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10 Best Movies We Saw at Toronto Film Festival 2016

A modern musical, a First Lady biopic, a gunfire free-for-all and the glory that is ‘Moonlight’ — our picks for the best of the 2016 fest

Folks went into the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival hearing that the movies were "dead," as several articles declared the summer season to be the medium's swan song and the Internet Rage Complex batted around the straw-man argument of the day. By the time you left the annual Canadian celebration of big-name Oscar hopefuls, brand-name auterist works, docs on everything from the racial state of our nation to the Stooges, IMAX pet projects and even a pulpy revenge thriller about a hitman surgically altered into a hitwoman, however, it was impossible not to think that the art form was still alive, well and living in the Great White North. Summer blockbusters that rely on recycling the same material ad nauseaum and expect to coast by old viewing habits? Yeah, they're not doing so hot right now. The movies? From what we saw at the film festival this year, the epitaphs could not be more premature. Here are the 10 best things we caught at TIFF 2016. Trust us when we say that there are some serious cinematic treasures heading your way soon.

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‘Free Fire’

Take about a half dozen trigger-happy criminal types, arm them to the teeth, and lock them in an abandoned factory. Liberally add gunpowder, blood, and a heaping helping of broken glass. Bring it all to a high boil, and you're starting to get close to the pressurized insanity of cult director Ben Wheatley’s new shoot-'em-up action opus. Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley all shine in this blackly hilarious Seventies-set bullet ballet, where so much as getting up from a horizontal crouch means signing your own death warrant. CB

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‘In the Blood’

Veteran Danish screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg tries his hand behind the camera in this finely shaded character study about medical student Simon (Kristoffer Bech) methodically alienating everyone close to him. He’s jealously possessive of his best friend (Elliot Crosset Hove), much to the chagrin of his buddy's girlfriend (Lea Gergersen). As the trio spend their days getting high and luxuriating in their own privilege, our hero sinks further into self-destruction. It's your classic getting-your-shit-together quarterlife-crisis narrative, sketched with uncommon intelligence and nuance. CB

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‘Jackie’

Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy, in the days after her husband's assassination: this had Oscarbait written in permanent marker all over it going into the festival. So imagine the surprise when viewers discovered that Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No) and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim turn the First Lady's preparations for laying her husband to rest into a mixed-media, mashed-up mediation on politics, living in the public eye, and grief — and that Portman would give what's inarguably her greatest performance to date, patrician accent and all. You'd have thought that everything about that pivotal moment in American history had already been said. You'd have been wrong. DF

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‘La La Land’

In which director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) doesn't so much reinvent the musical as thoroughly modernize and revitialize it, putting Ryan Gosling's jazz pianist and Emma Stone's struggling actress through some serious song-and-dance paces. Folks who caught Chazelle's 2009 debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench knew that he had a penchant for (and love of) staging throwback crooning, hoofing set pieces. But this waking Technicolor dream makes you feel like you've just binged three weeks worth of TCM programming in the best possible way, and you have not lived until you've seen a Los Angeles freeway turned into a Broadway-style stage or watched the film's lovelorn couple literally waltz among the stars. Mondo swooning, this. DF

10 Best Movies We Saw at Toronto Film Festival 2016 Gosling Stone

Courtesy of TIFF

‘Lady Macbeth’

Welcome to the left-field hit of the festival. There was little buzz on British theater director William Oldroyd's adaptation of the Russian play about a young woman (Florence Pugh, stunning) who's "sold" to a young landowner in rural Victorian England and made his spouse. By the time this rigorous tale of adultery, feminism, vengeance, violence and power-jockeying had screened a few times, this was the hot topic of conversations not involving Moonlight (see below). It's a jaw-dropping debut, one that makes all those Masterpiece Theater versions of to-the-manor-born dramas look positively toothless. DF

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‘Moonlight’

This elliptical ballad of yearning and coming-of-age in poverty-stricken Miami officially announces director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) as a visionary talent. In three acts, the filmmaking shows the boyhood, teen years, and adulthood of Chiron, a sensitive African-American man figuring out how to reconcile his budding homosexuality with his turbulent, less-than-tolerant surroundings. Jenkins renders this portrait of the black experience and unrequited love with boundless empathy, extending generosity to each and every struggling character. In the words of Frank Ocean — an undeniable point of comparison in his tenderhearted queer masculinity — we all try. CB

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‘Nocturnal Animals’

For his second go in the director's chair, designer Tom Ford offers audiences two pulpy, borderline-absurd treats for the price of one. In the "real" world, art dealer Amy Adams puzzles over whether or not to reconnect with her novelist ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) after he sends her his disturbing new manuscript. Then we step inside the book itself, where a pair of rural criminals make life a living hell for a family man (also Gyllenhaal) by murdering his wife and child. Add Michael Shannon as a West Texas lawman who doesn't play by the rules, and it's high-art, high-camp bliss for all. CB

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‘Paterson’

A movie about a poet that flows like poetry — bless you, Jim Jarmusch. The second of the independent-cinema godhead's movies at TIFF (after his Stooges doc Gimme Danger), this low-key story of a bus driver (Adam Driver) with a kooky wife (viva Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani!), a regular daily routine and a love of verse is possibly the most genuinely Zen film he's ever made. It's so good in its depiction of finding creativity in mundane small-town living that you don't even mind the clever touches, like a character named Paterson living in Paterson, New Jersey and being enamored of William Carlos Williams' book Paterson. Quietness has rarely seemed so earth-shaking. DF

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‘The Salesman’

Two married theater performers (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti), each acting in a local production of Death of a Salesman, are forced to move to a new apartment during the play's run. While there, the wife is assaulted and finds she's having a hard time getting back to everyday life; the husband, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with finding out who perpetrated the act. Iranian filmmaker Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) keeps things at a slow, simmering boil until he doesn't — at which point, you can feel your nerves starting to rattle and see how a single-minded pursuit for justice and closure can spiral someone into a downward free fall. Bravo. DF 

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