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The 15 Best Movies of the Fall Film Festivals

Over the span of just a couple weeks, more than 300 new movies are launched into the world via the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals — a trio of events that collectively kick off award season and tease what moviegoers can expect to discover in theaters over the year ahead. To help make sense of all those new offerings, Variety sends a dozen critics to the three events, sifting through the overwhelming lineups, looking for the proverbial wheat among so much chaff. Here, chief critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge identify the 15 films that impressed them most.

Bad Education
CREDIT: Courtesy of CBS Films
Bad Education (Toronto)

Hugh Jackman has become an audacious actor, and he brings an enticing real-world sneakiness to this fact-based drama built around the figure of Frank Tassone — the superintendent of the Roslyn, Long Island, school district, who gets ensnared in a singular scandal. The year is 2002, and Tassone’s assistant, played with uncaricatured moxie by Allison Janney, is revealed to have embedded a ton of personal expenses — including massive home-renovation costs — in the school-system payroll. A crime, to be sure, but is there a movie in that? As demonstrated by director Cory Finley, working from a script by Mike Makowsky (who went to high school in Roslyn), there’s a sensational movie in it: a kind of grubby Lawn Guyland white-collar-crime noir, in which the audience is placed in the position of watching a whirlpool of immorality churn deeper and wider. “Bad Education” tweaks how the obsession with quality schools, in an era of squeezed opportunity, has become both desperate and corrupting. Jackman plays Tassone as an idealistic public servant who’s also an impeccable walking mystery — a fallen missionary living a mirage of a life. This is an enthralling drama by a wizardly young filmmaker, featuring one of the most bracing actors we have going. — OG

CREDIT: Focus Features

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Toronto)

Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers, the cardigan-sweatered children’s TV legend, and he’s transporting. He makes you believe in this too-nice-for-words man who’s all about believing. The movie, directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire story, is about how Rogers comes to know — and rescue — Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a New York magazine writer who’s been assigned to do a feature on him. Rogers, as Hanks plays him, is the spirit that has gone out of our world, the one that needs to make a comeback. The movie is a soft-hearted fable that works on you in an enchanting way. — OG

Collective
CREDIT: Mary Cybulski

Collective (Venice, Toronto)

It’s tough enough to get audiences interested in an outstanding Romanian movie, even when it wins the Palme d’Or (the way Christian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” did), so don’t expect a big release for Alexaner Nanau’s documentary “Collective.” But seek it out if you can, as this dogged exposé of corruption in the aftermath of a deadly nightclub fire shows the power of an independent news media to discredit the fake misinformation being propagated by corrupt politicians. Here, a team of reporters for a sports journal refuse to abandon the story, holding accountable those who profited from the sale of tainted antibacterial products, diluted first by shady vendors, then again by the hospitals that use them. That in turn blows open the big lie of the Romanian medical industry, and the way such practices are endangering the lives of average citizens. Who knew a movie about disinfectant could be so riveting? — PD

Dolemite Is My Name (Toronto)

Pure film-buff candy. It’s like a blaxploitation version of “Ed Wood” or “The Disaster Artist” — the story of how Rudy Ray Moore, a middle-aged stand-up comedy has-been in 1970, used a handful of nasty rhymes, a threadbare “pimp” wardrobe, and his hustler’s chutzpah to create the character of Dolemite, a doughy version of Willie Dynamite or Black Caesar; he then turned him into the unlikeliest of movie heroes. Written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who invented the genre of Biopics About People You Wouldn’t Make Biopics About, and directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), the movie is a celebration of the effrontery of African-American showbiz, and it gives Eddie Murphy what may be his finest role since the brashness of his 1980s heyday. The heart of the film is watching Ray stage his so-slapdash-it’s-nutty independent blaxploitation crime-thriller production — and watching the audience laugh at it and with it. As its title character might put it, “Dolemite is My Name” is a total motherf—kin’ blast. — OG

Ema
CREDIT: Yorgos Lanthimos

Ema (Venice, Toronto)

Until now, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been almost single-mindedly focused on stories set in the past, so it’s something of a shock to discover this radical portrait of modern femininity springing from the same brain that gave us “Jackie” and “No.” “Ema” stars human supernova Mariana Di Girolamo as an anarchic reggaetón dancer whose every action seems to be a test of her place in society: In the opening scene, she stands with a flamethrower, torching traffic lights at dawn. Later, in a shocking montage, she sexually dominates half a dozen characters. But the thing Ema wants most is to experience motherhood, and because her choreographer husband (Gael García Bernal) can’t give her that — an early attempt at adoption backfired in a big way — she devises an alternate plan. The movie’s dance theme frees Larraín and his star from the bounds of literal reality. I can’t stop thinking about “Ema” and all the ways it challenged my biases about gender, relationships and female agency. What makes a good mother? Who decides how a woman should behave? “Ema” delivers a smoldering, hyper-sensual punk experience that rocked me the way Pedro Almodóvar’s earliest movies must have hit audiences back in the ’80s. — PD

