Summer movie season is over, thank goodness, and now it’s time to bring on the awards contenders. There are three major festivals over the next several weeks, all of them unrolling plenty of promising new films. The Toronto Film Festival remains the best for one-stop shopping, combining the highlights of earlier festivals (Cannes and Berlin) with a large percentage of Venice and Telluride’s offerings. All told, this year’s edition is showing 296 features, including 228 that are making either their North American or world premiere.
So, how to choose? It’s not easy, but below are the ten films I’m most excited to check out. Fingers crossed we’ve got some gems in store for us.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, many Americans were rightly furious that none of the architects of the Wall Street disaster were indicted. Documentary filmmaker Steve James reminds us that one bank did get busted: Abacus chronicles the plight of New York City’s Abacus Federal Savings, a tiny, family-run institution that catered mostly to Chinese immigrants in the community. The director of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself has described the film as a David-and-Goliath battle between a vindictive Manhattan district attorney’s office and the Sung family, who were accused of mortgage fraud—even though they had played by the rules while many larger financial institutions got away scot-free.
This adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1997 novel looks both very enticing and incredibly worrisome. On the plus side, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, about American exceptionalism and one family’s fall from grace, is superb—and the film features a talented ensemble that includes Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba and David Strathairn. But the concern is that this is also the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor, who stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, a man living a seemingly enviable life until tragedy strikes at the height of the Vietnam War. McGregor is a splendid actor, but translating Roth to the big screen is a tricky proposition for even veteran filmmakers. (This summer’s Indignation was one of the rare successes.) Nonetheless, anticipation is high for a film that could either be a major Oscar contender or a huge disappointment.
No one can doubt director Denis
Villeneuve’s talent: Sicario, Prisoners and Incendies are filled with arresting scenes and emotional
performances. My problem with his films is that they tend toward preachy
self-seriousness—he’s the sort of guy who puts Radiohead songs on his
soundtracks to pump up the gravitas. (This is why my favorite of his is 2013’s
midnight-movie-ish Enemy, the creepy,
darkly funny Jake Gyllenhaal psychological thriller about two strangers who
look alike but behave very differently.) On its face, Arrival seems to be another helping of Big Themes, as Amy Adams,
Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker make first contact with an alien spaceship. Villeneuve’s
film promises to be a realistic, grown-up version of the dopey Independence Day-style invasion movies
we normally get. It looks pretty great—let’s just hope Villeneuve eases up on
The Bad Batch
With 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour introduced herself to the world, crafting a moody, romantic vampire-Western that was partly scored by gloomy goth-rock. She follows up that striking debut with this stylized horror film. The Bad Batch is set in a future America that’s been overrun by cannibals. “Road Warrior meets Pretty in Pink with a dope soundtrack,” is how Amirpour has described her film, which stars Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey. Who’s ready for a potentially super-cool post-apocalyptic love story?
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been dramatized in films such as JFK and Parkland. But Chilean director Pablo Larraín (best known for his 2012 Oscar-nominated political satire No) examines the tragedy from the perspective of his widow. Jackie stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, and the film tells her story in pieces, chronicling key moments before and after his killing. Larraín has been on a roll of late—his biographical drama Neruda was a critical hit at Cannes—and Jackie serves as his English-language debut, which costars Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt.
La La Land
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s first two films were music-themed dramas: 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and his Oscar-winning 2014 breakthrough Whiplash. His latest continues the tradition and pushes it even further. La La Land is a widescreen musical set in Los Angeles that follows the love story between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an actress (Emma Stone). With a gasp-inducing trailer that evokes everything from New York, New York to Moulin Rouge to Punch-Drunk Love, La La Land looks to be the quintessential, old-Hollywood “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” movie.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
Toronto’s press guide describes the feature debut of graphic novelist Dash Shaw like this: “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is like John Hughes fused with The Poseidon Adventure.” This surreal animated film revolves around teenaged best friends (voiced by Reggie Watts and Jason Schwartzman) who have to stay alive after a massive earthquake hits, sending their school into the Pacific Ocean. Sporting hand-drawn animation and a voice cast that includes Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon, My Entire High School has all the makings of a groovy cult movie.
This fall could be a big one for Amy Adams. Not only is she the lead in Arrival, but she also stars in Nocturnal Animals, the first movie from fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford since his touching 2009 debut A Single Man. Nocturnal Animals concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who rarely sees her traveling husband (Armie Hammer) and is surprised one day to receive a manuscript written by her estranged first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). This thriller follows Adams as she reads the novel, her real life starting to intertwine with the manuscript’s tale of a family going away for a deadly vacation. Is the book some sort of threat? And what happens when she reaches the end? Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals boasts a starry supporting cast of Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Laura Linney and Michael Sheen.
Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
Terrence Malick’s recent films haven’t lived up to the transcendence of The Tree of Life, but fans have been patiently waiting for one particular long-in-the-works project: a documentary that chronicles the birth of the universe. That’s an ambitious undertaking, and at long last Voyage of Time is ready to be seen. Narrated by Cate Blanchett, who appeared in this year’s Knight of Cups, the documentary combines CGI and live-action footage to trace humanity’s origins. In other words, if your favorite segment of The Tree of Life was Malick’s majestic, 2001-like depiction of Earth’s earliest days, this may gave you a feature-length head-trip.
Yourself and Yours
South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo is one of our most dependable filmmakers: Not only does he tend to make a movie a year, but it usually ends up being really good. His eighteenth feature, following hot on the heels of this summer’s terrific Right Now, Wrong Then, sounds like another of his indelible comedy-dramas about lovably flawed people negotiating complicated romantic relationships while drinking too much. Yourself and Yours stars Kim Joo-hyuck as a beleaguered painter who learns that his girlfriend (Lee You-young) wants a break—but once they separate, he starts seeing versions of her all over town. Hong often fiddles with time and reality, creating parallel worlds that underline his concerns about the power that fate and luck have over our lives. His movies may be modest, but they’re rich with resonance, making each new offering its own event.