September 20, 2023
Now that TIFF23 has come to a close, it's time to embark on the challenging task of ranking all the films I had the opportunity to watch. While it's no easy feat to compare such a wide range of genres and styles, my goal is to celebrate the artistry and innovation that permeated throughout the decadent TIFF venues. I also won't lie in saying that there's a small amount of joy I get by bashing in the poor films one more time. From large studio tentpoles to small international projects, I invite you to explore what the festival had to offer in 2023.
27. North Star
Maybe not every actor should be allowed to make their directorial debut. Kristen Scott Thomas' first foray behind the camera (while still being in front in a supporting role) is littered with choppy editing, poor pacing, and a scattershot script that has way too much on its plate. Emily Beecham is the only shining star (pun intended) in a cast that includes Scarlett Johansson fumbling a British accent and Sienna Miller being fine, I guess. This is surely bound for VOD/streaming way down the line.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland told the TIFF audience that he wrote the script for Finestkind thirty years ago, a fact that becomes glaringly obvious the longer the film goes on. The story is stuck in the past in the worst ways possible, soaked with cheesy sentimentality, a laughably underdeveloped female character that Jenna Ortega somehow signed up for (did she owe someone a favor?), and an out-of-nowhere crime plot that undermines all the heart and soul mined in the first half.
As per his contract demands these days, Ben Foster goes crazy a few times, and so does Tommy Lee Jones as he realizes he’s appearing in a stinker. It’s a Paramount+ production, meaning it’ll play well to the “guys being dudes” crowd that has been gorging on Taylor Sheridan's diminishing machismo these past few years.
25. Knox Goes Away
Between the other hitman-focused movies at the fall festivals and how much it seriously fumbles the great concept of a hitman battling rapidly developing dementia, Michael Keaton’s sophomore directorial outing fails to be anything more than a depressing shrug. Luckily for the actor/director, he’s slightly exonerated from blame as Gregory Poirier’s CSI-level script is what sinks this ship. Al Pacino gives his most comfortable performance sitting in some luxurious recliners, and Marcia Gay Harden does Keaton a favor by showing up for one half-decent scene.
24. His Three Daughters
Azazel Jacobs’ follow-up to French Exit (remember that during the pandemic?) starts incredibly rough as our three lead characters act as if they’re aliens who are trying to replicate drought emotions. This bug may be a feature to some, but it ends up feeling like a grating mashup of Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson. Things do settle down later, allowing the actresses to flourish. Natashya Lyonne stands out as the slacker of the three sisters, and yet she seems to have the firmest grasp on the mysteries of life.
Rustin won’t live on in the public consciousness for its craft, but it most certainly will because of Domingo’s performance. It’s a shame the whole package couldn’t come together, but it’s hard to complain when the headliner is just that good and the objective of the mission is to enlighten just as much as it is to entertain. Full Review
22. Quiz Lady
By far the broadest film TIFF programmed this year, Quiz Lady is your typical streamer comedy. Director Jessica Yu has helmed episodes of prestige television as well as both feature and short documentaries (winning an Oscar for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien), yet you’d never be able to tell based on what she delivers here. Everything is filmed with basic competence, with the actors filling much of the empty space with hit-or-miss jokes. It’s fun to see Oh cut loose, and Ferrell’s wholesome game show host turns out to be his best role in years. You can have some decent fun with this on a Friday night, forgetting all about it when you wake up the next morning.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin are still able to showcase their prowess with editing in their first narrative feature film. The directing duo crafted some fine moments of underdog drama, following Diana Nyad as she tries to overcome the impossible. There are no surprises or standout moments, but Annette Bening's commitment to the role makes for an inoffensive watch.
20. The Royal Hotel
It’s adapt or die for Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liz (Jessica Henwick) as they take jobs as bartenders in the only pub in a remote Australian mining town. The temp agency warned the girls that they needed to be “okay with a little male attention,” which turns out to be quite the understatement as their first night is filled with nasty jokes, unruly stares, and just general douchiness. Choosing adaptation is a death sentence, as there’s no reward for allowing this toxic mob to take control of their mind and body.
