Toronto 2014 preview: 17 must-see films

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Image Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

Last year, 12 Years a Slave clinched the Academy Award for Best Picture at the Toronto Film Festival. Well, that’s not actually true. In fact, you could argue that the Best Picture winner almost lost the statue at the festival. Steve McQueen’s harrowing instant classic was so instantly and universally anointed in Toronto that seeds were planted for an inevitable backlash to flower in the six months before the Oscar winner was finally announced. Ultimately, 12 Years‘ biggest Oscar competition came from another Toronto film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Though both films premiered at Telluride and Venice, respectively, the awards race took shape only after the Oscar Industrial Complex took note of them in Toronto.

While other festivals have challenged Toronto’s preeminence in recent years, it’s still the most high-profile showcase to launch an aggressive Oscar campaign. It’s no accident that the last seven Best Picture winners played up north. This year, there are more than 300 films from more than 60 countries playing at the festival. Though many of them are in search of distribution (like last year’s Begin Again and Bad Words), the hunt for hardware officially begins today and runs through Sept. 14.

If you’re on the ground in Toronto for the next 11 days, here are a handful of choice selections to make your viewing decisions easier. And for those of you at your home computer, this list is a mix of films with Oscar buzz, films we’re excited to see because of actors we love, and a few still-under-the-radar curios that people just might be talking about in the next few months. And of course, since tomorrow is officially Bill Murray Day at the festival, everybody dance.  

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Clouds of Sils Maria — North American premiere
Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Directed by Olivier Assayas
In theaters Dec. 1

Binoche plays a famous actress who accepts an invitation to appear in a revival of the dramatic play that made her famous 20 years ago. But whereas originally she had starred as the young beauty who drove her female boss to suicide, now she’s assigned the role of the bitter older woman. A Hollywood ingenue (Moretz) gets the star-making role, aggravating Binoche’s mid-life crisis and complicating her real-life relationship with her loyal assistant (Stewart). It’s a play within a play within a movie, about Hollywood, about women, and aging gracefully.

Watch the trailer here.

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The Drop — World premiere
Starring Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam
In theaters Sept. 12

Gandolfini’s final film role is a supporting turn, but one that conjures up memories of the types of dodgy, run-down characters that littered Tony Soprano’s periphery. He plays a Brooklyn bar owner who used to be somebody in the neighborhood, and Hardy plays his squirrelly cousin, a shy but gentle lug who only comes out of his shell after he rescues an abused pit bull puppy. Hardy has brushed off the Brando comparisons before, but his handsome looks and outer-borough accent could have lots of journalists name-checking Terry Malloy.

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Scott Garfield

Foxcatcher
Starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Bennett Miller
In theaters Nov. 14

Miller’s last two films—Moneyball and Capote—have each yielded two Oscar nominations for his actors, and reactions to early screenings at Cannes and Telluride indicate that trend could continue. Carell plays John du Pont, the disturbed millionaire who turned his horse ranch into an Olympic training facility and murdered one of his most successful athletes in 1996. “Channing and Steve Carell are revelations in it,” says Ruffalo, who plays Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. “We all get to do really wild character work, stuff that no one would expect.”

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Jack English

The Imitation Game
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
Directed by Morten Tyldum
In theaters Nov. 21

Last year, Cumberbatch arrived in Toronto with The Fifth Estate, an Oscar hopeful that quickly fizzled and bombed at the box office. This time around, he might have the goods, playing genius WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, whose academic and government career were ruined when he was convicted of homosexuality after the war. Between Sherlock, Julian Assange, Khan, and now Turing, Cumberbatch is in his own league for playing uber-intelligent oddballs worth watching just to see them think on-screen.

