This is major: For the first time in Toronto International Film Festival history, half of the gala presentations (a.k.a. the swankiest red carpet premieres attended by stars like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) are directed by women. That prestigious group includes the world premieres of two biopics about inspiring women (a Harriet Tubman film, Harriet, and a Marie Curie movie, Radioactive), the first screenings of widely anticipated movies like the star-studded Hustlers (hi, J.Lo and Constance Wu!) and the Mister Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
Here are 10 of the buzziest films directed by women, including a handful by Canadians, coming to TIFF 2019:
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (best known for the 1997 film Eve’s Bayou) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard of Ali fame, this Harriet Tubman biopic stars Tony Award-winning Broadway actress and Widows standout Cynthia Erivo as the abolitionist hero. The film, co-starring musician Janelle Monáe, follows Tubman’s life from her own escape from slavery through her journey leading hundreds of other enslaved Black people through the Underground Railroad to freedom. TIFF is often a predictor for the films that go on to dazzle during awards season and this moving biopic is poised to be an Oscar shoo-in.
How to Build a Girl
Beanie Feldstein is having a moment. After stealing scenes in 2018’s Ladybird and leading the beloved Olivia Wilde-directed Booksmart, the actress stars in the film adaptation of British author Caitlin Moran’s popular 2014 semi-biographical novel. The coming-of-age comedy charts 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan’s rise from geeky, endearing teen to infamous music critic in 1990s England (expect excellent style and musical throwbacks). How to Build a Girl co-stars Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson and was directed by Coky Giedroyc, an English director best known for her work on Women Talking Dirty (which, incidentally, had its world premiere at TIFF in 2001).
Hustlers is so jam-packed with big and buzzy names, it’s hard to keep track. With a cast that includes living legend Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians leading lady Constance Wu, along with Keke Palmer, Fiona Stiles, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo (!), it’s easy to understand why the movie attracted so much buzz before the first trailer had even dropped. Directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for her work on the indie films Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the film was inspired by a New York Magazine story about a group of former strip-club employees who scam their Wall Street clients.
There’s Something in the Water
Oscar-nominated Canadian actor and activist Ellen Page co-directed
this documentary about environmental racism in her home province of Nova
Scotia alongside Ian Daniel, her co-host from the Vice docuseries Gaycation.
The documentary that TIFF calls “urgent” was inspired by Dr. Ingrid
Waldron’s book by the same name that “examines the legacy of
environmental racism and its health impacts in Indigenous and Black
communities in Canada, using Nova Scotia as a case study, and the
grassroots resistance activities by Indigenous and Black communities
against the pollution and poisoning of their communities.” There’s Something in the Water shines a spotlight on the communities disproportionately impacted by Nova Scotia’s most pressing environmental crises.
Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger
Legendary Abenaki filmmaker and activist Alanis Obamsawin’s 53rd film
documents the heart-wrenching story of Jordan River Anderson, a young
boy from the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba who suffered from a
rare muscle disorder known as Carey-Fineman-Ziter syndrome. He died in
2005 after being forced to spend all five years of his life in hospital
while the federal and provincial governments fought over which was
responsible for his care. The film details the hard-fought struggle of
Indigenous activists to urge the Canadian government to enforce
“Jordan’s Principle,” the “promise that no First Nations children would
experience inequitable access to government-funded services again.”
Alberta-raised Semi Chellas directs this fictionalized reimagining of
the infamous Patty Hearst affair, in which the privileged granddaughter
of a wealthy media magnate (played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon) is
kidnapped by a group of radical political activists. Actress Hong Chau
(a standout in the quirky 2017 Matt Damon film, Downsizing)
stars as 25-year-old former radical Jenny Shimada, who helps care for a
group of American fugitives, including the now-radicalized heiress who
is famous for embracing her captors’ ideology. This is Chellas’s
directorial debut; previously, she earned producer credits on the
popular TV series Mad Men and The Romanoffs.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller, who directed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the
film for which Melissa McCarthy earned an Oscar nod, directs this
intimate look inside journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing friendship
with iconic television personality, Mister Rogers. Another screen
icon—Tom Hanks—stars as the beloved Fred Rogers whose enduring kindness,
ability to talk to children and not at them, and
signature cardigans (is Mister Rogers an accidental style icon?
Absolutely) have been adored by youngsters around the world for decades.
Matthew Rhys of The Americans stars as the cynical journalist tasked with profiling Rogers for Esquire magazine.
Rosamund Pike stars as scientist Marie Curie in this biopic directed
by Iranian-born filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. Based on Lauren Redniss’s
graphic novel by the same name, the film tells the story of the two-time
Nobel Prize–winning scientist, highlighting the medical discoveries she
made with her husband, Pierre, played by Sam Riley. Curie still holds
the honour of being the only person to ever win the Nobel Prize in two
different fields, physics and chemistry, but her story is as relevant
today as it was 100 years ago: as a female scientist, she had to fight
In Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, a death row prison warden played by Academy Award nominee Alfre Woodard struggles with the emotional repercussions of her job following years of executions. The drama won a prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with critics praising Woodard’s nuanced performance as “brilliant” and “heartbreaking.” Nigerian-born Chukka’s previous directorial credits include several short films and the 2012 feature alaskaLand about an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister who reconnect in their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Tammy’s Always Dying
This second directorial effort from Canadian actress Amy Jo Johnson—yes, from the 2000s TV series Felicity and the police drama Flashpoint—looks at the complicated relationship of ailing alcoholic Tammy (Felicity Huffman) and her long-suffering daughter Kathy (Anastasia Phillips), who has to move back in with her mother to care for her when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Kathy’s only solace in this dark comedy comes when she’s chosen to be a guest on a tawdry talk show.