This year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) chose to cut the number of films it opted to include in its lineup by about 20 percent. You might calling it trimming the fat, but even with the decreased number of selections, it still left behind 339 films (255 of which are features) from 83 countries to project—with no shortage of star power to hit the red carpet circuit, not to mention all those velvet roped parties that have become so synonymous with TIFF.

This is all not entirely bad (even if the cinematic purist in you is cringing). In this day and age of fancy large screen TVs with a rolodex of on demand content can accessible from the comforts of home, moviegoing needs a little pizzazz. Stars tend to provide it. Going to see a movie becomes an event, and if you’re lucky, you might even stumble unto a Q&A.

Indeed, if “event” screenings are what you’re in search of, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a sold-out Midnight Madness show. The kinetic energy at James Franco’s The Disaster Artist screening, mostly filled with the millennial-variety of moviegoer, was palpable—overpoweringly so. A giant inflatable football was tossed up and down the aisles in preparation for the film, and audiences yelled at the screen during key moments, in recognition of “legendary” recreations from The Room, widely beloved as the worse movie ever made. When Tommy Wiseau showed up for the Q&A, all hell broke loose—with laughter. In many ways, it encapsulated the perfect festival screening. For those who managed to stay awake, that is. Is it the greatest movie about the greatest bad movie ever made? Perhaps.

Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Franco has successfully maneuvered his way from acting to directing (along with other hyphens along the way). This year, TIFF seems to have served as a stage for many thespians who wish to step behind the camera. In many ways, it’s a natural transition. Actors have certainly banked enough hours on set with a front-row seat to a directorial master class with each film they work on. Their name also doesn’t hurt when it comes to financing, selling tickets, and asking their fellow famous friends to join along for the ride. Some, like Angelia Jolie and George Clooney (Suburbicon) have done it before. But there are also some relative newcomers: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has gotten great reviews, and Andy Serkis, who is best known as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, has gotten a terrific response to his film, Breathe. Remarkably, he has already directed his second feature, a star-studded version of The Jungle Book. Star of CBS’s hit series, The Mentalist, Aussie Simon Baker also made his feature film debut, with the more intimate, quiet, slow-paced film, Breath, based on Tim Winton’s bestselling novel set in mid-’70s coastal Australia. Then there’s Brie Larson’s whimsical debut about dreams, Unicorn Store, in which she also stars alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Joan Cusack. It’s been 16 years since Louis C.K.’s Pootie Tang, and he’s finally back with another comedy, I Love You, Daddy. TIFF also marks the transition of one acclaimed screenwriter into a different pair of shoes. Aaron Sorkin does Aaron Sorkin justice in his directorial debut Molly’s Game, based on the real life story of a woman who gets caught up running a high-stakes poker game.

In the end, darkly hilarious British filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri took home the top prize: the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. It was a bit unexpected with so much buzz around other contenders, but this film is a deserving one. McDonagh masterfully orchestrates so many facades of real humanity, throws them against tragic darkness, and covers it all in a blanket of humor and style. Frances McDormand is not only a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination, but it’s quite possible that she will take that golden naked man home. But the entire cast is stellar, especially Sam Rockwell whose character will send you across all emotions and back.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci was another favorite. Absurd, satirical chaos ensues when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin falls dead, and the power struggles begin. The film will make you cower with laughter, comrade. With a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jason Isaacs…how could it not?

There were other highlights too. Darkest Hour, examines Winston Churchill’s decision to do battle against the Nazis promises an Oscar-nod to Gary Oldman. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is filled with magic and imagination; Margot Robbie turns in a crowd pleasing performance in I, Tonya (which sold at TIFF) and Allison Janney who plays her mother is also sending out Oscar vibes into the universe. The Square is an intellectually provocative take on the post-modern art world, mother! split audiences, Thelma gave a unique voice to the supernatural genre, and films like The Florida Project, and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool benefitted from great word-of-mouth. Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, though not fully living up to its potential in its second half, offered audiences a wild sense of perspective when Matt Damon’s character opts to shrink himself in order to pursue a better life.

At the end of the day, what film festivals offer audiences is a chance to glimpse at someone’s dreams told on celluloid. Their scope varies, as does the delivery, but it’s an exchange of dreams and stories that have the power to touch audiences, surprise them, provoke them, and spark something within them. This year’s lineup did not fall short in its ability to captivate. MM

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran from September 7 to September 17, 2017. For more information, visit the festival’s website here.