Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Recap

The hits, misses, and surprises from all the films I screened at this year’s festival.

By Sean Blanford

2021 marks the fourth year attending the Toronto International Film Festival live from the Queen City. Missing from this year’s fest was so much of the pomp and circumstance that makes a film festival so great: the red-carpet galas, hordes of screaming fans looking to get a glimpse of their favorite celebrities, the bright orange shirts of excited volunteers to help you along your way, and vendors lining up Queen Street from Roy Thomson Hall to Spadina Avenue. In its place was almost a calming silence, the loudest rustle coming from people checking their pockets and purses to ensure that they had their proof of vaccination to enter the screening. While that may have been the atmosphere outside, you would have thought that nothing had changed inside the venues. Even with the abbreviated amount of seats available to those wanting to see the latest big-budget premiere or their favorite international directors latest, it was about getting back to somewhat of a sense of normalcy, sitting side-by-side (with a seat or two in-between) of a fellow film lover, watching a movie on the largest screen possible. This feeling of excitement was there, even if the yarrrrs were muffled from the mask you were wearing. So yes, while there are certain aspects of the festival, I may have missed, even being able to be here in the first place more than made up for it. This year twenty-two films occupied my film slate, and while I missed some of the notable movies offered up (I’m looking squarely at you, Dune), there were plenty of surprises and disappointments to be had. Here are some of the highlights.

Biggest Surprises
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain and The Power of the Dog: I lumped these two films together as they have the power of Benedict Cumberbatch in two vastly different films. The former is a biopic on the prolific English artist and illustrator co-starring Claire Foy, Toby Jones, Taika Waititi, and narrated by Olivia Colman. It is elevated past your run-of-the-mill biopics thanks to those terrific performances and approaches to telling his tale like a children’s novel. While the film’s tone takes several sharp turns that are sometimes jarring, co-writer and director Will Sharpe keeps a brightness on the sometimes dark story of Wain’s life that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. (3.75/5- B+). The latter is the latest from renowned director Jane Campion, her first feature directing since 2009’s Bright Star. Starring Cumberbatch alongside Kirsten Dunst, Jessie Plemons, Kodi-Smit McPhee, and Thomasin McKenzie, this romance/western tackles complex subjects like toxic masculinity and creates a gripping, thought-provoking character study. The cinematography by Ari Wegner and score from Johnny Greenwood (more on him later) elevates the film that much more. (4/5- A-) The Electrical Life of Louis Wain will be released on Amazon Prime on November 5th, while The Power of the Dog will have a limited theatrical release on November 17th before becoming available on Netflix on December 1st.

Mothering Sunday: I am a sucker for a well-told exciting period piece, and Eva Husson’s adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel is just that. This is being sold as an Olivia Colman/Colin Firth film, but the performances of Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young are the spotlights of this film. Young especially is a sight to behold, and her star should rise on the back of this. Mothering Sunday is a different type of World War I story and one that of genuinely captivating. (3.75/5- B+). Mothering Sunday will be released on November 19th.

Petite Maman: It feels a bit sacrilegious putting Celine Sciamma’s latest film in the “biggest surprise” category, but seeing as which I didn’t even know about the release of this film until a few weeks ago, here we are. The follow-up to her stunning 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire highlights what Sciamma does best: tell a compelling story with a limited cast in the confines of a short amount of time and space. This 72-minute nugget of joy about family and friendship between two young girls doesn’t overstay its welcome and will have you grabbing for the tissues by the end. (4.25/5- A-).

Biggest Disappointments
The Forgiven: This was one of the films I was most excited about that just missed the mark. Exploring the challenging dynamic between Arabs in Morocco and the non-native elites that casually occupy the country were wasted by jarring storytelling and over-the-top performances that didn’t fit the overall story it was trying to tell. With a cast including Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Greg Abbott, and Caleb Landry Jones, you would think it would have been better, but in the end, it left me asking why. (2.75/5- C+).

Dear Evan Hansen: Please read my full review of the film if you are yet to do so, but in short, Dear Evan Hansen is a movie musical that should have stayed on the stage instead of the big screen. Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg are the highlights of this misfire. (2.75/5- C+). Dear Evan Hansen will be released in theaters on September September 24th.

The Starling and The Guilty: Two Netflix produced dramas with A-list star-power (Melissa McCarthy and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively) that either was too off tonally and too ham-fisted with the swelling of music to exude some emotion (The Starling) or a rinse-repeat of a tremendous Danish drama that didn’t do enough to set itself from its predecessor (The Guilty). If you have not seen the original 2018 Gustav Möller film, do yourself a favor and watch that instead. (Both: 3/5- B-). The Starling will be released on September 24th, and The Guilty is on October 1st.

Great moments, but just missed the top 5
Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye: A performance on par with some of the best of her career, Chastain is all but assured an early spot in the Best Actress Oscar big board. While the film as a whole suffers from being too by-the-numbers and may shine too bright of a light on Tammy Faye herself and not spending as much time as what was going on around her, there is no doubt that it shows how passionate she was about this project in the performance he gave. (3.75/5- B+). The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in theaters now.