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Alex Bailey

A Little Chaos — World premiere
Starring Kate Winslet, Helen McCrory, Alan Rickman, Matthias Schoenaerts
Directed by Alan Rickman
Release TBD

The last time Winslet and Rickman shared the screen, they walked down the aisle together in the closing moments of Sense and Sensibility. Nearly two decades later, Rickman directs and portrays Louis XIV in an historical drama about the 17th-century construction of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Winslet stars as an ambitious gardener with big ideas—ideas that are initially discounted for her not being a man but ultimately thrust her into the royal court of intrigue and petty jealousies.

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Image Credit: Chuck Zlotnick

Nightcrawler — World premiere
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
Directed by Dan Gilroy
In theaters Oct. 31

Gyllenhaal continues his recent dalliance with the dark side, playing a petty thief who finds his true calling in the bloodsport of L.A. crime-scene videographers, leeches who compete for the blood-and-guts footage that will lead the evening news. Ruthless and laser-focused, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a chilling figure—part Weegee, part Rupert Pupkin—and the actor transformed his body, losing a reported 30 pounds to play the gaunt ghoul. Nightcrawler is also the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, the accomplished screenwriter who penned The Bourne Legacy.

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Hooman Bahrani

99 Homes
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Release TBD

Garfield returns to serious fare (The Social Network) after four years of slinging spider-webs, playing a blue-collar construction worker who gets squeezed by the housing meltdown and a downturned economy. With few jobs available to afford his mortgage, he and his family are evicted from their home, and his only hope of getting his house back is going to work for the devious scammer (Shannon) who put him out on the street in the first place. If home-ownership is the cornerstone of the American dream, 99 Homes shines a light on the critters that scamper away into the dark when it’s overturned.

Watch a clip here.

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Pawn Sacrifice — World premiere
Starring Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Edward Zwick
Release TBD

In 1972, the cold war shifted to Iceland, where two chess masters battled for world supremacy. In one corner was Boris Spassky (Schreiber), the reigning world champion and a product of the Soviet system. In the other was American prodigy Bobby Fischer (Maguire), an eccentric  prima donna who treated the entire matchup as all-out war. Chess might seem a challenging cinematic storytelling setting, but the screenplay is written by Steven Knight, the Eastern Promises writer who recently turned a car-ride with Tom Hardy into riveting drama with Locke.

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Red Army
Directed by Gabe Polsky
Release TBD

With Russia flexing its military muscles again, the time is ripe to revisit the legendary Red Army hockey team, the intimidating Soviet sports machine that skated circles around international competition for decades and served as powerful propaganda for the superiority of their socialist system. Until they slipped up in 1980 and were shocked by a group of American college kids at the Lake Placid Olympics. The huge upset was an earthquake back in the U.S.S.R., and the documentary chronicles the team’s best players, who ultimately came West to play in the me-first NHL, to varying degrees of success.

Watch the trailer here.

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The Riot Club — World premiere
Starring Max Irons, Holliday Grainger, Douglas Booth, Sam Claflin
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Release TBD

Even at Oxford, the oldest and one of the most prestigious universities on the planet, there are the social elite that separate themselves from the merely intelligent and ambitious. Based on Laura Wade’s play, Posh, the film shines a light on the super-exclusive club of entitled wealthy brats who push the boundaries of good behavior with their pranks and prejudices. They might eventually reign supreme in their adult world, if they can only survive the debauched temptations—nay, demands—of the Riot Club. Scherfig, a Dane, has dissected British society before, with An Education, but this story, about a middle-class striver (Irons) who gets tapped, is in a completely different class, pun intended.

Watch the trailer here.

Rosewater

Image Credit: Laith Al-Majali

Rosewater
Starring Gael García Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Directed by Jon Stewart
In theaters Nov. 7

The Daily Show host didn’t take three months off from his show in 2013 just so that he could grow out his beard. Stewart became personally involved in the plight of Iranian journalist Mazier Bahari, who had appeared on his late-night program and was imprisoned and tortured  by Iranian intelligence, who suspected him of being a spy. Clearly, Rosewater is not a comedy. In fact, Bahari’s first appearance on The Daily Show was used by his captors as evidence against him. He has company: In December, Iranian TV labeled Stewart a CIA Zionist spy.

