Top 10 films at TIFF 2023

We preview the buzziest queer and trans films at this year’s festival

Every September, the film world descends on Toronto for TIFF, the city’s famed film festival. Following on the heels of Telluride and Venice, TIFF is the unofficial kickoff of awards season, and the fest’s People’s Choice Award is often a predictor of the next Best Picture winner at the Oscars. Typically a star-studded affair, the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strike has lowered the wattage at this year’s festival, with fewer celebrities attending. 

Maybe Hollywood actors aren’t your thing, anyway? You can still bask in the glow of the legendary directors and musicians attending. And international performers not subject to the strike, and those who have signed waivers, may still make an appearance.

With over 150 films, a half-dozen programming tracks, various awards and In Conversation with … sessions, navigating the festival can be overwhelming. Xtra is here to help you with our top 10 queer-themed or -helmed projects at this year’s TIFF. Our choices include several debuts, a rare short by an internationally acclaimed auteur, a triumphant music doc and a queer civil rights biopic produced by Michelle and Barack Obama.

Backspot (Canada)

Devery Jacobs stars in “Backspot.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Who doesn’t love a good cheerleading movie? D.W. Waterson’s debut feature Backspot plays the genre for high drama with a queer twist. The Toronto DJ and filmmaker sets the story of teenage angst, romance and competition in their hometown, with Devery Jacobs (Reservation Dogs) and newcomer Kudakwashe Rutendo playing girlfriends, Riley and Amanda, competing for a spot on an elite cheerleading squad coached by Evan Rachel Wood. As the pair is put through their paces, facing one athletic challenge after another, Riley’s compulsive behaviours return, and their relationship is tested.

Lesbian lust and love collide with hyperkinetic athletic competition in this Elliot Page–produced sports movie having its world premiere at the festival. The film’s title refers to a cheerleader behind a stunt who lifts, throws and catches cheerleaders performing airborne manoeuvres. It’s an apt description of the five years it took Waterson and screenwriter Joanne Sarazen to bring the boundary-pushing story to the screen. 

Close to You (Canada/United Kingdom)

Elliot Page stars in “Close to You.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

 

In Close to You, Elliot Page (Juno, The Umbrella Academy) stars as Sam, a Toronto trans man who returns to Cobourg (a small town 118 kilometres outside the city) four years after transitioning. Dreading a family reunion on the occasion of his father’s birthday, he reconnects with high school friend Katherine (Hillary Baack of The Sound of Metal) on the train ride to town. The unexpected meeting forces the pair to confront past and present feelings as Sam struggles to prepare for his family’s reactions to seeing him as he truly is for the first time, a completely different person to them.

Directed and written for the screen by Dominic Savage, from a story developed and co-written with Page, Close to You is a drama about confronting the past and the expectations of one’s family (no matter how well-intentioned). It’s about the moment one steps into the light and chooses to live authentically, which is hard enough for anybody, but more so for small-town trans folk, no matter how far they’ve fled or how far they’ve come.

The Critic (United Kingdom)

Ian McKellen stars in “The Critic.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

In The Critic, iconic actor Ian McKellen plays Jimmy Erskine, a flamboyant, ferocious theatre critic in pre–Second World War England who is openly gay at a time when homosexuality is illegal and fascist sympathizers and British police are openly targeting queers.

Facing unemployment after a new steward David Brooke (Mark Strong) tries to right the finances of the daily family paper he writes for, Erskine hatches a scheme to blackmail the married Brooke and actor Nina Land (Gemma Arteron), a favoured target of his scathing reviews, and the secret object of Brooke’s affection.

Directed by Anand Tucker and based on Anthony Quinn’s 2015 novel, Curtain Call, The Critic is a stylish thriller about desperate rivals who must work together to save their careers as Europe and Britain descend into chaos and a cunning plan goes horribly wrong.

