11 Must-See Films at the Toronto International Film Festival

We highlight the most exciting films of the festival, including star-studded comedies, powerful biopics, stranger-than-fiction true stories, and more.

by | September 6, 2023 | Comments


Signage at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival

(Photo by Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As ripples of the SAG-AFTRA strike still reverberate through Hollywood, we are sad to report that the Toronto International Film Festival is its latest victim. Though the Venice Film Festival was able to cobble together an exciting mix of actors and stars to promote their films, TIFF has inarguably been wrecked by assumed cancellations and movement among fall festival films. The Color Purple, Saltburn, Challengers, All of Us Strangers, and countless others were assumed entries for the Canadian fete before the strike, but they were all understandably absent when the Festival announced their final few titles earlier in the month.

This is not to say there won’t be an exciting mix of films at the Festival this year. Although we won’t see the typical selection for gala or special presentations, there’s still a lot for folks to be excited about. Moreover, the Festival has done an incredible job weaving alternative media into the lineup. The most significant is a Talking Heads reunion — the band’s first collective appearance since 2002 — as their seminal documentary Stop Making Sense will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a gala presentation of its 4K restoration.

In addition to that, several folks have been allowed to appear at TIFF and promote their films due to interim agreements, including Ethan and Maya Hawke, Nic Cage, and others. Several films have had their premieres at the earlier festivals, so our list will mainly focus on the premiere presentations of feature films you should check out. TIFF has always been a festival that boasted a robust global cinema presentation; this year, it will lean on those titles more than ever to generate buzz.

With over 186 films expected to premiere during the 10-day event, we have singled out these 11 must-watch films that you should check out, whether at the festival or as soon as they’re made available near you.

Read on for our picks of the 11 must-watch features at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Pain Hustlers (2023)

Amit Shah as Paley, Emily Blunt as Liza and Chris Evans as Brenner in Pain Hustlers (2023)

(Photo by Brian Douglas/©Netflix)

For our first feature, we have Pain Hustlers, based on the book by Evan Hughes and starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans. This is another The Big Short-styled examination of a dark moment in American history; this time we take on the opioid epidemic. Although the recent Academy Award-winning documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed does an excellent job portraying the Sacklers, the family behind Purdue Pharma and the opioid epidemic, Pain Hustlers examines it strictly from the salesman’s point of view — that is, the pharmaceutical reps who peddled Schedule I narcotics to people who were not eligible for the services as a way to increase their company profits.

Evan Hughes’ story is given a catchy, fun, voiceover-laden adaptation courtesy of writer/director David Yates. We’re most excited to see this one as it teams Evans and Blunt in their first on-screen pairing, and the chemistry between them only makes us wish even more that we could have seen Blunt play Black Widow in the MCU. Yes, we’re still salty about it.

Seven Veils (2023)

Amanda Seyfried in Seven Veils (2023)

(Photo by Amanda Matlovich/Elevation Pictures)

Seven Veils is another example of TIFF making the most of a limited lineup; this is one you should definitely check out if you are in Toronto. In Seven Veils, Atom Egoyan directs his Chloe lead Amanda Seyfried in as taut psychodrama about a young theater director forced to look within herself as she attempts a performance of the famed composition Salome. This particular screening will be even more noteworthy because it will feature an avant-premiere performance by the Canadian Opera Company, providing a musical amuse-bouche before the cinematic dinner for a pairing that orchestral and cinematic enthusiasts should enjoy in equal measure.

Rustin (2023)

Focusing on one of the central figures of the civil rights movement who has sadly been marginalized in the pages of history, George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, starring Colman Domingo, promises to give the complex historical figure the big screen adaptation he so richly deserves. Bayard Rustin’s life, which is littered with footnotes that will rival any Wikipedia entry, was a senior figure behind the 1963 March on Washington, and as an out and openly gay man back in the 1960s, he was a trailblazer in ways that few could understand. This is likely to be the first best shot at an Oscar nomination for Domingo, who broke out in a big way on Fear the Walking Dead. Needless to say, we are signed up for it, sight unseen. Early whispers have told us that this is not just an incredible adaptation but likely a career-best performance; all we hope at this point is that Oscar voters pay attention.

Backspot (2023)

(Photo by Courtesy of TIFF)

Proving yet again that the future of cinema is bright are the young writer-director pairing of D.W. Waterson and Devery Jacobs, whose Backspot is one of the smaller films on the lineup that we’re hoping makes a lot of noise. Jacobs, a scene-stealer on Reservation Dogs, stars in her first on-the-call-sheet feature debut as a driven cheerleader struggling to handle the pressure when she and her girlfriend are selected for an elite cheer squad. Fans of the Netflix series Cheer will feel right at home with this dramatic peek behind the curtain of elite cheerleading programs. Also featuring TIFF Rising Star Kudakwashe Rutendo and Evan Rachel Wood as the hard-as-nails head coach, Backspot is an interesting character study on competition among women and the femininity we are allowed — or not — in between, as well as an examination of competitive sports in general. Jacobs is a revelation, and we hope this film can get a To Leslie-styled awards campaign among connected actresses.

