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10 Best Movies We Saw at 2017 Toronto Film Festival

From Louis C.K.’s cringe-comedy to a female coming-of-age movie, a tennis-coach doc to ‘The Disaster Artist’ – our picks for the best of the fest

THREE BILLBOARDS - Frances McDormand; LADY BIRD - Sairose Ronan; THE RIDER

Our picks for the 10 best movies we saw at 2017 Toronto International Film Festival – from Louis C.K.'s cringe-comedy to a female coming-of-age movie.

Courtesy of TIFF

We came, we saw, we dropped Visine into our tired eyes and then we saw some more – over the past 11 days, we’ve let the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival dominate our viewing time with a host of unique visions, singular voices and the occasional marquee-name project gambling on the event’s award-season platforming skills. Some 50 movies later, we staggered out of the city’s screening rooms and theaters having seen some major duds (let us never speak of Suburbicon again), a few genuinely disturbing works of art (we still think the festival should hand out “I Survived Caniba” for anyone who made it through that explicit, experimental documentary on Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa) and a handful of films that reminded us why – streaming services and serial TV binging be damned – there’s nothing quite like sitting in a dark room with a crowd of strangers and emerging, 90 minutes to three hours later, having just taken part in a communal lifechanging experience.

Here are the 10 films we consider the best things we saw at TIFF 2017 – the ones we’ll still be talking about and thinking about long after the red carpets have been rolled up and put into storage until next year. (Some additional shout-outs to: Frederick Wiseman’s extraordinary Ex Libris; Scott Cooper’s Searchers-throwback Western Hostiles; Agnes Varda’s late-act collaborative documentary Faces/Places; the last half of Brawl on Cell Block 99; the epic look at Parisian ACT UP activists B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute); the Canadian zombie flick Les Affames; The Florida Project and Molly’s Game, both coming to a theater near you very soon); the sheer balls on Darren Aronofsky for making mother!; and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s jungle-love takedown of colonialism and empire-building Zama.)

‘The Death of Stalin’

Armando Iannucci, the man who gave you In the Loop‘s shit-talking spin doctor and Veep‘s pottymouthed POTUS, rewinds to 20th-century Russia and crafts a brilliant satire around Josef Stalin going to that great gulag in the sky. Once the Great Leader bites the dust, a host of underlings began jockeying for politburo pole positions and commit major Party fouls. A crack ensemble featuring Steve Buscemi (as Kruschev!), Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Python alumnus Michael Palin and Simon Russell Beale know exactly how to volley the varsity-level insults and engage in advanced oneupmanship competitions. Meanwhile, the writer-director trots out his darkest gallows humor and dissects what petty people will do in the name of power. Any resemblance to modern world affairs is not a coincidence.

‘The Disaster Artist’

In which James Franco takes a break from book-report moviemaking, makes a great film about a strong contender for the worst film ever made, and proves he’s actually capable of being an artist behind the camera. Recounting the making of cult classic The Room, the multihyphenate uses the bond between Tommy Wiseau – a mystery man blessed with a thick “New Orleans” accent, infinite funds and no sense of shame – and would-be actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) as a grounding element. But this is really an epic tale of doing whatever it takes to follow your fever dream, even if said dream involves inexplicable football games and a burning desire to show your ass onscreen. No movie has walked the tightrope between mockery and genuine affection so deftly.

‘First Reformed’

A conflicted man of the cloth (Ethan Hawke, doing the best non-Linklater work of his career) tends to a small-town chapel in upstate New York, a megachurch-sponsored relic of better, holier days. Then he meets a committed environmental activist – the kind that doesn’t mind dying for what he believes in – and his world begins to tilt off its faith-based axis. If you’d told us that one of the best movies we’d see at the fest would be writer-director Paul Schrader combining a scrupulous homage to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with an eco-thriller, we’d have told you to go to hell. But damned if this premise doesn’t bring out a surprising discipline and rigor in the veteran filmmaker, as well as some offbeat moments (and in one hallucinogenic sequence, a literal flight of fancy) that expand on his lifelong thematic, spirit-versus-flesh preoccupations. And you will argue about the meaning of that woozy last shot until your dying days.

‘Foxtrot’

Fans of Lebanon, Samuel Moaz’s incredible 2009 fictional film debut about life during wartime for a tank patrol, wondered what he was going to do for a follow-up. The answer was to bring the critique of Israeli military culture back to the homefront. A father (Lior Ashkenazi, Israel’s answer to George Clooney) loses his shit over a bureaucratic screw-up by Army brass; meanwhile, his son (Yonaton Shiray), who’s doing mandatory service at a border patrol, finds himself dealing with the numbing boredom of his situation and the sense of cruelty that rides shotgun. It’s a damning indictment that’s already stirred up controversy back in Moaz’s native Israel, as well as a tragicomic tale that’s ambitious enough to include near-pornographic animation and the greatest dancing-soldier scene this side of Beau Travail.

