From Matthew McConaughey as a singing animated koala to Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as 1930s psychics, our critic runs through the highlights of this year's Toronto International Film Festival.
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23 Sep 2016 - 3:47 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2016 - 4:13 PM

Sing

In cinemas: Boxing Day

In his youth, Texan actor Matthew McConaughey spent a year in Australia as an exchange student and he believes US Southerners have a lot in common with people from Down Under. So in Toronto I was dying to ask the Oscar winner about voicing a koala, the lead animal in Illumination’s animated film Sing, where his American-accented character, called Buster, instigates a singing competition. Unfortunately it didn't happen, even if Sing, which has quite the voice cast - including Scarlett Johansson as a spiky punk porcupine, not an echidna - is very sweet and should hugely amuse kids and their parents at Christmas.

 

A United Kingdom

In cinemas: Boxing Day 

All the talk of racial diversity does not necessarily translate into audiences turning up to racially-themed movies. Yet there’s a sweeping quality to Belle director Amma Assante’s real-life historical romance that has propelled it to an Australian Christmas release. David Oyelowo, a forceful presence as Martin Luther King in Selma, is on fire here as Seretse Khama, a trailblazing African royal who staked everything on the love of his white British nobody wife Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and went on to become Botswana’s first President. Their son, Ian, is the country’s current President. The film is based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar.

 

Queen of Katwe

In cinemas: December 1

David Oyelowo did double duty at TIFF, again starring as a real life character, the teacher Robert Katende, in this Disney film about a Ugandan chess prodigy, played by Madina Nalwanga, who gives a remarkable performance. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave plays her mother. Uganda resident Mira Nair directs with her usual flurry of colour.

 

The Birth of a Nation

In cinemas: Feb 2

The film is a pale echo of 12 Years a Slave, though is nonetheless an astounding achievement by Nate Parker - who stars, directs, writes and produces the film. The now devoutly religious 36-year-old father of six is being hung out to dry not only for the sins of his past but because 20th Century Fox paid a ridiculous amount for the film - a record-breaking US$17.5 million - in Sundance, where rabid buyers NetFlix and Amazon had the studio so unnerved that they didn't even check Wikipedia to see the rape charges of Parker’s youth. The controversy means the film now has little chance of achieving salvation at the Oscars, just as a notorious past has made the chances slimmer for Mel Gibson. (Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge star Andrew Garfield seems more likely to be nominated for Martin Scorsese’s Silence.)

 

Planetarium 

In cinemas: Releasing after the 2017 French Film Festival

While Natalie Portman is receiving plaudits for her performance as Jackie Kennedy, the Black Swan Oscar winner had a second festival film, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, where she even speaks French. The fact that Portman and Lily-Rose Depp play séance-loving American sisters called Barlow had them in hysterics and clearly relieved the pressure of the interview process. Far from the best film of TIFF, it’s certainly a curiosity, not the least because of the re-creation of their 1930s Parisian environment and the subject of women who believe they can talk with the dead.

 

The Bad Batch

One of two cannibal-themed films at TIFF, Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (a self-described “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western”) shows how a young woman, Suki Waterhouse, can survive in the most adverse of climates - think Mad Max in Texas - even when she loses her arm and leg to the cannibal’s barbecue. The ever-adventurous Megan Ellison produced the dystopian romance/horror thriller and allowed the US-born Amirpour, who is of Iranian origin, complete freedom. Jason Momoa co-stars while Jim Carrey turns up in a supporting role as a hobo wandering the wilderness and Keanu Reeves is in excellent deadpan form as the cannibals’ cult leader.

 

Raw 

Thirty-two year-old French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s similarly cannibal-themed first feature won a FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes. Why are two young women making films about cannibals? Raw follows a 16-year-old vegetarian who, after being forced to eat a raw rabbit liver during her school’s humiliating hazing ritual, craves more flesh. Reports went viral when audience members fainted while viewing the film in Toronto. There were no fainting incidents in Cannes. Oh those hardy Europeans!

 

LBJ

 

Woody Harrelson can do no wrong in my book and even if his prosthetic-laden interpretation of the former American President is not as close to the real guy as Bryan Cranston’s in the Emmy-nominated HBO telemovie, he makes LBJ’s humour come alive. Apparently LBJ was crap at pubic speaking but in person was the life of the party and Harrelson captures that in droves. As the American election comes up this is an important film, as is the HBO telemovie. LBJ really was the saviour for the rights of African Americans - before he completely stuffed up Vietnam, where so many African Americans were killed.

 

The Exception

Stage director David Leveaux's motion picture debut seemed clunky at the outset (about as long as buyers watch), but once the story set in - a World War Two tale of a Nazi officer (Aussie Jai Courtenay) who falls in love with an undercover Allied agent (Cinderella’s Lily James) - we can’t help but become engrossed in what will happen to the lovebirds. Both actors admitted to having the most screen sex of their careers and it certainly added to the heat of the story. They have won kudos for their performances, though at an astounding 86 and completely clothed, Oscar winner Christopher Plummer steals the show as Germany’s kind-hearted final emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.     

Trespass Against Us

Michael Fassbender may be winning hearts as the romantic lead and superhero of late, but as the tortured soul in Hunger and Shame and now as the mostly loveable Irish rogue in this family crime drama - described by Indiewire as a cross between Animal Kingdom and Little Miss Sunshine and set in a UK caravan park - he is formidable. Literally gritting his teeth as a fast-driving daredevil crook, he battles his father and everyone around him, knowing he will never escape the world he has been born into, let alone his own past. The always-solid Brendan Gleeson plays his father and it’s a ground-breaking match-up with two of Ireland’s biggest stars.

 

Clair-obscur

 

After the huge success of Mustang last year, women’s cinema seems to be flourishing in Turkey. Clair-obscur was one of TIFF’s breakout hits and comes from Yeşim Ustaoğlu (Pandora’s Box, Journey to the Sun, The Trace, Somewhere in Between), who has elicited fine performances from her cast. The film’s theme, one that she says is universal, is that women at both ends of the social spectrum suffer in different ways. Ecem Uzun, as a teen bride, just can’t hack it any more as slave to her arranged husband and insulting mother-in-law, while Funda Eryigit, as the psychiatrist who helps her, may be far more affluent but suffers as the wife of a successful husband who gives her little of his time and true emotions. German-born Mehmet Kurtulus, as the husband, is also a revelation. As with another TIFF breakout, the wonderful French film Heal the Living (which came from Venice), we can only hope that Australian distributors take note.

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