Director Kitty Green announced her talent with the matter-of-fact The Assistant in 2019 (also starring Garner). This sophomore effort is a leveling up of her prowess behind the camera, lining every scene with a grimy sense of dread. It feels like a thrill ride, except none of the thrills are satisfying. Green greatly elevates her script, written by Green and Oscar Redding, which never packs the depth needed and tends to loop around as it tries to sustain the 90-minute runtime. Garner and Henwick are powerful anchors, “supported” by some convincing creeps. I have no doubt Green will be hitting it big within the next few years.
19. Woman of the Hour
Anna Kendrick dominated the actor-turned-director battle at this year’s TIFF, with her film, Woman of the Hour, being quite an impressive statement of her skills behind the camera. Now all she needs to do is find a good script because the one here doesn’t give her enough to work with. While well staged, much of the “action” of the film by the serial killer feels like filler, and the main ideas are spelled out as if they're competing at a spelling bee. Netflix opened the market with an $11 acquisition, giving this true crime film the perfect home.
Reptile will likely fall into the pantheon of semi-forgettable Netflix originals. I can’t say that’s a shame because the movie doesn’t do a lot to make a case for its existence in my memory outside of a few questionable choices. But when compared to the other forgotten content, it’s a cut above. Full Review
17. Pain Hustlers
Pain Hustlers is just an inferior copycat of The Wolf of Wall Street, which is exactly what you get when you have David Yates instead of Martin Scorsese. Emily Blunt and Chris Evans are as charming as ever, but there's nothing special about this run-of-the-mill rise-and-fall story. If you recently watched Dopesick or Painkiller, then you might find a little more here.
16. The Critic
While writer Patrick Marber and star Ian McKellen are having a delightfully catty time with The Critic, director Anand Tucker takes the material too seriously, making it uneven, yet still enjoyable. McKellen plays the internet's stereotypical version of a critic: mean, smearing, and always out to make himself the star of the show. Times are changing in London as the newspapers are merging, threatening McKellen’s job, and the fascists are becoming more radicalized.
Marber’s script is a little too scattershot, never developing its numerous plotlines and characters outside of the central McKellen story. The glossy production values make this a decent package as a whole. A perfect piece of entertainment to get a spring theatrical release as counterprogramming to a superhero blockbuster.
Lee has a lot of famous actors, but only Kate Winslet is playing a character. The rest of the cast, along with almost every other aspect of the movie, feels like they're playing dress-up. It's neither good nor bad, just forgettable.
14. Les Indésirables
Ladj Ly's sophomore effort is not an answer to a question, but a further examination of it. There's dissatisfaction at the end of the road, both intentionally through Ly's honest depiction of political warfare and unintentionally through the overloaded script that tries to combine too much. Even with this slight slump, Ly's voice continues to grow, and I can't wait for it to click sometime in the future.
13. Dumb Money
Just like the memes that inspired the movement, Dumb Money is fun in the moment, but has little to no substance underneath the surface. If you’re looking for entertainment, you get just enough of it to make this worthwhile. If you’re looking to be educated on this event, I’d recommend literally anything else. Full Review
12. Seven Veils
It wouldn’t be a normal TIFF if it didn’t feature the newest film by hometown hero Atom Egoyan. Amanda Seyfried plunges headfirst into her role as the new director of a revival of Salome at the Canadian Opera Company, a production Egoyan himself helmed while making this film. There are a lot of big swings, with more than half of them not connecting. But the ones that do connect are really special, such as the audacious staging of the material. The bar may be low, but this is Egoyan's best work in decades.
Christos Nikou’s sophomore feature is a leveling up of his production values, but never quite reaches the thematic heights it aims for. There’s a nice love story in here, it’s just buried under too much mundane material.
10. Dream Scenario
Nicolas Cage has never been funnier (at least in an unironic way) than he is in Kristoffer Borgli’s English-language debut. The famed madman actor plays a dorky professor who inexplicably appears in everyone’s dreams, making him the most famous person on the planet. The fame quickly gets to his head, but it also brings unintended consequences once the dreams start taking darker turns.
Borgli's examination of cancel culture isn’t all that skillful, with most of the insights being surface-level. Cage is what sells this whole premise and covers any of the minor problems. While he’s still appearing in VOD garbage more often than he should, there have been just enough auteur-driven projects to keep him an icon to the Letterboxd generation. Being that this specific film is an A24 production, be prepared for the ensuing meme frenzy come November.
