10 films that stood out at the Toronto Film Festival

If you’re looking for a guide to the best films of the fall, then the Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps up Sept. 17, usually provides some answers. Any list surely will include Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a beautiful meditation on empathy and love with a monstrous twist.

The movie had its world premiere in Venice, shortly before having its North American premiere in Toronto, and it took home the top Venice prize — the Golden Lion. It might very well take home a significant number of awards at the Oscars, too.

Sally Hawkins stars as a maid who can hear the world around her but cannot speak. Her best friend is another maid, a sassy Octavia Spencer, and they clean up a secret lab in suburban Baltimore when the bosses go home.

One night, they discover a top-secret guest who has taken up residence, albeit in chains. It’s a humanoid creature from the Amazon jungle, where it was revered by the natives. The United States, represented by an agent played by Michael Shannon, thinks the creature might help the States in its 1950s-era Cold War with the Soviet Union.

But the creature doesn’t seem to care much for Shannon’s cattle prod. Instead, it develops a close relationship with Hawkins’ character. And when she hears that the government might kill her new friend, she springs into action to save him.

It’s a variation on the girl-and-monster story — beauty and the beast, if you will. But it’s imaginatively told by del Toro, with exquisite cinematography and special effects. It’ll probably be regarded as del Toro’s masterpiece.

“The Shape of Water” is scheduled for limited release Dec. 8; an Austin opening date has not been announced.

Two other top Toronto movies were also set in the 1950s: “The Death of Stalin” and George Clooney’s “Suburbicon.”

“Stalin” was by far the big surprise of the festival. Directed by Armando Iannucci, it takes a comedic and satirical look at the events surrounding the jockeying for power in the Kremlin after the death of the brutal Soviet leader in 1953.

Iannucci, who is probably best known as the creator of the TV show “Veep,” takes an approach similar to that of Stanley Kubrick, director of “Dr. Strangelove,” which was the height of absurdism. “Stalin” won’t surpass “Strangelove” in absurdity, but it’s quite amusing. It’s also strangely unsettling to see the top Kremlin leaders pursuing petty vendettas as bodies roll down the stairs in the background.

Everyone probably knows that Nikita Khrushchev eventually rose to the top of the power struggle. But in “Stalin,” Khrushchev is a deadly jokester, maneuvering against the KGB and other forces. The casting of Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev initially seems questionable, since Buscemi is quite thin and Khrushchev was short and portly. But nobody is able to embody venality as well as Buscemi, and a fat suit helps seal the deal in characterization. No U.S. opening date has been announced.

The other 1950s movie, “Suburbicon,” revolves around an insurance con involving a suburban dad (Matt Damon), his wife (Julianne Moore) and his sister-in-law (also played by Moore in a dual role.)

A large subplot involves the arrival in an all-white suburb of a black family — and how the venal neighborhood (yes, there’s more venality) reacts.

Clooney directs the satire, based on a Coen Brothers script. And as you might expect with a Coen Brothers tale, corruption begets trouble. The con doesn’t go well, especially with the arrival of an insurance investigator, played by Oscar Isaacs.

The movie received mixed reviews at Toronto, but it’s an interesting, timely, dark tale about the myth of 1950s America, when the nation was supposedly great. This ain’t “Happy Days.”

“Suburbicon” opens in Austin on Oct. 27.

Other top films at the festival include:

“The Children Act.” Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci star in this tale of a British judge (Thompson) who handles numerous cases involving children, often ignoring her husband, an academician. The husband laments that the two haven’t had sex in 11 months and announces that he plans to have an affair. But the move comes at a stressful time for Thompson’s judge, and she’s in no mood for home trouble. She is especially moved by one of her current cases — a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who has leukemia and is refusing what would be a life-saving blood transfusion. The judge must decide whether to order the hospital to administer the transfusion or abide by the wishes of the teen and his family. The script is by Ian McEwan. (No opening date set)

“Battle of the Sexes.” Emma Stone is quickly becoming one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood. Here she plays Billie Jean King, who’s battling to get recognition — and better pay — for women on the tennis circuit. Male tennis players earn eight times what the women earn, and she wants better prize money. So she sets out to set up her own tennis circuit, when the likes of Rosie Casals and others. Amid the controversy, a past-his-prime former tennis champ, Bobby Riggs (Steven Carell), announces that no woman would be able to beat him and that all this talk of feminism and women’s liberation is a crock. This, of course, sets up the epic tennis match between King and Riggs. It’s interesting to look back at the 1970s, when it was quite acceptable to be a male chauvinist pig. (Opening Sept. 29)

“Borg/McEnroe.” Sweden’s Bjorn Borg was always known as the calm, cool and collected tennis champ of the 1970s, while American John McEnroe was seen as the hothead who screamed at umpires. This movie focuses more on Borg than on McEnroe and reveals that Borg, too, was a hothead — at least at a young age — and that he channeled those emotions into becoming almost obsessive-compulsive in his preparations for a match. In other words, underneath the calm surface, Borg was a seething cauldron. As Borg, Sverrir Gudnason gives a great performance. And if you’re wondering who plays McEnroe, it’s none other than Hollywood bad boy Shia LaBeouf. (No opening date set)

“Downsizing.” Nebraska’s Alexander Payne directs this tale of a lower-middle-class couple who decide to participate in a futuristic program to help save the world: They’ll undergo a special procedure to become “little people,” miniature versions of themselves, who’ll consume far less resources and emit far less waste than the average family. Matt Damon stars. The movie asks interesting questions, particularly when it comes to global warming. But it also explores the tensions between the little people and those who stay the same size. The second half, however, takes a dramatic turn and becomes, essentially, a relationship movie. (Opening Dec. 22; will be the closing night film at this month’s Fantastic Fest)

“Darkest Hour.” It’s interesting to see a movie about World War II set at a time before U.S. involvement. In “Darkest Hour,” France has fallen to the Nazis, and there’s a move afoot in Britain to reach a peace agreement with Germany. Winston Churchill, however, isn’t keen to enter talks with Adolf Hitler, and this tale examines how Churchill struggles to keep up the good fight and save the British troops at Dunkirk. There’s an interesting telephone conversation with the U.S. president, who seems sympathetic but not very responsive to Churchill’s plight. And it makes you appreciate the great British leader’s resolve. Gary Oldman plays Churchill and gives an Oscar-worthy performance. (Opening in limited release Nov. 22; Austin opening date not set)

“The Current War.” Laredo native Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed the low-budget “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl,” gets a sizable boost in budget with this story about the rivalry between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to market electricity to the nation. Cumberbatch gives his typically good performance, but the movie is curious. It seems to want to steer the viewer into liking Edison more, but Westinghouse comes across as more appealing. (Opening Dec. 22)

“Molly’s Game.” Writer Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with the tale of Molly Bloom, a former Olympic-quality skier who gets hurt and eventually sets up one of the richest private poker games in the country. Jessica Chastain plays Molly with gusto, and poker lovers are bound to be fascinated by the inside details. Bloom ran the games that were attended by Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and other celebrities and business bigwigs. And, yes, she was busted. (Opening Nov. 22)

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