The 10 must-see movies at TIFF

Published September 5, 2017

Starting this Thursday, Toronto’s King Street West transforms into a pedestrian promenade perfect for some casual star-gazing as Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson, Andrew Garfield, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBoeuf and dozens more of their ilk travel north of the 49th parallel to take part in the Toronto International Film Festival—the glamorous, de facto kick-off to Hollywood’s fall movie roster. Recent history has proven TIFF can make (Best Picture winners Moonlight, 12 Years A Slave and Slumdog Millionaire) or break (opening night films Creation, Fifth Estate or The Judge, anyone?) a film’s chances at box-office supremacy. From crowd-pleasing James Franco meta-narratives and a documentary exposé about old Tinseltown’s X-rated underbelly to a nauseating portrait of a Japanese cannibal, we’ve singled out 10 gems destined to appeal to a broad swath of cinematic appetites.

Call Me By Your Name

This passionate first love, coming-of-age and coming-out story, set in the sun-kissed Italian countryside of the 1980s, has generated feverish Oscar buzz since it premiered in Sundance at the top of year. An acclaimed queer novel brought to the big screen by sensual mastermind Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), Call Me centers on a hesitating, slow-burn romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a precocious 17-year-old spending the summer at his parents’ vacation home, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old visiting graduate student and assistant to Elio’s father. Piano keys are played, great literature is quoted and mouth-watering peaches are mutilated, all in the name of desire.

Bodied

For the past 30 years, music video powerhouse Joseph Kahn has provided pop culture with some of the most indelible visual renditions of Billboard chart-toppers (Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”, Eminem’s “Without Me” and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” ft. Kendrick Lamar among them). In hip-hop satire Bodied, co-written with Toronto battle rap veteran Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen and produced by Eminem, Kahn taps into the gritty battle rap circuit, where ruthless contestants flaunt their lyrical might by way of gasp-inducing putdowns. The premise revolves around a white graduate student who infiltrates the scene to write an “edgy” thesis, only to spark racial tensions and campus backlash. Featuring Anthony Michael Hall, a slew of battle rappers and shock-jock radio host Charlamagne Tha God, this should get people talking about something other than Kahn’s very polarizing recent video for Taylor Swift’s “LWYMMD.”

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

This past May, an untitled 1982 graffiti painting of a skull by Basquiat set a new record for an American artist when it sold for over $110 million at an auction. Having already received the Hollywood treatment (Julian Schnabel’s 1996 Basquiat, with Bowie playing Andy Warhol) and an intimate documentary tribute (2009’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child), New York art scene anchor Sara Driver opts instead to focus on the mercurial artist’s pre-fame years in the vibrant downtown scene of 1978-1981, when he was still practically homeless. With commentary from mates such as Jim Jarmusch and graffiti artist Lee Quiñones, Driver delves into the punk-rock, hip-hop, political and pop-up forces that fuelled Basquiat’s visionary, border-busting art.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is the self-styled nickname of a feisty high school senior (Saoirse Ronan, who is already being showered with praise) itching to escape her uptight Sacramento school, overprotective parental unit and misguided boy crushes for a liberal college far, far away. In some ways, it mirrors the upbringing of indie queen-cum-mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig, who sets her solo directorial debut 15 years in the past—complete with Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette music cues. Billed as a witty feminine take on the mighty teen urge to reject the path parents have carved out and slowly chart one’s own, Lady Bird‘s in keeping with the heart-rending young heroines at a crossroads Gerwig has both imagined and embodied in the past (Frances Ha, Mistress America).

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Adapted from his lurid, tell-all memoir, this hotly anticipated documentary about former Hollywood gas attendant turned gay sex worker/pimp to the stars Scotty Bowers provides a rare window into what pre-LGBT rights America was like for the closeted moviemaking royalty of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Now 94 years old and still a very personable raconteur, the former marine shares unpublished dirt about the era’s X-rated underworld and the sexual shenanigans of deceased celebrities such as Bette Davis, Cary Grant, J. Edgar Hoover and Katharine Hepburn (whom he allegedly set up with over 150 women). Director Matt Tyrnauer, who’s made compelling docs about Valentino and Jane Jacobs, mostly lets the guy who found his unorthodox calling pumping gas at the corner of Hollywood and Van Ness recount the erstwhile promiscuity of a secret A-list society.

