TIFF 2023 Preview: The Hottest Festival Titles

It’s that time of year again: fall festival season!

I will again attend the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with Geek Vibes Nation, surveying the titles seeking to make a splash in the remainder of the year. (Also known as which films will be in contention for the upcoming awards season.) This year will be markedly different because of the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes’ impact on how studios will promote films. (In their bid to not pay the writers and actors fairly, studios have pushed some potential contenders like Dune Part Two and Challengers into next year to avoid the strikes.) However, the fall season continues with a robust slate competing with Barbie and Oppenheimer for voters’ attention.

In that spirit, these are the films that I expect to turn up big in Toronto.

The Boy and The Heron

The Boy and The Heron (Courtesy: TIFF)

Beloved Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and The Heron is, without question, the hottest ticket in town. (The film’s public screenings have reportedly sold out.) It is Miyazaki’s first film since 2013’s The Wind Rises and is reportedly his last before retirement. The film was released this past summer in Japan as How Do You Live? with minimal pre-release promotion. (All Studio Ghibli shared was the title and a poster.) GKIDS is handling its Western release differently, sharing several stills from the movie that immediately evoke Miyazaki’s masterpieces like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. If The Boy and The Heron is anything like them, audiences will be in for a visual and emotional wallop. Could that wallop land Miyazaki his first-ever Best Picture Oscar nomination? If it does, it would be a sensational coda to an excellent, landscape-shifting career.

Rustin

Rustin (Courtesy: TIFF)

George C. Wolfe is returning to the big screen following his Oscar-winning film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Rustin, starring Colman Domingo. Rustin is the story of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the landmark March on Washington in 1963. His role in the March has gone under-recognized because he was gay, which aligns Rustin with other biopics aimed at restoring the acknowledgment of their subjects. The film just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and received critical acclaim, particularly for Domingo’s reportedly Oscar-worthy performance. It is fantastic news for Domingo and his film heading into Toronto. If the reception holds with TIFF’s larger critics pool, Domingo might blow past Oppenheimer’s Cillian Murphy and Maestro’s Bradley Cooper to become the Best Actor frontrunner. (Worth noting: Wolfe directed Chadwick Boseman to a posthumous Oscar nomination for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.)

Anatomy of a Fall

Anatomy of a Fall (Courtesy: TIFF)

Sandra Hüller: Prepare to hear her name a lot this fall. The German actress is starring in two of the year’s buzziest films, both of which had rapturous premieres at Cannes this summer. First up is the Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall, with Hüller playing a woman on trial for murdering her spouse. Critics at Cannes lauded Justine Triet’s courtroom drama for its intense and suspenseful dissection of the judicial system. Hüller’s work has her in hot contention for a Best Actress Oscar nomination in an already-crowded field of anticipated performances. Whether she lands a nomination or not, there is no doubt that Hüller is at the forefront of fall cinema this year. (The Hollywood Reporter’s recent cover story proclaims as much.)

The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest (Courtesy: TIFF)

Hüller’s second project running the fall festival circuit is Jonathan Glazer’s Grand Prix-winning The Zone of Interest. The film follows Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig as they live in domesticity within spitting distance of the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Interest focuses on the calculated banality of evil, which aligns well with our current sociopolitical moment. Critics at Cannes and Telluride have praised the film, describing it as unsettling and unforgettable. You can expect that praise to continue as the film screens in Toronto in the coming days.

The Holdovers

The Holdovers (Courtesy: TIFF)

Hollywood loves a reunion, and The Holdovers promises a pretty big one. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti are back after 2004’s acclaimed Sideways for The Holdovers, a dramedy about a private school teacher who must supervise a group of students over the winter holidays. The film’s Telluride premiere went well, suggesting a return to form for Payne after the disappointing response to 2017’s Downsizing. The film reads like a heartwarmer in the vein of Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, which bodes well for its chances amongst the Academy’s traditionalist constituency.

American Fiction

American Fiction (Courtesy: TIFF)

What is the cost of being “Black enough?” Cord Jefferson seeks an answer in American Fiction, his send-up of the commodification of Black voices. In this adaptation of Percival Everett’s Erasure, Jeffrey Wright plays a frustrated author who writes a novel deliberately parroting clichés to prove a point about publishers’ interest in Black pain. When the book becomes an overnight sensation, he must reconcile his values with his newfound recognition. A staggering supporting cast, including Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Erika Alexander, stars alongside Wright. Cinema could do with more Black-driven satire, and American Fiction looks poised to hit the sweet spot.

Evil Does Not Exist

Evil Does Not Exist (Courtesy: TIFF)

In 2021, director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi stunned Hollywood when Drive My Car landed four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. (It won Best International Feature.) Now he is back with Evil Does Not Exist, a drama about a Japanese village threatened by the arrival of urban developers seeking to disrupt their way of life for the sake of “progress.” From the title alone, audiences can expect Hamaguchi’s film to offer a nuanced and contemplative take on the risks and rewards of urbanization. It is significantly shorter than Drive My Car but will likely be as profound.

Hit Man

Hit Man (Courtesy: TIFF)

Before he embarks on the years-long directorial odyssey Merrily We Roll Along, Richard Linklater stops in Toronto to premiere Hit Man for North American audiences. (It is also screening at the Venice International Film Festival.) The action-comedy stars Top Gun: Maverick‘s Glen Powell as Gary, an unassuming philosophy professor who’s roped into playing pretend hitmen for undercover sting operations and soon gets tripped up living multiple lives. Hit Man looks most compelling as a test for both Linklater and Powell. Linklater is prolific in comedy and films about suburbia, but how will his skill translate to more action-oriented fare? Meanwhile, Powell is on the knife’s edge of superstardom after Maverick and last year’s Devotion. This film may decide if his star wattage is bright enough to join Hollywood’s fledging A-List.

Dumb Money

Dumb Money (Courtesy: TIFF)

Remember when the GameStop Reddit meme stock was a thing? The too-good-to-be-true story is coming to the big screen with Dumb Money, directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie. Paul Dano (who should’ve been an Oscar nominee for last year’s The Fabelmans) leads the jam-packed ensemble of a film seeking to skewer late-stage capitalism and the absurdities of the stock market. “Eat the rich” movies are very much in vogue, so even if the film doesn’t break any new ground, it at least promises a relatable bite along the lines of Glass Onion, Triangle of Sadness, and The Menu. (Dano wearing a red headband unironically is alone worth the price of admission.)

Pain Hustlers

Pain Hustlers (Courtesy: TIFF)

Speaking of skewering late-stage capitalism, Pain Hustlers arrives in Toronto to take on the opioid crisis. Emily Blunt and Chris Evans star as pharmaceutical representatives whose ruthless pursuit of the almighty dollar kickstarts a drug epidemic still ruining lives. The few glimpses Netflix has offered of the film suggest something along the lines of Love and Other Drugs and The Big Short, with bold ’90s aesthetics and snark. Blunt is currently in the Oscar conversation for her work in Oppenheimer, and this film could remind voters of the actress’ considerable range. As for Evans, he will hopefully extend his smarmy jackass era with another scenery-chewing turn like Knives Out and The Gray Man.

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