From Spielberg's 'Fabelmans' to Brendan Fraser's divisive 'Whale' — the best and buzziest of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

·11 min read
'The Whale' (A24); 'The Fabelmans' (Universal); 'The Woman King' (TriStar)
'The Whale' (Photo: A24); 'The Fabelmans' (Photo: Universal); 'The Woman King' (Photo: TriStar)

The just-wrapped Toronto International Film Festival was back in full effect — meaning fully in person — for the first time since 2019. And, just like old times, the vaunted event helped kick off the Oscar season with A-list stars, award-contending films and a fair bit of controversy

The likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Harry Styles and even “Weird Al” Yankovic journeyed north of the border, where reliably friendly local audiences caught such high-profile world premieres as Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, while critics sparred over the merits of divisive films like Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light and Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale.

It was Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Fabelmans that captured Toronto’s People's Choice Award, which has predicted recent Best Picture Nomadland and Green Book. (Each of the last 10 winners at Toronto has at least been nominated for Best Picture, a remarkable streak.)

Here are our favorites from the 2022 edition of TIFF (in alphabetical order):

The Banshees of Inisherin

British-Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh has made many fans with sometimes violent, darkly comedic crime fables like In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). So what if we told you that Banshees is the most glorious thing he’s done yet? McDonagh loses the crime element — unless suddenly deciding you no longer like your best friend/drinking buddy is a crime (and it should be), as is the case with the stubborn Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and poor Pádraic (Colin Farrell). This delightful, hilarious, moving and just-bloody-enough gem features Farrell’s best performance to date and infectious Irish dialogue we wouldn’t be surprised to hear quoted as often as Fargo’s Midwestern quips. In other words, expect to hear the word “fecking” a lot.

How/when you can see it: In theaters Oct. 21

Causeway

Jennifer Lawrence’s second film back after a brief acting break is a lot quieter and less star-studded than 2021’s Oscar-nominated satire Don’t Look Up, but it still packs potency — not unlike 2010’s Winter’s Bone, the drama that first put her on the map. Lawrence delivers a stirring performance as an Afghanistan veteran suffering from a brain injury who’d rather be anywhere (or preferably, back in the Middle East) than confronting past demons at her mother’s New Orleans home. Brian Tyree Henry is equally as impressive as mechanic whose shared trauma creates a poignant bond between the two.

How/when you can see it: In theaters and on Apple TV+ Nov. 4

The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg, phone home? Hollywood’s most successful filmmaker gets seriously personal with his heavily autobiographical feature, starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as versions of his parents, and newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as the filmmaker’s alter ego, Sammy. And the Toronto crowds were (right) here for it. Riding a wave of critical raves and audience applause, The Fabelmans handily won the festival’s coveted People’s Choice award, which is often a harbinger of Oscar glory to come. But Spielberg was careful to keep the focus on the film not the awards race, remarking at post-premiere Q&A that the movie is first and foremost, “a way of bringing my mom and dad back.”

While Williams’s performance has already been singled out for praise, The Fabelmans also features a memorable supporting turn from Seth Rogen as the Fabelman children’s surrogate uncle, who is carrying on a secret romance with their mother that Sammy eventually discovers in one of the film’s best and most dramatic sequences. And look for a hilarious cameo from David Lynch as legendary director John Ford, who gives the budding filmmaker some much-needed advice. And no, it’s not: “The spice must flow.”

How/when you can see it: In select theaters Nov. 11 before expanding nationwide Nov. 23

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Could Rian Johnson possibly top his brilliant 2019 whodunit Knives Out with this highly anticipated follow-up? The fact that he comes close is a triumph in itself. Glass Onion is just as star-studded (Edward Norton! Janelle Monae! Kate Hudson! Daniel Craig again, of course!) and again takes some mercilessly hilarious stabs at the rich, but it’s also a far showier affair, leaving New England for a private Greek island overflowing with tech gadgetry. Most impressively, though, is how Johnson once again crafts an impossibly meticulous murder mystery whose ridiculous fun lies in peeling off its layers — and maybe crying some with laughter, too.

How/when you can see it: In select theaters in November (date TBA) before streaming on Netflix Dec. 23

The People’s Joker

Here’s a breakout TIFF movie that won’t be playing at a theater near you… at least, not yet. Vera Drew’s Batman-based confessional/experimental cinematic collage had a one-night-only showing during the Midnight Madness program before the filmmaker pulled it from the festival amid pressure by DC Comics’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. The trans filmmaker has already promised that The People’s Joker will screen again at future festivals, but it may not be the exact version that played at TIFF as she navigates the copyright issues standing in the way of a wider release.

