Noodles like white worms in gray-green sludge, supposedly human flesh studded with suckers like an octopus, and a very unsettling ultrasound — even the seemingly innocuous opening shot of Evolution, of a boy swimming in the ocean, seen from below, is troubling. The prettiness of the image doesn't detract from the fact that he looks spookily like an organism flailing on a microscope slide. Nicolas (Max Brebant) is in fact the subject of mysterious medical tests and treatments, along with every other kid on the remote island in which he lives — one entirely populated by grown women and the young boys for whom they care.
Evolution is only the second film from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose 2004 Innocence is also singular and haunting. And though this one lingers like a fable impossible to fully understand, it's also gorgeous and disturbing as all hell — part strange adolescent metaphor, part body horror saga, the film builds unease through gradual reveals about life and the life cycle on the island. Rather than trying to parse all the details, it's better to just let the imagery and all of the nightmare biology sink in.
How to see it: Evolution will be released in theaters in the U.S. by Alchemy.
Hardcore is insanely violent, incredibly dumb, and undeniably inventive in the most will-make-you-throw-up-from-motion-sickness sense of the word. It dumps viewers into a dizzying perspective that's familiar from video games, but almost never seen on the big screen — the first-person POV of Henry, who wakes up in a lab to learn he's been resurrected and transformed into a cyborg soldier. It's First-Person Shooter: The Movie, except Henry doesn't just stick to guns as he embarks on a blood- and viscera-soaked rampage to rescue Estelle (Haley Bennett).
The movie is the work of Russian director Ilya Naishuller, whose experiments with first-person POV in music videos for his band Biting Elbows became viral hits. In terms of plot and sensibility, Hardcore makes Crank look like Merchant Ivory, and its need to shock gets tiresome after only a few minutes. But there's something wild and new about getting a practitioners'-eye view of, say, parkour. And star Sharlto Copley's tendencies to chew on the scenery actually work in this context.
How to see it: Hardcore sparked a bidding war at TIFF and is reportedly being picked up by STX Entertainment for a wide release.
Unlike Evolution, High-Rise features a metaphor that's impossible to miss, long before a quote about capitalism from Margaret Thatcher plays over the final scene. Based on a J.G. Ballard novel, the film's set in a luxury high-rise that becomes a self-contained model for a collapsing society, the inhabitants of the lower floors agitating against the wealthier residents in the upper ones as power and services start to fail.
It's all as subtle as a blow to the head, with one of the penthouse residents even having a taste for costume parties in aristocratic garb, while lower-floor resident Helen (Elisabeth Moss) seems to exist forever hip-deep in screaming children. Snowpiercer did this better, but there's something to be said for director Ben Wheatley's (A Field in England) ability to move High-Rise's sense of reality from slightly off to full-on phantasmagorical as order breaks down gradually and then totally. And as 25th-floor resident Dr. Robert Laing, Tom Hiddleston proves himself to be an intriguing leading man, even with a character who's often opaque.
How to see it: High-Rise is still waiting on U.S. distribution.
4. London Fields
Martin Amis' virtuoso 1989 novel London Fields — about three characters and an author vying for control of the story — is probably unadaptable, not that that's stopped people from trying. David Cronenberg, David Mackenzie, and Michael Winterbottom have all been attached, but it's music video director Mathew Cullen who managed the dubious honor of actually getting a star-studded film version made. London Fields screened for the press at the festival, but before its public premiere could take place, it was pulled due to Cullen suing the producers over unwanted changes to the final version, which was completed after a troubled production.
Moviewise, London Fields is a white-hot disaster, but now it's also an excitingly controversial one, with Cullen complaining about the addition of footage of "9/11 jumpers edited against pornography" and "the holiest city in Islam against mind-control." While true, London Fields' problems go far beyond the montagey inserts — this is a movie in which Johnny Depp's cameo as a muttonchopped gangster darts champ isn't even in the top five most cartoonish performances. Amber Heard, Theo James, and Jim Sturgess are left floundering in the garish caricatures they're playing, while the story's overall sense of impending small (a murder) and large (nuclear war) scale doom is more funny than foreboding. But catching the film was an incontestably interesting festival experience, both for the commiserating afterward and the fact that it's now not going to be easy to see for possibly a long time.
