This article was co-written with Anna Swanson
The fall festival season is upon us, and thousands of fans, critics, and industry professionals are descending on the annual Toronto International Film Festival. Indeed, the hills (read: Film Twitter) are alive with the sound of music (read: arguing). As always, there’s plenty to talk about with film, from the potential real-world ramifications of Joker to the welcome proliferation of space movies. To prepare for all of this, we’ve put our heads together and conjured up a list of recommended watches to prepare for this year’s anticipated festival films.
Whether you’re attending TIFF and looking for more to watch (you masochist) or you’re missing the festival and want to feel fully hyped and familiarized when these titles hit theaters later in the year, have no fear. May this helpful and comprehensive viewing guide keep you up to speed with the most wonderful time of the year for cinephiles.
What to Watch: American Animals, Thoroughbreds
Why to Watch: While the Hugh Jackman-starring Bad Education, a based-on-a-true-story crime film about embezzlement at a Long Island high school, is sure to make a splash at TIFF this year, there’s another true-crime drama that unfortunately flew under the radar last year: American Animals. Director Bart Layton’s film blurs the line between documentary and narrative film in its chronicling of a real-life library heist at Kentucky’s Transylvania University that took place in 2004. It’s an imaginative take on the true-crime genre that is nerve-wracking and surprisingly emotionally resonant.
It would also make for a wild ride of a double feature with Bad Education director Cory Finley’s directorial debut, Thoroughbreds. The 2017 dark comedy stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke as teen girls who conspire to kill former’s character’s step-father. The kids certainly aren’t alright.
Color Out of Space
What to Watch: Hardware, Mandy, Annihilation, From Beyond
Why to Watch: The most anticipated film on this year’s Midnight Madness roster, Color Out of Space has such sights to show you: meteoric chaos, Nic Cage, and the return of renegade genre cowboy Richard Stanley. To prepare for the light show, Stanley’s visually singular cyberpunk thriller Hardware is an essential watch for those needing a pre-Island of Doctor Moreau refresher on the eclectic director.
Likewise, Cage’s prior SpectreVision collab, Mandy, is a rational preparatory watch. Add in some tried-and-truly trippy cosmic horror flicks with more (From Beyond) or less (Annihilation) ties to H.P. Lovecraft and consider yourself prepped. For extra credit, boot up the Hereditary soundtrack: composer Colin Stetson will be lending his talents to Color’s madness.
What to Watch: The Great Dictator, The Producers, Drop Dead Fred
Why to Watch: Jojo Rabbit may be the Hitler comedy to see this year, but others have come before it. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator came out in 1940 and, like Jojo Rabbit, stars its director as the titular dictator. (Fun fact: in his autobiography, Chaplin said he would not have made the film if he had known the true extent of concentration camps).
Another must-watch when it comes to taking the piss out of Nazis is The Producers. For the record, the seriousness of the Holocaust was not lost on Mel Brooks, who is on record criticizing Life is Beautiful for making light of concentration camps. And then, for those of you who want to avoid the “Anti-Hate Satire” discourse for as long as possible, just bury your head in the imaginary friend sand and put on Drop Dead Fred.
Lucy in the Sky
What to Watch: Contact, Annihilation
Why to Watch: Space movies are all the rage this year, as they should be every year. Space is incredible and terrifying and wondrous. It’s also a hell of a thing to adapt to and then return from, according to Noah Hawley’s Lucy In The Sky. While there are many brilliant films about space out there, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact is a standout for us. Jodie Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a scientist intent on discovering lifeforms that exist beyond our planet. It’s a rather philosophical take on the sci-fi genre that doesn’t shy away from dealing with challenging themes. And speaking of challenging, there’s no better way to prep for Natalie Portman in Lucy In The Sky than by watching (or rewatching, see above) her in Annihilation, a film so good it’s in this article twice.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
What to Watch: The Death of Stalin, In the Loop, Barry Lyndon
Why to Watch: This is no ordinary Charles Dickens adaptation: this is a Charles Dickens adaptation from two of the wittiest motherfuckers currently gracing our screens. With Armando Iannucci in the director’s seat, co-writing with fellow The Thick of It, In The Loop, and Veep collaborator Simon Blackwell, you can bet The Personal History of David Copperfield is on our radar. Not that anyone really needs an excuse to pilfer the Iannucci back-catalog, but for an idea of how Iannucci handles history, The Death of Stalin is a mighty good time.
