It’s been a challenging year for the Toronto International Film Festival. The energy felt particularly muted, largely thanks to the SAG and WGA strikes, which prevented the large swathes of talent that typically swarm the Canadian city from coming. Instead, big-time premieres had a strange quiet to them—though that didn’t stop audiences from coming out in droves.
Beyond the AMPTP-induced controversies, this year’s TIFF was, as it always is, a vital preview of Oscar season. The festival offers an opportunity for talent from all around the world—whether first-time performers or grizzled veterans—a chance to break through. For me, that’s always been the best part of festival season.
With that in mind, here are the best performances from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, from the big movies already on your radar, to the ones you’ll need to add to your lists ASAP.
In no particular order…
Théodore Pellerin, Solo
One of the best performances of the year, Pellerin delivers a vulnerable, sensitive performance as Simon aka Glory Gore, an up-and-coming drag queen in Montreal. Pellerin allows you to become hugely invested in Simon’s journey, and he’s so convincing in the role that I wouldn’t be surprised if his next step was winning RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Charlie Plummer and Eve Lindley, National Anthem
The best romantic chemistry of TIFF goes to Plummer and Lindley in National Anthem. Both performances are exquisite—watching quiet rancher Dylan (Plummer) come out of his shell thanks to free spirit Sky’s (Lindley) influence is glorious. There’s so much beauty in these two nuanced, effective performances—no romance moved me more deeply than this one.
Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor, Fair Play
On the other side of the romance spectrum are Ehrenreich and Dynevor, playing two characters that absolutely shouldn’t be together in the whip-smart Fair Play. Chloe Domont’s film follows Emily (Dynevor) and Ehrenreich (Luke), a couple who work at the same cutthroat hedge fund. Their competitive nature pushes their relationship to its limits, and trying to figure out which one of them is more unhinged is just one of the pleasures this film has to offer.
Jason Patel, Unicorns
As drag queen Aysha, Patel is luminous in Unicorns, a film about an unlikely romance between a drag artist and a straight mechanic (Ben Hardy, also great). Patel is a force to be reckoned with in Unicorns—delivering a fierce performance that proudly embraces femininity and self-discovery. It’s no wonder that audiences are mesmerized by Aysha’s performance: Patel leaves you no choice but to stare in awe.
Tannishtha Chatterjee, Yellow Bus
As a woman seeking justice for the unnecessary death of her youngest daughter in the Arabian Gulf, Chatterjee proves a commanding screen presence in Yellow Bus. Chatterjee refuses to treat her character Ananda like a martyr, preferring something more complicated, prickly, and curious—and the film is all the better for it.
Colman Domingo, Sing Sing and Rustin
Perhaps no actor shined brighter at TIFF than Colman Domingo, who turned in two fantastic performances in the thoughtful and surprising prison drama Sing Sing and the Netflix biopic Rustin. The roles couldn’t be further apart, but Domingo is equally convincing in both, possessing a screen presence that few others (if anyone) match. I preferred his work in Sing Sing, but he’s going to be a major Oscar player for Rustin—the age of Domingo is officially upon us, and it’s about time.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers
The Holdovers has three of the year’s best performances, but I found myself particularly enraptured by every second Randolph appeared on screen as Mary, the head cook at an elite boarding school who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. Her performance is precise and powerful, effectively blending humor with heartache. Randolph takes what could have been a two-dimensional character and gives her tremendous depth.
Amanda Seyfried, Seven Veils
Seyfried reunites with director Atom Egoyan (Chloe) in Seven Veils. The film follows Jeanine (Seyfried) as she directs the opera Salome, the same project her father helmed years earlier. Seyfried exhibits amazing physical control as an actor, using her mouth and eyes to stunning effect. Jeanine is a very complicated character, and all of her nuances and interiority are brought to light by Seyfried’s brave, intoxicating work.
Maddie Ziegler, Fitting In
One of the most surprising films at TIFF was Fitting In, a coming-of-age film about horny teenager Lindy (Ziegler), who finds out that a unique medical condition prevents her from being able to have sex. Ziegler proves she’s an excellent actress in this performance, beautifully portraying teenage angst and anxiety. Every erratic decision Lindy makes feels sensible thanks to the vibrancy Ziegler gives one of the better teen characters in recent memory.