9. One Life
No modern movie has had a more significant fourth-quarter comeback than One Life. The first 90 minutes of James Hawes’ feature directorial debut has the same dry cracker texture as many other British WWII period pieces you’ve seen over the years. An immediate 180° is made in the climactic scene (you'll know it when you see it), leaving me and the rest of the audience in tears.
Anthony Hopkins stars as the older Nicholas Winton, with Johnny Flynn playing the younger version that made it his mission to rescue children out of the Holocaust ghettos of Eastern Europe. It’s Hopkins’ segments in the 1980s that give the film the spurts of life it needs. Recently minted Oscar-winner Volker Bertelmann provides a sweeping score, accenting the epic work done by this humble humanitarian.
Two people with memory issues come together in writer/director Michel Franco’s newest film, which doesn’t wallow in mystery as his past filmography would suggest. Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a mother who can’t seem to forget her past drug and alcohol struggles, while Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) has dementia and can’t seem to remember much of his past life. These two troubled souls are attracted to each other, even if the forces of the world, notably their families, would like them to stay apart.
The script places all its priorities on these two performances, both of which reach near perfection. There’s sadness and pain in their stories, but they unlock small linings of hope when they appear in each other’s lives. Franco doesn’t offer much in terms of answers, not that anyone should expect struggles of this magnitude to be so easily solved.
7. Next Goal Wins
Next Goal Wins makes fans out of all of us, both thanks to Waititi’s skill and the simple goal it strives for. It’s effortlessly watchable, uncontroversial, and full of good vibes, making it one of the best options for the family this year. Full Review
6. Hit Man
If Top Gun: Maverick wasn't enough to convince you of Glen Powell's movie star charisma, then Hit Man will certainly be the successful pitch. Richard Linklater's film is a sexy romantic comedy pairing Powell with Adria Arjona to electric results. While the Netflix acquisition means fewer people will get to see this crowdpleaser in theaters, it'll surely have a long and successful life on the streaming platform.
5. The Boy and the Heron
There are animated films for children, and there are animated films for adults. This is an animated film for everyone, and the world is a much better place because of it. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, figures in animation history has provided us with his swan song, and now it’s time for us to continue his legacy with the pieces left behind. Full Review
Ava DuVernay blends academia and entertainment to sprawlingly epic results in her adaptation of the Isabel Wilkerson novel. I'm still not sure if DuVernay succeeds in making all her connections, but she always makes them compelling through her direction. Aunjanue Ellis capitalizes on her first lead performance, anchoring the emotion within this sweeping story.
3. Evil Does Not Exist
Drive My Car writer/director and all-around arthouse superstar Ryûsuke Hamaguchi makes his most outspoken work with Evil Does Not Exist. The tranquility of a Japanese village is being threatened by the introduction of a “glamping” (glamorous + camping) site proposed by a talent agency. The site would negatively impact much of the environment around it, with many of the village resident’s livelihoods being forever altered.
Despite being clear in his message, Hamaguchi never eviscerates the villains of this story. The extreme slow cinema approach will test the patience of many expecting a return to the leanness of Drive My Car. Those who embrace the molasses will find themselves powerfully transported to one of the few places left that hasn’t been bulldozed by capitalism. Eiko Ishibashi delivers a magnificent score. It angers me that I’ll have to wait several months until it’s available to stream on Spotify.
2. The Beast
Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is the pretentious European version of Cloud Atlas, which is a statement that tells you everything you need to know about whether you’ll like it or not. I was all in on this movie, even if its ultimate message and specific story beats are hard to follow.
Bonello jumps between 1904, 2014, and 2044, intersplicing the three time periods to tell a story about love conquering time. Léa Seydoux and George MacKay play characters in each period, navigating the unknowable connection they feel for each other. It’s overindulgent and excessive, but Bonello displays a mastery of tone and vision across the 146 minutes. There’s passion, fear, humor, drama, and everything in between. I’d love to see it again sometime down the line.
1. The Holdovers
Through his directorial choices, Alexander Payne makes The Holdovers into a Christmas classic for adults. The cinematography glows like a warm fire and the relaxed pacing allows these characters to breathe. This is a melancholic film, with Payne knowing that the holidays are not full of yuletide cheer for everyone. But there are still seasons greetings to be had, just enough to make you want to be a better person and stay close to those that matter most. What more could you ask for in times like these? Full Review