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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.)

‘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.

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