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TIFF 2023 Highlights and Reviews

In addition to the ability to view many fascinating films during TIFF 2023, one can be totally immersed in the Toronto International Film Festival’s culture of not just the great films but also the red carpets, parties, and various fan experiences curated by Cameron Bailey’s tremendous team at TIFF.  The toughest part for film aficionados would be the preparation for TIFF, with 10 days to view films, one has to choose films from the hundreds of fabulous films at TIFF, shown at the various festival venues, including Roy Thomson Hall, Visa Screening Room at Princess Wales Theatre, and Royal Alex for the premieres, to TIFF Lightbox and Scotiabank Theatre for the others.   The next toughest task for film lovers was to fit the red carpets, parties and fan activities in amongst the films, starting at early morning screenings, while being able to network late into the early dawn hours with unofficial “breakfast clubs.”  [See Reviews Below]

In addition to the ability to view many fascinating films during TIFF 2023, one can be totally immersed in the Toronto International Film Festival’s culture of not just the great films but also the red carpets, parties, and various fan experiences curated by Cameron Bailey’s tremendous team at TIFF.  The toughest part for film aficionados would be the preparation for TIFF, with 10 days to view films, one has to choose films from the hundreds of fabulous films at TIFF, shown at the various festival venues, including Roy Thomson Hall, Visa Screening Room at Princess Wales Theatre, and Royal Alex for the premieres, to TIFF Lightbox and Scotiabank Theatre for the others.   The next toughest task for film lovers was to fit the red carpets, parties and fan activities in amongst the films, starting at early morning screenings, while being able to network late into the early dawn hours with unofficial “breakfast clubs.”

Here are abbreviated capsule reviews of the amazing films that AJ  had the pleasure of viewing during TIFF 2023:

A Difficult Year-

A Difficult Year, the latest from writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (C’est la vie!, TIFF ’17) is a poignant French comedy about ecological angst versus consumerism gone amuck, featuring fantastic performances from Pio Marmaï, Jonathan Cohen, Noémie Merlant, and Mathieu Amalric, A Difficult Year is social satire with an unlikely romance between a beautiful eco-anxious climate change activist and a hapless airport-employed homeless overconsumer, who himself befriends his equally downtrodden side-kick, an unsuccessful suicide attempter.

The Critic-

Gemma Arterton and Ian McKellen star in this tragic dramatic intertwined story of a monstrous critic with perverted proclivities, and a devastated ambitious theatrical starlet as adversaries in the year 1936 when fascism was abundant and non-typical sexuality was outlawed in pre-WW2 England. This fascinating tale of ambition and deceit is a pleasurable display of intrigue in the theatrical and personal world. Destroyed lives are the collateral damage of this adversarial relationship.

The Boy and the Heron-

Acclaimed as a masterpiece in Japan, master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s new film begins as a simple story of loss of a little boy’s mother in a wartime tragedy to a wonderful magical animated journey, with the help of a strange-acting mysterious heron, through a time tunnel in an abandoned castle for a young boy in search of his dead mother. Greater significance is attached to this magical film because of his announcement of retirement leading to animation fans having this one last chance to savour his great artistry.

Already acclaimed as a masterpiece in Japan, Hayao Miyazaki’s new film begins as a simple story of loss and love, and rises to a staggering work of imagination. Coming after the maker of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke announced his retirement, The Boy and the Heron is an especially precious gift, and possibly the final film we will see from one of cinema’s greatest artists.

North Star-

North Star is the dramatic story of a dysfunctional family during the wedding of the twice-widowed matriarch in her third marriage after 2 war hero pilot fathers. Kristin Scott Thomas, in her directorial debut, and also playing the matriarch of the starring leads Scarlett Johansson and Sienna Miller, carefully crafts a lovely story about three sisters with dysfunctional relationships with the men in their lives, as their mother consummates her third wedding, this time to an ordinary non-war-hero. Katherine (Scarlett Johansson) gets promoted to captain of her own ship in the navy., while Victoria (Sienna Miller), the Hollywood actor, recounts her family tragedy in interviews to gain attention and sympathy. Then the youngest sister, Georgina (Emily Beecham), who works as a nurse, persistently worries about the fidelity of her husband.