Dicks: The Musical (United States)

Nathan Lane (clockwise, from upper left), Josh Sharp, Aaron Jackson and Meghan Mullally star in “Dicks: The Musical.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

You’d be hard-pressed to find a film with a better title at this year’s TIFF. Originally called Fucking Identical Twins, after co-leads Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson’s off-Broadway show, Dicks: The Musical is a queer retelling of The Parent Trap, directed by Larry Charles, who helmed Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat! and Brüno movies and wrote episodes of Seinfeld and Mad About You.

The story of workplace rivals who realize they’re identical twins and change places to reunite their divorced parents is a subversive R-rated take on its sunny PG inspiration. Broadway and screen legend Nathan Lane and Will and Grace’s Megan Mullally play the pair’s unwitting parents, Saturday Night Lives Bowen Yang is the voice of God and hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion sings memorable lyrics like “life is a handjob,” as the twins’ apparent boss. Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky has a knack for selecting fun, transgressive queer movies, and the raucous audiences at the long-running late-night screenings are often as entertaining as the films being shown.

Frybread Face and Me (United States)

Keir Tallman and Charley Hogan star in “Frybread Face and Me.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Produced by Taika Waititi, Billy Luther’s Frybread Face and Me is a coming-of-age story set in an Arizona Navajo reservation in the 1990s. Benny (Keir Tallman) is a San Diego boy who plays with dolls, wears makeup and loves Stevie Nicks. He is sent to live on his grandmother Lorraine’s (Sarah H. Natani) sheep ranch, where he encounters his cousin Dawn (Charley Hogan), nicknamed Frybread Face, a granddaughter remanded into Lorraine’s care.

Luther’s debut narrative feature––he directed the 2007 beauty pageant doc Miss Navajo and the 2011 doc Grab, about an Indigenous cultural ceremony––is a story of a city boy finding himself and discovering his heritage in an unfamiliar place. 

Benny must overcome cultural and linguistic barriers on his road to self-realization. Lorraine speaks only Navajo/Diné, while aunts and uncles are bilingual, but talk among themselves in their Indigenous tongues. Fry, who grew up on the rez, must also carve out a space and an identity after being abandoned by her mother. As the soft Benny and his petulant cousin bond, and learn from their grandmother, they confront the expectations of their elders in this fish-out-of-water story.

I Am Sirat (Canada)

New Delhi Instagrammer Sirat Taneja. Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Canadian Oscar nominee Deepa Mehta collaborates with New Delhi Instagrammer Sirat Taneja in I Am Sirat, a documentary on Taneja, a trans woman who lives openly as herself around her friends and co-workers, but acts as her mother’s son in the family home in this compelling documentary. 

Combining Sirat’s candid smartphone footage with Mehta’s interviews, the film explores her double life in a country learning to embrace modernity. Forced to rent a space to change clothes and put on makeup, Sirat fulfills the traditional role of a dutiful son for her widowed mother while building the life she desires as a member of the Indian capital’s queer community, at her Ministry of Social Defence job, and online. 

Although Sirat yearns for her mother’s acceptance, she builds a joyous, authentic existence and shares her story to help others embrace themselves and create fulfilling lives under challenging conditions. The film is also a testament to the liberating potential of social media for young trans folk, who can transform it into a vector for self-expression instead of fleeing it as a venue for hate.

Little Nas X: Long Live Montero (United States)

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Born Montero Lamar Hill, Little Nas X mashed up country and hip hop in his 2019 hit, “Old Town Road,” reconciling disparate musical genres, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks, and shooting to stardom in the process.

Little Nas X: Long Live Montero takes viewers behind the scenes as the young phenomenon deals with his sudden fame. Combining dazzling concert sequences with backstage footage, pre-fame scenes revealing his artistry and drive before he hit the big time and images of adoring fans, it chronicles the emergence of a singular talent rewriting the pop music lexicon.

