Eleven Nordic films are on the programme of the Toronto International Film Festival (September 5-15, 2013) one of the most important launch pads for European films in North America. Once again, the festival’s Nordic programmer Steve Gravestock (pictured) opens up in our columns and introduces his 2013 selection.

“Most years it’s difficult to find single or even multiple overarching themes in Nordic films. That wasn’t the case in 2013. This year, virtually every one of the eleven films we’re screening deals with family, often fractured, makeshift families, and sometimes the focus is on the absence of conventional families or traditional family structure, but this one theme appeared in each film to varying degrees.

Of course, Nordic cinema has often focused on tormented families, but I can’t recall a year where the theme was this dominant.

Both Finnish films this year, Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night and Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion deal with families fractured by harsh economic and social conditions. In the former, included in the Master programme, one of Finland’s finest and most celebrated filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo follows 14 year-old Simo as he prepares to deal with his older brother Ikko’s impending incarceration for a minor drug crime. Simo’s mother, an aging party animal, insists that Simo spend Ikko’s last night with him. Ikko takes the opportunity to pass on crucial pearls of wisdom to him. (These gems include “you can always hit a woman, they enjoy it. But never hit a man unless you have to.”)

Shot during a steamy summer night in magnificent black and white with a stunning visual scheme which mixes surrealism with a near baroque hyper-realism, the film suggests a masterful fusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish and Vittorio de Sica’s movies about childhood The Children are Watching Us or Shoeshine.

Heart of a Lion follows Teppo (Peter Franzen), the leader of a grimy neo-Nazi outfit, who falls hard for Sari, a young waitress (Laura Birn). But when she sees his lion heart tattoo, one of the symbols favoured by Finland’s extreme right, she kicks him out. He refuses to give up and eventually discovers why she rejected him. Her son, Rhamu, is of African heritage. What transpires next walks the razor’s edge of social commentary and uncomfortable, absurdist comedy as Teppo is forced to care for Rhamu and deal with the arrival of his younger stepbrother, Harri, who freaks when he meets the kid, while trying to protect Rhamu from the other members of the gang he’s desperate to dissociate himself from. Since the beginning of his career Karukoski has shown a highly developed sensitivity to the plights of outsiders, but this is perhaps his most socially complex, sophisticated and courageous work to date.

In a banner year for Norwegian film, one of the highlights is easily Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Pioneer, a thriller about the birth of the Norwegian oil industry in the 1980s. Skjoldbjaerg pretty much laid groundwork for the current vogue for Nordic thrillers with his early success Insomnia, and this film is possibly even more intense. Aksel Hennie plays deep sea diver Petter, one of the few token Norwegians recruited for tests to see if deep sea drilling (and human survival at extreme depths) is feasible. He and his brother Knut are working basically underneath a largely American crew, part of a multinational conglomerate which covets the drilling rights. In the shadows are the emissaries of the Norwegian government who have their own agendas – which may or may not include the safety of Petter, his brother and their fellow divers.  An expose on corporate and government skullduggery, Pioneer is like a Norwegian variation on Coppola’s classic The Conversation

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Iram Haq’s sensational debut I Am Yours, a domestic drama about Mina, a young actress and single mother, struggling to raise her son, carve out a career and have some semblance of a personal life. Complicating things immensely is Samina, Mina’s mother, a mommie dearest of near Rabelasian dimensions. Reminiscent of such feminist classics as Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide, I Am Yours is beautifully directed and is driven by an extraordinary performance by Amrita Acharia (Game of Thrones).

The craziest film in the selection (along with Christoffer Boe’s Sex, Drugs and Taxation), Lars Daniel Krutzkoff Jacobsen’s The Immoral cross cuts across various classes to deliver a scathing, scary and often hysterical indictment of contemporary Norwegian society. Bad behaviour abounds in this tale of epic moral idiocy involving a thuggish ex-soldier, his single mother girlfriend, a pampered not especially swift son of the upper classes and a used car salesman, who band together to form a bizarre version of a nuclear family held together by avarice, lust and desperation.

