Without Hollywood stars popping up around town to draw attention to their latest projects, almost every movie at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was a candidate for hidden gem status.
However, in a turbulent period of actor and writer strikes, some TIFF titles managed to stand on their own quality and get festival goers talking.
Here’s a look at five TIFF hidden gems to add to your must-see list:
“The Promised Land”
Nobody does brooding vengeance quite like Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, whose fiery gaze could ignite villages. In this 18th-century Denmark drama, he’s less about destruction and more about cultivation — or at least that’s how things start. As former military man Ludvig von Kahlen, he’s pledged to realize King Frederik V’s dream of making the wild heath of Jutland a prosperous land. Yet not everyone is on board, in particular, raging landowner Frederik de Schinkel who only sees a loss of his power. As tensions rise, de Schinkel starts deploying brutal tactics to sideline anything and anyone in his way. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel, whose previous effort with Mikkelsen on “A Royal Affair” landed in the Oscar race a decade ago, the historical drama hits some familiar beats around its cartoonish villain, but each one is deliciously satisfying. (Plays the Calgary and Vancouver film festivals later this month. In theatres next year.)
Set almost entirely inside a taxicab, director and writer Christy Hall’s stage-play-turned-film gives Sean Penn and Dakota Johnson some of the juiciest material of their careers. En route from John F. Kennedy Airport to Hell’s Kitchen, Penn’s grizzled cab driver and Johnson’s confident computer programmer connect over their very different lives. What begins as casual banter slowly deepens as the night moves forward. By the time the pair winds up stuck in a traffic jam, Hall’s mesmerizing script has locked into the social chemistry between the two stars. (Release date to be determined.)
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“Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person”
For all the coming-of-age stories and vampire films made over the years, Quebec filmmaker Ariane Louis-Seize’s horror-comedy shouldn’t feel as fresh as it does. Her tale of a Montreal teenage vampire with some fatally ethical quandaries pulls out the best of both genres and adds a darkly funny spin. Lead actress Sara Montpetit stands out for her restrained performance as an empathic bloodsucker who runs against her own morals when she meets a young man ready to end his life beneath her fangs. Things get complicated when her kooky and colourful relatives swoop in to offer their opinions. With the sharp-witted charms of Tim Burton’s best, “Humanist Vampire” has the meat to become its own Canadian classic. (Plays the Calgary and Vancouver film festivals later this month. In theatres Oct. 13.)
Korean writer-director Jason Yu channels the lingering terror of sleeping disorders in his low-key debut about a couple’s fraying sanity in the midnight hour. An expectant mother awakens to her husband muttering in his sleep about thoughts of possession and within days he’s sleepwalking himself into dangerous situations. When medication proves useless, the pair’s relationship starts to deteriorate, raising questions about whether their unborn child could be in danger. Having worked under “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho, Yu proves he’s already a master of effective tone, and “Sleep” suggests he’s one to watch. (Release date to be determined.)
Filmmaker Jen Markowitz embeds themself in the world of a real-life Alberta sleepaway camp where transgender, queer and non-binary teens gather each summer with a simple purpose: living among other like-minded people. Many documentaries would seek conflict in this story, perhaps juxtaposing the LGBTQ+ teens against the nasty outside world, but Markowitz chooses a gentler touch that celebrates young queer joy and all its beautiful awkwardness. The smallest details shine brightest, such as when a group of queer elders visit the camp and offer their decades of experience to encourage the new generation, or the day the teens excitedly sift through heaps of hand-me-down clothes left by older campers. At its heart, “Summer Qamp” is a testimony that like that pile of clothes, queerness is nothing new. It has a history. But queer happiness is still a learning process and something to be cherished. (Plays the Calgary film festival later this month. Theatrical release date to be determined.)
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