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25 Must-See Movies at Toronto Film Festival 2015

From Oscar-buzzed biopics to music docs on Arcade Fire and Aretha, our can’t-miss picks for the fall’s biggest film fest

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It's the second-to-last stop on the Fall film-festival circuit, after Venice and Telluride and before the carefully curated New York cinefeast — but the Toronto International Film Festival holds a special place in traveling festgoers hearts. It's a chance to catch up on the year's already lauded entries from Cannes, Berlin and, occasionally, Sundance. You don't need to fly to the nosebleed-altitude Colorado mountains to get there. It's the semi-official kick-off of the awards season, when prestige films start garnering buzz and truly bad Oscarbait get Bronx cheers. And its catch-all approach to programming (big studio releases, under-the-radar docs, deep-cut foreign-language movies, namebrand-auteur hat tips, a raucous Midnight Madness section — and starting this year, a TV sidebar) means fanatics get a well-balanced diet of visual gorging.

After poring through the fest's lineup with the intensity of Talmud scholars and breaking down everything from its Gala presentations to its "Platform" section, we've identified 25 movies we can't wait to check out at this year's TIFF, running from September 10th through the 20th. Some are major fall autumn releases that'll be coming soon to a theater near you; others are the kind of smaller treasures that you might not hear about otherwise. But all of them are reminders of why many of us head to the Great White North for 10 days every year: to sit down in the dark and emerge with our eyes opened to the world.

heart of a dog

‘Heart of a Dog’

Laurie Anderson's painful personal cine-essay explores the idea of healing after grieving — a subject she's all too familiar with, having lost her mother, her pet and her husband Lou Reed in quick succession. Her multimedia projects have never been less than fascinating, and this deep-dive into death and rebirth (complete with animation, meditations on Buddhism, home movies and her own musical odds and ends) sounds like it both builds off of and transcends her past performance-art works.

High Rise

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Courtesy of TIFF

‘High-Rise’

Viva Ben Wheatley! The British director has been quietly churning out jawdropping, midnight-movie masterpieces ranging from genre mash-ups (the kitchen-sink gangster film Down Terrace, the serial-killer romcom Sightseers) to the downright unclassifiable (Kill List, A Field in England). Now he's taking on J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel about a giant apartment building that doubles as a petri dish for class warfare, and the results look slick, sick and completely stunning.

Green Room

‘Green Room’

Neo-artsploitation auteur Jeremy Saulnier follows up his breakthrough revenge thriller Blue Ruin with what sounds like an even tenser premise: Out of desperation, a young band takes a gig on a Nazi-skinhead compound run by a white supremacist (Patrick Stewart). Things do not go well, to say the least. Reception at Cannes was damn near rapturous, and it's been far too long since we've had a great racist-thugs-versus-punk-rockers grindhouse gem, so we say bring it on.

I Saw The Light

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Courtesy of TIFF

‘I Saw the Light’

Hardcore music-movie aficionados may recall that Hank Williams Sr. got the biopic treatment once before back in 1964, with Your Cheatin' Heart; the actor who portrayed the man behind that high lonesome sound was — wait for it — none other than George Hamilton. We have faith that Tom Hiddleston will deliver a much more authentic, if somewhat less tan, take on the country & western icon. Really, the man played a mischievous Norse god, for Pete's sake; he should be able to handle a Grand Ole Opry godhead with ease. Plus we want to see if he can nail that yodel in "Long Gone Lonesome Blues."

Janis Joplin

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Courtesy of TIFF

‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’

Taking a momentary break from reporting on pedophile priests (Deliver Us From Evil), Hollywood predators (An Open Secret) and Latter-Day-Saint polygamists (Prophet's Prey), documentarian Amy Berg dives headfirst into something less soul-crushing than usual: the life and times of Janis Joplin. Sure, we imagine this will delve into the more tragic aspects of the peerless blues-belter's self-destructive tendencies and gone-too-soon arc, but we're also expecting a celebration of her music, incendiary concert footage and a tribute to how she turned a reservoir of pain into a timeless body of work.

Kill Your Friends

Courtesy of TIFF

‘Kill Your Friends’

An up-and-coming London A&R executive (Nicolas Hoult, yet again) is determined to rise to the top of the dog-eat-dog heap during the heady, hedonistic days of Britpop's 1990s chart reign. If you guessed that means killing a few rivals along the way, then you win a prize! John Niven's 2008 novel has been described as American Psycho set in the music industry; if this pitch-black comedy gets within coke-snorting distance of that perversely wonderful movie adaptation, we can welcome a new addition to the sociopathic-antihero canon.