Gonzo Girl-

Gonzo Girl is the dramatic drug-fueled fast-paced story of an innocent bartender neophyte writer, working as a personal assistant, and an eccentric infamous writer based on the life of Hunter S. Thompson.

In Patricia Arquette’s directorial debut film, Gonzo Girl, Alley Russo, innocently played by Camila Morrone, an aspiring writer/bartender becomes the personal assistant to the original gonzo journalist, Walker Reade, extravagently played by Willem Dafoe. Gonzo Girl is a tour-de-force indoctrination into the world of gonzo journalism.


Copa71 is the surprising infuriating emotional real life story of the suppressed history of the first Women’s World Cup in 1971 played before crowds of 110,000 in the famous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, with the Champion Denmark team winning the Goddess of Victory Trophy.

The 1991 Women’s World Cup was first officially sanctioned by FIFA, but the non-FIFA-sanctioned 1971 Women’s World Cup was missing in action due to the ban by FIFA and national football bodies.

Copa 71 utilizes unearthed footage from 1971 in Mexico City when teams from Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy, and Mexico, playing in front of over 110,000 adoring fans in historic Azteca Stadium. Despite being an unrivalled audience for women’s sports, memory of its existence was largely erased until this documentary.

Dumb Money-

Dumb Money is a fascinating film exposing the psychology of the recent GameStop stock “David” Robinhood everybody retail “dumb money” investors versus the “Goliath” Wall Street hedge fund short-sellers in a classic short-squeeze stock manipulation.

Woman of the Hour-

Woman of the Hour is Ana Kendrick’s tour-de-force film, in her directorial debut while also being the main protagonist, revealing the true story of a conniving serial rapist-murderer, Rodney Alcala, in the 1970s, who was able to escape capture due to the authorities’ cavalier attitude towards female eyewitness testimony.

The suspense heightens during Kendrick’s character, Sheryl’s appearance in the 1970s on the TV program The Dating Game with Rodney Alcala, being one of the 3 bachelors to be chosen by the female contestant to spend an all-expenses out-of-town date with the winner.

“Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut examines uncomfortable gender dynamics with the stranger-than-fiction story of Rodney Alcala’s appearance on The Dating Game in the middle of his 1970s murder spree.

In the 1970s Rodney Alcala went on a murder spree, luring women by posing as a photographer looking for models. Though already a registered sex offender and recently released from prison, he infamously appeared on The Dating Game, a show that introduced a set of three new bachelors each week, hidden from view as a woman asked them amusing questions before choosing a winner to go on an all-expenses-paid trip with her.

Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut uses this stranger-than-fiction story to examine the distressing dynamics of gender. In addition to directing, Kendrick also plays Sheryl, the struggling actor who decided to book an appearance on the show where she would have a chilling run-in with Alcala. While this confrontation serves as the spine of the film, we’re taken backward and forward through time, exploring Alcala’s murders, with a performance by Daniel Zovatto that captures the disquieting hubris of a man who knows he’s operating in a world too skewed to catch him.”

Lee is the film on the life of one of the most important wartime photojournalists ever, Lee Miller, who happens to be a woman. The film, with Oscar Winner Kate Winslet starring as the great American war correspondent, starts pre-WWI, in the south of France, where she is vacationing with her artistic friends. Despite being a former model for photographic great, Man Ray, she pursues her desire to be a ground-breaking war photographer for British Vogue. Braving the horrors of war, she was one of the first photographers to document the atrocities of Nazi Germany. After Lee gains US war accreditation, she returns to Europe, initially alone. Lee eventually joins forces with close friend and fellow photographer David E. Scherman (Andy Samberg), with whom she goes on to capture on film the atrocities of war, at the expense of her personal emotional self.

