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Toronto International Film Festival: 9 movies you should know about
Reviews from the first week of the annual film festival, including movies starring Hugh Jackman, Tilda Swinton, Daniel Radcliffe, and more
 
Hugh Jackman plays a desperate father facing every parent's worst nightmare in Prisoners.
Hugh Jackman plays a desperate father facing every parent's worst nightmare in Prisoners. (Wilson Webb/2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC)

TORONTO – Since last Thursday, the Toronto International Film Festival has been in full swing, offering a mix of international cinema, glitzy red carpet premieres, and high-buzz awards season contenders. On first glance, this year's roster of films might look repetitive, with the same actors — like Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mia Wasikowska — appearing in multiple films throughout the festival. Fortunately, the films themselves have proved far more diverse than their casts, offering some stellar surprises — and a few unfortunate stinkers — that will keep audiences buzzing for the next year. Here, nine films you should know about from the first week of the Toronto International Film Festival:

1. Only Lovers Left Alive
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton*, and Mia Wasikowska

What is it?
Jim Jarmusch's latest is a day-in-the-life snapshot of vampires that eschews the genre's normal focus on epic stories in favor of the everyday ennui hidden in immortal life. Hiddleston plays an ages-old gothic musician named Adam — a vampire who's grown tired of the increasing blandness of the human world, and who flirts with suicide until his immortal partner Eve (Swinton) comes for a visit. The duo are the vampiric form of senior citizens; they've seen and done it all, and matured into monsters who prefer long drives and mellow games of chess. But when Eve's sister Ava (Wasikowska) descends upon Adam's Detroit retreat, his carefully structured life begins to crumble.

Should you see it?
Yes. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch delightfully blows away any fears that the Twilight franchise's sparkling skin and overwrought teen romance have killed the cinematic allure of the vampire. Hiddleston and Swinton are perfect as the old but painfully cool and magnetic vamps, and the director knows how to mix the gothic into today's media landscape. Vampiric tales usually deal with loneliness — but Only Lovers Left Alive successfully takes the question a step beyond pondering how vampires might fit into the human world by asking instead what living in the shadows would mean for people with hundreds of years of experience and education.



2. Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan

What is it?
Radcliffe stars as a young Allen Ginsberg begrudgingly leaving his struggling family to head to Columbia University. Right away, he meets Lucien Carr (DeHaan), a tempestuous wild child who inspires the budding poet to question authority. Together they strive to create a "New Vision," ingesting mass quantities of drugs with Beat Generation stalwarts William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) — until a murder divides them.

Should you see it?
Skip it. Anyone who wants to understand the Beat Generation would be much better off actually reading the authors' writing than watching this film. Krokidas' first feature is a jumble of clashing elements that can't decide whether it wants to be an exploration of Beat ideology or a drama outlining how and why Carr killed David Kammerer. Kill Your Darlings is jam-packed with recognizable actors, but that only serves to distract and confuse the narrative more because the talent involved varies so wildly. The best of the bunch is Ben Foster, who's a joy to watch as William Burroughs. If only this was his story and not Ginsberg's.



3. The Husband
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Starring Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Sarah Allen, Stephen McHattie

What is it?
The Husband is a tense character study that follows a man struggling to raise his kid and rebuild his life after his wife is jailed for sleeping with her teen student. He's confused, angry, and struggling to stay calm as a series of errors sends him closer and closer to the edge. Henry hates his job, has no idea what to do with his wife, and is powerless against his soaring desire to confront the teenager who ruined his life.

Should you see it?
Yes. The Husband is an intriguing dramedy from director McDonald, known for more experimental films like The Tracy Fragments. Working off a script from writer/star McCabe-Lokos, McDonald steps back so his star can shine, letting the film resting on the McCabe-Lokos' shoulders. Fortunately, he gives an excellent and frenetic man-on-the-edge performance, successfully bouncing between quiet sadness and unhinged desperation as he struggles to control his life and raise his son.



4. Rush
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth

What is it?
Howard eschews his usual big-story dramas to immortalize a piece of largely forgotten history — the 1976 Formula One racing rivalry between Brit James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Brühl). The rivals' conflict was a clash of style; Hunt was a charismatic playboy intent on partying as fast and hard as he drove, and Lauda was an anti-social workhorse obsessed with being the best. But for all of their differences, the rivalry helped both men to thrive, fostering a distant respect for each other as they fought for the world championship.

Should you see it?
Yes. After kicking off with an unfortunate and unnecessary voiceover, Rush slowly accelerates into a speedy, adrenaline-fueled exploration of Hunt and Lauda's rivalry. Howard intersperses insights into each driver with highlights from their '76 races, intermingling shots of barreling cars with close-ups of engine parts that make the film the closest you can get to the thrill of racing — and the danger it presents — without getting into the cars themselves.



5. Prisoners
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman

What is it?
A Thanksgiving celebration comes to an abrupt halt when young girls from two families disappear. Driven by the short timelines given in such situations, a local detective (Gyllenhaal) quickly uncovers a slew of potentially guilty suspects, while their tense and frustrated fathers (Jackman and Terrence Howard) decide to take matters into their own hands.

