1. 12 Years a Slave
First with Hunger and then with Shame, Steve McQueen established himself as a director of the highest order, and a filmmaker in keen pursuit of truth. Drawing on a shocking real-life story, 12 Years a Slave illuminates, like no other film before it, what it must have been like to live as an American slave.
In Saratoga Springs, New York, 1841, Solomon Northup is a free man making his living as a musician. After accepting a job offer from two men to play for a circus, he soon finds himself kidnapped, transported to the South and sold into slavery. Forced to take a new name, he is thrown together with other enslaved African Americans, each suffering the horrors of gruelling labour, daily humiliations, and families torn apart. But for Northup, there is the added nightmare of remembering the freedom and identity he so recently enjoyed.
Working with the enormously talented Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, McQueen crafts a portrait of a man who refuses to let slavery extinguish his spirit. Denied the most basic human expression and subjected to brutal punishments whenever he asserts his freedom, he holds onto his dignity, writing down his story in secret. Supporting Ejiofor are extraordinary performances from Alfre Woodard, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. There's even a small role for Brad Pitt, a producer on the film, as a Canadian abolitionist.
Powerful, visceral, and often heartbreaking, 12 Years a Slave communicates the horrors of slave society and the physical experience of slavery in one unforgettable film. 
2. The Dark Matter of Love
Can love be learned? That's the question at the heart of this complex story about adoption. Former Disney employees Claudio and Cheryl Diaz live in a Wisconsin suburb with their biological teenage daughter, Cami. Now they're preparing to rapidly expand their household by adopting three children from Russia: eleven-year-old Masha and an unrelated pair of five-year-old twins, Marcel and Vadim. The new arrivals will have their names changed and take on a new home, language and society. Nothing can prepare the Diaz family for what's to come.
Director Sarah McCarthy previously made the Festival hit The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical. Once again she's drawn to what happens when dreams collide with reality. She follows the Diaz family for the first year of their new family dynamic. Woven into their story is a thread examining the science in the field of developmental psychology. What happens in the dark matter of the brain? Drawing upon decades of research, Dr. Robert Marvin has moulded a program to teach parent-child bonding. He works closely with the Diaz family to break emotional barriers and build a love bond.
Not long ago Russian president Vladimir Putin put a ban on further US adoptions from his country after a headline-making case of a match gone wrong. This film sheds light on the human side of those politics. The Diaz family is a testament to the mix of perseverance, improvisation, and blind faith required for parenting. It is extraordinary to witness in compressed time the ability of parents and children to adapt over the course of a year. The Dark Matter of Love shows we all have a lot to learn. 

3. Empire of Dirt
Centering on three generations of Canadian Aboriginal women, Peter Stebbings' Empire of Dirt is a gripping story about confronting the past, set within a family burdened by cycles of addiction, poverty, and teenage pregnancy.
Lena Mahikan (Cara Gee, 2013 TIFF Rising Star), a former addict and model, is now a single mother struggling to make ends meet in Toronto. True to her last name — which means wolf in Cree — if Lena senses danger, her instinct is to run. So, when her troubled and headstrong thirteen-year-old daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre) overdoses, attracting the attention of child services, Lena packs them both up and flees to her hometown in rural Ontario. There, reunited with her estranged mother Minnie (Jennifer Podemski, who also coproduced the film), she is forced to face a past she has desperately tried to ignore.
Based on a superb script by Cree screenwriter Shannon Masters, Empire of Dirt brims with sharp, candid dialogue and memorable characters imbued with refreshingly human flaws and contradictions. (Though Lena can't get her own life together nor control her daughter, she counsels street kids on their life choices at a community centre.)
The film also marks a striking departure for talented actor-turned-director Stebbings, whose debut, the quirky superhero film Defendor, premiered at the Festival in 2009. Though it traverses an entirely new terrain, Stebbings' latest is a major progression; his taut direction captures the emotional tumult of his protagonists' lives with maturity and verve, eliciting remarkable performances from his cast, particularly newcomer Gee in a breakout role. Not just a contemporary portrait of an indigenous family, Empire of Dirt resonates as a film about a mother's struggle to make the right choices, and about making peace with the past. 

Conceptual work-in-progress thumbnails
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