TIFF 2014: Our preview of the festival's must-sees

Reese Witherspoon in Wild. (Courtesy)

Reese Witherspoon in Wild. (Courtesy)

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:01 PM ET

A million-and-one emotions are embedded in the hundreds of films showcased in the 2014 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

To try to make sense of the overwhelming selection, we look at a few that may entice. At least one title from every program is included, to encourage TIFF audiences to go off the beaten track of the obvious and the expected:

GALAS:

The Judge: The opening night feature kicks off TIFF 2014 in a sombre, serious, intimate way. This drama, which co-stars Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. as an estranged father-son duo, is the first production out of Team Downey, the actor’s production company with wife Susan (Levin) Downey. Expect their Oscar campaign to launch on Sept. 4 in Toronto!

Wild: Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee continues to impress on an international scale with his latest Hollywood production. Vallee directed Reese Witherspoon to what TIFF insiders are citing as “one of the year’s best performances” in a story that chronicles loss and self-discovery. Considering what the stars of Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club did at the most recent Oscars (wins for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), this is a time of renewal and excitement for Witherspoon.

SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS:

Red Amnesia: Programmed by Giovanni Fulvi as part of TIFF’s renewed interest in Chinese cinema, Wang Xiaoshuai’s thriller has political overtones, along what Fulvi calls “brilliant artistry” and a story that examines the effects of China’s modern push to posterity. Especially on an older generation, including a stubborn mother whose children have reached adulthood.

The Good Lie: Because this is the Year of Reese, we might as well look to this film, an emotional treatment of the true-life saga of Sudan’s Lost Boys. Coincidentally, another Quebec master — Philippe Falardeau (Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar) — directs Witherspoon as she plays an American woman who takes up the cause of the Sudanese immigrants.

MASTERS:

Trick or Treaty: Celebrated for her artistry and for her tireless efforts to tell true stories of Canada’s First Nations people, Alanis Obomsawin returns to the festival with her latest documentary. Working, as always, with what programmer Steve Gravestock calls “equal parts rage and compassion,” Abomsawin examines a critical chapter in the history of treaties in this country.

MAVERICKS:

Conversation with Robert Duvall: The Mavericks lineup is a stunner this year but I gravitate to Duvall because of his advanced age of 83, the promise of his performance in the opening night Gala, The Judge, and my own experiences with Duvall’s outspoken opinions on American cinema, politics and society. What more could one ask from a Hollywood living legend?

CONTEMPORARY WORLD CINEMA:

The Grump: Unearthed for TIFF by programmer Steve Gravestock, this Finnish film from writer-director Dome Karukoski stars an acting legend, Antti Litja. He plays an octogenarian farmer with prehistoric social values. Things get crazy when he is obliged to go live with his unemployed son and his ‘Type A’ daughter-in-law in Helsinki. Life is never going to be the same again.

DISCOVERY:

In Her Place: This is the second film from Korean-Canadian director Albert Shin, whom programmer Agata Smoluch del Sorbo calls “a bright new filmmaking talent.” Set in a bucolic landscape in rural South Korea, the story concerns a city couple who want to adopt the unborn daughter of a pregnant teenager. But there are secrets to reveal.

The Little Death: The title, of course, is a metaphor for an orgasm and Australian actor turned filmmaker Josh Lawson tackles six distinct narratives about erotic fetishes with refreshing candor. Despite the edgy material, programmer Jane Schoettle says this first feature is “grounded in sweet, funny, emotional stories.”

TIFF KIDS:

Paper Planes: Framed by programmer Elizabeth Muskala as “a moving story that will fly off the screen and into your heart,” this family film from comes from Australian writer-director Robert Connelly. His quiet drama tells the heart-wrenching story of a boy who, after a family tragedy, tries to reconnect with his grieving father through the competitive sport of flying paper airplanes.

TIFF DOCS:

Sunshine Superman: First-time American filmmaker Marah Strauch scores a winner with her look into the daring, rebellious and exhilarating life of sky diver and cinematographer Carl Boenish, who pioneered freefall jumps off skyscrapers and towering cliffs in what has become the sport of BASE jumping. Programmer Thom Powers says: “The film is full of beauty, mystery and breathless suspense.”

CITY TO CITY:

Scarlet Innocence: With Seoul in the TIFF spotlight, the film that catches my eye is Yim Phil-sung’s opus, a film that programmer Cameron Bailey calls “a scorching romantic thriller.” Says Bailey: “Drenched in sex and desperate acts ... this is a 21st century film noir very much in keeping with Yim’s abiding interests.”

SHORT CUTS CANADA:

Programme 6: Every year, some of the most visually arresting, charming and innovative cinema in the country is showcased in this series. Insiders are raving about the eight shorts in #6 because there are two sci-fi mind-benders and a skein of other treasures. My interest is piqued by the new short from Oscar-winner Torill Kove, returning with Me and My Moulton. Animator Kove was Oscar-nominated for My Grandfather Ironed the King’s Shirts (2001) and won her Academy Award for The Dutch Poet (2006), repeatedly demonstrating her gift for subtle storytelling.

SHORT CUTS INTERNATIONAL:

Programme 4: The overall series is brand new — and insiders are touting the eight shorts in #4 as the best of the bunch. The fare includes shorts from France, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, India and a beguiling family drama from Northern Ireland/United Kingdom called Boogaloo and Graham. We meet two young brothers who tenderly raise baby chicks while dreaming of becoming vegetarians.

TIFF CINEMATHEQUE:

My Darling Clementine: John Ford collaborated brilliantly with Henry Fonda, in his prime, for a 1946 western that rises above its Hollywood genre into greatness. Seeing it again on the big screen — in a new restoration — will be a thrill. Especially with what programmer James Quandt calls the “almost hallucinatory” nature of Ford’s imagery.

VANGUARD:

The Duke of Burgundy: Cited by programmer Cameron Bailey as “a master manipulator of mood,” Peter Strickland is a British filmmaker working on the edges. In this opus, Bailey says, Strickland “re-configures the vintage erotic melodrama into something altogether deeper and darker.” The result might be one of the fest’s most evocative sensory experiences.

WAVELENGTHS:

Heaven Knows What: New York brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie co-direct their second feature, the haunting and semi-autobiographical story of a street teen struggling with drug addiction. Programmer Andrea Picard praises the “jaw-dropping” lead performance of Arielle Holmes, whose own terrifying true story inspired the saga that the Safdie Brothers tell so convincingly.

MIDNIGHT MADNESS:

What We Do in the Shadows: New Zealanders Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement took their 2005 short, transformed it into a blood-spattered, 86-minute feature and now have the Madness crowd agog with anticipation. Set up as a “hilarious vampire mockumentary,” according to programmer Colin Geddes, the deadpan movie gives vampirism a fresh face and a sly grin.

FUTURE PROJECTIONS:

Anna and the Tower: Canadian-born video installation artist Lynne Marsh, who is now based in Berlin, was commissioned by TIFF and the Goethe-Institut Toronto to do her creative thing at the Scrap Metal Gallery, 11 Dublin St., Unit E. This installation, with its 20-minute sound-video loop, stages a scenario involving a German air traffic controller going through her paces at an absurdly under-used but technologically updated Berlin airport that started life in 1957 as a Soviet airbase during the Cold War.

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