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The Best Films at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

Written by on September 18, 2017 

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)

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Frederick Wiseman’s films are often filled with moments that subtly and unexpectedly jolt viewers who think they know what they’re in for. In Ex Libris, in which he focuses on The New York Public Library, such a moment comes when Francine Houben, creative director of the firm selected to renovate the institution’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman building in midtown Manhattan, explains that libraries are not about books, or their storage, but about people. With this simple statement Houben encompasses the spirit of Wiseman’s generous, enlightening look at one of the most important organizations in the city, and as the film suggests, perhaps also an essential tool in preserving the American ideal of freedom and equality. – Jose S. (full review)

First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

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Made with a kind of formal rigor that one would’ve assumed was long past Schrader after the “post-cinema” experimentations of The Canyons and Dog Eat DogFirst Reformed is first and foremost most admirable for its sustained mood. Shot in The Academy aspect ratio and maintaining a stillness and greyness that manages to seem utterly alien to the slow cinema standards of contemporary art films, one gets the sense of the director really having a genuine stake in the making of this picture. It seems the religious content is not so much an affect as a genuine late-in-life plea. – Ethan V. (full review)

Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz)

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After an unexplained opening shot looking out from inside an anonymous moving vehicle, we soon meet Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), whose son Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray) with husband Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) serves in the military. Meeting might be overstating it in this instance, as Daphna only looks into the camera for a split second and, without even hearing a word from her unseen visitors, faints. Her reaction is one of such utterly debilitating grief, it tells you right away who she finds at her doorstep and what they’re about to say. Indeed, it’s the worst nightmare of any soldier’s mom incarnated: grim-faced men in uniform have come to inform the Feldmanns that Jonathan has fallen in the line of duty. – Zhuo-Ning Su (full review)

Kissing Candice (Aoife McArdle)

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With a first scene as stylish as that from Kissing Candice, the words “music video chic” come to mind before you can even discover writer/director Aoife McArdle is a James Vincent McMorrow regular who also released a short in collaboration with U2’s 2014 release Songs of Innocence. Between the oppressive reds and aural manipulation (I thought the volume wasn’t working until the score finally kicks in to augment the titular kiss), you can’t help admiring the sensory craftsmanship onscreen despite having no contextual basis for anything occurring. What begins as a romantic interlude shared between Candice (Ann Skelly) and Jacob (Ryan Lincoln) soon shifts to the latter randomly and silently strolling down the street (through fire) until finally arriving at a bar where the former is inexplicably waiting. – Jared M. (full review)

I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)

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Eclipsed by the subsequent notorious O.J. Simpson murder fiasco, one can’t really blame Margot Robbie for initially believing Tonya Harding to be a fictitious character. What was months prior an inescapable media frenzy, the Kerrigan-Harding incident was erased from prevalence almost instantaneously. Configured as a mockumentary, Craig Gillespie revives the case against Harding in a darkly comedic and surprisingly affecting study of an athlete shunned from the public eye for what might have been nothing more than the result of a teenager who followed her heart. – Joseph F. (full review)

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)

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It’s easy to imagine the “old-school” Bruno Dumont Joan of Arc film; faith, martyrdom, and the landscape of the French countryside intermingling to a wrenching finale, with Bresson and Dreyer certainly paid their transcendental cinema due. Though perhaps realizing their films weren’t the be-all, end-all in terms of representing the French icon, even if Preminger, Rivette and uh, Besson, had also offered their own takes that showed a portrait beyond the trial and subsequent burning at the stake, he finally set about making it, but as a new artist. – Ethan V. (full review)

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

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Lady Bird is one of the year’s great joys. Greta Gerwig’s debut as a solo writer-director is so wise, so funny, and so remarkably assured that it seems to have flown in out of nowhere. Where did this nearly perfect coming-of-age comedy and emotionally affecting study of youth, social status, and financial malaise come from? The answer has been hiding in plain sight. As an actress, Gerwig has shown inimitable intelligence in films such as Frances Ha and 20th Century Women. She has now moved behind the camera for a 2002-set study of a Sacramento teen’s final year of high school, starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and Timothée Chalamet, with music by Jon Brion. – Christopher S. (full review)

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