Watch the trailer here.

St. Vincent — World premiere
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts
Directed by Theodore Melfi
In theaters Oct. 24

Toronto 2014 is Bill Murray’s playground, with the festival showcasing several of his most popular films, including a 30th anniversary screening of Ghostbusters. What’s exciting about St. Vincent is that it looks like the type of Bill Murray Comedy that generations of fans first fell in love with—and miss, as the actor has branched out to play quirkier characters in ensemble films in recent years. (He hasn’t really carried a comedy since Steve Zissou in 2004.) His Vincent, who reluctantly takes the neighbor’s kid under his wing to pocket some babysitting cash, could be a distant older relative of John Winger, Pete Venkman, or Phil Connor. (Bing!)

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Macall Polay

Adam Sandler in… The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children — World premieres

Sandler proved long ago, in movies like P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, that he had dramatic chops and didn’t have to dress in drag or speak IN A VERY LOUD CHILDISH VOICE. But his silly comedies proved so popular and lucrative that it seemed like he’d turned his back on that darker side of himself for good. Not so. In fact, he’s paired with two formidable auteurs—Tom McCarthy and Jason Reitman—for the two films he brings to Toronto. In McCarthy’s Cobbler, he plays a shoe repairman who discovers he can magically “walk in the shoes” of his customers and see what their lives are really like. It’s a fairy tale with some comic potential, but McCarthy’s films, like The Station Agent and Win-Win, typically have depth and a sweetness that is earned. In Reitman’s ensemble piece, which co-stars Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, Ansel Elgort, J.K. Simmons, and Emma Thompson, parents and their teens come to grips with the many social temptations that the technology of a connected world offer. Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play a married couple who have lost their magic and begin to stray, looking elsewhere for a 21st-century happy place.

Watch the trailer for Men, Women & Children here.

71

’71
Starring Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy
Directed by Yann Demange
Release date TBD

O’Connell is a strong contender for Next Big Thing, a Fassbender/McAvoy hybrid who also stars in Angelina Jolie’s Oscar hopeful, Unbroken (Dec. 25).  In ’71, the Englishman plays a rookie British soldier sent to Belfast at the height of the Troubles, the religious and nationalist strife that split the soul of Northern Ireland in two. Disaster immediately  strikes, and he finds himself alone behind the lines of the outlaw Irish Republican Army. First-time feature director Yann Demange won comparisons to Paul Greengrass when the film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival, and both youngsters are poised to be “discovered” by the king-makers of Toronto.

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Liam Daniel

The Theory of Everything — World premiere
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Emily Watson
Directed by James Marsh
In theaters Nov. 7

The Theory of Everything fills about every box in the Oscar-contender checklist. The love story about Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking, who meet at Cambridge just as he’s flexing his legendary intellectual and scientific powers and exhibiting the first symptoms of the debilitating illness that will ultimately rob him of his own voice and confine him to a wheelchair, oozes prestige. The film, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), is based on Jane’s memoir, but it was Redmayne’s tortured physical transformation in the first trailer that had some viewers thinking: My Left Foot + A Beautiful Mind = Oscar gold.

Watch the trailer here.

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Image Credit: Anne Marie Fox

Wild
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadowski
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
In theaters Dec. 5

Last year at Toronto, Vallée debuted Dallas Buyers Club, launching Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto towards their Oscar wins. This time, Witherspoon is riding a wave of good buzz after Telluride and could leap to the front of the pack for Best Actress if Wild plays well up north. Playing Cheryl Strayed, who hiked more than 1,000 miles alone as a last resort to salvage her rapidly deteriorating drug-addicted life, feels like it could be the McConaughey-size revival that Witherspoon has been looking for.

Watch the trailer here.

 

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