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Toronto Film Festival 2016: 12 must-see movies this year

TIFF 2016 to include ‘Birth of a Nation,’ films by Denis Villeneuve, Oliver Stone
WATCH: Movies by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve and Oscar-winner Oliver Stone are headed to this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is sometimes derided for being too exclusionist, too Toronto-centric, or too highbrow.

Over the past several years, the programming team at TIFF has attempted to select a wide array of film topics, hoping to spread the net for audiences and bring in movie lovers no matter what their preference or expertise.

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In this, the festival’s 41st year, it boasts an impressive roster of movies, from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (about mysterious spacecraft touching down on Earth and the elite team that seeks to protect humanity) to Queen of Katwe (based on the true story of a Ugandan chess champion) to Snowden (the Oliver Stone-directed story of Edward Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt). There is a healthy mix of blockbusters and thinkpieces, action and romance, and even a film featuring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing.

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There’s something for everyone at TIFF 2016, but here are 12 must-see films this year.

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard

TIFF 2016’s opening film, The Magnificent Seven is a modern Western, brought to life by director Antoine Fuqua. This has a majorly stacked cast and looks to be a slightly comedic take on the genre. With the town of Rose Creek under the control of an industrialist, the desperate town employs a team of outlaws, each with a different specialty, to protect them.

La La Land

La La Land

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

TIFF head honcho Piers Handling said it best at the opening press conference: “Ryan Gosling singing and dancing, what more do you need?”

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There’s been a lot of buzz about this film, not only because Stone and Gosling are being reunited in a romance, but also because there’s a whimsy and a lightness to it. In one scene, Gosling and Stone dance in the sky. Yes, this movie comes across as a dream, and follows an aspiring actress (Stone) and a jazz musician (Gosling) as they struggle to make ends meet and discover true love.

Snowden

Snowden

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage

We’ve seen this kind of movie (a fictional biopic) go wrong before: take as example The Fifth Estate, a film about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Panned by most critics as derivative and even dull, Snowden seems to have learned from previous mistakes. With a powerhouse cast and led by Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, there’s a certainty that at least the acting will be good. In these tumultuous times, it will be a fascinating journey with Snowden as he goes from wunderkind to pariah.

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The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto

This is TIFF’s closer this year, and it’s been called a nod to the ’80s movies of John Hughes. Filled with humour and relevant teen issues of the day (depression, sex, popularity — do they ever change?), the movie is about high-school junior Nadine, who struggles with her own awkwardness while dealing with the fact that her best friend has started dating her (way more) popular brother. Expect a heartwarming ending to this one.

Queen of Katwe

The Queen of Katwe

Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga

You don’t usually associate Uganda with chess, but this movie is based on the true story of a young Ugandan girl whose life suddenly changes when she discovers she excels at chess. We follow her as she makes her way through the intellectual maze of international chess competitions, and to her (we hope) eventual victory.

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Arrival

Arrival

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve brings his latest to TIFF, and this time he has aliens! Well, that’s not confirmed, but we can hope. In an approach we haven’t seen from him before, this movie focuses on the team that’s combatting alien spacecraft that have landed on Earth. As humanity approaches full-fledged war, the team must figure out what to do quickly before mankind is destroyed.

Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson

It’s hard to forget the horrifying events involving Deepwater Horizon, when an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to the horror of the world. Inspired by the real-life story, the movie gets up-close and personal with the bravery and fearlessness of the rig’s final moments. Not for the faint of heart, Deepwater Horizon is sure to bend even the hardest mettle.

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LBJ

LBJ

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David

If you’re sick of actors impersonating politicians, especially former presidents, then you may want to sit this one out. Not us! Harrelson as Lyndon B. Johnson is too great to pass up. No one really contemplates what it took for Johnson to take the seat of U.S. president immediately after JFK’s assassination in 1963, and this film will give us a closer look at his struggles and pressures.

Barry

Barry

Starring: Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ellar Coltrane

Another real-life portrayal, this one about outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama (called “Barry” in his youth and by some friends), this follows his path to the White House during one of his college years. Filled with questions about race, identity and culture, Barry is a fascinating film for those who want to know more about the man who changed U.S. history forever.

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American Pastoral

American Pastoral

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Uzo Aduba, David Strathairn, Valorie Curry, Peter Riegert, Rupert Evans

Probably one of the biggest blockbusters to screen at TIFF this year, American Pastoral is an intense film that translates perfectly with the issues of today. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and directed by Ewan McGregor, the movie focuses on a picture-perfect family torn apart by the political, racial and social issues of the 1960s. Poignant and relevant for 2016, expect stellar performances from the cast and definite Oscar nominations if all goes well.

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley

If you haven’t heard of Birth of a Nation, now’s your chance to see it at the fest. The movie has a deafening buzz around it, and is once again relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement happening right now. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, who stages an uprising to lead his people to freedom.

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Catfight

Catfight

Starring: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Craig Bierko, Dylan Baker

On the lighter side of TIFF is Catfight, a movie with allure that seems impossible to ignore. (C’mon, Alicia Silverstone? How can you say no?) Two old school friends reunite in this black comedy, sparking an outrageous war. There is fist-fighting. Do you need to know anything else?

These are just a handful of the powerful films sure to resonate at TIFF — check out the official website for ticket information and the full roster of movies revealed so far.

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