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The 20 Best Films at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival

Written by on September 19, 2016 

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When a few hundred films stop by the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, it’s certainly impossible to cover everything, but we were able to catch over 120 features — and, with that, it’s time to conclude our experience, following the festival’s own award winners. We’ve rounded up our top 20 films seen during the festival, followed by a list of the complete coverage.

Stay tuned over the next months (or years) as we bring updates on films as they make their way to screens. Note that we didn’t include films screened at other festivals in our “best of” round-up, but you can see Venice, Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance wrap-ups at those links, which feature some of the most-praised films of the festival, including La La Land, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women, Elle, Things to Come, Nocturnal Animals, and many more.

One can also click here for a link to all of our coverage, including news, trailers, reviews, and much more. As always, thanks for reading, and let us know what you’re most looking forward to in the comments below.

The Best

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)

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Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. – Michael S. (full review)

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)

A Monster Calls

When your author and illustrator both win Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for the same book, you can bet Hollywood will come knocking. Even though the production is a joint effort between Britain (the majority of its cast) and Spain (The Orphanage director J.A. Bayona), it was Focus Features who scooped up the rights to Patrick Ness A Monster Calls. The decision was a no-brainer even without the accolades as it is a fairy tale proving a welcome return to storybook ilk of my own childhood. Dark enough to receive a PG-13 rating, it’s also profoundly moving in teaching someone that age (or a bit younger) a lesson in mortality. And just because the topic is difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unapologetically honest. – Jared M. (full review)

Boys in the Trees (Nicholas Verso)

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We’ve all lost friends whether from naturally parting ways or an avoidable blow-up proving petty in hindsight. Age advances and tastes evolve — we don’t often think much of the phenomenon because they find peers more attuned to who they’ve become just like you. But sometimes the severed relationship carries with it pangs of guilt. Maybe the fracture was triggered by lame excuses like the concept of survival of the fittest, you joining your oppressors in order to stop being oppressed. Perhaps you cut loose the person you once said you’d do anything for in a way that transforms them into your enemy. And as graduation approaches with a clean break from the immaturity you’ve grown to resent, that guilt eats away at your conscience in search of relief. – Jared M. (full review)

Clair Obscur (Yesim Ustaoglu)

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Life for a woman like Elmas (Ecem Uzun) in Turkey is a living nightmare. An eighteen-year old all but sold to a willing husband (Serkan Keskin‘s Koca) much older than she to clean his house, give her mother-in-law (Sema Poyraz‘s Kaynana) across the hall insulin shots, and — marriage or not — get raped every night, she’s gradually losing her sense of identity and mind. She’s so young and unversed in the world that she makes a game out of folding the sheets atop their bed to see whether a coin will slide from one end to the other without hitting a fold. Elmas’ sole release is watching her neighbor in the adjacent building dance to pop music while sneaking a cigarette on the balcony when no one is looking. – Jared M. (full review)

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)

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A fair question to ask: why The Sun King now? Perhaps American icons are always ripe for deconstruction as, after all, we have the world’s greatest (or rather dwindling) superpower shoved down our throats seemingly everyday. Yet, on the subject of Louis XIV, having to ascribe any current European crisis to the need to resurrect one of France’s greatest kings seems foolhardy. But The Death of Louis XIV succeeds just enough on the pure terms of a formalist exercise, with mostly static shots in a series of rooms lit by candlelight as historical context seems to somewhat recede into the dark. – Ethan V. (full review)

The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)

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Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is so beguiling that we, the audience, have to take comfort in pointing out its one clear structural point: it’s split into two halves, each about a different couple in separate time periods. Our first is Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob), who we see arriving on vacation in Greece in 1984; the film is quick to divert our attention to a protest about the nation’s place in the European Union, and here already feeling the weight of democracy and mythology. A young, attractive couple (easily the film’s liveliest sequence is when they busk “In the Jungle”), circumstances suddenly drive them apart when Kenneth’s parents in England fall sick and Theres gets a teaching job back in Germany. – Ethan V. (full review)

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)

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TIFF’s Colin Geddes was correct when introducing Ben Wheatley’s bottle episode of a film Free Fire with the words: “This will wake you up.” The gunfire alone risks perforating your eardrums as John Denver blares from a 1978-era van’s eight-track, but I think it’s the surprising wealth of comedy that ultimately gets the blood pumping and synapses triggering. Wheatley and wife/writer Amy Jump’s latest isn’t for everyone — fair warning to Hardcore Henry detractors, Sharlto Copley refuses to quit his shtick — but those willing to break free from a desire for plot complexity will undoubtedly be entertained. This is low-brow Reservoir Dogs, extreme genre action meant to energize you with an insane cast of characters hell-bent on killing each other on principle. Although that briefcase of money is appealing too. – Jared M. (full review)

Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)

Into the Inferno

Volcanoes are perfect for Werner Herzog. There’s a reason he keeps coming back to them, from La Soufriere to Encounters at the End of the World. They are violent representatives of the Earth’s complete indifference to those who walk its surface – as Herzog calls them, “crawling roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans.” Most of this grand sphere is magma, and life ekes by on a thin crust floating on its surface, occasionally disrupted when the magma breaks out. Finally, Herzog has made a documentary entirely about volcanoes. Into the Inferno is a world tour of how humans confront geology’s most ruthless caprices. – Dan S. (full review)

Jesús (Fernando Guzzoni)

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Adolescent hijinks turn tragic on multiple fronts in Fernando Guzzoni‘s Jesús despite my not being sure there was going to be a solid point to the film until mid-way through. Everything previous merely sat as a slice of life for the titular character, a normal everyday Chilean punk named Jesús (Nicolás Durán) with too much autonomy and not enough direction. He’s practically raising himself after the death of his mother, Dad (Alejandro Goic‘s Héctor) constantly out of town working. So the eighteen-year old roams the streets dancing with a Korean Pop band for kicks, breaking into parks at night to drink and do whippits, or cruising for girls at parties to earn a blowjob. He means well most times, but his malleability when drunk inevitably spells trouble. – Jared M. (full review)

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)

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Before William Oldroyd‘s first foray on the silver screen with Lady Macbeth, he was an experienced theater director, which clearly has aided his adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The gothic allure of this period piece about a woman forced into marriage and deciding to take things into her own hands is both refreshing and captivating, and make no mistake: there is nothing theatrical or stiff about the film. – Jordan R. (full review)

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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What’s it like to be a young boy on the drug-filled streets of Miami without friends, without family, without hope? As cliques begin to feign superiority by ganging up on the weak to prove themselves hard enough for what’s coming, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) — or  “Little” as they call him — can do nothing but struggle to survive. So who would have thought the one man to show kindness would be the king of the very drug holes his bullies seek to rise up within? In a city where masculinity is cracking skulls, calling names, and pulling guns, Juan (Mahershala Ali) gives a sweet smile and helping hand to a runt in need. This isn’t a play for recruitment either. It’s a beautifully honest moment of human compassion. – Jared M. (full review)

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