Reviews include Dune, The French Dispatch, and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Member Survey: TIFF 2021 – Best of the Fest
September 20, 2021
Some critics attended in-theatre and some critics tuned-in remotely, but the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival had an embarrassment of riches in its hybrid format. (Geo-blocking notwithstanding.) The wide variety of festival favourites had our critics scrambling from one much-buzzed film to the next, gobbling up films that wowed audiences at Cannes, Venice, and Telluride and delivered on the hype.
The range of options at TIFF 2021 is evident in the result of our annual critics survey. Last year, the response from TFCA members was three votes shy of a unanimous verdict for Nomadland. (The film went on to win the TFCA’s Best Picture prize for 2020.) This year, 13 films received ‘best of the fest’ votes from TFCA members. Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman scored the most votes with three ‘best of the fest’ picks from members who praised its understated gravity. Surprisingly, not one member picked the People’s Choice Award winner Belfast. Instead, the votes range from the smallest and quietest worked that knocked members over in a mere 72 minutes to an epic and bombastic IMAX-sized adventure.
Here are the TFCA members’ picks for the best films at TIFF 2o21:
Nathalie Atkinson: Mothering Sunday – Every Jane Campion movie is an event, but the TIFF screening that has stuck with me most is Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, about the entanglements of love, loss, and creativity of a writer (Odessa Young/Glenda Jackson) as she looks back on her life. Heartbreaking and hopeful, the modest but pitch-perfect adaptation of the Graham Swift novella is set in a specific time and privileged community of neighbours united in mourning after the Great War, but suffused with sorrow in a way that speaks to the collective loss of our current moment.
Linda Barnard: Petite Maman – Two girls meet in the woods in Céline Sciamma’s follow to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a brief (70 minutes), journey into a world of fantasy and fairy tales, innocence, memories and regret. Joséphine Sanz is remarkable as eight-year-old Nelly, who forms an instant friendship with a little girl she meets in the woods (played by her twin, Gabrielle Sanz). I couldn’t shake this film off. It stayed with me, as I imagine it will with any daughter — and mother.
Anne Brodie: The Power of the Dog – A tough decision but finally the film that still haunts me days later is The Power of the Dog, a dark elegy set in on a cattle ranch in the Wild West, 1925. Benedict Cumberbatch outdoes himself as Phil, a Yale classics graduate turned cowboy whose toxic personality knows no bounds; he must dominate and destroy others. Jesse Plemons plays his compassionate brother who comes home with a bride (Kristen Dunst, Plemens’ wife) and watches him torment her as her son begins a dangerous game. You’ll find yourself holding your breath as this Greek tragedy plays out against the backdrop of lawlessness and stunning natural beauty.
Thom Ernst: Wildhood – Bretten Hannam’s sophomore film, Wildhood, about a young man (Phillip Lewinsky) searching for a mother he thought was dead, is a compilation of small miracles harnessing a coming-of-age story within the conventions of a road movie. Lewinsky takes to the screen as a young Brad Pitt circa Thelma and Louise.
Marc Glassman: Memoria – I never thought that an Apitchapong Weerasethakul film would start off with a sonic boom, be shot outside of Thailand, and feature a genuine star—the artistically sympathetic Tilda Swinton–in the lead. But it’s happened and the result is clear: he can still can confront the mysteries of communication and memory in an expanded cinematic landscape. This is his most accessible work yet and it’s absolutely brilliant—the film of the year.
Jason Gorber: Saloum – Lots to like from the Cannes slate, or the Venice slate, or the Berlin slate, or the Sundance slate, or the Telluride slate, all at what was once known as the Festival of Festivals. Alas, there wasn’t much in the way of unique titles brought to Toronto this year that stood up to scrutiny (except, as always, the superior documentary group), so I’ll give a shout-out to the world premiere of Saloum, Jean Luc Herbulot’s stylish and effective thriller about a trio of mercenaries on a mission of justice and revenge. The performances were terrific, the direction was assured, and it looked fabulous. Above all, it felt a true discovery of a host of new talents, more so than just about anything else on this year’s selection did.
