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Still from "Bang Gang"
Still from "Bang Gang"Courtesy of TIFF

What to watch: TIFF edition

Extracurricular sex clubs and a Greek Weird Wave buddy movie are guaranteed to bring an edge to TIFF

From star-studded Hollywood mysteries to micro-budget Hungarian dramas, TIFF continues to cater to a cornucopia of cinephiles. With this year’s slate featuring a titanic 289 features, the Toronto giant will undoubtedly continue to serve as a choice awards season launchpad (see: Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, American Beauty, Amélie). But as the event long championed by the late movie critic Roger Ebert celebrates its 40th anniversary, we dug deeper into the selection to find 10 titles you won’t be reading about everywhere else.

THE DANISH GIRL

In what’s thus far been a banner year for transgender visibility, this high-profile biopic finds Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) reteaming (post-Les Mis, that is) to bring the story of one of the world’s first recipients of gender reassignment surgery to the big screen. Donning coquettish period dresses and an auburn wig, Redmayne transforms into Lili Elbe (and the pre-transition, 1920s Danish artist Einar Wegener) in what he’s already described as his most challenging part yet. In taking on the meaty role once linked to the likes of Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, Redmayne immediately sought the advice of British trans activist Paris Lees and his Jupiter Ascending trans director pal Lana Wachowski.

CLOSET MONSTER

Breathing new life into tired coming-of-age movie tropes is a tall order. After piquing our interest with his shorts at Tribeca and Toronto, first-time feature director Stephen Dunn appears on the right track to upend expectations with this explosive story about imaginative Newfoundland teen Oscar (breakout talent Connor Jessup) who retreats into a fantasy world to escape his parents’ rocky divorce, his father’s macho posturing and his own mounting sexual confusion. Closet Monster sees the aspiring special-effects makeup artist confront those surreal demons with the help of Isabella Rossellini as his talking pet hamster BFF.

DER NACHTMAHR

Berlin techno hedonism meets a homunculus (a wretched, malformed foetus-looking creature) in this head-spinning and bloody deafening body horror, whose title is an old German word for “nightmare.” The flashy and ultra low-budget flick, which opens with a title card cautioning viewers that “this film has to be played loud”, is the first in filmmaker AKIZ’s projected “demonic trilogy”, set to explore birth, love and death.

In this very midnight movie worthy part one, 16-year-old party girl Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) abruptly applies the brakes on her decadent, druggy ways when she finds herself haunted by a slimy monstrosity no one else can see – in her dreams, at school and at home. Der Nachtmahr cleverly hints at the grab-bag of anxieties that come with impending adulthood. As Genzkow recently told us, “For me it’s about authenticity. Society demands certain things from you but you have to confront and accept your true self.” Translation: postponing emancipation through repeated trips to Berghain may result in terrifying visions of bug-eyed critters.

ROOM

After essentially casting Michael Fassbender as a papier-mâché head in Frank, veteran Irish director Lenny Abrahamson adapts Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted bestseller about a young mother (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) who are reacquainted with the shocking yet spectacular world at large after spending half a decade in windowless, 10-foot-by-10-foot-shed captivity. Told from the subjective perspective of the young boy, Room reacquaints us with all that’s extraordinary about ordinary life – its many challenges and beauty. After her luminous turn as a dedicated caretaker in Short Term 12, we’re clearly amped to see Larson take on another substantial part (Trainwreck didn’t count).

BANG GANG (A MODERN LOVE STORY)

Exploring the sexual awakenings of a group of well-off, gorgeous teens on the beaches of Biarritz is the kind of setup guaranteed to make your film one of the most anticipated debuts of 2015. But French-born AFI graduate Eva Husson was already on many industry watch-lists following her bold music videos and shorts. She actually wrote Bang Gang’s script under the tutelage of peak provocateur Lars Von Trier. Here, she assembles a cast of unknown entities to bring this extracurricular sex club to life. TIFF audiences have been teased with insinuations of collapsing morals, graphic nudity, naturalistic performances and scandalous games bound to “push back the boundaries of (the characters’) sexuality”.

VICTORIA

Another nighttime thriller featuring hard-partying youths running amok in the streets of Berlin? Ja, bitte! Having won three prizes at this year’s Berlinale and six at the German Film Awards, Sebastian Schipper’s visceral heist drama follows the titular character, a beautiful Spanish clubgoer (Laia Costa) who falls in with the wrong crowd of bank robber mates. They’ll require her assistance behind the wheel to pull off their totally taboo, heart-stopping plan. Shot in a single, 140-minute take in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighbourhoods late at night, this mostly improvised, bilingual, Nils Frahm-soundtracked film deftly shifts between slow-burn romance and edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. At the Berlinale, jury president Darren Aronofsky declared: “this film rocked my world.”

THRU YOU PRINCESS

Let’s not rehash the rags-to-riches YouTube journeys of Shawn Mendes, The Weeknd or the Biebs. Those guys rapidly found online followings that prompted label heads to take notice. In the case of Princess Shaw (alias Samantha Montgomery), a 38-year-old caregiver by day who lives in one of New Orleans’ toughest neighbourhoods, her a cappella YouTube postings only attract a handful of followers. But one of them happens to be mash-up maven Kutiman, a popular Israeli musician living on a kibbutz who splices together various amateur video bits to create wholly original compositions. In this emotional, cross-continental rollercoaster ride, documentarian Ido Haar explores the showbiz dreams and soul-baring ways of the digital age, culminating in a joint performance between Kutiman and Princess at Israel’s National Theatre.

THE OTHER SIDE

After completing his Texas trilogy, Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s latest disquieting docu-fiction hybrid zeroes in on a frequently off-putting community of drug addicts and anti-government militias living on margins in Louisiana. Describing his contemplative, Cannes-screened film as “a two-year journey through the hidden underbelly of America,” Minervini’s gun-toting, poverty-stricken and fundamentally racist Caucasian characters give us a pungent whiff of their debilitating lives in one of America’s methamphetamine capitals. The Other Side could easily be used to corroborate our worst assumptions about the much-touted American Dream, but Minervini has never been one to trade in such facile reasoning.

CHEVALIER

In this deadpan study of human behaviour, Greek Weird Wave director Athina Rachel Tsangari imagines six men confined to a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea who kill time by playing “Chevalier”, a loosely defined game designed to determine who is “the best man.” In this playful “buddy movie without buddies” (the movie poster’s tagline), men scrutinize and measure each other in increasingly absurd ways. After training her lens on femininity (The Capsule), this frequent Yorgos Lanthimos producer (Dogtooth, Alps) has a ball here unpacking her characters’ bullishly macho tendencies and suggesting how that sailboat standoff might serve as an apt metaphor for Greece’s much larger woes.

HIGH-RISE

An entirely unclassifiable cult director (Ben Wheatley) takes on the ambitious adaptation of author JG Ballard’s dystopian novel about a high-tech London tower block built in 1975, on the eve of Thatcher’s rise to power, where tenants slowly give in to their most raucous, animalistic, anarchic impulses. The residential high rise as a microcosm of humanity’s seedy underbelly? An apartment complex subject to a class war of mounting violence and sexual depravity between the eccentric tenants of its upper and lower floors? You betcha. Wheatley has assembled an A-list cast (Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller) to recreate this thrillingly bleak projection of the future. High-Rise will be competing in the festival’s newly launched Platform section.

Toronto International Film Festival runs from 10-20 September 2015