We change the world, one story at a time – Richard Wagamese


The Toronto International Film Festival starts this week. What a line-up. Artistic Director Cameron Bailey at this year’s press conference promised a “leaner” festival, but I only see an embarrassment of riches.

Below are my picks. These are films I look forward to, based on who’s behind or in them.  It’s an eclectic set of blockbusters, indies and crowd-pleasers from East, West, North and South.

Here they are, in alphabetical order, including my predictions for this year’s People’s Choice award prospects.


A Fantastic Woman

Close-up of a woman's face.


Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has two strong contenders in the festival: my pick, A Fantastic Woman, and Disobedience, which I look forward to as well. The latter will get a wider release,  though, so I’m advocating for the one that’s more under the radar.

A Fantastic Woman features the transgender actress and discovery Danielle Vega (seen above). Marina is a young transgender woman who struggles with her own grief and larger societal prejudices after her middle-aged male lover dies. It blends shades of Boys Don’t Cry with Almodovar and Fassbinder. I’ve wanted to see it ever since I read a review in Variety last February.


Darkest Hour


Both this trailer and Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill give me chills.  Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Churchill, in a film that perfectly complements Christopher Nolan’ s epic Dunkirk.

I predict The Darkest Hour, if it’s as good as it looks, has a shot at this year’s coveted and hotly contested audience award. Sadly, it’s all too timely, which makes the horrors of the past not very past at all. Amid an actual, ongoing resurgence in fascism, the need to fight fiercely against it once more grows pressing. We are learning, like England and Churchill knew,  that you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.


Don’t Talk to Irene

A close-up of a young woman with a big gulp soda in hand, standing behind a chain-link fence.


This Canadian comedy not only features dance and cheerleading in its plot (two of my fave topics onscreen). It also boasts Geena Davis as a costar cheering on the winsome, titular Irene (Michelle McLeod) – as a voice from a bedroom poster of A League of Our Own. Canadian writer-director Pat Mills has a deft comedic eye, all the more so in a plot in which Irene courts a group of elderly retirement home members for her dance troupe. For all of the above reasons, I’m hooked.


Faces Places


Who doesn’t want to on a road trip with the fantastic icon of cinema, Agnès Varda, and make art in France?  I’m ready. Can’t. Wait.


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

A man and woman sitting in a booth by a window.


I am confident that I am one of the world’s biggest and most devoted Gloria Grahame fans. So I’m thrilled to see a film about her. Bonus: it stars the transcendent Annette Bening as Grahame. Pitch-perfect.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool sketches a tender, melancholic portrait of the eccentric, older and vulnerable Grahame, who shared a relationship with a much younger man (a grown-up Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot) near her death. Bening may get an Oscar (finally), and I hope the film incites a new generation to discover Grahame.

Check out her work in one of my favourite noirs by director Fritz Lang, The Big Heat:


Indian Horse


Earlier this year, I picked up the novel, Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese, an Indigenous author in Canada who recently died. I couldn’t put it down.

Reading Indian Horse transformed my relationship to the “Canada 150” celebrations by bringing home the horrors of Canada’s residential school system and ongoing impact of colonial violence on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. This deeply personal, tragic tale rings all too true, with crisp and moving writing. I couldn’t imagine ever loving a book about, in large part, hockey. Yet Wagamese was such a good writer, he made me, the least sporty person around, love hockey, too.

So I am excited, if apprehensive, to see this film do justice to its source. Wagamese was an executive producer, and director Stephen Campanelli is a celebrated camera operator (including on one of my other picks, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri).

And if the film drives people to buy and read this novel, more power to it.


Mudbound


Ever since I saw American director Dee Rees’ revelatory short film, Pariah (which went on to became a stunning first feature), I’ve been a fan. Mudbound, like Darkest Hour, could also not be more timely, given its attention to the foundational, structuring racism that haunts and defines the United States, past into present.

This tragic, epic saga is set in the Mississippi Delta in the aftermath of World War II. Based on award-winning Hillary Jordan’s novel, the film chronicles three main characters (seen above): a young white woman, Laura (Carey Mulligan), displaced from her home in Memphis to live on her husband’s rural cotton farm; and two soldiers who return to the same town, her white brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and an African-American man,  Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a war hero who meets harsh, racist realities in the America to which he comes home. Sundance audiences and critics raved about it. I can’t wait to see what Rees accomplishes with a much larger budget and scale. A visionary.


Sheikh Jackson


As may be obvious from my selections, I love films that challenge notions of purity. Whether purity is based on keeping races, genders, sex and sexualities, politics, nations or religions distinct, I love films that mix things up – including a mix of tones in a story.

Ever since I caught a glimpse of one still and the film title of Sheikh Jackson, I wanted to see it. The trailer suggests a hybrid of much more than East meets West, right down to its main character’s name and sense of himself. And of course, I share the film and lead’s love of Michael Jackson. Like him, I can remember exactly where I was when Jackson died. It was like running your car into a tree in disbelief that such a talent was gone. I’m looking forward to seeing this Egyptian gem bring Jackson back to life.


The Breadwinner


One of the truly exciting and commendable aspects of TIFF this year is its obvious, clear commitment to including and celebrating the work of female directors – including those making their debut as feature film directors. Unlike Venice, which has a shameful ONE (!) film made by a female film director in competition out of 21, TIFF has a full one third of its films directed by women. Bravo!

The Breadwinner is based on Canadian author Deborah Ellis’ novel, directed by Irish filmmaker Nora Twomey and executive-produced by the celebrated Angelina Jolie. It represents a festival flick that adults and children alike will love. Besides, it’s never too early to start them on attending this festival.

When her father is imprisoned and family left imperiled by his absence, a brave 11-year-old Afghan girl, Parvana, disguises herself as a boy to support her family while seeking her father’s freedom. Here, a humanitarian crisis takes human shape through an innovative mix of 2-D animation with acrylic and digitally painted environments. See it on the big screen.


The Shape of Water


The buzz about this film since its gorgeous trailer went viral appears well deserved. The Shape of Water, directed by Toronto transplant and hometown fave Guillermo del Toro is shaping up to be a strong contender for this year’s audience award.

Profound and moving, The Shape of Water traverses familiar del Toro territory: the magic of a fairy tale crosses with a repressive political allegory in a revamped, sensitive version of monster-driven horror. Like the misunderstood monsters of classical Hollywood’s Universal horror films of the 1930s, The Shape of Water explores how monsters become more human than the people who surround, curtail, study and torture them.

Sally Hawkins leads a stellar cast. As a mute cleaning woman in a Cold War-1960’s laboratory, her world transforms through the tender bond she develops with a myserious creature being held in captivity. My heart breaks when I see these images and I don’t even know how it will all play out. Bring kleenex.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand could walk around onscreen for two hours and I’d probably find it, and her, riveting.

I’m thrilled to see her get to once more lead a story as its protagonist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, rather than just take a turn as a character actress supporting others.

Here, McDormand plays strong-willed grieving mother Mildred Hayes. When her daughter is murdered and the local police come up empty-handed, Mildred gets truly fed up – and has nothing left to lose. She antagonizes the local police force, especially its revered chief Officer Dixon (Woody Harrelson), by placing the titular three billboards up, which sets off a chain reaction that only In Bruges director Martin McDonagh’s imagination could create. Either it or Alexander Payne’s Downsizing could be this year’s dark horse for an audience award.


What are you excited to see this year? Tell me in the comments below.

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