Surprises were few and far between at a relatively reserved 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. Sans a rather intense interest in press and industry members attending Joker following its Golden Lion win in Venice, it was business as usual at the festival, which is gearing up for some major changes when the shuttering of the massive Scotiabank Theater complex finally comes to fruition. A continuing trend of censorship, however, continues to plague its programming, where items like Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (which won the Grand Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize), Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York and Nate Parker’s American Skin were staunchly avoided for fear of backlash). Controversial subject matter, however, is another category entirely, and the program wasn’t without subversive elements if one knew where to look, while the People’s Choice award going to Taika Waititi’s fanciful Jojo Rabbit belies a troubling willingness for audiences to embrace sanitized versions of historical genocide.
Here’s a glance at my top 10 favorites from the 2019 TIFF Program:
#10. Joker – Dir. Todd Phillips (US)
A curious selection from the Lucrecia Martel headed Venice jury for the Golden Lion features a wholly committed Joaquin Phoenix in the unnecessarily controversial Joker, which is at best a superficial examination of how society nurtures its own monsters. But with effective, deliberate ambience and an embrace of adult themes, this mark a change of pace for the glut of comic-book origin material out of Hollywood. (Read review)
#9. The Painted Bird – Dir. Vaclav Marhoul (Czech Republic)
Mercilessly over the top in its miserabilism, Marhoul’s WWII exploitation film features some gruesome, unforgettable elements in its handsome black-and-white cinematography—but overall, a salve for the inauthentic treatment we’re subjected to in Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. (Read review).
#8. The Truth – Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda (France/Japan)
While it’s destined to be a minor but intriguing entry in Kore-eda’s filmography, his first project outside of Japan makes for a winning meta character study for Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. (Read review)
#7. True History of the Kelly Gang – Dir. Justin Kurzel (Australia)
Justin Kurzel makes a homegrown comeback with his deliberation on Ned Kelly in the energetic, stylized True History of the Kelly Gang—Essie Davis and Russell Crowe are maliciously delicious. (Read review).
#6. Workforce – Dir. David Zonana (Mexico)
David Zonana makes a striking directorial debut in Workforce, a Michel Franco produced low-key drama on significant class rifts in Mexico. Part character study, social issue drama and film noir, it’s a compelling and ultimately dire feature on economic woes, with a plot which ends up being analogous to crabs in a bucket.
#5. No. 7 Cherry Lane – Dir. Yonfan (China)
Yonfan makes his anime debut with the striking period piece No.7 Cherry Lane, a queer-ish, hyper stylized portrait of an incestuous love triangle in 1967 Hong Kong. (Read review).
#4. Uncut Gems – Dir. Josh & Benny Safdie (US)
Adam Sandler has never been better (besting the poor schlepp he played in Punch-Drunk Love) as the unfortunate jeweler in Uncut Gems, who buys a black opal from Africa and finds his best laid plans are harder to navigate than he anticipated. Sporting a first rate supporting cast, it’s another agonizing, anxious portrait of well-intentioned hustler from the Safdie Bros.
#3. Dolemite is My Name – Dir. Craig Brewer (US)
Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes and director Craig Brewer turn in their best work in years with this loving, irreverent portrait of self-made Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore. Collapsing 1975’s Dolemite and 1976’s The Human Tornado, it’s a moving, funny and heartfelt portrait of tenacity and the importance of representation.
#2. Devil Between the Legs – Dir. Arturo Ripstein (Mexico)
Mexican auteur Arturo Ripstein is back to make us uncomfortable with Devil Between the Legs, a sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? treatment about a sexually charged elderly couple seemingly intent on ruining one another. Destined to alienate and repulse its audience, Ripstein continues to break taboos and challenge empathetic discourse in a population often relegated to trite characterization. (Read review).
#1. Marriage Story – Dir. Noah Baumbach (US)
If Ripstein wants to best Edward Albee, Noah Baumbach is channeling the agony of Ingmar Bergman’s married couples in Marriage Story, a narrative of conscious uncoupling which features a stellar Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a young couple navigating divorce. Profound, moving and strikingly realistic in its display of complex human interactions (and the increasing difficulty of communication), a formidable supporting cast, including Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty and Ray Liotta makes Marriage Story a joy to behold from its first frame through the fumes of its Sondheim infused last.