TIFF Wrap-up: Bold Visions Highlight the 2019 Festival

After 11 days of screenings and other film industry-related activities, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end. And as the curtains came down on Sunday, it was Taika Waititi‘s irreverent, anti-hate satire “Jojo Rabbit” that nabbed the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award. The announcement came as a surprise to many who favored more universally beloved contenders such as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” In retrospect, its victory was a perfect reflection of the 2019 edition of the festival, where many directors challenged audiences with their risky themes and filmmaking approaches.

Sterling K. Brown attends the “Waves” premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Indeed, each day at the festival brought a bold new vision for audiences to devour. Keeping in the spirit of its former name “Festival of Festivals,” many of the most buzzed about films at TIFF were titles that premiered elsewhere. Among them were Trey Edward Shults‘ powerful family drama “Waves,” with a sharply bifurcated narrative structure which proved more divisive in Toronto than when it played the Telluride Film Festival. Additionally, “Joker” made a controversial appearance fresh off an eye-opening Golden Lion win in Venice. With its topical depiction of “incel” ideology, we will surely be hearing more about this potential Best Picture contender over the next few months.

Throughout TIFF, many festival holdovers – including “Marriage Story” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” – frequently came up in conversation. But TIFF’s world premieres also garnered major attention and notable distribution deals (“Bad Education” and “Sound of Metal“). In addition to “Jojo Rabbit“, critics and audiences alike raved about “Knives Out,” “Hustlers” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood“. And while “Harriet” and “Lucy in the Sky” didn’t quite get a welcome reception, I wouldn’t count out Cynthia Erivo and Natalie Portman in the Best Actress race just yet.

Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” and Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” were just two of several standouts in a big year for women filmmakers at TIFF. Putting other prestigious festivals to shame, the TIFF slate boasted a plethora of women-directed films which played to positive responses. Audiences were introduced to several new names behind the camera, including Minhal Baig (“Hala“), Jorunn Myklebust Syversen (“Disco“) and Halina Reijn, whose Carice van Houten starrer “Instinct” dared to explore a woman’s obsession with a convicted sex offender.

Director Marielle Heller and cast at the “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” premiere.

The risky business of contemporary film was truly on full display at TIFF in 2019.  But not all of these risks came from melodramatic storylines. In a time when “bigger, louder, brighter” spectacles tend to dominate film culture, and at festival known for major stars and flashy red carpets, the modest ambitions of the smaller titles proved to be daring ventures themselves. These hidden gems included Sarah Gavron‘s effortlessly touching “Rocks,” alongside International Feature Oscar contenders “Corpus Christi” and “Adam“. These restrained dramas probably won’t be making box office headlines, but they emerged as some of the best films of the festival, as you’ll see below.

Of the 20 films I watched, here are my personal highlights:

TIFF TOP 10:

  1. “Jojo Rabbit”
  2. “Rocks”
  3. “Waves”
  4. “The Cave”
  5. “Corpus Christi”
  6. “Just Mercy”
  7. “Bad Education”
  8. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
  9. “Adam”
  10. “Blackbird”

BEST OF TIFF:
Best Film: “Jojo Rabbit”
Best Director: Taika Waititi, “Jojo Rabbit”
Best Performance: Sterling K. Brown, “Waves”
Best Screenplay: “Jojo Rabbit”

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