The premise of Silent Night: A film that is not your average Christmas movie, Camille Griffin’s directorial debut Silent Night has a premise too good to spoil, with an overall execution that doesn’t do it or its stellar cast justice. Once again, Roman Griffin Davis of Jojo Rabbit is the spotlight in a star-studded cast that includes Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, and Lucy Punch. One you should mark on your calendars, but I wish all the pieces fit together better. (3.5/5- B). Silent Night, as of this writing, is scheduled to be released sometime in December of 2021.

Haley Lu Richardson in Montana Story: Another outstanding performance by an actress in an otherwise average film is Haley Lu Richardson in Scott McGhee and David Siegel’s Montana Story. She gets the opportunity to show her range from being subtly comedic to tear-inducing as a sister who comes back home to her estranged family when her father is on death’s door. Montana Story is worth checking out for her performance alone. (3.75/5- B+).

Almost everything about The Survivor: This was my #6 film of the festival, and one I almost knew nothing about aside from it being a boxing biopic starring Ben Foster and Vicky Krieps. Telling the harrowing story of boxer Harry Haft, the once bare-knuckle boxer known as being the Survivor of Auschwitz who would go on to having a pro boxing career and a fight with Rocky Marciano, this is as unsettling of a watch as Schindler’s List but will probably not garner as much fanfare. Here’s hoping I am wrong because Foster lets it all on the floor, losing and gaining a substantial amount of weight to make the trials of this film believable. (4.25/5- A-).

The top 5, but it’s really a top six, so don’t @ me, bruv
Honorable Mentions: Jagged, The Power of the Dog, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Petite Maman, The Survivor

#5: Belfast– The 2021 Audience Award Winner is the best film Kenneth Brannagh has been attached to in any capacity. Dunkirk, Belfast is a love story to his homeland, telling his non-biographical tale of what it was like growing up in the Northern Ireland city during the religious persecutions of the last 60s and into the 70s. Jamie Dornan gives a stellar performance that hopefully will shed away some of the Fifty Shades stink off of him alongside Caitriona Balfe as the parents of Buddy and his older brother. Jude Hill as young Buddy gives one of the better child performances since the aforementioned Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit. Shot in beautiful black-and-white with a few touching exceptions, Belfast was a shoo-in for the Audience prize, making it an early front-runner for a Best Picture nomination. (4.3/5- A). Belfast will be released on November 12th.

#4: Spencer- It’s Kristen Stewart’s world, and we’re just living in it. From Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who also gave the world Natalie Portman’s chilling portrayal of Jacquline Kennedy in 2016’s Jackie, the belle of the Venice Film Festival has given us the best performance of Stewart’s career. Following the story of Diana during a tumultuous holiday weekend that will decide the fate of her marriage and standing within the royal family, Spencer is as riveting as it is heartbreaking. This is also the second film on the list featuring an A-level score from Jonny Greenwood, who should have an Oscar by now, but more than likely will by the end of awards season. (4.4/5- A). Spencer will be released on November 5th.

#3: Last Night in Soho: Another film that has a full review on this site, so please give it a read! If you didn’t, here are the cliff notes: Edgar Wright continues to be one of the best directors of his generation, and Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie show why they are two of the brightest young talents acting today. Combining comedy, mystery, and horror elements into a nice little spooky package, with all the hallmarks of what makes an Edgar Wright film great. I understand hearing others who have seen the movie already having issues with the film’s third act, and you may too, but I enjoyed the movie as a whole. (4.5/5- A). Last Night in Soho will be released on October 29th.

#2A & 2B: Flee and Violet: I put these together as they were two of my favorite films from festivals earlier this year. Both are dramatically different films about identity, with Justine Bateman’s feature directorial debut being a loud, brash, in-your-face approach to mental stability and how to overcome the voice in your head. While Violet was excellent and Olivia Munn as the titular proves once again that she can be an exceptional actress, future awards consideration may not be in the cards. With the animated documentary Flee, the story being told of a man on the brink of marriage who relives his past as an Afghan refugee leaving the country for better prospects, the Sundance Gand Jury Prize winner has the opportunity to make history. A beautifully told story that is very timely given everything going on in the world. It is a legitimate contender for Best Documentary, Best International Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best Picture. Violet: 4.6/5 (A), Flee: 4.75/5 (A). Violet currently has a staggered US release, with a limited theatrical run on October 29th, expanding wide on November 5th, then going digital on November 9th. Flee will hit theaters on December 3rd.

#1: Titane: A film that I whole-heartedly understand will not be for everyone and will have a hard time finding an audience past that hardcore horror/thriller fanatics and those who know about the previous works of writer/director Julia Ducournau. However, this won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Festival de Cannes for a reason. That is because it is a relentless but genuine look at gender identity, sexual gratification, and toxic masculinity wrapped in a bloody, oil-soaked package. It is bold and uncompromising, but it also stays true to who Ducournau is as a filmmaker. She wants you to feel as uncomfortable as possible while caring for the two central characters, which is a delicate balancing act to walk, and she succeeds. As said during the Midnight Madness introduction of the film, tuck away your phones because you will want to watch everything that’s happening while having both hands available to cover your eyes. Raw introduced us to who the director is, and Titane is an evolution of Ducournau as a storyteller. Whatever she has next up her sleeve, I will be waiting with clenched teeth and bated breath. (4.9/5- A+). Titane will be released on October 1st.

Please make sure if you did not do so already to read my full reviews out of TIFF for Dear Evan Hansen, Last Night in Soho, Titane, and Violet.

Author: Sean Blanford

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