10 Best Movies of the 2016 Toronto Film Festival

La La Land
Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

As the Toronto International Film Festival comes to a close, our critics choose the 10 best movies (out of a whopping 296 features) unspooled this year. From Damien Chazelle’s magical musical “La La Land” to Barry Jenkins’ intense coming-of-age drama “Moonlight,” these are the films (in alphabetical order) that left an impact.

Amanda Knox
There were many fine documentaries at Toronto, but this one carries the force of revelation. It’s about the notorious case of the 20-year-old Seattle student who, in 2007, was tried and convicted of murdering one of her roommates in a hillside village in Italy. From minute one, she was so demonized that the name “Amanda Knox” came to symbolize a twisted mythology of guilt. Yet, as co-directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn demonstrate definitively, most of what we think we know about Amanda Knox emerged from the overheated imagination of Fleet Street tabloid newspapers (she was a sex fiend! Who killed the roommate in an orgy! And one look in her evil eye will show you that!), which fused with the prejudices of the prosecutor to create a lurid Italian Catholic psychodrama of sin and insanity. None of which had anything to do with the truth. — Owen Gleiberman

Operating somewhere in the vast expanse between Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) has managed to fashion an elaborate science-fiction procedural that hinges less on special effects and spectacle (though there’s plenty of both) than it does on intellect and a remarkably intimate life lesson. When confronted with an event far beyond the realm of human experience — the “arrival” of a dozen massive alien crafts — everyone’s first instinct is to assume they have all the answers. While most world powers ready their militaries to attack, only Amy Adams’ character, a linguistics expert, shows the humility to try resetting her own assumptions and embrace what she can learn from the encounter. Like “Prometheus” and Villeneuve’s own “Enemy,” the movie doesn’t always work in simple genre terms, but is a gift to thinking audiences everywhere. — Peter Debruge

After “Southside with You,” you’d think the world might not need another drama about the young Barack Obama. Yet this one casts its own fascinating and touching spell. It’s set in 1981, when Obama wasn’t even Barack yet — he was just Barry (played by the remarkable Devon Terrell), a tall, friendly, not so professorial, slightly awkward 20-year-old college student who moves to New York City to transfer to Columbia University, where he whiles away his junior year shooting hoops, smoking dope, landing a girlfriend (Anya Taylor-Joy), and jostling between the black students and the white students as he tries to merge the conflicting panels of his identity. It feels strangely vital to see the Obama personality before it was fully formed, and his struggle to find the missing piece of himself — the hole in his soul left by his father — will strike chords of recognition in anyone who ever needed to break free of the past. — Owen Gleiberman

Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hlilary Clinton led the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, and Michelle Obama crusaded against childhood obesity. But what exactly was Jacqueline Kennedy’s contribution to history? That’s the question behind Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” which might have been borderline tacky on paper (and still questionable in places onscreen, as when JFK’s head explodes in extreme closeup, splattering the camera, in an unnecessary reenactment), but redeems itself via an incredible performance by Natalie Portman, who embodies JFK’s widow at her strongest (immediately following her husband’s assassination) and most superficial. Yes, she was the vacant-eyed trophy bride whose top accomplishment might have ended with redecorating the White House, but after tragedy struck, it was she who cemented Kennedy’s legacy and convinced America to believe in Camelot. — Peter Debruge

Lady Macbeth
Inspired not by Shakespeare’s play but the Russian novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” this dark gem about a bride with blood on her hands attempts to recreate the sort of marital prison in which women have found themselves trapped throughout the centuries. Anchored by a concealed-weapon performance from misleadingly compliant-looking newcomer Florence Pugh, the movie considers how a woman, married off to bear children for a man who refuses to touch her, learns to seize what limited power she can in her situation. Confining the action to Lady Katherine’s suffocating microcosm, director William Oldroyd brings admirable restraint to this lusty tale. By never leaving the mansion, its stables, or the surrounding moors, he accentuates all that she is missing in life. Meanwhile, Alice Birch’s script is keenly aware of not just gender inequalities, but also the unfair power discrepancy between Lady Katherine and her mixed-race servants. — Peter Debruge