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CREDIT: Courtesy of Universal

Hustlers (Toronto)

The wolves of Wall Street may have gotten away with the 2008 financial crisis, but they’re still paying for it in all kinds of ways on film. That’s one of the many reasons it’s so easy to side with the women of Lorene Scafaria’s Scorsese-styled “Hustlers,” professional New York strippers who once profited off the boom economy — when slobbering high-rollers tipped generously — and must now resort to “fishing”: Working in packs (with Jennifer Lopez as the magnetic den mother), they go scouting for a rich sucker at the bars, spike his drink and then drag him back to the club, where they run up a tab and steal the guy’s credit card details. Sound illegal? You bet it was, but the movie reframes the racket as a kind of long-overdue female empowerment — which seems fair when you consider how unfairly this line of work has been depicted on screen all these years. — PD

Joker (Venice, Toronto)

It hasn’t even been released yet, and already Todd Phillips’ hypnotically perverse, ghoulishly gripping mad-villain origin story is controversial enough to feel like some sort of forbidden film. Is it too “dangerous”? Too twisted and ugly and reckless? So beholden to its raging head-case geek antihero that it’s basically an incel exploitation film in the guise of a big-studio entertainment? Actually, it’s none of the above. It’s a mesmerizing comic-book nightmare that knows full well that the Joker is a bad guy, but understands that villains — in life, and certainly in the movies — tap deep into anti-social undercurrents that civilized filmgoers get an unholy kick out of plugging into. That’s part of what going to the movies — “The Public Enemy,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Blue Velvet,” “GoodFellas,” “Natural Born Killers,” “The Dark Knight” — has always been about. The power of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, a more arrested (and screw-loose) version of Travis Bickle, is that Phoenix shows us the terrifying cuckoo logic of a sick puppy’s descent. Yet the no-hope Gotham City that becomes his cauldron is an unfair place. The movie says, with a chortle of vengeance, that when the world has stopped caring, this can be the result — a killer who thinks he’s a clown. — OG

Judy (Telluride, Toronto)

Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland in 1969, when the 46-year-old singer, with no money and no place to live, agreed to give a series of concerts at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. She was a wreck, but she sang like the beaten-down, I’m-still-here torch-song goddess she was. To say that Zellweger “channels” Garland would be to understate the electricity of her acting; she merges with Garland. With choppy short brown hair and lips she keeps pursing, as if in a state of permanent irony about her desolation, Zellweger’s Judy is a hypnotic trouper who only wants what’s best — for herself, and for her children, Lorna and Joey Luft (Liza is already grown up). But she’s on a druggie roller-coaster of uppers and tranquilizers and booze, the one she got on when the monster mogul Louis B. Mayer put the 15-year-old Judy on diet pills during the shooting of “The Wizard of Oz” (we see flashbacks to that fateful time). And so she keeps lashing out — at anyone who will help her, even her adoring audience. Zellweger, in a heroic performance, shows us the love, the wit, and the compassion that, beneath the bitter unhappiness, were there in Judy to the end. The concert sequences will melt you; they’re full-throttle expressions of beauty coursing through a broken heart. And though the movie has a conventional decorousness about it, it’s not a whitewash in the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” was. As directed by Rupert Goold, it takes in the full measure of what Judy Garland invented — a way of singing that became, for so many, a way of being. — OG

CREDIT: Courtesy of A24

Just Mercy (Toronto)

A true-life Civil Rights drama that will shake you to your soul. Michael B. Jordan, in a quietly forceful performance, delivers his lines with a kind of quickening calm as Bryan Stevenson, a young African-American lawyer in crisp gray suits and neckties who arrives in Monroe County, Alabama, to take on the cases of death-row inmates who are innocent. The movie is about a culture of execution that has become a system of killing, and the director, Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), finds newly supple ways to deliver a Hollywood knockout punch. As the prisoner Stevenson is defending, Jamie Foxx reminds us why he’s a great actor. — OG

The Kingmaker (Venice, Telluride, Toronto)

Child beauty pageant contestants, plastic surgery debacles, gold-plated toilets in blinged-out bathrooms. As a photographer, Lauren Greenfield has changed the way we look at status and excess in the modern world, although her filmmaking career (“Generation Wealth,” “The Queen of Versailles”) has always lagged a step behind, complementing more than it augments her day job. Until now. With “The Kingmaker,” Greenfield set out to capture the opulent life of Philippine icon and self-style matriarch Imelda Marcos, underwritten by late husband Ferdinand’s failed dictatorship. In the process, she stumbled upon a story about an island where Imelda had forced out the locals in order to create an elaborate nature preserve, now in shambles. But over the several years it took to assemble and edit the documentary, the project took on astonishing power, using the corruption observed abroad to offer a chilling commentary on how “ill-gotten gains” jeopardize our own system as well. — PD

