The Best (and Worst) Films We Saw at TIFF 2023

Jonathan Glazer, Nicolas Cage and Julian Dennison shone — while our apologies go out to Justin Timberlake and Ian McKellan

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel Ho and Alex HudsonPublished Sep 18, 2023

In past years, the Toronto International Film Festival has taken over the streets with buzzing excitement and the chance of celebrity sightings — like walking down King Street West to witness Julia Roberts emerging from an Escalade, or seeing a huge crowd gathering outside of the poke restaurant Calii Love because a famous person was supposedly inside having lunch (even though no one I talked to actually knew who was in there, and they were simply waiting there because everyone else was).

But TIFF 2023 arrived with a little less fanfare than usual, thanks to the writers' and actors' strikes. There were very few celebrity sightings: A24 brought in a few stars after agreeing to the unions' demands, Lil Nas X and Paul Simon were on hand for their documentaries, and Spike Lee interviewed Talking Heads at a screening of Stop Making Sense, but other world premieres were introduced by producers rather than directors.

There were two takeaways from all of this. Firstly: solidarity with workers!

Secondly, even without the usual star power, TIFF 2023 brought some incredible films to town, many of them making their world premieres. Having spent the past 10 days taking in as many screenings as possible, here are the five best films we saw at this year's festival — and we each picked the worst thing we saw, too.

The Best Films We Saw at TIFF 2023

Dream Scenario 
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli

Nicolas Cage is back and as normal as ever. In potentially his most challenging role, Cage is tasked with playing a man so boring and dull, he exists merely in the background — even in a dream. Problems arise when everyone around the world is dreaming of this nondescript man, causing him to go viral online with the inevitable crash-and-burn to follow. A film like no other, Dream Scenario is horrific, hilarious and heartfelt in the strangest way possible.

Fitting In
Directed by Molly McGlynn

Fitting In gives credence to the idea that even the most unique of circumstances can have a universal appeal when it's simply a story told well. Canadian Molly McGlynn's sophomore effort follows a high school student who has recently been diagnosed with MRKH syndrome, a rare reproductive condition. Led by a phenomenal performance by Maddie Ziegler, Fitting In is a coming-of-age film for a new generation. 

The Holdovers
Directed by Alexander Payne

Is it too early to say The Holdovers is the best Christmas movie of 2023? Probably, but no matter what cinematic gifts lay ahead, Alexander Payne's latest will endure as a delightful and sincere film that warms the heart of even the Grinchiest among us. Introducing a great young actor Dominic Sessa alongside veterans Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers tells a simple story of family and friendship, bringing light to a world in desperate need of a glow-up.

Directed by Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch

Uproar tenderly shines a light on a side of New Zealand's history that most international audiences probably aren't familiar with, as racial tensions erupt when South Africa's apartheid-era rugby team visits on an international tour in 1981. Julian Dennison plays a teen who gets caught up in the conflict, with the political drama doubling as a coming-of-age comedy as the youngster embraces his Māori heritage, stands up to the bullies and discovers a love of acting (with some encouragement from a quirky drama teacher sweetly played by Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby).

The Zone of Interest
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

The concept is chilling: The Zone of Interest chronicles the domestic mundanities of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel), who lived with his family in a house on the grounds of the concentration camp. Viewers see the family picking berries, having tea with friends and celebrating a birthday, and we never witness the horrors taking place on the other side of the garden wall — which are constantly alluded to with the sounds of gunshots in the distance and smokestacks belching fire. Jonathan Glazer handles this difficult subject matter with impeccable delicacy, acting as a fly on the wall to witness a life that's all the more disturbing for how seemingly "normal" it is.

The Worst Films We Saw at TIFF 2023

Rachel's Pick: The Critic
Directed by Anand Tucker

A British period drama involving theatre critique and murder starring Ian McKellan, Gemma Arterton and Mark Strong should be an easy prestige home run (or a six, if we're getting Anglo with it). Instead, The Critic is a mildly intriguing but ultimately bland affair. Despite strong performances from its all-star cast, the film fails to create any connection between its audience and characters amid silly plot twists. Beyond the actual story issues, somehow The Critic has also made London look like an artificial city in a video game cut scene rather than a cinematic event — and for a place with as much character as the Big Smoke, that's quite a feat.

Alex's Pick: Reptile
Directed by Grant Singer

Anyone who has seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall might remember the fake detective show Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime, in which Billy Baldwin delivers lines like, "I think it's going to be hard for her to re-enter the pageant... without a face." Reptile is basically that but real, with laughable moments like when the murder victim's ex-husband turns out to be a drug dealer who secretly cuts off women's hair to use for creepy art projects. It's a store-brand David Fincher knockoff that's simultaneously too complicated and not clever enough. I'm a Justin Timberlake apologist, but there was no saving this convoluted script and clumsy over-stylization.

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