The Pain Hustlers-

The film, The Pain Hustlers is based on the non-fiction 2022 Evan Hughes book, The Hard Sell, on the current tragic opiate crisis and deaths resulting from corporate greed and unethical practices.
Emily Blunt and Chris Evans star as pharmaceutical drug reps/salespeople who, in the quest for a livelihood and financial success, unwittingly initiate the crisis of opiate addiction in those with chronic severe pain, despite apparently having scientific evidence of the safety of the pain medication being promoted.
As a result of crises such as that of opiate addiction, strict guidelines have been imposed on the pharmaceutical industry on its activities relating to promotion of prescribed medications to physicians in Canada.

The Burial-

In this film based on true events, corporate greed gets its comeuppance in this dramatic David vs Goliath legal battle with Jamie Fox and Tommy Lee Jones teaming up. Based in the deep south, this tale of corporate greed and exploitation in the funeral home business brings this real-life story to the glorious revelation of deceitful practices and subsequent comeuppance of huge international corporations.

The Burial shows how a large Canadian corporation, run by CEO, Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), during “the golden age of death” tries to shamelessly exploit the financial difficulties of small Mississippi funeral home owner/director Jeremiah O’Keefe (played by Tommy Lee Jones). However, the corporate greed runs against resistance when it goes against the team of O’Keefe and personal-injury-superstar lawyer, Willie E. Gary (played by Jamie Foxx).

Oscar winners Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx star in this highly entertaining David and Goliath courtroom drama showing corporate greed has no boundaries even when people are at their most vulnerable.


Daddio is a surprising, engaging personal journey “rain dance” contest in a taxi cab ride featuring wonderful performances from a blonde Dakota Johnson and wise older man Sean Penn as a social commentator/philosopher driver.

As the distracted female protagonist playing a truth and tell game with the experienced New York City cabbie, Dakota Johnson tries to keep track of her sexting older boyfriend while being engaged in a profound conversation with Sean Penn, the careful attentive cab driver.

Dakota Johnson and Sean Penn display their magnetism and acting range over the course of a cab ride through New York City full of conversational — and power — shifts.

From its beginning, cinema has both explored and exploited screen relationships between younger women and older men — nearly always from the men’s perspective. Daddio offers a refreshing turn.

Dakota Johnson plays a woman who steps into a New York cab at the airport, driven by a man played by Sean Penn. She’s clearly preoccupied and just wants to get home. He’s a curbside philosopher. Immediately, he engages her in conversation which starts in small talk then gets bigger, deeper, and riskier as he steers her to her destination.

Next Goal Wins-

A comedic retelling, by brilliant and hilarious Oscar-winning screenwriter South Pacific native Taiki Waititi, of the story of the American Samoan Soccer team, which is best known to be at the losing end of the worst defeat in World Cup history with a 31-0 loss to Australia in a qualifying match in 2002, with its new Dutch-American manager Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) attempting to get the team’s first goal and win during the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup. Next Goal Wins is a fun film documenting the life in the small South Pacific island nation American Somoa and its hapless World Cup soccer team.

Dream Scenario-

A deadpan but hilarious comedy, starring Nicholas Cage as Paul Matthews, involving a professor’s weird predicament of being initially innocently inserted into peoples’ dreams, which takes a nasty turn as the dreams become nightmares. We follow on a wild ride as the typical and average family man goes from relative anonymity to unintentional celebrity status with some surprising consequences.


Jessica Chastain stars in this thoughtful well-meaning film about the unfortunate effects of mental health.
After careful character development, the film follows how Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a former classmate and now a sufferer of mental illness and a resident of the public home for mental health sufferers, follows Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a worker at the public home for mental health sufferers, home from their high school reunion, from which a touching relationship develops. This film shows how past, present and future may become intertwined with unknown outcomes.

Knox Goes Away-

Know Goes Away is a thrilling movie in which an accomplished professional hitman, John Knox, played by Michael Keaton, tries to correct his life’s deficiencies, especially with his long-estranged son, when he develops rapidly deteriorating dementia. The ensuing journey into the world of hitmen brings about twists and turns.

Michael Knox, in his directorial debut, and playing John Knox, enlists the assistance of his closest trusted friend Xavier (Al Pacino) to keep him on track as his memory quickly deteriorates while he races against time in this exhilarating film.


