After six full days at a film festival where each day includes screening at least four films (and sometimes more), all the stories, characters and directing styles can start to run together. Thankfully, the caliber of films at the Toronto International Film Festival is (usually) such that they stand out on their own merits, either with well-known cast and filmmakers delivering their latest work or through emerging voices with something interesting to say. As my time in Canada came to an end, I managed to fit in twenty films overall (I did need time to sleep!), and left with more than a few to recommend (and some to avoid) as they make their way to Chicago in the coming weeks and months.
The screenwriting debut from actor Shia Labeouf, Honey Boy is the deeply personal story of his own experiences as a child actor and his relationship with his undependable, selfish, alcoholic father. Labeouf stars as his father, a potentially tumultuous casting decision that ultimately infuses the film with a sincerity another actor may not have been able to muster. Lucas Hedges stars as Otis (the film is not entirely autobiographical; names and certain details have been changed), older now and in rehab, recalling his childhood in therapy as he processes his own demons. The real breakout of this sun-drenched family drama is young Noah Jupe (already an established actor with roles in A Quiet Place, Wonder and Suburnicon), who plays Otis at 12 with such vulnerability and wisdom it’ll break your heart. (Amazon Studios will release Honey Boy in theaters November 8 before it becomes available to stream on Amazon Prime.)
The Capote Tapes
The feature film debut from Ebs Burnough, The Capote Tapes explores the life, loves and writings of author and socialite Truman Capote through never-before-released audio tapes of interviews with the people who knew him best. Recorded by George Plimpton, the tapes overlay vintage footage and interviews with friends and colleagues to explore his influence on New York society and the literary world as a whole, through the lens of Answered Prayers, a long-promised but never-published fictionalization of the lives of the Swans, the wealthy and fashionable women of New York he ran with in the 1960s and ’70s. If one’s awareness of Capote is limited to his connection to Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of him, The Capote Tapes offers a captivatingly personal introduction to a man with a gift for crafting sentences haunted by countless personal demons. (The Capote Tapes doesn’t yet have a release date.)
In what will easily be the most divisive film of the season, Todd Phillips’ Joker simultaneously features one of the year’s best performances and the year’s most disturbing narratives. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck in this origin story of Batman’s biggest nemesis; as an aspiring comedian working as a clown-for-hire while he lives with his mom in Gotham, Fleck faces rejection and ridicule at every turn. When it all becomes too much to handle, something snaps inside and the Joker is born, a product of a failed mental health system and a society unable (or unwilling) to check his darkest impulses. The final act of the film is so disturbing it’s disgusting, and while there may be a case somewhere for seeing such base behavior reflected back at us in art, this toxic, tragic Joker proves it’s possible to go too far. (Warner Bros. Pictures will release Joker in theaters on October 4.)
The Two Popes
A narrative depiction of one of the Catholic church’s most monumental moments in recent history, The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Popes Benedict and Francis, respectively, during a time of turmoil for the faith’s most important role. When he was elected in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was seen as a traditionalist who would keep the church on a conservative path, for better or for worse, even as the likes of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) presented a more progressive, liberal philosophy for the church’s future. Dogged by scandal from the beginning, eventually Benedict would renounce his role and Pope Francis would be elected. Filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) and writer Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything) give their two stars thoughtful, intelligent material to dig into, and both men shine in roles they seem to have been born for (the resemblances are uncanny). Though a documentary about this period in Catholic history would be riveting (says the critic who was raised Catholic), there’s no way it could explore the intimate conversations created here. (Netflix will release The Two Popes in theaters November 27 before it becomes available to stream on December 20.)
By any definition, Rian Johnson’s career trajectory is one to be envied; his first feature film, the wildly smart and entertaining Brick opened up doors including those in the Star Wars universe (he wrote and directed 2017’s The Last Jedi to critical and audience acclaim). In between his Jedi work (he’s got at least one more on deck), Knives Out proves the man has no shortage of ideas or the talent to deliver them. Featuring a stacked cast (Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield, the list goes on…) in a whodunnit for the ages, the film centers on patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) and his untimely death by apparent suicide. Unfolding at a clip that’ll keep you on your toes, Craig stars as private investigator Benoit Blanc, hired to uncover just what happened at the Thrombey estate that fateful night. Funny, smart and unpredictable (really, just enjoy the ride!), Knives Out is everything going to the movies is meant to be. (Lionsgate will release Knives Out in theaters on November 27.)
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín landed on most Americans’ radar in 2017 with Jackie, his English-language debut starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady in the days and months following her husband’s assassination. A riveting, lyrical biopic with a stellar performance from Portman, the film never really caught on with audiences (their loss). With Ema, Larraín returns to his filmmaking roots in a movie that is a artistically accomplished as it is complicated and complex. Starring Mariana Di Girolamo in a film written by Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno, Ema follows the titular character through a twisting, turning journey of emotional turmoil and self discovery after she loses the son she adopted with husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal). Depicted on a backdrop of pulsing, vibrant reggaetron music and choreography, the film is a beautiful, frustrating adventure through damaged hearts and broken lives. (Ema does not yet have a release date in the U.S.)
Documentarian Alex Gibney is as reliable as a Swedish watch; whatever subject matter he tackles, it’s sure to be delivered with precision, depth and artistry. Citizen K, the story of Russian oligarch-turned-enemy of the state Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is no exception as it recounts in approachable and accurate detail the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s early capitalism and Khodorkovsky’s transformation from ambitious businessman to political activist. With Vladimir Putin’s political rise as a parallel narrative to Khodorkovsky’s own growing influence, the film enters a growing conversation about Russia’s political and economic power and the lengths it will go to in order to preserve and expand both. World history and politics junkies will especially appreciate Gibney’s scholarly documentary, though there’s enough drama and unpredictability to keep just about anyone rapt. (Citizen K does not yet have a release date in the U.S.)
Did you enjoy this post? We’d love to hear what you think of our work; take our reader survey here. Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!