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Film recap: Toronto International Film Festival 2017

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With Toronto just a relatively short drive from Rochester, it’s well worth the trip for one of the largest and widely attended film festivals in the world. The Toronto International Film Festival is held each September and — along with the Venice and Telluride film festivals — marks the beginning of the fall prestige movie season and the official kick-off the year’s Oscar race.

Part of the fun of attending any festival is finding the hidden gems among the buzzy titles, and this year’s TIFF has already delivered in that regard. I’m still here for a few more days (this year’s festival runs through September 17), but here are a few highlights from what I’ve seen so far.

Another barbed social satire from “Force Majeure” director Ruben Östlund, “The Square” finds the filmmaker working on a much broader canvas, using the occasionally ridiculous world of modern art to examine issues of class and personal responsibility. The results are often funny, if sometimes heavy-handed with its message. It doesn’t all come together into a cohesive whole, but there are sequences that are among the best things I’ve seen this year.

John Woo’s bonkers “Manhunt” is a fever dream of every action trope and cliché you can think of, remixed through the lens of Woo’s distinctive style (prepare for plenty of slow motion, Mexican standoffs, and doves … so many doves). The pileup of Woo’s greatest hits is hung together by a bare-bones story involving a secret plot to develop super soldier serum (with a bit of “The Fugitive” tossed in). It’s extremely silly, but a lot of fun.

Joseph Kahn’s subversive comedy “Bodied” follows a white grad student who becomes an unlikely star on the rap battle circuit. Not all of the humor lands — there are more than a few groan-worthy jokes — but when it hits, it hits hard, becoming a sharp takedown of white privilege and cultural appropriation. As of this writing the film hasn’t been picked up for distribution, but with the enthusiastic response from audiences here, it’s only a matter of time.

One of two films that director Sebastián Lelio has in the year’s festival, the excellent “A Fantastic Woman” is about Marina, a transgender woman searching for a path forward after her lover’s unexpected death. A transgender performer has never been nominated for an Oscar, but hopefully that will change this year with Daniela Vega’s luminous performance. (Lelio’s other film is “Disobedience,” starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz.)

Inspired by the fascinating story of the unconventional life of the creator of Wonder Woman, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is smart, sexy, and funny, with three fantastic lead performances from Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote. Angela Robinson’s nimble direction helps overcome the occasional biopic cliché.

I rarely cry at movies. I’ve teared up plenty of times, sure, but it takes a lot to really get me sobbing. So take it as high praise when I say “Lean on Pete” destroyed me. Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his wildly acclaimed “Weekend” and “45 Years” is a simple story about a boy and his horse, but it grows into so much more. Lead Charlie Plummer is a star.

“The Ritual” follows a group of guys who take a hiking trip through the forests of Sweden to honor their fallen comrade and encounter an ancient evil. Coming across like a Nordic spin on “The Blair Witch Project,” it doesn't break much new ground, but it’s a solid entry in the “terrible things happen to people who go into the woods” genre of horror, with a solid lead performance from Rafe Spall.

The second film I viewed centering on the relationship between a man and a horse, Chloé Zhao’s quietly powerful “The Rider” tells the story of a rodeo cowboy recovering from a life-threatening head injury and figuring out how to live a life if he can no longer do what he loves.

Dan Gilroy’s much-anticipated follow-up to “Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the optimistic Yin to that movie’s darkly cynical Yang. The film stars Denzel Washington as an idealistic lawyer who finds himself in crisis after the small-time firm he toiled for suddenly shutters its doors. Washington is solid, as expected, and there are some interesting ideas about the compromises involved in activism, but the story meanders so much you might end up frustrated well before you get there.

Three of my favorites of the festival will be getting wide releases (and likely Oscar pushes), so I’ll save the good stuff for full reviews closer to release. But “Call Me By Your Name” lived up to my (high) expectations; Frances McDormand deserves all the Oscar attention she’ll no doubt be getting for her performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” And Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a swooning fairy tale romance and an ode to classic cinema that feels like pure del Toro. It’s absolutely magical.


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