The Best Of TIFF 2019: Whodunits, Divorces, Lighthouses, and Hitler

Another Toronto International Film Festival is drawing to a close, and what a wonderful year it was. This was my fourth year attending the festival, and I have to say, there wasn’t a single movie I saw this year that I outright disliked. There were titles I loved more than others, but out of the many movies I caught at the fest, I’d honestly say all are worth seeing. Below, I’ve put together a best of TIFF 2019 round-up to highlight some specific films you’re not going to want to miss whenever they find their way to theaters.

Best Movies I Didn’t See 

All right, let’s get this out of the way first. At every film festival, you have to make sacrifices. As much as you’d love to see every movie, it’s impossible. So you have to pick and choose your battles, and make sacrifices. In my case, I tended to stick with movies that /Film needed reviews of, and skip films we had already had reviews from previous festivals. The two biggest examples of this were Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite and Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We had reviews of both of those flicks out of Cannes, so I didn’t make them a top priority and ended up not being able to catch them at all. Which is a damn shame, because, by all accounts, both of them are amazing. So I’m starting this list off by pointing that out so you don’t spend the entire time reading this and thinking, “When is he going to talk about Parasite or Portrait of a Lady on Fire?!” I also hear Hustlers is a lot of fun, but I didn’t see that, either. So I might as well include that on here as well.

Best Movie

This is bound to be a controversial pick. The reaction to Taika Waititi‘s “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit has been considerably polarizing – more polarizing than I could have even anticipated. Some folks just flat-out did not care for Waititi’s admittedly odd dark comedy about a young wannabe Nazi who has Hitler as an imaginary friend. But for my money, Jojo Rabbit was the best of the fest. On paper, Waititi’s satire sounds like a terrible idea, and so much could’ve gone wrong. But the director manages to navigate both light and darkness wonderfully, creating a film that’s hilarious, heartfelt, and often quite dark. I’ve seen some complaints that the movie has an overly-simplistic view of the events of World War II – but that’s part of the point. After all, the entire movie is told from the point-of-view of an 8-year-old child – of course his POV is going to be a little simplistic. For all the risks it takes, and all the ways it manages to make a potentially disastrous idea work and work well, Jojo Rabbit has my vote for the best movie out of TIFF.

Best Performances 

There was a wealth of great acting in this year’s films. Antonio Banderas gives one of his very best performances in Pain and Glory as a reflective film director. Joaquin Phoenix is suitably terrifying as Joker. Riz Ahmed astounds as a man who goes deaf in Sound of Metal. Sterling K. Brown has a small but powerful turn in WavesTaylor Russell turns in a quiet, introspective, often heartbreaking performance in that same film. Ana de Armas reveals a real knack for comedy in Knives Out. Tom Hanks is an absolute delight as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And Scarlett Johansson is surprisingly wonderful in Jojo Rabbit. But the best performance of the fest belongs to someone in another film featuring Johansson – Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Driver also appeared at the fest in The Report, and his performance in that film is dynamite as well. But as a playwright going through a nasty divorce in Marriage Story, Driver commands the screen at every turn, playing his character as a somewhat clueless man slowly on the verge of a complete breakdown. It’s awe-inspiring to watch him work.

Best Ensemble 

Two films deserve to earn this title. The first is Rian Johnson‘s utterly wonderful Knives Out, the most entertaining movie of the festival. Johnson’s whodunit boasts a cast that includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer, all of whom get their own moments to shine – while also bouncing off each other brilliantly.

The other film deserving of this distinction is Armando Iannucci’s hilarious Charles Dickens adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield, featuring Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse, Aneurin Barnard, Daisy May Cooper, Morfydd Clark, Benedict Wong, and Gwendoline Christie. This bunch plays a gaggle of quirky, goofy Dickensian characters, and each and every one of them is a hoot.

