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Read all about it: 10 Hot Picks for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

When you get down to it, a film festival is all about storytelling.

We gather to watch movies that will amuse or challenge us, perhaps both at the same time. We huddle around the cinema campfire seeking tales that entertain and inspire, encouraging introspection and enlightenment.

The 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, running Thursday through Sept. 18, promises another carefully curated collection of quality cinema from around the world. TIFF marks the start of movie awards season — eventual Oscar winners often launch in Toronto — and also shows much of what will be in theatres and on digital screens in the months ahead.

There are 132 features and 37 shorts screening at TIFF 2021. That’s about twice the number of films at the fest in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, but only about half the number in 2019.

In alphabetical order, here are my 10 hot picks to watch during the fest’s 10-day run:


Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan star in Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast," about the Irish city of his birth.

Kenneth Branagh is often superb as an actor (“Tenet,” “Dunkirk”), but he’s less reliable as a director, where his scorecard ranges from the highs of “Hamlet” and “Henry V” to the lows of “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Artemis Fowl.” Word is he’s on the upswing and Oscar-bound with this coming-of-age drama set in 1960s Northern Ireland, written and directed by Branagh and titled for the city of his birth. An exemplary cast that includes Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill seems sure to enliven a story evidently based on many of Branagh’s early memories.


Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac in "Dune," Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel.

Canadian director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve has the look and feel of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel down cold — and also hot and dry. The distant desert planet of Arrakis is revealed in all its sunburned glory, with its feuding colonial clans, House Atreides (Timothée Chalamet plays visionary scion Paul) and House Harkonnen, freedom-seeking Indigenous Fremen and menacing sandworms. Can Villeneuve satisfy ardent fans and casual filmgoers with the inevitable reduction of a mammoth tale notorious for being screen-averse? It’s a gamble, but being able to experience “Dune” at TIFF in its IMAX premiere is reason enough for excitement.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield star as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

As the trailer reveals, Jessica Chastain transforms herself into that staple of 1980s comedy monologues known as Tammy Faye Bakker, the disgraced televangelist whose clownish makeup and naked greed — the latter abetted by husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) — epitomized the era’s excess and hypocrisy. Chastain is already courting much Oscar talk for her efforts. The story began as a stranger-than-fiction 2000 documentary, which director Michael Showalter used as a dramatic springboard that goes beyond the usual schlock and awful. Can Tammy Faye be seen as more than a painted punch line? We’ll see.

Last Night in Soho

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Edgar Wright's psycho-thriller "Last Night in Soho."

Edgar Wright loves to mix genres — witness his zombie chuckler “Shaun of the Dead” — so he’s down for a psycho-thriller tied to a time-travel yarn nicked from an “Austin Powers” premise. Split between present-day London and Swinging London of the 1960s, the film stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie as two sides of the same woman, a combo that spells trouble. Minds will royally flip when Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip in “The Crown,” arrives as a fellow night crawler. Watch for appearances by ’60s icons Dame Diana Rigg and Margaret Ann Nolan, both deceased, in their final screen appearances.

Night Raiders

Brooklyn Letexier-Hart and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in “Night Raiders,” a film based on the real history of residential schools in Canada and elsewhere.

This year’s top pre-TIFF pick in the Star’s annual “Chasing the Buzz” poll is Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet’s dystopian sci-fi thriller about a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter from fascist overlords. Set in a military-run North America following a ruinous future war, the film stars Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, a Cree mother who will stop at nothing to keep her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) out of Orwellian “state academies,” a.k.a. forced-education camps. The scenario recalls the abuses of residential schools in Canada and elsewhere. It’s speculative terror based on real history.

The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are feuding brothers in Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog."

This is the only film doing the TIFF/Venice/Telluride/New York festival grand slam this fall; can all these cinema gurus be wrong? Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst lead a top-flight cast in this dark western set in 1920s Montana, based on an acclaimed 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play brothers on a remote ranch who turn against each other when a widow (Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) arrive at their door. Co-stars include Thomasin McKenzie, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine and Adam Beach. Oscar buzz galore, but I’m most curious about that creepy tune that Cumberbatch whistles in the trailer.


Kristen Stewart stars as Diana, Princess of Wales in "Spencer."

It would take something really special for Kristen Stewart to make us forget Emma Corrin’s award-winning portrayal of Princess Diana in Season 4 of “The Crown,” or even to care about yet another telling of the story of Lady Di’s unhappy marriage to and divorce from Prince Charles. Yet judging by the uncommonly intriguing trailer and the track record of director Pablo Larraín, whose Jackie Kennedy saga “Jackie” prompted a sympathetic rethink of another tragic historical figure, this could be that special something. Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Jack Farthing co-star.


Writer/director Julia Ducournau has done a lot since her extreme cannibal story “Raw” made eyeballs bleed in the Midnight Madness program at TIFF 2016. She’s upped the body horror ante with her second feature, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in July — only the second female director to do so — and which will open this year’s Midnight Madness section. Newcomer Agathe Rousselle stars as a woman whose traumatic injuries from a childhood auto crash lead to adult activities that give a shocking twist to auto-eroticism, along with graphic probes into sex, gender and parenthood. “Buckle the f--- up,” warns the TIFF program book. Sign me up!


Bretten Hannam's road movie "Wildhood" stars Joshua Odjick, Phillip Lewitski and Avery Winters-Anthony.

This “two-spirit odyssey,” by writer/director/producer Bretten Hannam, heralds a new generation of Canadian talent engaging in the grand tradition of Canuck road movies. Phillip Lewitski plays Link, a two-spirit Mi’kmaw teen whose volatile disposition masks a sensitive soul and a fierce desire to find out the truth about his long-gone mother, Sarah, whom his abusive father claims is dead. Link and his half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) take to the highways of Eastern Canada with little more than their wits to guide them. They fall in with fellow teen quester Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), for a voyage of discovery that’s familial, cultural and sexual.

The Worst Person in the World

Renate Reinsve won the Best Actress prize at Cannes in July for her role as Julie, the protagonist in Danish filmmaker Joachim Trier’s well-received finale to a trilogy that includes “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st.” Julie faces three major life changes: turning 30, switching college majors and dumping her longtime boyfriend. This sounds like a typical rom-com setup but, if you know Trier’s work, it will be anything but that. The TIFF program book calls Reinsve “phenomenal” and compares her character Julie to Jeanne Moreau’s empowered Catherine in “Jules and Jim.” You could do worse than have accolades like that.

Bonus TIFF Short: Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden spent years studying and filming wandering polar bears in Churchill, Man., for their sobering short doc “Nuisance Bear.” Global warming has forced the bears dangerously deeper into human realms, but who’s the real nuisance here?

(This column was originally published in the Toronto Star.)



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