How to see it: TIFF may have pulled the movie, but Lionsgate acquired it for U.S. theaters, though it's unclear if the lawsuit will affect the release.
5. London Road
London Road is based on a theatrical musical, but one that's not the usual Broadway fare. The play, written by Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe, consists entirely of the actual words of interviewees from London Road in Ipswich, which saw a string of murders of sex workers by Steve Wright, one of the area's residents, in 2006. The effect in the film — which was directed by the National Theatre's Rufus Norris, who also helmed the stage version — is like an epic version of Auto-Tune the News, except the ensemble cast, including Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Paul Thornley, Kate Fleetwood, and, in a small role, Tom Hardy, actually sing, with voices that are often endearingly normal.
Melodies creep in and take shape as the characters talk, songs sneaking into what becomes a story about community and who's considered a part of it. Rather than look at the killer, the film remains firmly focused in the fear, suspicion, titillation, and renewed sense of togetherness the neighborhood experiences, while also looking outside it to the women society continues to ignore even when targeted by a murderer.
How to see it: London Road is still waiting on U.S. distribution.
Like London Road, Office is an unconventional musical about the sort of topic that doesn't seem all that musical friendly — a Hong Kong company's preparations to go public. But in practice, this setting turns out to be thematically rich, a place to explore, in song, the compromises and the loneliness that can come with cutthroat corporate life. Director Johnnie To is a famous crime movies filmmaker, and his staging of his first musical isn't always dynamic, but Office is visually interesting throughout with its soundstage settings, like a lean but evocative sketch of the city. It's strength isn't in grandeur but in the wistfulness of small moments, like the aging office beauty slipping off her heels while taking the subway home from a hookup the next morning.
Sylvia Chang, who wrote the play on which the movie is based, stars as the company's CEO, whose decades-long affair with the company's chairman (Chow Yun-fat) threatens to come apart as the IPO exposes truths neither will be happy about. Eason Chan, Tang Wei (a standout), Wang Ziyi, and Lang Yueting play some of the employees caught up in the personal and professional chaos.
How to see it: Office is now playing in select theaters in the U.S., though not, as it played at Toronto, in 3D.
7. Thru You Princess
Thru You Princess is a documentary about the internet, its connective power, and its ability to lift someone from obscurity into at least temporary fame. And, ironically, it raises some of the questions a viral video might about its own authenticity and positioning. Not that there's any doubting the sincerity of Princess Shaw, one of its two subjects, a young woman living in New Orleans, dreaming of a singing career, and posting original songs and video confessionals to YouTube. Princess's life has been a battle — she survived an abusive childhood and has been working at a retirement home to support herself while performing to nearly empty rooms and low counts. But she's unbowed, and pours her heart out online in a way that's terrifying and brave and impossible not to care about.
Princess doesn't know that viral celebrity Kutiman has chosen one of her a cappella videos as the centerpiece of his next music video project, in which he combines the work of multiple musicians he finds on YouTube into a collaborative symphony. Thru You Princess, directed by Ido Haar, cuts between Princess's day-to-day struggles and Kutiman's process of creation at home in Israel, setting up a feel-good moment we watch approach from far away — the one in which Princess realizes that someone has made her, for a brief moment, a star. When it does come, it's totally tear-jerking, but doesn't mitigate the discomfort of the not inaccurate but not entirely truthful fact that Princess has been told she's participating in a doc about YouTubers the whole time, or that Kutiman's portrayed as this aloof figure bestowing his spotlight on random artists in godlike fashion. The timeline also seems confusing — it's presented as parallel, though it would seem that the filmmakers had to know far ahead of time who Kutiman would choose. It's a doc that's uplifting and maddening, the kind that you argue over endlessly — and that is its own achievement.
How to see it: Thru You Princess is still waiting on U.S. distribution.