Directed by Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, Raya and the Last Dragon) and documentary filmmaker Zac Manuel, the film is a celebration of Black excellence, queerness and a visionary artist whose genre-defying performances and transformative stadium shows transport and concertgoers into alternate realities where anything is possible.

The Queen of My Dreams (Canada)

Amrit Kaur and Hamza Haq star in “The Queen of My Dreams.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Based on their 2012 short film of the same name, Fawzia Mirza’s first feature, The Queen of My Dreams, is the story of queer Muslim grad student Azra (The Sex Lives of College Girls’ Amrit Kaur), who flies to Pakistan after her father Hassan’s (Hamza Haq of Transplant) untimely death.

Set in 1999, this comedy-drama is centred on the young Canadian’s clash with her mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha of Ms. Marvel), who expects her to act like the traditional grieving daughter. As the story unfolds, the film flashes back to 1969 and the lives of young Mariam and Hassan in Karachi. Azra begins to understand who her mother was and who she became, finding commonalities, including their mutual admiration of Bollywood legend and style icon Sharmila Tagore.

Kaur plays the double role of Azra and the younger Mariam, while Haq plays both versions of her father, Hassan. The film shifts tonally and stylistically between the two eras. Cinematographer Matt Irwin lights 1969 in the flamboyant colours of the era’s Bollywood extravaganzas while using conventional lighting for the 1990s setting, capturing the twin worlds Azra must reconcile as the child of immigrants.

Rustin (United States)

Colman Domingo (middle) stars in “Rustin.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Stage and film director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) directs Rustin, the biopic of openly gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend and advisor, who organized 1963’s March on Washington, but whose place in history was denied because of his sexuality.

Starring Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead), the film shows Rustin building a coalition of civil rights, labour and religious leaders and organizations, only to be pushed aside as the face of the movement. Fearing that an openly gay figure would hinder progress, they force Rustin to choose between the personal and the political. 

Rustin tackles the intersection of race and sexuality and the nature of protest movements, showing who’s left behind when hard-fought freedoms are won. The film was produced by Michelle and Barack Obama; the latter awarded Rustin a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Strange Way of Life (Spain)

Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal star in “Strange Way of Life.” Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Pedro Almodóvar’s (All About My Mother, Pain and Glory) gay cowboy short Strange Way of Life owes more to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars than Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, despite incessant online chatter to the contrary. Set in the 1800s and filmed in the Almería region of Spain, in a town built for Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Strange Way of Life is not a tale of repressed feelings and a forbidden relationship, but the story of former gunslingers and lovers who find themselves on opposite sides of the law. The 31-minute film is only the second time the iconic Spanish director has worked in English, and stars Ethan Hawke (Moon Knight) as Jake, the sheriff of Bitter Creek, and Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian, The Last of Us and just about everything else these days) as the gunslinging Silva. 

Over the course of a night, the couple reminisces and rekindles their long-ago romance (Jason Fernández and José Condessa play the younger Jake and Silva in a fireside flashback). But the afterglow of their reunion is short-lived. Silva has come to town to advocate for his son Joe, suspected of murdering Jake’s late brother’s widow, and the film escalates into Almodóvar’s trademark melodrama. 

The legendary queer director is receiving the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media at this year’s TIFF Tribute Awards, and the Sept. 9 screening of Strange Way of Life is followed by an in-person interview with Almodóvar.

Clarification: August 30, 2023 12:20 pmThe writing credits on Close to You have been updated since this story was first published.

Christos Tsirbas

Christos Tsirbas lives in Toronto and writes about movies, music, comics books and technology. His writing has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Xtra, Instinct, fab, CBR, CBC Radio and the Lambda Award-nominated anthology Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit. He is a two-time finalist in the National Film Board of Canada’s Tremplin competition for emerging francophone filmmakers, a grand-prize winner at the Toronto Urban Film Fest and a photographer whose work has been featured in the Contact Photography Festival, Canadian Cinematographer and Playback.

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