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Toronto film festival 2023 roundup – solidarity, swearing, swimming and one standout film

<span>Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Of all the autumn film festivals, Toronto was always going to be the one that stood to lose the most from the strikes that are paralysing much of the film industry. For a public-facing event that is justly famous for the rapturously enthusiastic audience response to its celebratory gala screening events, the absence of actors because of the Sag-Aftra union action would be particularly keenly felt. After all, without a sprinkling of stars, a red carpet is just an impractically coloured floor covering.

There was speculation among those attending the festival that the unusually high number of films by actors turned directors this year was in part a strategy to circumvent the rules of the strike (unless an interim agreement has been put in place, actors are prevented from promoting their films, but no such restrictions are enforced for directors). The roster of these films included the feature-directing debuts of Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Kristin Scott Thomas and Patricia Arquette, plus features from more experienced actor-directors such as Taika Waititi (who won the audience prize, the People’s Choice, for Jojo Rabbit in 2019), Viggo Mortensen, Ethan Hawke and Michael Keaton.

If indeed it was a strategy, it rather backfired. Interim agreements meant that Mortensen and star Vicky Krieps were able to attend to promote their film, the handsomely brooding frontier-set love story The Dead Don’t Hurt, and Hawke was in town to support his film, Wildcat, a formally daring exploration of the life and work of the writer Flannery O’Connor (flight cancellations forced Hawke to take an 11-hour Greyhound bus from New York to Toronto). But other film-makers stayed away in solidarity. And that’s before you even get to the wildly uneven quality of some of the other actor-turned-director offerings, with the pictures by Keaton, Arquette, Scott Thomas and Pine drawing less than enthusiastic responses from critics.

The exception was the buzzy early festival standout Woman of the Hour, a deftly directed debut from Kendrick (who also stars) that announces her as a film-making talent to be reckoned with. Set in the early 1970s, the film takes as its jumping-off point a real event: the appearance of serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) on the popular TV show The Dating Game. Kendrick stars as Cheryl Bradshaw, the struggling actor who is convinced by her agent to take part in the show, and who finds herself trading innuendo-heavy televised small talk with a man who is later revealed to be a mass murderer and rapist. It’s a tonal challenge, but one to which Kendrick rises admirably.

Sparks of increasingly bitter humour punctuate the growing sense of dread as Alcala charms his way out of suspicion. Cheryl, meanwhile, is adept at the daily microcalculations and dancing around the sensitive egos of the men she meets. The attention to period detail goes beyond the peppy colour palette and the flammable synthetics in the wardrobe, digging into the enraging sexual politics of the era.

Another period picture that confronts the baked-in sexism of the time is the deliciously foul-mouthed and funny Wicked Little Letters, a 1920s-set tale about a spate of poison pen letters that rock the coastal community of Littlehampton, Sussex. Olivia Colman is the simpering, saintly recipient of the missives; Jessie Buckley is the rambunctious Irish single mum who is suspected of sending them. Both are an absolute blast in this terrific comedy.

There were disappointments: The Critic, starring a venomous Ian McKellen as a monstrous theatre critic, started well but unravelled into chaos. And one of the hottest tickets of the festival, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and possibly last) animation, The Boy and the Heron, was sporadically charming and gorgeous, but also uneven and overplotted.

Toronto has always been a launch pad for awards contenders, and this year was no exception. Expect Jamie Foxx to figure prominently in best actor conversations for his force-of-nature turn as showboating lawyer Willie E Gary in the crowd-pleasing courtroom drama The Burial. Both Annette Bening, who trained for more than a year to play the endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, and Jodie Foster, who brings heart and humour to the role of her best friend, Bonnie, should be in with a chance for the biopic Nyad, the narrative film debut of documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo).

Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.
Dominic Sessa, left, and Paul Giamatti in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers: ‘easily matches the very best films of his career’. AP Photograph: Seacia Pavao/AP

But the serious contender in all categories, and by no small margin the best film of the festival, is The Holdovers, by Alexander Payne. It’s not just a return to form for the American director, whose last picture was the disappointing curio Downsizing in 2017. This 1970s-set comedy drama easily matches the very best films of Payne’s career. It explores the bond between a cantankerous teacher at an elite boarding school (Paul Giamatti) and an abrasive teenage student (Dominic Sessa) who is forced to spend the winter break at school.

The treasures might have been fewer and further between this edition of the festival, in what can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a banner year. Ultimately, that makes gems such as The Holdovers all the more precious.

The talk of Toronto

Best film
Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers.

Best lead performances
Jamie Foxx’s charisma tsunami in the courtroom drama The Burial; Jodie Comer’s delicate, mesmerising turn in the dystopian survival film The End We Start From, from debut British director Mahalia Belo.

Best supporting performances
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, devastatingly good in The Holdovers; Jodie Foster in the swimming biopic Nyad.

Best newcomer
Dominic Sessa in The Holdovers.

Longest intro
Taika Waititi performed a comedy routine, got into a punch-up with his microphone and invited a Native American elder on stage to perform a blessing before the premiere of Next Goal Wins.

Longest queue
The line for the press screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron stretched several blocks an hour before the film was due to start.

Best swearing
Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, turning the air blue in the 1920s-set comedy Wicked Little Letters.