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Dispatches from TIFF 2019

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This year's Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, having kicked off this past Thursday. Continuing through Sunday, September 15, TIFF is one of the largest film festivals in the world. And one of the best things about the festival is the diversity of its film lineup, which includes everything from Hollywood prestige pictures to independent foreign films looking for distribution.

For those so inclined, TIFF's also chock-full of celebrities, with red carpet galas and fancy premieres practically every night. But the stars of the festival are always the films, and for movie buffs with some time to spare, it's well worth the drive. Your ticket to world class cinema is just a day trip away.

I'll be hanging out until next Wednesday, so I've still got plenty more movies to catch during my time up north, but here's a sampling of what I've seen so far.

Alfre Woodard stars as a prison warden grappling with the emotional and psychological toll of carrying out death row executions in Chinonye Chukwu's somber drama "Clemency." The weight of her profession comes crashing down around her as preparations begin for the execution of another inmate (a heartbreaking Aldis Hodge). A thoughtful exploration of a hot-button issue, the film asks viewers to consider the real cost of extinguishing a human life. And Woodard is -- no surprise -- excellent.

My favorite film so far is "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," a sensual period romance from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma about a female painter commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a young woman. Anchored by two exquisite performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, it's a simmering love story all about desire, the female gaze, and enduring beauty of art.

One of the most pleasant surprises for me was "The Long Walk" from director Mattie Do. Set in a rural village in Laos, the film follows a hermit who can commune with the dead as he discovers the ghost of a young woman can transport him back to the time of his mother's death. Mix up a bit of sci-fi time travel, a dash of mystery, a wee bit of spooky ghost story, and wrap it up in Buddhist spirituality, and you get this genre-hopping gem that examines the destructive power of grief and loss.

Particularly in a festival setting, there's a lot of pressure to form an instant, social media-ready opinion of a film. I admit to having a difficult time with that, and often need some time to sit with a movie before I'm ready to spread the word about what I thought.

All this to say I'm still digesting Bertrand Bonello's "Zombi Child," inspired by the true-ish story of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man brought back from the dead to work in the hell of sugar cane plantations. The film parallels that story with the experiences of his granddaughter attending an elite, mostly white boarding school in present-day Paris. Bonello weaves those elements into a fascinating tapestry about voodoo, colonialism, and cultural appropriation -- and even has time for an oral history of the life of Rihanna. There's a lot to unpack here and I'm not sure it all entirely coheres, but it makes for a fascinating journey.

I always look forward to TIFF's Midnight Madness lineup: the specially curated program of genre movies from around the world always makes for a fun experience, with a rowdy, and appreciative audience primed for maximum carnage.

The opening night selection for Midnight Madness this year, Jeff Barnaby's "Blood Quantum" got things off to a rollicking start. The film is set on the Mi'gmaq reserve in the early 80s, as the community finds that they're somehow immune to the zombie plague that's decimating the rest of the planet. As the non-native population seeks refuge, the native community most decide whether or not to let them in. As with the best zombie films, "Blood Quantum" melds some sharp social commentary with a brutal, gleefully gory horror flick -- as Barnaby himself joked in his introduction, his film's "got all but one body fluid covered." It doesn't entirely reinvent the genre (nor does it want to), and the indigenous perspective adds a compelling bite.