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La La Land
From the moment of its premiere in Venice, no film has dominated the festival circuit, the awards chatter, the sheer happy buzz of moviegoers like Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating bash of a new-style old-school musical. The reason for the excitement isn’t just the amazing novelty factor — i.e., the way Chazelle conceived and shot the movie in a 1950s-Hollywood-studio-set-meets-Jacques-Demy mode that’s as audacious as the postmodern pop rapture of “Moulin Rouge!” It’s also because Chazelle and his two leads, Ryan Gosling (as a moody jazz pianist) and Emma Stone (as an aspiring actress), plant a contemporary real-world fable of struggling dreamers right inside a confectionary world of dreams. “La La Land” isn’t perfect, but as driven by a divinely retro musical score, it’s the must-see movie of the season, and maybe the year. — Owen Gleiberman


The true breakout of Toronto (and Telluride, too, where the premiere was practically a homecoming for writer-director Barry Jenkins, a former festival intern) has been a modest little indie about a profoundly lonely young black man searching for connection in a community hard-wired to reject him. Perhaps “modest” is the wrong word since, while its protagonist may be soft-spoken, Jenkins ambitiously embraces the notion that this one portrait can reveal countless facets of the African-American experience seldom explored onscreen. Although the character’s journey involves recognizing his own sexuality, “Moonlight” is not a “gay film” in the generic sense: Chiron never “comes out,” but he does come of age in a 16-year span that’s every bit as powerful as “Boyhood,” but better, rendered with such piercing specificity that it haunts your thoughts for weeks to come. — Peter Debruge


Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford’s first movie since “A Single Man” is a structurally daring romantic noir thriller, and it proves beyond a doubt that he’s a true filmmaker, with a seductive feel for surfaces and for the complex passions that beat just beneath them. Amy Adams is melancholy perfection as a Los Angeles art-gallery owner who may have made the wrong choices, and Jake Gyllenhaal is her ex-husband, who reappears as the protagonist of a novel — a scary redneck nightmare in which Gyllenhaal is like the hero of a revenge thriller, only he’s not Bronson or Liam Neeson. He’s just an ordinary man haunted by his own weakness. As a wily and taciturn Texas sheriff, Michael Shannon speaks volumes even when he isn’t saying a thing. The film’s conceptual cleverness results in a certain coolness of tone, but that doesn’t mean “Nocturnal Animals” is a movie of no feeling. Ford, as he proved in “A Single Man,” is a romantic out to conjure the tormenting challenge of love. — Owen Gleiberman

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
What is a “fixer” exactly? Going in to Joseph Cedar’s fascinating character study, I was expecting something minor — a shaggy portrait of a crash-and-burn bookie or two-bit hustler. After all, Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere, giving one of his all-time best performances) is the kind of small-time hustler we think of as harmless: a name-dropper with no oomph to follow through on his promises. So imagine my surprise to discover that Cedar (whose Oscar-nominated “Footnote” forecast his willingness to fry his audience’s brains) has cooked up a character whose minor cons threaten to bring down entire world governments. Inspired by the archetype of the “court Jew” — in anti-Semitic societies, the outsider who gains the king’s ear, until such time as he is deemed expendable — this wildly complicated socio-political thriller explores how a vital cog gets consumed by the machine. — Peter Debruge

We all know what Edward Snowden did: The former NSA contractor spilled a wealth of U.S. secrets about surveillance. But what about the American surveillance state itself? Oliver Stone’s enthrallingly urgent whistleblower docudrama is the first Stone film in 20 years that really matters, because it gets deep into the nitty-gritty of what Snowden revealed, and in doing so it makes the supreme case for what he did. Tracing Snowden’s induction into the CIA and his rise through the Agency as a new breed of cyber-hacker, Stone captures from the inside how technology has revolutionized espionage, making it colder, creepier, deadlier. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden as a tight-lipped Middle American brainiac of decency, and Shailene Woodley, as the young woman drawn into a push-pull romance with him, defines the stakes of what he sacrificed. In a film of surprises, the biggest one is that “Snowden” isn’t a left-wing conspiracy screed. It’s a political drama perceptive enough to stoke a debate about whether the genie of surveillance — and the government abolition of privacy it threatens — can ever be stuffed back into the bottle. — Owen Gleiberman