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Highlights of this year's Toronto International Film Festival

Last Updated Sep 15, 2018 at 11:37 pm EDT

From Ryan Gosling’s coffee house surprise to Xavier Dolan’s letter to Leonardo DiCaprio, there was plenty to keep people talking at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Here are our highlights of the fest, which wraps Sunday.

Some standout films

“A Star is Born”: All hype aside, Bradley Cooper’s glossy directorial debut makes a strong case for his talent on both sides of the camera lens. His remake of the legendary Hollywood tale, told and retold over the years, pulses with energy at every turn. But it’s Cooper as country musician Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga playing aspiring singer Ally who steal the show as two forlorn souls with instant chemistry. That leaves many of the film’s other thrilling performances still to be discovered by audiences when it hits theatres next month. Sam Elliott is already a serious bet for a supporting actor Oscar nod for his role as Jackson’s brother, while Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay are almost unrecognizable in smaller parts.

“First Man”: Director Damien Chazelle provides an intimate and thrilling look into the life of Neil Armstrong and his moon-landing journey with the Apollo 11 through extreme close-ups and a powerful score from Justin Hurwitz. Ryan Gosling embodies Armstrong’s stoic, steely nature while Claire Foy deftly portrays the fear and frustration brewing beneath the surface of his wife, Janet. Although we already know the outcome of the 1969 lunar mission, Chazelle’s storytelling will have you on the edge of your seat. See it in Imax for the full experience.

“If Beale Street Could Talk”: Director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 best-picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” with a poetic look at an African-American family fighting for justice in 1970s New York. KiKi Layne stars as a 19-year-old fighting to free her falsely accused husband, played by Toronto native Stephan James, from prison before the birth of their child. Regina King is a standout as the teen girl’s mother desperately trying to find evidence to support her son-in-law’s case. The drama is an intoxicating blend of style and substance, with artful shots, a sharp script and harrowing archival photographs depicting racially charged police violence from the time.

“Roma”: With an astounding debut acting performance from Yalitza Aparicio and expertly crafted black-and-white shots, Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical drama is an arresting experience that will linger long after you’ve left the theatre. Aparicio stars as a live-in maid for an upper-middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City, delivering a heartbreaking vulnerability that perhaps only a newcomer can. As the story follows her character for a year, capturing the intimate details of her daily routine and the struggles she faces on and off the job, one can’t help but feel deeply connected to her and greatly affected by her journey. Bring tissues. And try to see it in the theatre before it hits Netflix, if possible.

“Firecrackers”: Canadian director Jasmin Mozaffari’s debut feature is a marvel of cinematic images that captures the ignorance of youth and the troubling circumstances that sometimes keep young women away from their dreams. Set in a run-down Ontario town, the story follows best friends Lou and Chantal as they plan to make their escape into an adulthood of freedom in the big city. Unfortunately, those plans are quickly cut short, opening the film to a sharp examination of how gender roles influence expectations, and the way money restricts dreams. It’s a startling and potent portrayal of how the Instagram generation isn’t necessarily living their best life.

Most polarizing films

“American Dharma”: Lauded documentarian Errol Morris has waged tete-a-tetes with consequential figures including two former U.S. defence secretaries, but the director was the one who found himself on the defensive with his latest project on Steve Bannon. Some questioned whether Morris should’ve provided the former strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump with a cinematic platform to share his controversial views. Critics were split on whether Morris gave Bannon too long a leash during their one-on-one discussions — or just enough rope to hang himself.

“Vox Lux”: Director Brady Corbet’s story of a pop star with a troubled past left audiences unsettled, but also left some critics wondering if Natalie Portman delivered the kind of performance that could earn the film accolades and major cult status.

Some standout performances

Yalitza Aparicio: While she had never acted before taking on the starring role of a Mexican maid in “Roma,” Aparicio delivers a mind-blowing sense of truthfulness and sensitivity that should easily secure her an Oscar nomination. Her performance is even more remarkable when you see the emotionally charged scenes she had to lead, not to mention the pressure she faced in having to portray a character who is based on director Alfonso Cuaron’s real-life childhood nanny.

Stephan James: Remember his name, because this Toronto native is storming Hollywood. James blew away critics with his performances in two high-profile projects at TIFF this year — the Barry Jenkins film “If Beale Street Could Talk” and the Amazon series “Homecoming” with Julia Roberts. Both are vastly different stories that prove James, who was named a TIFF Rising Star in 2015, has depth and a leading-man presence.

Anthony Ramos: After playing dual roles in “Hamilton” on Broadway — starring as both John Laurens and Philip Hamilton — the 26-year-old actor showed his versatility on the big screen at TIFF with two starkly different characters. Ramos portrayed a responsible family man thrust into a life-changing scenario when he records a black man’s death at the hands of police in “Monsters and Men.” His turn as Lady Gaga’s campy gay best friend in “A Star is Born” showcased a much lighter side and his uncanny ability to shine even in the shadow of the pop singer’s superstardom.

Some memorable moments

BITS AND FIGHTS: Festival opener “Outlaw King” could’ve attracted buzz for its ultra-violent historical action sequences, but it was two full-frontal nude scenes by Chris Pine that stole the show. The actor’s crown jewels dominated headlines about the star who during the festival press conference proclaimed, “I don’t want this film to be all about that moment.” Whether or not the tale of Scotland’s legendary Robert the Bruce will be remembered best its brief nudity, it’s safe to say more than a few viewers will stream the movie on Netflix upon its release in November to see what the fuss is about.

COFFEE RUN: Ryan Gosling caused a stir when he dropped by a small cafe that was a good 20-minute drive from the festival strip where most celeb-sightings take place. It was the culmination of a weeklong social media campaign by Joelle Murray, owner of Grinder Coffee, to get the “First Man” star to swing by. She says he was as charming as expected, taking time to greet each customer and shake their hands.

JOYFUL JULIA: Julia Roberts gave one fan an experience of a lifetime during a Q-and-A for the Amazon series “Homecoming.” When she learned he’d flown in from Indonesia to see her, the star went into the audience, gave him a hug and brought him onstage for a photo-op. “I’m in love with you!” she declared into the microphone for everyone to hear.

WEIGHTY ROLES: Joel Edgerton nibbled on a bowl of fresh berries and a plate of sliced bananas after skipping breakfast to swim laps in the hotel pool. The actor, who worked double duty as director on the gay-conversion therapy drama “Boy Erased,” was still trying to shed the pounds from his recent turn as Falstaff in Netflix’s upcoming “The King,” starring Timothee Chalamet. “He’s so slight he made me look bigger anyway,” Edgerton confided. “I was cultivating this big beard and growing my belly out. It was kind of fun to sit on the couch and let myself go.”

“HI LEONARDO”: Thus begins the letter that Montreal filmmaker Xavier Dolan wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio as a child, which he read aloud at the premiere of his first English-language film, “The Life and Death of John F. Donovan.” Eight-year-old Dolan tells DiCaprio that he’s also an actor, and he hopes they can work together if the “Titanic” star shoots a film in Montreal. Now the director of a film centring on the correspondence between a young fan and an actor, the grown-up Dolan told the crowd that DiCaprio’s work revealed a world of film “beyond what we imagine as children.”

— Compiled by Victoria Ahearn, Adina Bresge, David Friend and Cassandra Szklarski