Make no mistake: the Joker may belong in Arkham Asylum, but The People’s Joker should be freed from movie jail. Drew’s wild vision uses the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime as a jumping-off point for a highly personal exploration of gender identity and the prejudices of the comedy world, all filtered through a mixed-media pop-culture lens that carries echoes of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and Todd Haynes. It’s the kind of boldly original vision you go to film festivals to discover, so here’s hoping that other festivalgoers will soon have that same chance.

How/when you can see it: We’re not sure yet, but our fingers are crossed that The People’s Joker will return.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

You didn’t expect that a guy named “Weird Al” would make a normal biopic would you? What started in 2010 as a three-minute Funny or Die trailer has become a real — and really funny — feature film with ex-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe picking up Al Yankovic’s accordion and Hawaiian shirt collection for a UHF-style account of the musician’s life and times. TIFF programmers wisely picked Weird: The Al Yankovic Story to kick off its Midnight Madness slate, and the midnight audience gave the film a hero’s welcome. Every stunt cameo, every shout-out to Yankovic lore and every music cue was greeted with thunderous cheers and applause — a clear sign that the Roku Channel should seriously consider a limited theatrical release in addition to the movie’s streaming premiere.

Besides Radcliffe’s spirited star turn, Weird also features a fall-down-funny performance from Evan Rachel Wood as a kooky version of the Material Girl. “I’ve loved Madonna since I was very little,” the Westworld star said after the movie’s premiere. “I knew it was a heightened version and a sociopathic version of Madonna, but I still wanted it to be good!” Meanwhile, her co-star described his intense accordion training regimen, overseen by Yankovic himself. “I did what I could,” Radcliffe said with typical British humbleness. “It’s a very hard instrument — he makes it look very easy!”

How/when you can see it: Streaming Nov. 4 on the Roku Channel

(Brendan Fraser’s performance in) The Whale

Never let it be said that Darren Aronofsky makes easily digestible movies. Following back-to-back premieres at Venice and Toronto, The Whale is already one of the fall’s most buzzed-about — and divisive — films. To be fair, everyone (including us) agrees that Brendan Fraser’s performance as a morbidly obese teacher eating himself to death in his squalid apartment is a career-best comeback performance that could very well bring The Mummy star his first-ever Oscar nomination and possibly win. Besides its leading man, the film also features stellar supporting work from Stranger Things fan favorite Sadie Sink — who plays Fraser’s angry teen daughter — as well as Hong Chau, Samantha Morton and Ty Simpkins. But opinions differ wildly on whether The Whale is an empathic portrayal of an isolated man or an exercise in fatphobic humiliation.

You can expect that debate to continue as The Whale approaches its theatrical premiere in December — a potent reminder of Aronofsky’s skill at pushing the audience’s buttons. (See also: The Fountain, Black Swan and, of course, Mother!) One thing’s for sure: you won’t come out of the theater without a hot take of your own.

How/when you can see it: In theaters Dec. 9

The Woman King

It’s typically not a great sign when a film premieres at TIFF just days before its theatrical opening. Well, The Woman King bucked that trend. Gina Prince Blythewood’s rousing action movie is at once both a throwback battle royale and never-seen-before type of war film, one that finds West Africa’s storied Dahomey army of female warriors (lead by an Oscar-worthy Viola Davis, stop us if you’ve heard that before) fighting for liberty in the thick of the early 19th century slave trade. Despite generating some controversy over its historical accuracy, The Woman King still scored a royal $19 million over its opening weekend in theaters to dominate this past weekend’s box office.

How/when you can see it: Now in theaters

Women Talking

Canadian child star-turned-auteur Sarah Polley’s first feature film in a decade is also her fourth feature to have a TIFF premiere. Not surprisingly, she had plenty of hometown support: Women Talking was the first runner-up for the People’s Choice prize, ensuing that it will be talked about as the awards conversation heats up. But there’s so much more to say about Polley’s nuanced and deeply moving adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 bestseller, which unfolds in a Bolivian Mennonite colony where the female population is debating whether or not to leave after enduring a series of rapes and abuses committed by some of the community’s male population.

On the page, the narrative reads like the minutes of their extended meeting, whereas Polley’s deftly written script opens up the story into a portrait of the entire community, populated by such magnetic performers as Claire Foy, Rooney Mara and Jessie Buckley. As the clock ticks down on their literally life-altering decision, Women Talking becomes the story of what one generation of women owes to another — a message that resonates all the more in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal. Not for nothing, but the film also boasts one of the year’s best needle drops as Polley cues up “Daydream Believer” for a lengthy sequence that offers some cheer amid the drama.

How/when you can see it: In select theaters Dec. 2