‘I Love You, Daddy’

No other movie – not even the P.C.-crowd–baiting battle rap midnight movie Bodied – attracted more controversy or generated more chatter than Louis C.K.’s comedy about a successful showbiz schlub (guess who?), his nubile teenage daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) and his personal hero, a renowned filmmaker (John Malkovich) – the same one who starts making aggressive moves on his kid. This would be a minefield even if its creator weren’t dealing with rumors regarding his own alleged bad behavior; as it is, the movie’s questioning of whether great art excuses artists with personal failings and how privilege plays into it (“I guess only poor people are pedophiles,” says one character) comes with C.K.’s usual sharp wit, anything-goes experimentation (that black-and-white cinematography, those old-school Hollywood credits) and a refusal to offer up easy answers.

‘Lady Bird’

There have been a million movies about young women coming of age – and actor-turned-director Greta Gerwig’s tale of a Sacramento high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) somehow makes you feel like this is the only one that matters. Her autobiography-inflected story of Christine McPherson – though could you please call her “Lady Bird”? – breathes life into everything from parental arguments to hormone-fueled puppy love to the glories of crushing on bad boys and theater nerd-dom (the awkward school production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is pitch-perfect). Every performance is spot-on, every detail about being young and stupid in early-aughts Northern California feels right and even the use of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash” works like gangbusters. A triumph, this.

‘Let the Corpses Tan’

Franco-Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani continue their Euro-exploitation remixing with this skewed take on Seventies thrillers, gathering a bunch of smooth criminals at a house on the Mediterranean coast and then handing them loads of bullets and sharp blades for backstabbing. Their vibrant retro-sleaze style is out in full force, but this is the closest they’ve come to actually attaching their aesthetic to a genuine story, albeit a stock cops-vs-robbers one – and the result feels like a big step forward. Add in some genuinely eye-popping Jodorowsky-esque psychedelic interludes and Hal Hartley regular Elina Löwensohn as the fatalest of femmes, and this is what a midnight movie is supposed to look like.

‘Love Means Zero’

You gotta give it up for legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri: His tennis academy for youngsters was a groundbreaking training ground for generations of professional players; his take-no-prisoners approach to mentoring helped players ranging from the Williams sisters to a comeback-era Boris Becker achieve champion-level status; and his uncanny ability to wipe his memory clean regarding decades of bad decisions and one particular devastating break-up. Documentarian Jason Kohn (Manda Bala) keeps lobbing over-the-net questions off-camera – not for nothing was he an Errol Morris protege – and Bollettieri keeps bouncing them back with “I don’t remember … that’s just Nick!” It’s his evasiveness and silences around star pupil Andre Agassi, however, that speak volumes about this brash figure, and why this extraordinary portrait ends up only peripherally being about the sport and all about the art of burning bridges.

‘The Rider’

Part semi-documentary, part semi-fictional storytelling and an all-American chronicle of hardship and transcendental bliss, filmmaker Chloé Zhao follows a wounded Native American rodeo star (real-life circuit rider Brady Jandreau) as he deals with rehabilitation, an unstable family situation and life after your dream doesn’t come true. It’s as intimate a character study as you’ll find, with Zhao reclaiming tried-and-true Western iconography in the name of her indigenous characters and Jandreau recreating scenes lifted partially from his own experiences. The result feels like watching someone tear out a chunk of their chest and chuck it on to the screen – a look into a sub–subculture that feels both remarkably specific and universally resonant.

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

On stage, Martin McDonagh’s work often bristles with political overtones, a biting Irish wit and a penchant for crackling dialogue and horrific violence; his film work, however, feels like it concentrates mostly on the last part, often making the award-winning playwright feel like a Tarantino wannabe. His third film, however, permanently puts that notion to rest: The writer-director has finally found a film in which his prodigious talent and profane sense of morality is being put to a humanistic purpose. Frances McDormand, in what will likely be her second Oscar-nabbing role, is a mother who’s enraged over the lack of law-enforcement urgency regarding her daughter’s rape and murder. She puts up some accusatory billboards asking about the investigation; cue angry police chief (Woody Harrelson) and a small-town shit storm. McDonagh has gifted not just his fierce female lead but all of his cast with juicy roles – though watch how Sam Rockwell guides his racist, dumbass cop into something approaching an awakening and becomes a stealth MVP in the process. It’s a deep, complex, hilarious, emotionally blindsiding look into truth, justice and the ugly American way – and hands down, the single best thing we saw at Toronto. Let’s hope it winning the festival’s Audience Award is only the start of its statue-grabbing haul.