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‘Legend’

Question: What's better than a movie with a Tom Hardy performance? Answer: One with two Tom Hardy performances, probably. The Mad Max actor plays both Ronald and Reggie Kray, the notorious (and psychotic) East End gangsters/twin brothers who terrorized London throughout the Fifites and Sixties, hobnobbed with famous folks and ended up becoming rock-star-like celebrities in the process. It's literally double the Hardy, folks!

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‘The Lobster’

We've seen our share of dystopias onscreen over the past decade, but Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) may be the first to give us a surreal-nightmare future in which people must pick their soulmate within a 45-day window…or they're turned into an animal of their choice. (Imagine how this would change the way we use Tinder.) Colin Farrell is the looking-for-love hero who risks becoming the crustacean of the film's title; Rachel Weisz is a militant who's trying to rebel against the matchmaker powers that be; John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux and several other recognizable faces get in on the sublime weirdness.

London Fields

Courtesy of TIFF

‘London Fields’

Everybody from Starred Up's David Mackenzie to David Cronenberg have been attached to adapt Martin Amis' class-driven, darker-than-dark 1989 novel about a self-destructive young woman into a movie over the years. So kudos to you, first-time feature director Mathew Cullen, for finally getting it done. Amber Heard plays the novel's heroine, Nicola Six; Jim Sturgess, Billy Bob Thornton and Divergent's Theo James show up as the three men in her life — one of whom she knows will kill her, thanks to a precognitive dream. We have it on good authority that Johnny Depp makes a cameo as an unspecified character. We're assuming that it won't be a Whitey Bulger reprise, though how awesome would that be?

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‘Love’

You expect France's enfant terrible filmmaker and provocateur extraordinaire Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void) to make controversial, boundary-pushing movies; even give his track record, you still might not have expected his latest work to be a 3-D skinflick filled to the brim with explicit, hardcore sex. (The trailer, suffice to say, is NSFW and then some.) Having already shocked the crowd at Cannes this year, the auteur's tale about a cinephile caught between two lovers makes it way to our shores and threatens to change the way you think about onscreen intimacy, one money shot at a time.

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‘The Martian’

Message to Matt Damon: You may want to steer clear of faraway planets, as you seem to have a nasty habit of getting stranded on them. Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi endeavor leaves the androids and aliens at home, opting instead for a survival drama involving Damon's marooned deep-space botanist fighting to stay alive on the fourth rock from the sun. If this film adaptation of Andy Weir's self-published book is half as scientifically wonky as its source material, we fully expect to get collegiate credit along with the tension and thrills.

Miss Sharon Jones

New York, NY - February 2, 2014 - Sharon Jones performs at the Beacon Theater following cancer treatment. CREDIT: Jacob Blickenstaff

Courtesy of TIFF

‘Miss Sharon Jones!’

She's the face of the old-school soul revival and the frontwoman for the Stax-style group the Dap-Kings — if anyone deserves a docu-portrait, it's Sharon Jones. Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.) followed the singer during a tumultuous year in which, on the eve of a new album and tour, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and almost saw her band disintegrate.

Our Brand is Crises

Courtesy of TIFF

‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

David Gordon Green takes the 2005 documentary about an American political marketing firm advising a candidate in Bolivia's presidential election (spoiler alert: he won) and remakes it as a star vehicle for Sandra Bullock. Normally, we'd cry foul with something like this, but the potential in mining this true story for sharp political satire seems too good to pass up. And after that impressive turn in Gravity, we're genuinely curious to see what Bullock does next.

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‘The Program’

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would make a based-on-a-true-story movie about Lance Armstrong and the doping scandal that led to his disgrace — but that fact that Stephen Frears, the versatile filmmaker behind everything from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, is responsible for this retelling has us more than a little interested. (Even his occasional misfires are intriguing.) The always intense Ben Foster is the tarnished golden boy; Chris O'Dowd is the muckraking journalist David Walsh, who helped uncover the titular "program" responsible for the cyclist's dominance of the sport; and an all-star cast shows up to add glamor to the "say it ain't so, Lance!" gasps.

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‘The Reflektor Tapes’

Music-video director Kahlil Joseph chronicles the Arcade Fire's making of their 2013 album Reflektor and the beginning of their subsequent around-the-world (and cover-song-heavy) tour behind it. We expect some incredible performance footage, an accordion solo or three, some stream-of-consciousness detours, scenes of producer James Murphy drinking coffee and several numbers featuring that weird guy in the mirrored suit from the title track's video.

Son of Saul

Courtesy of TIFF

‘Son of Saul’

The breakout hit of this year's Cannes, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes' Holocaust drama views the 20th century's worst atrocity through the perspective of one locksmith (Géza Rohrig) hellbent on secretly burying a child's corpse in Auschwitz. To say that viewers are in for some seriously heavy-duty despair would be putting it lightly, but the manner in which the first-time feature director tackles the subject — by keeping the camera tightly on its protagonist throughout the entire movie — has earned the work raves up and down the Croisette.