The true story of the flamboyant controversial oppressed homosexual civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, convincingly portrayed by Colman Domingo, who organized the peaceful 1963 March in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in front of the Lincoln Memorial and surrounding the Washington Monument, where MLK Jr. had his iconic “I have a dream” speech amongst over 250,000 peaceful protesters, the largest peaceful demonstration to date at the time, the forerunner of more recent Million Man Marches. This was the defining moment in the history of the American civil right movement when “peace without violence” eventually led to the subsequent passing of the Civil Rights Act in the US.
Many people worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make that moment possible but Bayard Rustin was the pivotal person despite being hidden from the limelight, especially due his prior conviction related to his sexuality. George C. Wolfe’s now tells Rustin’s story, as the activist who brought together an alliance of diverse civil rights, labour, and religious organizations.

“An advisor and close friend to Dr. King, Rustin has a difficult time convincing the reluctant group of leaders that he can organize what would be one of the largest political rallies in American history. While pushing ahead, he’s reinvigorated by a burgeoning relationship. Afraid that his gay identity will harm the movement, members of the coalition start to take issue with Rustin being the face of the march and, wary of sparking a media scandal, he becomes torn between the needs of the cause and his personal life.”


NYAD is the remarkable inspirational story of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad’s multiple attempts to swim the treacherous 103 miles from Cuba to US. “Never ever give up!” was her motto even at the age of 64.

With stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster as Diana Nyad and her best friend Bonne Stoll, NYAD tells the true story of the persistent attempts of heroine marathon swimmer Diana Nyad to be the first person to swim from Cuba to the US without a shark cage, despite shark and jellyfish-infested waters, decades after her retirement from marathon swimming.

Flora and Son-

Flora and Son is the wonderful story of a young single fun-loving mother, Flora (Eve Hewson) with a emotionally-detached 14 year-old son, Max (Orén Kinlan), in a magical relationship with her handsome on-line musician guitar teacher, Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) despite being a thousands of kilometres away from each other. Having bought her son a guitar in an attempt to be closer to him, Flora eventually eagerly takes to the guitar, not just to get closer to her handsome on-line teacher, but also because Max is more interested in electronic dance music on his computer just like his estranged father.

Flora and Son shows us that music can make the heart grow fonder.

“Flora (Eve Hewson) is something of a hot mess. She’s feisty, charismatic, and a trouble magnet. She loves to party — but she loves her 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) more, even if it seems like all they do is quarrel. In an effort to bridge the gulf between them, Flora gives Max a guitar, but Max’s ideal musical instrument is his computer, which he uses to construct infectious dance tracks.

Rather than let the guitar collect dust, Flora opts to develop her own musical chops, taking online lessons from Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a handsome troubadour who shows Flora how to form basic chords and introduces her to the genius of Joni Mitchell. Flora falls for Jeff, despite the fact that she’s in Dublin and he’s in Los Angeles. But as Jeff pierces Flora’s heart, he also inspires in her a creative urge that might lead to a whole new way of connecting with Max.”


Poolman is a comedic film noir story of an anxious Zen-loving Hollywood poolman/aspiring PI, played by Chris Pine, who also directed for the first time, in search of truth about corruption in LA, a la Chinatown with Jack Nicholson. With a star-studded cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Annette Bening, and Danny DeVito, the audience is in for a treat as the amateur investigators sneak around LA to uncover and prove corruption among the elected civic council and ambitious developers, especially after given clues by the enticing femme fatale named June Del Rey (DeWanda Wise).


Origin is director Ava DuVernay’s emotional tour-de-force adaptation of author Isabel Wilkerson’s life and of the New York Times bestselling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. #Caste, #OneRace, #WeAreOne, and #FightRacism can be seen to be the rallying mottos. Caste is seen as the origin of our discontents. A world without caste is free. Dalits (untouchables) in India, Jews in Nazi Germany, and Blacks everywhere have been victimized by the oppression of the caste system.
Freedom to love, go wherever, express…
Origin, the film, explores the intellectual background to the thesis behind Isabel Wilkerson assertion that the caste system is the root of discrimination in the world.

Fair Play-

A fascinating film about the reversal of roles in a time of the #MeToo movement in the alpha-male dominated world of Wall Street’s hedge fund offices.

Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich), coworkers at One Crest Capitol hedge fund, are the loving couple, just engaged and getting ready to have their engagement party, but after she gets promoted to the portfolio manager role that he coveted, the clandestine, due to strict non-dating corporate rules, couple’s relationship goes awry with dire consequences.

Fair Play is the Wall Street for the #MeToo era, as writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature debut revealing the ruthless world among the demanding hedge fund managers.

The Promised Land-

The remarkable dramatic story of the trials and tribulations of a former Danish army officer, Ludvig Kahlen, played by the strong, stoic and rugged Mads Mikkelsen, convinced that he can covert rocky barren land in Jutland into a food-producing settlement officially sanctioned by King Frederik V in 18th century Denmark, with the prize of bestowed nobility and land ownership with settlers. The path to nobility and land ownership is littered with many obstacles, in addition to the harsh winters and lack of funding, including those imposed especially by the ambitious villainous landowner Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg).

Widow Clicquot-

Widow Clicquot is the true story of the struggles of the pioneering woman champagne master, Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (portrayed by Haley Bennett), known as Veuve Clicquot, after the early untimely death of her husband, François (portrayed by Tom Sturridge), against harsh hardships and succeeding in the male-dominated wine and champagne world despite many obstacles. Against all odds during the Napoleonic years in France including rules against women ownership, ferocious competitors such as Monsieur Moët of leading champagne house, Moët et Chandon, war, and poor weather, she, in using advanced vineyard management and grape blending, succeeds in saving her family’s champagne house and leading her champagne brand to the forefront of champagne brands, usually considered one of the ultimate libations for celebrations in France, Europe and around the world.


Set in New Bedford, FinestKind is the dramatic crime story of 2 hardworking small-town American fishermen brothers Tom and Charlie (portrayed by Ben Foster and Toby Wallace), their dad, Ray (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones), their colleagues and a love interest,Mabel (portrayed by Jenna Ortega), led astray into a life of drug-smuggling crime, after a disastrous day on the seas and then an illegal foray into Canadian waters. With their debts and legal issues, the drama escalates until the cantankerous family patriarch takes matters into his own hands against a dangerous drug gang.

The New Boy-

Set in the 1940s, The New Boy is the heart-warming film, with beautiful cinematography, in which Oscar winner Australian actor Cate Blanchett plays a nun entrusted with the care of a new young un-named delinquent aboriginal boy, brilliantly portrayed by newcomer Aswan Reid, brought by police to a monastery located in the outbacks of Australia, after he attacks 2 policemen. The film lays bare the distasteful colonial legacy of Australia and the harmful effects of religious indoctrination of aboriginal children.


The documentary, directed by Thom Zimny, of the history of Sylvester “Sly” Stallone, with a concentration on his Rocky and Rambo filmography accentuated with a lively post-closing-night gala Q and A in front of a packed Roy Thomson Hall full of his appreciative adoring fans.
All his life, he has had to prove to the world that he is more than the underdog actor, famously known for his roles as Rocky Balboa, Rambo and one of the Expendables. But at RTH, full of adulation for Sly, he had nothing to prove. TIFF 2023 highlighted his acting career plus his artistic endeavours as an artist, showcasing his unexpected talent as a painter in the special Sly Exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox library.
Just like his character Rocky Balboa, the underdog Sly has come out on top!

American Fiction-

Based on Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s Erasure, American Fiction, winner of this year’s TIFF People’s Choice Award, usually a premonition to Oscar buzz, is the intriguing satirical fictional story of an unsuccessful intellectual African-American literature professor-writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (perfectly portrayed by Jeffrey Wright), who jokingly writes, under a pseudonym, a book, titled F*ck, filled with “Black clichés,” after he observes the overwhelming success of a first-time author of a novel titled We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, which brings him unexpected fame and glory, such as a $750,000 publisher advance and a $4 million Hollywood movie deal, but also infamy, leading to some soul-searching self-refection. American Fiction is a fun film showing the absurdity of American society’s stereotypical expectations of African-Americans.



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