And given that David Copperfield is the story of a transient young man who learns a great deal from experience, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a film about a transient young man who learns absolutely nothing from experience, feels like a perfect pre-watch. Plus: it’s a period film with a modern feel, which given Iannucci being…Iannucci is pretty well an inevitability for David Copperfield.
A Hidden Life
What to Watch: Transit, Happy End, Victoria
Why to Watch: For our money, the best film out of TIFF last year was Christian Petzold’s modernized adaptation Anna Seghers’s World War II novel Transit, about refugees attempting to flee the advancing German army. While Petzold’s style is distinct to Terrence Malick’s, Transit shares some similarities with the director’s latest, which premiered at Cannes and is screening at TIFF this year. Malick’s A Hidden Life centers on a German conscientious objector (August Diehl) who refuses to fight for the Nazis in WWII. Both timely and timeless in their stories about living under fascism in fear of persecution, Transit and A Hidden Life share a quality of feeling absolutely essential.
The two films also have something else in common: actor Franz Rogowski. Rogowski is also at TIFF in Angela Schanelec’s I Was At Home, But… and his previous films include Micheal Haneke’s Happy End and Sebastian Schipper’s one-take thriller Victoria. He’s an absolutely brilliant and transformative actor who is immensely deserving of acclaim. If his name isn’t one you recognize yet, it will be soon.
Ford v Ferrari
What to Watch: Le Mans, Rush
Why to Watch: James Mangold’s follow-up to the much-celebrated kinetic neo-noir Logan, Ford v Ferrari dramatizes the real-life racing car arms race that took place between Ford and Ferrari in the mid-’60s. To familiarize yourself with the Le Mans (the 24-hour endurance Grand Prix on which Ford v Ferrari centers) check out 1971’s Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen.
For more cars that go fast, Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush is a chronicle of the rivalry between star race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). It’s an exhilarating drama with an unrelenting energy that is buoyed by the pitch-perfect performances from its two stars.
How to Build a Girl
What to Watch: Booksmart, Pirate Radio
Why to Watch: You mention rock ‘n’ roll and Chris O’Dowd in the same sentence and we’re legally obligated to recommend Pirate Radio, a sex comedy about a vessel hosting a pirate radio station manned by an ensemble cast of British character actors. There’s a coming-of-age sub-plot in Pirate Radio too, just like with the debaucherous Beanie Feldstein-starring music critic flick How to Build a Girl.
If you’ve missed Feldstein’s latest, Booksmart, the riotous teen-comedy from director Olivia Wilde, now is the perfect time to catch up. Feldstein is an incredibly gifted actor who is continuing to hone her talent, and frankly, it feels like a blessing that we get to witness her career take off.
What to Watch: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Why to Watch: When two different trailers were released for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story — each focusing on either Adam Driver’s Charlie or Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole narrating what they love about each other — one movie (or rather, two movies) immediately came to mind: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her. Ned Benson directed two films about the dissolution of a marriage between Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), each film telling a different side of the story.
The two were also edited together into a third version subtitled Them. There’s a lot to admire about this inventive series of films, including a handful of details seen from both sides where each person remembers something happening differently. Take one instance where the memories are hazy regarding which one told the other that they love them at a pivotal point in the story. These films are gloriously heartbreaking and perfect viewing preparation for Marriage Story.
What to Watch: Antichrist
Why to Watch: A nerve-wracking two-hander? Check! A single location that fills you with dread? Double-check! A cornucopia of bodily fluids? Triple-check! Robert Eggers’ sophomore film made waves at Cannes earlier this year as a titillating and morbid romp that was unlike anything else at the festival. Of course, there’s no director more familiar with making waves at Cannes than Lars von Trier. In 2009, Antichrist — probably his most shocking film to date — scandalized audiences with its brutal violence and introspective themes. If you can manage to sit through it, it certainly isn’t a bad way to prepare for the shock of The Lighthouse.