Should you see it?
It's a toss-up. There are two sides to Prisoners: The compelling desperation of not knowing what has happened, and the blandly recognizable riff on the police procedural. The former offers a tense rush, manipulating our desire for answers as the detective uncovers his suspects while the families fall apart under the fear and pressure. Unfortunately, instead of just exploring how the lack of knowing manifests in desperate people, the film makes a sharp U-turn into CSI territory, spoon-feeding audacious clues that turn the film into an easy-to-solve murder mystery that eradicates the impact of its big twist. It's still an entertaining ride, but one that would've been all the stronger if it stuck with one approach — or at the very least, gave its audience a little more credit.



6. Parkland
Directed by Peter Landesman
Starring Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Ron Livingston, and many more

What is it?
Rather than go over the same broad strokes we've seen in films like JFK, debut filmmaker Landesman strives to relay the forgotten stories and coincidences behind John F. Kennedy's assassination. This is the patchwork story of how people like Abraham Zapruder, J.F.K.'s surgeons, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Oswald family responded in the days following the Kennedy assassination and Oswald's subsequent murder.

Should you see it?
Perhaps. Parkland isn't for anyone looking for epic drama or a grand conspiracy. Instead, it celebrates the real people hidden behind the heroes and villains of dramatic stories, asking questions you might never have thought to ask: How did Oswald's family react to the news? How did the surgeons fight for the lives of both Kennedy and his assassin? The film is at its best when it avoids close-ups of its most recognizable participants, immersing itself in the fine details of the story instead of the broad narrative that's generally told.



7. Fading Gigolo
Directed by John Turturro
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, and Liev Schreiber

What is it?
John Turturro and Woody Allen star as Fioravante and Murray, men of a different era who do what they can to make ends meet — like, say, marketing themselves as gigolo Virgil Howard and his pimp, Dan Bongo, after the latter's used bookstore is put out of business. Fioravante makes a surprisingly intriguing transition from being a florist to being a prostitute, pleasing woman after woman until his life is complicated by his growing feelings for an orthodox Jewish widow (Paradis).

Should you see it?
Yes — even though Fading Gigolo is, in the end, a really enjoyable mess. The story is often ludicrous, but the rapport between Turturro and Allen renders the rest irrelevant. But it's more than a romance between characters; Fading Gigolo is also a nostalgic love letter to the Manhattan that is disappearing and to the man, Woody Allen, who immortalized it in cinema. In particular, Fading Gigolo finds Allen at his neurotic and magnetic best — it's as if he spent his years off-camera bottling up all his neuroses, waiting for Turturro to unleash them.



8. Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner

What is it?
Inspired by a true story, Dallas Buyers Club stars McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a man's man in the '80s who worked hard and played hard until he faced a shocking diagnosis: He had contracted HIV. It was the height of the AIDS panic; doctors had no clue how to treat the disease, and everyone else believed that everyone who contracted it was gay, leaving the macho cowboy alone as he fought for his life. Shackled by strict FDA regulations that favored drug companies, Woodroof created a "Buyer's Club" for non-approved treatments with an unlikely ally — a transsexual named Rayon (Leto), who helped to break the Texan out of his rigid attitudes.

Should you see it?
Yes. Though the relatively silent and straightforward treatment will be a shock to Vallee fans expecting a more musical film in line with projects like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore, Dallas Buyers Club continues the director's thoughtful treatments of sexuality, offering a compelling look at the impact of the AIDS crisis and the lengths to which some had to go to get treatment. McConaughey and Leto both lost a massive amount of weight for their roles, but it's their performances that truly resonate, as each man sheds his Hollywood recognizability to give two of the year's best performances.



9. Devil's Knot
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth

What is it?
Devil's Knot is the first narrative feature about the West Memphis Three — a story that should need no explanation after a whopping four documentaries since the three teens were originally convicted of murdering three young boys in the early '90s. The film focuses on the murder, trials, and conviction.

Should you see it?
No. Director Atom Egoyan seemed like the perfect pick to create the first feature film about the West Memphis Three; after all, he already explored a small town reeling from the deaths of young children in his stellar, Oscar-nominated film The Sweet Hereafter in 1997. Unfortunately, none of that film's thoughtfulness exists in Devil's Knot. There are many entry points that could have offered a compelling angle for a narrative film — but rather than get to the heart of any single aspect of the story, Egoyan gives a perfunctory and cold overview of everything, as told through the eyes of one of the mourning mothers (Witherspoon) and an investigator (Firth).

(All images courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

*Correction: Piece originally listed, in error, Cate Blanchett instead of Tilda Swinton.

 
Monika Bartyzel is a freelance writer and creator of Girls on Film, a weekly look at femme-centric film news and concerns, now appearing at TheWeek.com. Her work has been published on sites including The Atlantic, Movies.com, Moviefone, Collider, and the now-defunct Cinematical, where she was a lead writer and assignment editor.

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