15 must-see films to watch at TIFF 2023 — and after

Ouch. Just after the Toronto International Film Festival weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, it now faces strikes by writers and actors in Hollywood. The ongoing SAG/AFTRA strike involving actors has put serious limitations on who can attend festivals and promote projects.

But regardless of who’s walking the red carpet, there’s still a bevy of beautiful films coming to Toronto. From international movie stars to musicians, film fans have much to choose from.

Here’s what our movie watchers consider must-sees — both during the festival and after.


Chris Pine plays a poolman pulled into a conspiracy in a new movie directed by the actor premiering at TIFF.
Chris Pine plays a poolman pulled into a conspiracy in a new movie directed by the actor premiering at TIFF. (Darren Michaels)

Don’t tell the other Chrises, but Chris Pine has always been my favourite. So I’m doubly excited to check out his directorial debut. With his long hair and scraggly beard, Pine seems to be channelling a bit of a 1970s vibe the past few years, and the trend continues with what seems like a modern-day riff on the classic Chinatown. With Annette Bening, Danny DeVito and DeWanda Wise, Pine has roped in a great cast. And with music by Andrew Bird? Sold. EG

The Boy and the Heron

An animated boy and girl hug in front of a lake during autumn. The boy seems surprised, while the girl's face is obscured.
Inspired by Genzaburo Yoshino’s 1937 novel How Do You Live, The Boy and the Heron is the latest feature from animation superstar Hayao Miyazaki. (TIFF)

Perhaps the most secretive — and anticipated — movie at the festival is that way expressly by design. Directed by Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, and developed after he announced his retirement, The Boy and the Heron has been talked about for months. That’s partially due to the fact that very little promotional material has been released — for a significant amount of time, there was nothing more than a poster. That’s helped to make tickets to the coming-of-age story set during the Second World War incredibly coveted — even though a Studio Ghibli representative revealed to CBC News that it won’t be Miyazaki’s final film after allJW

Stop Making Sense

A group of musicians play their instruments in front of a large crowd.
Four decades after the electric concert film Stop Making Sense first appeared, TIFF is presenting a new 4K restoration of the movie directed by Jonathan Demme. (TIFF)

TIFF may not be able to end the actors’ strike, but it did manage to bring the members of Talking Heads back together for a special screening of the band’s seminal concert film. Four decades after the electric concert film first appeared, TIFF is presenting a new 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. David Byrne’s giant suit will be crisper. The boom box will boom louder, and afterward, director Spike Lee will moderate an interview on stage with all four band members: Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison. Since relations between Byrne and the other members have been frosty for decades, it could be a night to remember. EG

Anatomy of a Fall

A body lies on its back in the snow, with blood pooling around the head. Nearby, a woman and young boy hold each other.
Anatomy of a Fall is a thrilling French courtroom drama that asks its audience to question whether a woman — whose only witness of her innocence is her blind son — killed her husband. (TIFF)

If you’re seeing only one film at TIFF this year, I recommend Anatomy of a Fall. Incredibly scripted and performed, it follows a mother and son sorting through a death in the family. Sandra Hüller’s performance is astonishing, and the supporting cast is equally impressive, including 13-year-old Milo Machado Graner’s deft handling of some incredibly difficult subject matter. The film — about 50/50 English and French, with very sharp dialogue — looks at the nature of truth and when and how it changes. Avoid trailers and go in cold, if you can. TB

Sing Sing 

a man looks at the camera while he sings
Colman Domingo stars as a prisoner fighting for clemency who also runs and seeks refuge in a theatre group run by inmates. (Black Bear Pictures)

Colman Domingo comes to TIFF already getting Oscar buzz for his performance in the Netflix civil rights drama Rustin. Hopefully he can share the spotlight with this achingly heartfelt story of prisoners finding refuge in a performing arts group. Based on a true story and featuring many former convicts on-screen, Sing Sing is a raw and real look at the weight of imprisonment and how a group of men used the theatre to dare to dream, hope or just enjoy each other’s company. As Divine G, the co-founder of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, Domingo is eminently watchable, but the real revelation is Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin. Not to be missed. EG

Swan Song

A ballerina on stage leans over, stretching her legs.
Swan Song examines the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Swan Lake under artistic director Karen Kain, the legendary Canadian ballerina. The documentary is a rare dance-focused film that depicts the art honestly. (TIFF)

Karen Kain’s run with the National Ballet of Canada was already a storied journey, spending years performing with the company — and internationally — to become one of the most celebrated ballerinas in the world. But this documentary takes a look after, when, as artistic director, she choreographed a production of Swan Lake during the company’s difficult time grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as her own nerves overseeing the ballet in which she debuted in 1971. It’s worth watching both for its insightful — and not always entirely flattering — examination of a Canadian icon, and for the rare example of a film about the incredible hardships of dance, without turning it into a sports movie. JW

Dumb Money

man at computer talks to a screen
In Dumb Money, Paul Dano plays Keith Gill, a.k.a. Roaring Kitty, who rallied retail stock market traders to buy GameStop shares. (Sony Pictures)

The Big Short meets meme stocks, Dumb Money is an eminently watchable film from Craig Gillespie, the director of I, Tonya. Set during the pandemic, it’s based on the true story of “Roaring Kitty,” a retail stock trader with a YouTube channel who helped make GameStop a Wall Street giant killer. Like The Big Short, it features a wide cast of characters — with everyone from students to nurses investing in the stock — while the billionaires looking to profit from GameStop’s demise start to sweat. If you’re ready to see Paul Dano as a vlogger, check it out. Plus, if you don’t make it to TIFF, it opens in theatres in mid-September. EG

