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Ten Films Not to Overlook at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival

Karl Marx City

The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off today, and I’m flying up this weekend for what is probably my 20th or so trip. Managing Editor Vadim Rizov arrived yesterday, and he’s already posted his first Critic’s Notebook, a “Zero Edition” in that it surveys four Toronto selections that have premiered elsewhere. As for me, I’ll continue my tradition of forgoing the traditional curtain raiser, focusing instead on ten or so films, mostly premiering American independents, that either I have a strong feeling that you shouldn’t miss or else have some element — director, cast or simply catalog write-up — that highly intrigues. See you around the Scotiabank.

Karl Marx City: Documentary filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker return to Epperlein’s hometown in East Germany to investigate the circumstances around her father’s suicide nearly 20 years ago. When clues emerge to suggest that he may have been a Stasi informant, Epperlein and Tucker’s story broadens from the personal to the social and political, with Karl Marx City functioning both as a kind of investigative memoir as well as a history of the East German intelligence service famously dramatized, not entirely accurately, in The Lives of Others.

The Levelling. Writer/director Hope Dickson Leach landed on our 25 New Faces list back in 2007 on the basis of her blackly comic sibling short, The Dawn Chorus. Working at the time as an assistant to Todd Solondz, she had another offbeat project, a coming-of-age tale involving a teenage girl and Princess Diana, in the works. Now, nearly a decade later, Leach has finally made her debut feature and, on paper, it seems tonally quite different from her previous work. It’s a story about grief and family set in the aftermath of the Somerset floods that caused so much damage in England in 2014. I remain intrigued. Dickson Leach is an intelligent filmmaker and rigorous thinker, and I’m thrilled she’s finally made her first full-length feature.

In the Radiant City. Another first-time filmmaker is Rachel Lambert, who brings to Toronto a film that seems like it might be the kind of laconic, unexpectedly emotional regional dramas associated with filmmakers like Victor Nunez. Executive produced by Jeff Nichols, In the Radiant City follows a man, Yurley (Michael Abbott, Jr.), estranged from his family, who returns home to finally deal with the aftermath of a violent act in his family’s past. Supporting players include the always excellent Marin Ireland and Paul Sparks.

Gringo. Nanette Burstein has bounced between documentary and fiction with films like On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture (in the former category) and Going the Distance (in the latter). With Gringo, Burstein has found a true-life subject whose own story has the craziness of fiction: entrepreneur, software developer and fugitive John McAfee. Apparently, McAfee refused to be interviewed by Burstein but nonetheless engaged, according to the catalog copy, in a “cat and mouse” email correspondence that should add yet another layer of frisson.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. I know virtually nothing about this second feature by Osgood Perkins, whose previous feature was February and who co-scripted Tze Chun’s Cold Comes the Night. But I include it on this list for Ruth Wilson fans, like me, for whom Showtime’s The Affair doesn’t quite do it. Here, Wilson, whose role as Luther’s serial killer romantic foil, Alice Morgan, shamefully killed off (?) in the most recent two-hour special, plays a young nurse going mad while caring for an aging novelist (Paula Prentiss in a role based on Shirley Jackson!).

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Something of a cult name in the world of graphic novels, Dash Shaw has been biting at the heels of the feature world for several years now, with a previous project, The Ruined Cast, going through the Sundance Labs and the IFP Project Forum. So, it’s a surprise to see Shaw’s name on both the Toronto and New York rosters with an entirely different animated feature. Described as a fusion of John Hughes and The Poseidon Adventure, this animated feature tells the story of Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and his friends who, after discovering their high school isn’t up to earthquake code, attempt to survive the Big One. Supporting voices include Lena Dunham and Susan Sarandon.

Paris Can Wait. Yet another first-time fiction feature by a female filmmaker, Paris Can Wait reps Eleanor Coppola’s only second theatrical film. Her legendary documentary, Hearts of Darkness, followed her husband through the madness of the Apocalypse Now production. Now, at 80, she’s debuting a very different film, a midlife romantic drama set against the landscapes and suffused with the food and wine of southern France.

Rats. What’s up with rats these days? 25 New Face filmmaker Theo Anthony debuted his rat documentary just a few weeks ago at Locarno, and now Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) delivers his own cinematic treatise on these most indestructible of rodents, traveling the globe to visit with both rat killers and research. Not for the squeamish, warns the catalog.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The award for the best — or, perhaps, just the most sadly appropriate — subtitle goes to Steve James’ latest, which looks at the small Chinatown bank that has the ignominious achievement of being the only financial institution criminally indicted in the wake of the mortgage security meltdown. Any new film by James, whose credits include Hoop Dreams, Stevie and The Interruptors, is a must-see. And for fans, like me, of financial crisis docs, James’s story here offers a new window on this period of recent economic history.

Moonlight. Okay, I’m cheating here, because Barry Jenkins’s long-awaited follow-up to Medicine for Melancholy premiered last week at Telluride, and you’ve undoubtedly heard a lot about it by now. My recommendation: stop reading the the reviews so you can experience this bold, richly immersive and at times unbearably tender drama about the social construction of masculinity in black America today with completely fresh eyes and ears. You’ll read more about Moonlight in our pages ahead, but one thing I’ll say now: I usually try to resist letting my knowledge of a filmmaker’s own backstory drift into my appreciation of the film, but I couldn’t help but be thrilled by the incredible ambition and sheer urgency displayed here — ambition and urgency stoked by nearly decade of false starts, protracted development and too much time spent on the list of “best young American directors who can’t get their films made.” After Moonlight, Jenkins won’t have to worry about being in that situation again.

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