Caniba

A Japanese cannibal achieves tabloid infamy thanks to the murder and partial consumption of a Dutch student, before attempting to reinvent himself as a hardcore porn actor, the author of mangas wherein he revisits his nauseating crime and … as a sushi critic. Although this sounds like a twisted tale of moral reckoning, it’s actually the latest experiential documentary from Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan). Expect an overwhelmingly in-your-face interview-portrait exploring the connections between cannibalism and sexual desire. Seeing the unfathomably raw Issei Sagawa—who now lives with his brother Jun on the outskirts of Tokyo after a stroke left him semi-paralyzed—scarf down a pain au chocolat is the stuff nightmares are made of.

The Disaster Artist

A comedy biopic about the making of 2003’s The Room—“the Citizen Kane of bad movies”—directed by and starring James Franco, this A24 meta-narrative has star wattage to spare (brother Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith among them). Franco avoids going down the mean-spirited route of mocking an eccentric director’s shortcomings, instead offering an empathetic and hilarious tribute to a magnetic Hollywood outsider’s grand vision and frankly baffling creative decisions. Whether you’ve seen or liked The Room is beside the point. This outrageous origin story of a modern cult classic is peak Franco in the best possible way.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Forty years after the release of her debut record, Portfolio, the nightlife legend, fashion trailblazer, outrageous Bond henchwoman and cheekbone-sculpted enigma unmasks like never before in this decade-in-the-making, vérité-style doc. After completing a film about her Pentecostal bishop brother, Jones gave director Sophie Fiennes an all-access pass to her larger-than-life tour, her verbal scorching of smarmy Parisian TV people, her family trips to Jamaica, to clubs as well as churches, with nary an archival clip in sight.  In Jamaican patois, “bloodlight” is the red light found in the recording studio, while “bami” means bread. Fiennes has crafted a celebration of art and life that stands as a nice companion piece to Jones’s recently published, subversively titled autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. Jones herself has promised the film “will be like seeing me almost naked.”

The Gospel According To André

Before he became a ubiquitous, six-and-a-half-foot presence at every top-tier runway show and a highly sought-after arbiter of sartorial taste, André Leon Talley was just a kid from a humble family in North Carolina who cut his teeth working at Andy Warhol’s Factory as well as this very publication (for $50 a week!). Talley has described doc-maker Kate Novack’s directorial debut as his “journey in the chiffon trenches,” with colorful commentary supplied by the likes of Anna Wintour, Whoopi Goldberg and Valentino. The story of how a larger-than-life contributing editor at Vogue ascended to that position—while successfully advocating for a greater inclusion of African-American designers and models in print publications—is told with grace and a hefty serving of wit, while paying homage to two important women in his life: Diana Vreeland and his grandma.

The Florida Project

When Disney began purchasing land that would one day become Walt Disney World in the 1960s, the company christened the venture “The Florida Project.” That’s the title Sean Baker settled on for his devastating follow-up to the groundbreaking, entirely-shot-on-iPhone Tangerine. Here, the director continues his immersive incursions into society’s marginalized tribes—this time families living in makeshift motels in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. He juxtaposes a six-year-old’s idyllic summer of insouciance and mischief with the harsh plight of her very unemployable 22-year-old mother, who struggles to pay the residence’s $35-a-night price tag. But this ain’t poverty porn or miserabilist moviemaking. It may expose disenchantment in the Sunshine State, but it’s also candy-colored, exuberant, shot on 35 mm and stars Willem Dafoe as a tender-hearted motel manager in what has to be the best against-type casting call of the year.

THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM SEPTEMBER 7 TO 17, 2017.

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF TIFF.