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

Vampire Humaniste Cherche Suicidaire Consentant (Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person) is a comedic spin on the vampire genre that centers around young Sasha as she finds a humane way to sustain herself with human blood.
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person is a comedic spin on the vampire genre that centres around young Sasha as she looks for a humane way to sustain herself with human blood. (Courtesy of Art et Essai/H264)

Move over Dexter — and also, I guess, Edward: There’s a new compassionate killer in town. The Montreal-based movie has already picked up a director’s award at Venice for its Québécois director, Ariane Louis-Seize. The comedy-drama follows teenage vampire Sasha — played by now three-time festival alum Sara Montpetit — as she is forced to find a human connection before she can feed. The seemingly Tim Burton- and Wes Anderson-inspired feature debut looks to be a dark delight — and like TIFF debuts Shiva Baby and I Like Movies before it, a tone-setting announcement of an impressive new voice. JW


Still frame from the film Backspot. Devery Jacobs does push-ups with a look of focused intensity.
Backspot, starring Devery Jacobs, provides an unflinching look at the teens in an elite competitive cheer program and questions whether they’ll crack under the pressure. (TIFF)

Sure, there are lots of great films about cheerleaders — from Bring it On to the Cheer docuseries — but Backspot promises something different. It’s an unflinching look at the teens in an elite competitive cheer program and questions whether they’ll crack under the pressure. On camera and behind the scenes, Devery Jacobs has been someone to watch directing, writing and starring in episodes of Reservation Dogs. For Backspot, she’s also on board as producer with Elliot Page, who has multiple films at TIFF. EG


A group of smiling drag queens are shown looking into a mirror, as they prepare for a show.
The Montreal-set Solo is a heart-wrenching look at young love in the city. (TIFF)

Solo is a fun but heart-wrenching look at young love in Montreal. It follows a drag queen (Théodore Pellerin) who’s starting a new relationship with a fellow queen. It’s beautifully shot and performed, making a Montreal winter seem incredibly romantic and fun. Drag is a central part of the storytelling, and the performance sequences are dazzling. If you love drag or romance, check this one out. TB


a bloodied man with a knife at his face looks ahead
Laksh Lalwani stars in Kill, a visceral new action film from India set on a moving train. (Dharma Productions)

“A passenger train bound for New Delhi becomes a bloody battleground of brutal close-quarters combat.” Anyone getting Snowpiercer flashbacks? With movies such as RRR and Pathaan, Indian cinema has been talking Hollywood’s action formula and making it its own. Now comes Kill. Programmed in the always riotous Midnight Madness program and starring Laksh Lalwani, Kill promises passionate melodrama and high-speed train robberies. All aboard. EG


Two smiling boys leap through the grass.
From Hirokazu Kore-eda, the director behind similarly focused films Shoplifters and Nobody Knows, Monster is an examination of doubt, childhood and the lengths a parent will go to protect their children. (TIFF)

If, like me, you need a liberal injection of anxiety, sadness and emotion in your movie-going, Monster might be for you. From child-neglect story Nobody Knows to switched-at-birth drama Like Father, Like Son to criminal family drama Shoplifters, director Hirokazu Kore-eda has a proven track record for movies that depict the unique experience and challenges of youth. In Monster, that experience is shown through a mother suspicious that a teacher may have done something horrible to one of her sons. Inspired by Rashomon‘s multiple POV structure — and not unlike Doubt or Hunt in dealing with unfounded allegations — Monster is a must-see for anyone willing to feel a bit uncomfortable in a theatre. JW


A smiling woman in a swimcap is shown in open ocean by a sailing vessel.
Co-starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, Nyad is a depiction of swimming superstar Diana Nyad’s attempt to swim from the United States to Cuba. (TIFF)

Cards on the table: Annette Bening is one of my favourites. 20th Century Women. Bugsy. Heck, you can go back to The Grifters. Here she plays Diane Nyad, in the true-life story of a professional swimmer who decides to swim from the United States to Cuba — oh, and without a shark cage. Co-starring Jodie Foster as her best friend, the film has star power, but what intrigues me are the directors. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin come from the documentary world. Seeing how they transition from thrilling real-life fare such as Free Solo to Nyad could be thrilling. EG

The Zone of Interest

A grass field is shown. A number of people sit in states of undress in front of a lake.
The Zone of Interest, which examines the ‘banality of evil’ by looking at the everyday lives of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family, has already stirred up a considerable amount of interest. (TIFF)

One of many movies at this year’s festival that focus on the Second World War — and of more than a few specifically on the Holocaust — Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest stands out for its examination of what Hannah Arendt famously termed “the banality of evil.” As in real life, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss lives with his wife, Hedwig, in a house well within sight of the infamous concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany. Both focus on their own struggles as the war comes to a close. The film promises to highlight how facilitators of the Holocaust showed inconceivable indifference to the evils they committed. Shot on location, it has already stirred up a considerable amount of interest. JW

La Chimera 

A crowd of thieves and grave robbers looks at the camera.
Set in Tuscany in the 1980s, La Chimera follows a group of tomb raiders. (Tempesta)

A wild and woolly tale about an amateur archaeologist with a Felliniesque flavour, La Chimera could be one of those treasures that festivals such as TIFF uncover. The setting is rural Italy in the 1980s, where Arthur (Josh O’Connor) has developed a talent for uncovering buried treasure. Teaming up with a group of local thieves, fixers and vagabonds, Arthur is soon roaming the countryside looking for a big score. This is not Ocean’s Eleven; the result is something much more lived in. The film itself feels like a fossil from the late 1970s, and O’Connor’s troubled, heartsick hero has his own depths to explore. EG

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