The two Swedish films, Lukas Moodysson’s charming We Are the Best! and Lisa Langseth’s magnificent Hotell, have the absence of families at their centres. In 1980s Stockholm, the teenaged heroines of Moodysson’s film chart out their destinies in the face of family indifference, general sexism and ingrained cultural complacency. A paean to the DIY, up yours ethos of punk and its often neglected feminists aspects, We are the Best! is a poignant portrait of three singular but recognizable teenage girls and their first steps towards independence.

Erika (Alicia Vikander), the heroine of Hotell, is of a very different nature. An intense control freak, she is thrown for a loop when her pregnancy goes awry and doctors must intercede ahead of schedule. She refuses to see her child, and after weeks of inactivity, finally consents to join group therapy. There, almost magically, she finds some kindred tormented spirits and the movie takes off in an entirely new direction, sort of. Surprising, unpredictable, and subtly directed and acted (Vikander takes some crazy risks here). Hotell is compassionate, funny, and courageous and showcases the work of several of European cinema’s most intriguing young talents.

From Iceland come two very different movies, though both deal with challenged families: Robert Douglas’s This is Sanlitun and Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead. The former is a cracked comedy about a reality challenged dreamer in the style of Douglas’s earlier films, The Icelandic Dream, Small Mall and Eleven Men Out. The besotted sad sack Gary (Carlos Ottery who worked with Douglas on the partially improvised script) is a British entrepreneur who has relocated to China, supposedly to turn over a new leaf and make inroads into the Chinese market. Despite the fact that Gary is bald he plans to sell miracle hair tonic which he’s imported from North Korea. His guide to all things Chinese is another expat, Frank (Chris Lotton, who also contributed to the script), an Australian trust fund kid who mentors newly-arrived Westerners, though his course consists primarily of berating his charges for not knowing as much as he does, and trying to disguise the fact that he prefers takeout pizza slices to Szechuan. Wickedly but gently funny, This is Sanlitun is a welcome addition to Douglas’s body of work, and shows again that he’s one of the true heirs to the Ealing tradition.

Set in rural Iceland, Metalhead focuses on heavy metal obsessed heroine Hera, who blames herself for the sudden accidental death of her brother Baldur. She responds by assuming his persona, dressing in his clothes, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the peaks of heavy metal music, blasting out death metal licks in a barn which seems to moan back at her, and just generally raising hell. A haunting look at how tragedies can destroy or disrupt even close-knit families, Metalhead is also a commentary on the limits of rebellion. Faced with encroaching adulthood, Hera is confronted with the choice of leaving her hometown and abandoning her brother’s memory or rejecting all she holds dear and remodeling herself. The film is driven by a great lead performance by Thorbjorg Helga Dyrfjord and tough, clear-eyed writing and directing by Bragason, one of Iceland’s most versatile directors.

Finally, from Denmark come two films: Ask Hasselbach’s winning Ant Boy, about a neglected boy who suddenly finds himself a superhero forced to defend his town against a villain named Flea played by Nicholas Bro. Bro is also featured prominently in Christoffer’s Boe’s astonishing, crazed Sex, Drugs and Taxation, a cracked buddy film about two of the 1960s Denmark’s most radical figures. In his earlier films, Boe charted the intricacies of divided and haunted consciousness, people who took refuge from tragedy by escaping into fantasy and delusion. Here, Boe charts a culture’s equally specific collective memory by looking at two friends: the alcoholic playboy Simon Spies (Pilou Asbæk), who is revered as the fun loving hippie aristocrat who brought cheap flights to the masses and the sinister Mogens Gilstrup (Bro), a refugee from the provinces dismissed as  a hick by polite society, whose withering hatred of government and taxes especially led him to become one of the emblems of Denmark’s far right, but without whom Spies might never have done anything except drink. A hilarious and startling account of the period, Sex, Drugs and Taxation will also certainly be the only film this year where a man chases off an angry gorilla by waving his engorged member at it.

Come to think of it, I probably should have mentioned another common link. Each one of these movies did what any programmer looks for in any movie: they all surprised me, going in radically different directions than I anticipated.”