The 10 Best Films of TIFF 2021
The 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was supposed to be the one when everything returned to normal, or something close to it, with the glitz, parties and packed theatres of pre-pandemic life.
TIFF 2021, which wraps Saturday, turned out to be anything but the familiar 10-day show. Blame it on the surging Delta variant that has made even fully vaccinated people wary, and which discouraged many celebrities and journalists from making the trek to Toronto.
The streets around TIFF Bell Lightbox, the fest’s King Street West headquarters, were noticeably quieter this year, with fewer people and parties. The pandemic also forced TIFF to program fewer movies, to limit theatres to 50 per cent capacity and to split screenings between in-person and online presentations, which made for some tough viewing choices — especially since not all films were available online. This hybrid version of TIFF was even stranger than the 2020 version, which was almost entirely online.
Yet even with a diminished presence, TIFF ’21 still made an impact with many substantial films, which were all the more enjoyable when viewed on the big screen, a pleasure sorely missed during much of the pandemic.
As always, it was tough to limit my favourites to just a Top 10 list, but here goes, along with a little Oscars speculation in some cases:
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion deftly adapts Thomas Savage’s western novel of toxic machismo, a tale exceedingly well told. Benedict Cumberbatch simmers and boils brilliantly as Phil, the Marlboro Man from Hell, a cattle rancher in 1920s Montana who is determined to wreck the new marriage of his meeker brother (Jesse Plemons). Superb direction, a carefully calibrated screenplay and an excellent supporting cast make this awards catnip.
Oscar chances: Best Picture, director, screenplay, actor (Cumberbatch), supporting actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee), supporting actress (Kirsten Dunst).
Desert power! Frank Herbert’s “unfilmable” sci-fi novel classic becomes transporting cinema in Denis Villeneuve’s capable hands. It connects on visual and subconscious levels, demanding the biggest screen possible but also rewarding close study. Desert planet 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. The film is geared to fans; newcomers may want a second look, but consider it a pleasure.
Oscar chances: Picture, director, screenplay, many technical awards
A bravura performance by Kristen Stewart as a haunted Princess Diana, contemplating divorce from Prince Charles during a 1987 Christmas break. Director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”) admits up front it’s more fable than fact and, while he occasionally overreaches with his myth-spinning, his empathy and compassion for a woman suffering a mental breakdown are beautifully expressed. Gauzy cinematography makes this seem like a high-class ghost story. Huge counterpoint to the royals of “The Crown”: the humans of the TV series become the undead of “Spencer.”
Oscar chances: Picture, director, screenplay, actress (Stewart), supporting actor (Timothy Spall).
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Jessica Chastain almost disappears into the painted punch line known as Tammy Faye Bakker, the disgraced televangelist whose antics with husband Jim epitomized ’80s excess. We’re not meant to stare and laugh; Michael Showalter’s film demands a fair reassessment of a stained icon. There’s compassion and credit for Tammy Faye, who is championed as a women’s rights advocate and upholder of gay rights in defiance of the homophobia of right-wing evangelists like Jerry Falwell.
Oscar chances: Picture, actress (Chastain)
There’s never just one central drama in an Asghar Farhadi film. The Iranian auteur finds ways to bring multiple story lines and culpability together. So it goes with his latest, the Cannes ’21 Grand Prix winner, a tale of a man’s good intentions gone awry. Humble calligrapher Rahim (Amir Jadidi), on a two-day release from debtor’s prison, is offered an opportunity to quickly win full freedom. Rahim tries to do the right thing, but missteps and doubts, inflamed by social media, threaten to make his life all the more miserable. “Nothing is fair in this world,” a character says. Indeed.
Jake Gyllenhaal blazes as a hotheaded cop assigned to 911 call centre duties, seeking in real time to find a distressed woman (Riley Keough), a possible kidnap victim, while L.A. literally burns from climate-change wildfires. Antoine Fuqua’s remake of a 2018 Danish movie, working a script by Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective,”) is the rare redo that exceeds the original. There’s deeper resonance regarding the hot-button issue of police brutality. Filmed during lockdown as essentially a one-man show, it’s also right in tune with the general pandemic mood that the walls are closing in.
The Worst Person in the World
The romantic drama for people who hate romantic dramas. Joachim Trier subverts expectations as he sets Renate Reinsve — the Cannes ’21 Best Actress winner — on a campaign to put more amour and meaning into her life as her 30th birthday dawns. This is more easily said than done for Reinsve’s character Julie, since she’s reluctant to keep with one thing for too long, whether it’s school, a job or a boyfriend. Julie’s restlessness makes her a love/hate fascination; the film may speak to millennials much like “The Big Chill” did to boomers and “Reality Bites” to Gen-Xers.
I’m Your Man
Do androids dream of electric heartbeats? Germany’s Maria Schrader poses the query in this uncommonly deep rom-com, a sci-fi story set in the near future when mechanical humans are becoming commonplace. Obliged by her research funders, scientist Alma (Berlin fest winner Maren Eggert) reluctantly agrees to cohabit with eager-to-please humanoid Tom (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey”) to assess whether society’s ready for full human/replicant integration. The plot’s happily not robotic, addressing questions of whether circuits can match cells in determining humanity.
The Middle Man
I’ve been a Bent Hamer fan since the droll Norwegian auteur’s “Kitchen Stories” (2003) satirized efficiency researchers. You wouldn’t call the people of his new film efficient, but they certainly are busybodies. It’s set in a disaster-prone U.S. town (played by Sault Ste. Marie) and co-stars Canadian film luminaries Paul Gross, Don McKellar, Sheila McCarthy, Kenneth Welsh and Rossif Sutherland. The theme is grief, not normally a subject for mirth. But just watch Norwegian actor Pal Sverre Hagen go as Frank, the absurd “middle man” tasked with being the bearer of bad news.
You Are Not My Mother
My Irish grandmother described someone who was a little odd as being “away with the fairies.” Grandma knew her folklore and so does writer/director Kate Dolan. Her feature debut, spooky as a banshee wail, explores a Dublin family’s distemper regarding the strange actions of title mom Angela (Carolyn Bracken). Angela hasn’t been the same since her sudden disappearance and return, much to the concern of her teen daughter Char (Hazel Doupe). Is it mental illness or have the fairies taken her? There’s a “Hereditary” feel, but let’s not sell this potent chiller short. 🌓
(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)