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Toronto International Film Festival: 6 more movies you should know about

Reviews of the biggest and buzziest films from the annual festival, including Love & Mercy, While We Were Young, and Welcome to Me

1. Love & Mercy

Directed by Bill PohladStarring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, and Paul Giamatti

What's it about? This life story of the musician Brian Wilson (played by both Paul Dano and John Cusack) juxtaposes the creation of The Beach Boys' legendary Pet Sounds with his later time under the control of controversial counselor Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). In the early years, Dano's Wilson is on the edge of a nervous breakdown, struggling to make the music in his mind a reality — even as his family wants nothing more than easily manufactured surf-rock hits. In his later years, Cusack's Wilson is a skittish captive to the doctor who helped pull him out of isolation in the first place.

Should you see it? Absolutely. Love & Mercy mixes classic storytelling with creative twists to great effect. Using both Dano and Cusack allows the audience to see Wilson as two very different men both before and after his breakdown — but they add up to a convincing whole, thanks to more strong work from Dano and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Cusack. By telling this very specific and important part of Wilson's history, the film gives an excellent look into his creative mind and the epic struggles he faced.

2. Beyond the Lights

Directed by Gina Prince-BythewoodStarring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover

What's it about? As a small child, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a singer talented beyond her years, performing a beautiful rendition of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" yet losing the grand prize at a talent competition. As an adult, Noni is on the brink of stardom when she attempts suicide, only to be saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), a cop hired to protect her. As they embark on a passionate love affair, the duo discover their unlikely similarities.

Should you see it? Yes. The film unevenly mixes easy-to-digest tropes about love and stardom with thoughtful spins on race, sexism, and interpersonal understanding — but the edges are smoothed by Mbatha-Raw. The actress, who broke out in the period piece Belle, is excellent as Noni, a character who maintains a precarious balance between hope and fear.

3. While We Were Young

Directed by Noah BaumbachStarring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver

What's it about? Josh (Ben Stiller) is a struggling documentarian stuck on a 10-year project that's getting worse by the minute. He is married to Cornelia (Watts), the daughter of a famed documentarian who makes him feel worse about his professional failings. Personal angst tops professional angst, however, when their closest friends have a child and begin to focus less on nightlife and more on parenting. When they meet a hipster couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver), they attempt to follow them into a younger state of being.

Should you see it? Yes — but longtime Baumbach fans should keep their expectations in check. This is the director's most mainstream and straightforwardly comedic film, which will likely leave fans of films like Frances Ha or The Squid and the Whale looking for more. At times, Baumbach manages to mix the quirk with some really interesting generational observations. But when the film rolls out a big, anti-climactic twist — topped by an entirely typical epilogue — While We Were Young begins to feel like a funny film wrapped in a completely pointless bow.

4. Ned Rifle

Directed by Hal HartleyStarring Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey

What's it about? Ned Rifle is the third and final film in the trilogy that began with Henry Fool and continued with Fay Grim. Fay is now in prison, Henry has disappeared, Simon's fame has diminished, and Ned (Liam Aiken) has become a devout Christian after witness protection sent him to live with a minister's family. Now 18, he reunites with his family one by one with a simple goal: killing his father for ruining his mother's life. Things get complicated, however, when he comes across Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a strange hanger-on with plans of her own.

Should you see it? Absolutely — but only if you're a Hal Hartley and/or Henry Fool fan. Hartley's unique aesthetic can be jarring for audiences who have never seen his work (and really, there's no point in seeing a film that wraps up the trilogy before seeing the first two). For those who have seen Henry Fool and Fay Grim, Ned Rifle offers a smorgasbord of all Hartley's regular actors and a return to a more pensive narrative after the wild espionage of Fay Grim. [Full disclosure: the author contributed a small amount to Ned Rifle's Kickstarter campaign.]

5. Infinitely Polar Bear

Directed by Maya ForbesStarring Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, and Ashley Aufderheide

What's it about? Maya Forbes writes and directs a film based on her own youth in the 1970s. When her black mother moves to New York to get an MBA and be a breadwinner for her family, Forbes and her younger sister are left in the care of their white, manic-depressive dad. The arrangement pushes Cameron (Mark Ruffalo) to find a balance between his manic whims and his daughters' needs, and the kids learn to adjust to a new and sometimes problematic parental structure, as well as to the shame they feel about their father's illness.

Should you see it? Definitely. Infinitely Polar Bear is one of the biggest charmers of the fest — a sweet, thoughtful comedy in which an Avenger and and a Guardian of the Galaxy slip out of superheroism to play real, charming people. Directed by a woman of color, the film provides a thoughtful take on race and womanhood in ways that many other films have failed to do. Infinitely Polar Bear is one of the rare films in which comedy doesn't come at the expense of a powerful narrative.

6. Welcome to Me

Directed by Shira PivenStarring Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, James Marsden

What's it about? Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, wins the Mega-Millions lottery, quits taking her medication, moves to a casino hotel, and buys her own talk show. The local station head (James Marsden) is thrilled with the multi-million dollar check. But what seems to be a way to exploit Alice and drain her dry becomes a method for her enlightenment — in which she finds her voice and legitimizes her entirely unique view of the world.

Should you see it? Yes — but beware, this is a comedy that slowly turns on you. It's hard not to laugh at Alice's oddities; she reads "prepared statements" when she has something serious to say, has no filter in conversations, and thinks good television programming includes segments where she eats a frosted meatloaf or spends a week neutering dogs. But Alice is also a sweet woman truly struggling to genuinely interact with those around her, and Wiig plays the balance beautifully.

To read reviews from the first half of the Toronto International Film Festival — including Nightcrawler, The Imitation Game, and The Last 5 Years — click here.

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