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From a debut director to a rocker-turned-actor, our critics pick the top five talents to watch at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival

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THE UNDERDOG Pirjo Honkasalo, director-writer, Concrete Night: Finnish director and cinematographer, Pirjo Honasalo, 66, is the kind of director whose works really need to be seen more. After several successful early dramas, including Flame Top (1981 Cannes Competition); 250 Grammes (Venice Film Festival in 1983) and Da Capo (Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 1985), Honkasalo has concentrated primarily on documentaries for the last couple of decades. Audiences may know her for two of the more visually stylized and spiritually themed reality films of the past decade, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (2004) about the war in Chechnya’s effect on children and Ito – A Diary of an Urban Priest, portraying a former Tokyo boxer turned scooter-riding Buddhist monk. Concrete Night, her first dramatic feature in 15 years, is adapted from the 1981 novel by Pirkko Saisio, a “young adult” story that has been compared to Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Shot in high-definition, black-and-white video, the film is set in a grim high-rise Helsinki slum. The story follows a misanthropic young punk, Ilkka (Jari Virman) who spends last pre-prison evening with his 14-year-old brother, Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a sensitive kid who idolizes his tough older sibling. Over a night involving one pitiless encounter after another, Simo achieves a moment of horrified self-recognition. – Liam Lacey

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THE MINIMALIST Aaron Wilson, director, Canopy: The sensation of getting your first low-budget feature film programmed at an event like TIFF must be a little like the plight of the Australian pilot played by Khan Chittenden in Aaron Wilson’s remarkable first movie Canopy. Just as Chittenden’s character realizes he’s lucky to be alive after being shot down by the Japanese over the jungles of Singapore, so Wilson finds himself in an environment that’s vast and teeming with predatory forces. How do you survive it? And, more importantly, how do you make an impression? For Wilson, a maker of short dramas and documentaries for a decade, the answer is by not doing the expected: His movie, which was largely crowd-funded online, takes a bone-simple premise – Australian pilot and Singapore-Chinese resistance fighter (Mo Tzu-yi) forge a wordless alliance as they simply try to survive both the jungle and the Japanese – and exploits it for maximum cinematic impact. Since the situation is so forcefully simple and tense, the filmmaker is free to render it as kind of minimalist epic. From the opening where Chittenden has to untangle himself from the parachute that’s left him dangling from a tree, Canopy plays as a series of basic logistical problems – how do I get from there to here? And where is here? – stretched to snapping point. Meanwhile, the jungle itself becomes a terrifying and beautiful character. – Geoff Pevere

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THE SECRET WEAPON Paulina Garcia, actor, Gloria: The last few years have seen a rebirth of cinema in Chile. Directors like Sebastian Silva (The Maid) and Marialy Rivas (Young and Wild) have debuted films to rave reviews at American festivals, culminating in Pablo Larrain’s satirical comedy No scoring the country’s first ever Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. For all the talent behind the camera, what this Chilean New Wave really needed to get recognized was a face; happily, Paulina Garcia has lent hers to the cause. Known to her countrymen as a venerable performer, director and playwright, the 52-year-old Santiago native took a bow on the world stage when she won the best actress prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. As the eponymous heroine of Gloria, Garcia exudes a fitful, tentative sexiness that’s perfect for a woman cautiously dipping her toe into the dating pool a decade after the dissolution of her marriage. Instead of playing the role for laughs or pathos, Garcia dives into the character’s contradictions: she’s shy yet defiant; impulsive but wary; fiercely driven and falling off the rails. Writer-director Sebastian Leilo says he wrote the part for Garcia, and the film is unimaginable without her. With slots at TIFF and the New York Film Festival capping off its major-festival hat trick after Berlin, Gloria is poised to be one of Chile’s most successful cinematic exports ever, and Garcia’s awards buzz is likely to travel right along. – Adam NaymanThe Associated Press

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THE ROCKER Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, actor, The Husband: In Bruce McDonald’s new dramedy, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos plays a man with an apparently great life: a creative job as an ad executive, a modern Toronto house, a new infant son and a beautiful wife. There’s just one problem: His wife (Sarah Allen), who had a postpartum mental health crisis, is in jail for sleeping with a high-school student. Though Henry’s been coping well by keeping things emotionally locked down, with two weeks to go before his wife’s release, he starts to lose it. McCabe-Lokos, with his stiff-backed posture and solemn hangdog expression, conveys wounded dignity highly convincingly. The actor, formerly a musician with the now-defunct indie band the Deadly Snakes (their final album, Porcella, was shortlisted for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize), makes the most of his first starring role after a decade of TV and supporting film performances (The Tracey Fragments, Lars and the Real Girl). If that weren’t enough, he also co-wrote the screenplay with fellow actor-writer Kelly Harms. – Liam Lacey

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THE INSTIGATOR Jeff Barnaby, writer-director, Rhymes For Young Ghouls: Jeff Barnaby has been in the “promising director” category for the last eight or nine years, courtesy a series of well-received short films, including 2010’s File Under Miscellaneous and The Colony from 2007. Now, at 36, Barnaby delivers on that potential big-time with Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a full-length feature, his first, playing in this year’s TIFF Mavericks program. It’s a tough, gritty piece of work, long on the violence but invested with the poetic sensibility you find in a Cormac McCarthy novel or Tom Waits song. Set in 1976 in an impoverished Mi’gmaq reserve with its own residential school, St. Dymphna’s, it’s the story of 15-year-old Aila, a resourceful, courageous female dope dealer (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) whose life takes a precarious turn when her money is stolen, her father (Glen Gould) returns from a long stint in prison and she runs afoul of the reserve’s almost cartoonishly cruel Indian agent (Mark Antony Krupa). Mi’gmaq himself, Barnaby creates a thoroughly authentic, fully realized mise en scène spiced with flourishes of mythic fancy. Confusing at times, seething with righteous rage, Ghouls nevertheless marks the arrival of a genuine cinematic intelligence, one sensitive to life’s more intimate, tender, even spiritual moments yet not averse to slamming the sledgehammer as circumstances require. – James Adams

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