Sophie Nélisse, Irena’s Vow
Nélisse has been one of the shining stars in the Yellowjackets ensemble, and Irena’s Vow finds her in a lead role, as Irena Gut, who did the seemingly impossible to save the lives of 12 Jews in World War II. Her performance is layered with confidence, wit, and the unrelenting fear that Irena will be caught, ending not only her life but those she’s sworn to protect. It’s all the proof anyone can need that Nélisse is a star.
Carie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, Natasha Lyonne, His Three Daughters
It’s nigh-on impossible to separate the three titular daughters in Azazel Jacobs’ best film to date. Katie (Coon), Christina (Olsen), and Rachel (Lyonne) are all sisters grappling with the impending loss of their father, who is in his final days. All three performances are astonishing, creating such fully realized characters with unique needs, wants, and ambitions. Their interplay is natural and infectious, and if a big enough Oscar push is made, all three could wind up nominated.
Mark Clennon, I Don’t Know Who You Are
The most stressful film of the festival, I Don’t Know Who You Are follows Benjamin (Clennon) on a journey to procure expensive medication after being assaulted. Clennon explores his character with grace and humanity, channeling Benjamin’s overwhelming anxiety and trauma as he seeks retribution. Clennon also delivers some of the best drunk acting this year.
Megan Mullally, Dicks: The Musical
Everyone and everything in Dicks: The Musical is certifiably outrageous, but nobody commits more to the bit than Mullaly, who plays the protagonist's certifiably wacky mother Evelyn. Mullally employs an outrageous voice and zany physicality to channel the essence of this utterly bonkers and totally queer movie. Mullally has always been willing to go-for-broke, but her work in Dicks: The Musical takes things to new queasy heights.
Sophie Desmarais, Days of Happiness
In Chloe Robichaud’s Days of Happiness, Desmarais shines as Emma, a rising-star conductor balancing her personal relationships, particularly with her non-committal girlfriend and controlling father, who acts as her manager. Desmarais explores Emma’s challenges thoughtfully and respectfully, and is particularly show-stopping when conducting—we can see so much of Emma’s inner desire to break free and become her own person in her physicality.
Andrea Riseborough, Alice & Jack
Hot off a surprise Oscar nomination earlier this year, Riseborough reminds us what a great performer she is in Alice & Jack, which premiered in TIFF's television program. Riseborough’s Alice has a harsh, steely exterior, but the actor does such an exemplary job peeling back the layers of her character slowly but surely, exposing surprising vulnerability. Her monologue at the end of the second episode is the work of a master.
Ally Maki, Seagrass
The winner of the FIPRESCI prize at TIFF, Seagrass is an incisive and visually arresting film about a family at a crossroads. Maki stars as Judith, delivering a touching performance as a woman trying to keep her head above water, struggling with the pressures of her cultural identity and her role as a wife and mother. Maki has an amazing presence and delivers the karaoke scene of the year to boot.
Jodie Foster, NYAD
Annette Bening is excellent as always in the titular role of marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, but as her best friend Bonnie, Foster shines as the film’s emotional core. As Diana’s ever-reliable friend, Foster delivers the warmth to balance out Bening’s intensity. It’s a rich performance that explores how far someone will go for a person they love and believe in—and a reminder that even in individual sports, it takes a village. It’s Foster’s best role in ages.
Janet Novás, The Rye Horn
In a remarkable debut performance, Novás plays María, a woman whose life is turned upside down after agreeing to perform an abortion on a young woman in Francoist Spain. In long takes, The Rye Horn takes full advantage of Novás’ physicality (she regularly works as a dancer). Her face and body impart so much of María’s story on us as she’s forced to run for her life. It’s the work of a storied veteran—the fact that it's her first role is all the more impressive.
Brigitte Hobmeier, Woodland
Hobmeier gives us a raw and understated performance as Marian, a woman who’s left her Vienna home for the Austrian countryside where she grew up after witnessing a terror attack. It’s a tough role, but Hobmeier portrays the weariness of her character through her eyes, creating a powerful portrait of a woman suffering from PTSD.
Famke Janssen, Boy Kills World
Boy Kills World is one of weirder, more outlandish films to spawn from TIFF’s Midnight Madness program, and nobody in the film understands that better than Janssen. As evil boss Hilda Van Der Koy, Janssen brings a crazed quality to every line, laced with a thick, syrupy evil and eyes bulging, with camp undertones—this is frequently a very silly movie, and her performance balances the vicious with humor feverishly.