AFS’ Lars Nilsen’s Top Picks from the 2019 Toronto International Film Fest

The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the first and best places to discover important new films—from awards season contenders to independent gems. For AFS Lead Programmer Lars Nilsen, it’s a great opportunity to explore many of these new films and scout out titles that may someday make it to the AFS Cinema. After 10 days and over 30+ films, he shares some of his top picks from this year’s festival:

COLLECTIVE

dir. Alexander Nanau

This is a documentary about pervasive corruption in the Romanian health care industry. Sounds exciting right? In fact, it is. Starting with a major nightclub fire and its tragic aftermath in which a failed health care response resulted in many unnecessary fatalities, this film follows the trail of crooked hospital administrators and political appointees into some fairly wild corners. I won’t spoil the film, but it is part newsroom suspense drama and part gangster movie and you will be riveted by it.

 

THE LOST OKOROSHI

dir. Abba Makama

From Nigeria comes this very strange but at times poignant fantasy about a rural man who works in a Lagos skyscraper as a security guard and despairs over the loss of community and traditions in the fast paced, modern city. Suddenly one night he undergoes a Kafka-esque metamorphosis into a colorful grass-skirted ancestral spirit called an Okoroshi. This odd situation is accepted by all at face value, and soon the Okoroshi is engaging in fish-out-of-water adventures among disbelieving city-folk. Some really big laughs here alongside the social commentary. Also, a level of deep weirdness that keeps the whole enterprise popping.

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

dir. Céline Sciamma

This new film from Céline Sciamma (GIRLHOOD) is a gothic 18th century period piece about a female artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait of noblewoman’s daughter in order to entice a potential husband for the young woman. The daughter refuses to sit for a portrait, so the artist must stealthily observe her and paint her from memory at night. You might guess some of what happens next. In the context of this story, the film makes some really timely points about female representation. The symbolism is “louder” here than is fashionable in most contemporary films. You probably won’t miss Sciamma’s point. I am a big fan of boldness in symbolic language, so, unsurprisingly, I loved this film. I also appreciate that it honors the gothic tradition in literature by hewing faithfully to the style without spoofing it.

 

THE TRUTH

dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s followup to the breakout hit SHOPLIFTERS is something radically different. Made in France and in French, it stars Catherine Deneuve as a great screen star who is a demanding diva in her family life and on the set as she plays a small role in a new film alongside a very popular young actress. Juliette Binoche plays Deneuve’s screenwriter daughter, and Ethan Hawke plays Binoche’s B-list actor husband. The film is a chamber piece, with everyone lending support to one dazzling soloist – Deneuve, in a part that was surely written for her because no one else could conceivably play it.

 

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

dir. Matthew Rankin

Raise your hand if you know virtually nothing about Canadian Prime Ministers of the past. I thought so. I am also in the dark here. This film is a deeply strange, perverse biopic depicting the life and times of the Prime Minister I am told was the greatest leader in Canadian history, Mackenzie King. As recounted by filmmaker Matthew Rankin, King’s life was a non-stop parade of humiliation, sexual and otherwise. This apparently low-budget film is full to the brim with a commodity most other movies can’t buy, even with all the money in Hollywood – innovation and obsessive creativity. It’s also very, very funny.

 

 

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