Weirdest Movie

Robert Eggers‘s black-and-white nightmare The Lighthouse comes close to being the weirdest movie of the festival. But the true winner of this title is Richard Stanely‘s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space. Stanley has crafted an absolutely batshit insane experience here – a film that seems to be losing its mind along with its main characters. While the majority of the cast appear to be acting in one movie, star Nicolas Cage is in another movie altogether. Hell, he’s on another planet. At this point, it’s almost boring to point out how crazy Nic Cage can be in movies, but his turn here is truly one of the most bonkers bits of acting he’s ever performed. He moves about the movie screaming about alpacas, using goofy voices, and behaving as if he’s in a comedy. It’s disorienting to watch.

Best Looking Movie With Facial Hair, Seagulls, and Sea Shanties 

The Lighthouse is one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen. Shot in grainy black and white in a boxy 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio, the film resembles some sort of lost work of art that was recently unearthed in a moldy box buried on some secluded beach. Director Robert Eggers has Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson sport some serious facial hair and then go at each other. They fist-fight, they bicker, they drink, they sing sea shanties. You’ve never seen anything like it, and even if you don’t like the film – and there’s a good chance you won’t – I promise you’ll never forget it. So light up your pipe, pour out some spirits, and belt out a jaunty tune devoted to Poseidon. And whatever you do, don’t spill yer beans.

Best Comeback

An honorable mention here to Terrence Malick and his film A Hidden Life. In fairness, this isn’t a comeback in the literal sense, since Malick has been making movies steadily for the last few years. But A Hidden Life is a return to form of sorts of the filmmaker, and arguably his best since Tree of Life. The reason is simple: A Hidden Life has a story. Yes, it still has Malick’s trademark ethereal nature, but it also has something resembling an actual narrative – something severely lacking in his last three movies.

The true comeback award, though, goes to Eddie Murphy in Dolemite Is My Name. As cult comedy icon Rudy Ray Moore, Murphy gives his best performance in a long, long time. The actor is laugh-out-loud hilarious here, and his performance is a wonderful reminder of how damn funny Eddie Murphy is overall. As a result, it feels great to have him back, front and center, making us laugh our asses off.

Most Likely To Make You Cry

The running joke on the ground at TIFF was that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, aka the movie where Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers, was bound to make audiences cry. And sure enough, it did. Marielle Heller‘s beautiful drama tugs at your heartstrings, primarily due to Hanks’s captivating performance as the famed children’s television host. Hanks isn’t doing an impression or impersonation of Mr. Rogers – he’s making the character his own. He doesn’t imitate Rogers’s voice, but he does capture the soft-spoken and warm way Rogers conversed with people. Best of all, Hanks makes Rogers seem like a real person, not some parody. Hanks’s final scene in the film, an entirely wordless moment of raw power, is so effective that it finally broke me and had me softly weeping as I ducked out of the theater as the credits rolled.

Most Unpleasant Experience

Whatever you think of Joker – I gave it a positive review, so don’t @ me – one thing is for certain: it’s an ugly movie. This might be one of the most unpleasant films I’ve ever seen – loaded with a cold nihilism, and no desire to rise above it. Todd Phillips‘s anti-comic book movie wants to be this nasty, this pessimistic, this upsetting. If you’re looking for some sort of deeper meaning or bigger message here, you’re not going to find it. Instead, you’re going to find a full two-hours of emotional ugliness.

Biggest Surprise

I knew next to nothing about Waves, other than the fact that it was directed by Trey Edward Shults, the filmmaker behind Krisha and It Comes at Night. With that in mind, I figured the movie would involve a fair share of anxious moments – something Shults specializes in. Sure enough, Waves is full of scenes where you can feel the tension mounting as you just wait for something terrible to happen. But beyond that is a wholly surprising, raw and powerful saga of a family slowly coming apart. Waves follows two distinct narratives. One involves a high school wrestling star, played wonderfully by Kelvin Harrison Jr., as he succumbs to the pressures in his young life. The other focuses on that character’s sister, played by Taylor Russell, as she navigates her life in the wake of a major event. The less you know about this movie, the better – because it’s going to knock you on your ass.

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