Dicks: The Musical (2023)

Legendary comedian Larry Charles is back with another uniquely avant-garde piece of cinema that will surely have folks talking. A feature in the Midnight Madness section, Dicks: The Musical promises to be one of the most controversial musicals to hit audiences since The Book of Mormon. And as much as we’re looking forward to seeing Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally play bitterly divorced parents of long-lost identical twins, we pretty much signed up for this one the minute they cast Megan Thee Stallion. If you ask us why, we will borrow The Rock’s answer to said question about the Grammy-winning artist: “You don’t worry about why.”

Dumb Money (2023)

Pete Davidson and Paul Dano in Dumb Money (2023)

(Photo by ©Sony Pictures)

Never has a film title more accurately matched its subject matter than Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money. Paul Dano and Seth Rogen star in this hilarious tug-of-war comedy examining the infamous GameStop Wall Street scandal. It was a moment when the unwashed internet masses went up against Wall Street’s highly tailored, ultra-rich brokers and won… for a time, anyway. This incredible story of grit, determination, and the power of the internet examines a tale that is still somewhat unfolding. More importantly, it seems that Dumb Money will attempt to recontextualize the larger wars being battled in American politics this summer, namely the interests of the moneyed few versus the mass organizing capabilities of the labored many.

Fingernails (2023)

Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed in Fingernails (2023)

(Photo by ©Apple TV+)

Christos Nikou’s Fingernails is a must-watch at your first opportunity to do so. The film stars Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed, and we don’t want to say too much about this one lest we spoil it, but fans of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Lobster will lovingly chew at this delicious take on modern-day partnership. In the alternate reality of the story, you can determine whether or not you and your partner are in love by simply examining your fingernails. The macabre situation this invokes drives the narrative and the cringe comedy it brings is equally hilarious, tragic, and thought-provoking. This is a return to Toronto for Ahmed, who earned an Oscar nod for another recent TIFF premiere, Sound of Metal, and we’re hoping we can see similar results for both him and Buckley, herself an Academy Award nominee for 2021’s The Lost Daughter, only this time as Oscar winners. Well, technically, Ahmed has won one for producing a short film, but we know the hardware he’s searching for is a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor win.

Lee (2023)

Image from Lee

(Photo by Courtesy of TIFF)

Longtime cinematographer Ellen Kuras makes her feature narrative directorial debut with Lee, a biopic of American photojournalist Lee Miller, one of the most incredible image-takers of the 20th century. Kate Winslet takes the starring role, re-teaming with Kuras, who served as cinematographer on 2014’s A Little Chaos. A long-simmering passion project for Winslet, the story of photojournalist Lee Miller is definitely one that should have been brought to the big screen long before this effort. Still, we are incredibly excited to see it. It’s Kate Winslet starring in a biopic about an incredible woman; what more do you need to recommend it?

Mother, Couch (2023)

Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, and Lara Flynn Boyle in Mother, Couch (2023)

(Photo by Courtesy of TIFF)

An absolutely incredible screenplay that has wooed the talents of Ewan McGregor, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Ellen Burstyn, this is an incredible, eccentric comedy that we can’t wait for audiences to take a peek at. Mother, Couch is the story of a family that is held hostage after their matriarch, played by Burstyn, decides that she is not moving from a couch in a furniture store. Before the shock of her bizarre decision fades, her adult children, played by McGregor, Boyle, and Rhys Ifans, all descend upon the store in an attempt to remove her, despite their dysfunction. A hilarious examination of the wounds we all keep hidden, Mother, Couch is perfect for those who come from eccentric families they love or those from families they never wish to speak to again.

Next Goal Wins (2023)

Yes. We will finally get to see Michael Fassbender, Elizabeth Moss, and Taika Waititi’s long-gestating comedy about the famous American Samoa soccer team, based on the true story of the team trying to make the World Cup 12 years after their infamous 31-0 loss in a qualifying match. A peek into one of the more iconic moments in Pacific culture, Next Goal Wins promises to be woven within the fabric of Taika Waititi’s inveterate brand of comedic fare with larger sociopolitical implications. Considering this Festival gave us Jojo Rabbit, we have more than high hopes for this one.

Image from The Boy and the Heron (2023)

(Photo by ©Studio Ghibli)

The marquee premiere of the Festival, The Boy and the Heron by Hayao Miyazaki, is one that both animation heads and cinema fans have been anticipating for years. Already dubbed a masterpiece in Japan, this film is actually one that we didn’t expect to see, as it was made after the famed Japanese auteur announced his retirement. The fact that this is expected to be possibly his final film is enough to have us itching to score a ticket, not to mention the fact that Studio Ghibli quite deliberately chose not to promote the film in any way, shape, or form, thus shrouding it in mystery. Though initially announced as an adaptation of Genzaburō Yoshino’s novel How Do You Live?, the new work is instead realized as a tapestry of many layers upon which his work is drawn to create a new narrative.

The Toronto International Film Festival will take place from September 7 to September 17, 2023.

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