Marriage Story (Venice, Telluride, Toronto)

It’s the Noah Baumbach movie we’ve been waiting for — not another minimalist drama but a major statement, made with so much wit, authority, and spontaneously articulated emotion that it can stand as the divorce drama of our time. Part of the film’s strategy is to get us pondering, at every turn, which member of this embattled couple is “more right.” Is it Charlie (Adam Driver), a cutting-edge New York theater director who just wants to keep living the life of an artist, husband, and father squirreled away in cozy Park Slope? Or is it Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), the former indie It Girl actress who’s divorcing him for what acolytes of “Annie Hall” might regard, at first, as a superficial reason: She wants to move to L.A. and become part of the industry there. She’s breaking up his “New York family.” Then again, he’s the one who insisted that it always be that way. “Marriage Story” invites us to take a journey, through the divorce-industrial complex and through the love, fighting, and politics of one marriage that, in its way, says a lot about a lot of marriages. Driver and Johannsson are both fantastic, and they’re accompanied by a delectable supporting cast, notably Laura Dern as a divorce lawyer who’s like Valkyrie of feminist agency. — OG

Roma
CREDIT: Courtesy of Netflix

Rocks (Toronto)

No doubt, director Sarah Gavron has seen her share of working-class British dramas of the kind elder masters Ken Loach and Mike Leigh make, but the “Suffragette” director’s first foray into that milieu forgoes kitchen-sink clichés in favor of a vibrant look at day-to-day life for teenage Shola (Bukky Bakray), who’s forced to care for her kid brother after her mom walks out. If it weren’t for the skyline, you might not even realize that “Rocks” takes place in London, since the movie immerses us in a bubble populated almost exclusively by young women of color, one that’s precariously close to bursting as Shola improvises her way through the impossible responsibility thrust upon her. With its overlapping voices, slang-heavy dialogue and Snapchat self-portraiture, the movie’s style reflects its characters without getting in-your-face flashy, intuitively expanding audiences’ assumptions about these contradictory youngsters as they navigate the line between rebelliousness and responsibility. — PD

The Two Popes (Telluride, Toronto)

Six years ago, while controversy raged over sex abuse among the Catholic clergy, Pope Benedict XVI became the first Holy Father to renounce his title in nearly six centuries. It’s been documented that the leader met with his successor, Cardinal Bergoglio, three times before stepping down, although only the two men know what was spoken between them — which gives screenwriter Anthony McCarten license to imagine those all-important conversations. Silence your doubts now: There’s nothing boring about the result, in which sparks fly between Anthony Hopkins (as rigidly conservative Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (as the future Pope Francis, whose progressive ways could steer the faith forward), and no less than the fate of the Catholic Church hangs in the balance. “City of God” director Fernando Meirelles shot this thoughtful drama at Cinecittà Studios, going so far as to re-create the Sistine Chapel for one of their encounters, although the performances and script are awe-inspiring enough. — PD

Uncut Gems (Telluride, Toronto)

Dizzying, breathless, cutthroat, mesmerizing. If you’ve never experienced a movie by Benny and Josh Safdie (“Good Time”), have no fear: This, at last, is the one to see. It’s where these cult critical darlings take their fast-break, caught-on-the-fly underbelly aesthetic and put it all together into something like a vision. Adam Sandler, in what is easily the finest dramatic performance he has ever given (though he’s still, of course, ruefully funny), plays Howard Ratner, a goateed New York diamond-district hustler who is so up to his neck in scams, debts, lies, go-for-broke sports bets, and scuzzy dreams that the film seems to be jetting along at the speed of his antic, insane-in-the-brain ability to talk his way in and out of anything. Once you get onto its propulsive this-is-really-happening wavelength, the movie is the definition of immersive, because the Safdie brothers somehow pack the screen with more squirmy low life than you can possibly take in. Yet they’re telling a story that matters: of how Howard the flyweight sleaze, just like the rest of us, reaps what he sows.  — OG

Waves
CREDIT: Merrick Morton

Waves (Telluride, Toronto)

Director Trey Edward Shults does something radical and unexpected halfway through his third feature: He stops the story dead in its tracks and shifts the focus to a new character. It’s a huge risk, since Kelvin Harrison Jr. is so compelling as Tyler, the high-school wrestling star juggling family pressure and personal drama en route to what looks like a promising future. Then the switch happens, and Emily (Taylor Russell), who’d been comfortably invisible in her brother’s shadow takes the spotlight, revealing additional dimensions of what it means to grow up in a society where African Americans “are not afforded the luxury of being average.” Shults celebrates the qualities that make these characters exceptional — which can just as easily be an empathetic impulse in a trying moment as any of those achievements so often recognized in more conventional films. “Waves” is one-of-a-kind, a movie destined to change minds — and movies — forever. — PD

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