netflix, October 26)
In this tender (albeit a bit stuffy) romance, Harry Styles bares his soul and body as one part of a complicated love triangle. The based-on-real-events story follows Styles’ closeted policeman in a seaside England town circa 1957 as he dates and eventually wed a schoolteacher (Emma Corrin) — while carrying on a secret and illegal affair with a museum curator (David Dawson). Forty years later, the improbable marriage becomes more fraught as Patrick returns to their lives. While the narrative toggles between the 1950s and the 1990s with two sets of actors taking on all three main roles, there’s a reason why Styles name alone is above the credits. He sparks in the role. (Amazon Prime, November 4)
Jennifer Lawrence is such an A-list powerhouse now that it’s hard to remember that she got her start in low-maintenance indie winners like Winter’s Bone. She returns to her roots in this small but genuinely moving character study. Lynsey is an Army Corps engineer returning to her New Orleans hometown from Afghanistan because of injury. Every move is a physical and emotional struggle, until she has a chance encounter with a man dealing with his own wounds. He’s played by the great Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta), and as soon as he enters the picture, the film’s downbeat tone changes for the better. There’s no tidy redemption in store; just a fulfilling message of hope. (Apple TV+, November 4)
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
Prepare to see Daniel Radcliffe as you never have before!!! He takes on “Weird” Al Yankovic, the master of song parodies, in a hilarious and totally bonkers music biopic that, unsurprisingly, spoofs music biopics. (Bonus points if you’ve already guessed that his parents are unsupportive of his budding career). Kernels of truth are sprinkled into the narrative — a traveling salesman really did come to young Alfie’s parents’ home to sell him an accordion — yet you know a film has gone off the rails when the man of the hour goes on a wild killing spree. Weird Al also never dated Madonna (Evan Rachael Wood) in the 1980s, though their relationship provides some of the comedy’s most inspired moments. (Roku, November 4)
And the award for the most enthused standing ovation at the end of the premiere goes to . . . this magnificently crafted Steven Spielberg opus, which traces his formative years right up through the blazing starting gate of his career. Plot: An aspiring young filmmaker named Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) growing up in post-War America copes with a devastating family secret by escaping into the power of movies. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play the stand-ins for his mismatched parents; Seth Rogen is a beloved uncle figure. It’s a rare treat for Spielberg, also a co-writer, to phone home on one of his films. And boy does he connect big time. No doubt he and the cast will receive actual statuettes in the ensuing months. (In theaters, November 11)
Think of this wicked satire as White Lotus meets The Bear meets Scream, courtesy of the writers of Succession. We’re on a remote island, where a handful of ultra-elite foodies have been invited to an exclusive and pricey dining experience. Our eyes are fixated on a bickering young couple (the sublime Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy), especially upon learning she was not his original date and doesn’t quite belong. The haute/heat cranks up more after the celebrity chef (Ralph Fiennes) warns her, “You shouldn’t be here tonight.” Forget about the thinly sliced characters: Each course delivers delicious and unpredictable drama, culminating in a searing finish. (In theaters, November 18)
Believe the hype. Brendan Fraser gives a career-defining performance in a flawed-yet-deeply affecting drama. Charlie, a morbidly obese man, sits around in his shabby apartment 24/7 and teaches online with the camera turned off. Though his blood-pressure is skyrocketing, he refuses to go to a hospital. Instead, he calls on his estranged teen daughter (Sadie Sink) for one last chance at a relationship. The film is based on a play, and it’s staged as one: Characters make pronounced entrances and exits, and the entire narrative is set in Charlie’s place. This also means Fraser must carry it all on his shoulders, and he does it with aplomb. He gives Charlie depth, showing a person who’s self-destructive yet caring, miserable yet optimistic. When he’s not on the screen, the film deflates. (In theaters, December 9)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
If Knives Out sharpened up the tired murder-mystery genre, its sequel cuts through the mayhem using a much shinier weapon. This time, Daniel Craig’s all-knowing detective Benoit Blanc investigates a new case with a new group of wealthy suspects in an exotic new locale. On a private Greek Isle, an obnoxious tech billionaire (Edward Norton) welcomes his famous pals — played the likes of Janelle Monae, Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista — for a weekend of intrigue. Then a reveler goes belly-up. Who’s responsible? Writer-director Rian Johnson has put the fear of god into critics about revealing spoilers so let’s just say that once again, the fun lies not in the whodunit but in how the detective pieces all the clues together. (Netflix, December 23)