Karen Gordon: Maria Chapdelaine – I didn’t have one runaway favourite this year, instead there were a few movies I found enjoyable for various reasons. One of them is director Sébastien Pilote’s wonderful adaptation of the 1913 novel. Set on a remote farm in Quebec, centring around Maria, who has reached marrying age, the quiet film is wonderfully cast, beautifully shot, and evocative.
Barry Hertz: Petite Maman – Two years ago, French director Céline Sciamma knocked TIFF audiences out with her powerful and grand romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Switching gears, the filmmaker goes small, in all the right ways, for her pandemic-shot follow-up, Petite Maman. A lovely, delicate look at the bridge between parents and their children, the film follows one lonely little girl who, while visiting her grandmother’s old country home, encounters a version of her mother as a young girl at the same exact age, through some unexplained feat of magical realism. Featuring wonderful performances from twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, and also the cutest little murder-mystery game you’ve ever seen, Petite Maman hits all the right notes, creating an epic in miniature. One warning: It may leave you a blubbering mess.
Peter Howell: The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion’s ripping good western tale about sibling jealousy and repressed urges illuminates the pathology of the cowboy mystique.
Kim Hughes: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain – The first 20 minutes or so of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain felt cringey and made me uncertain about whether I could withstand Benedict Cumberbatch’s tics and baroque soliloquies for two hours. By the end, I was smitten. Talk about inhabiting a character and taking the audience along for the ride.
Chris Knight: The Worst Person in the World – It’s a big tossup for me between Dune and The Worst Person in the World. But I’m going to go with The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier’s latest, though I remain stymied trying to describe its plot. The best I can come up with is: “A woman … is.” Norway’s Renate Reinsve is compelling in her portrayal of a young woman navigating life, love and career. But also, Dune! Denis Villeneuve has once again managed to straddle the line between great science fiction and compelling, almost Shakespearian drama. I think the many who were underwhelmed wanted more of one or the other. For me, he got the mix just right.
Liam Lacey: Petite Maman – At just 72 minutes, Petite Maman is a small film of great originality and tenderness. The latest work from Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is a meditation on childhood, grief, and mothers and daughters that erases the line between the literal and the imaginary.
Pat Mullen: Dune – Although I’m happy to say that Sundance favourite Flee holds up to repeat viewings and is on track to be my pick for the film of the year, I have to crown Dune as the movie of TIFF 2021. Denis Villeneuve’s fully realized sci-fi adventure is the grandest feat of full-throttle action since Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s an outstanding and immersive achievement for world building that re-imagines a very stupid novel in a new cinematic language. I’d seen around least a dozen films in theatres since Ontario started coming out of lockdown, but it wasn’t until being absorbed by the scope and bombast of Dune that I realized just how much I missed the theatrical experience. Dune is bigscreen escapism at its finest. I look forward to seeing it again with a giant bag of buttery popcorn. (Honourable mentions: Julia, Drunken Birds, Spencer, Scarborough, Yuni, A Night of Knowing Nothing, Power of the Dog)
Johanna Schneller: All My Puny Sorrows – I levitated in my seat in happiness watching this film by Michael McGowan, even though it’s devastatingly sad. It’s such a feat, because it’s both literary and cinematic. The three lead actresses, perfectly cast, kill it. A stunner.
Gilbert Seah: Ali & Ava – The latest from acclaimed British writer-director Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant, one of the best films made that year) is a tumultuous, fiercely affecting working-class love story between a British-Pakistani and an Irish lady. Both are middle-aged and carry baggage from the past. Ali (Adeel Akhtar), is a working-class landlord who forges close bonds with his tenants, while Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is an Irish-born teacher and single mother of five. Barnard is one of my favourite British directors and she does not disappoint here. Her use of music, such as in the one scene where Ali drives a load of hip-hop singing kids in a car, is one of the most spirited pieces I have seen in a film this year. Watch this clip where Barnard turns a situation of racial intolerance into one of fun and unity. Barnard shoots her film in Yorkshire, with her characters based on people she has met. This is a wonderful love story celebrating differences. What a great movie!
Jim Slotek: Spencer – This film stayed with me, a “tone poem” about Princess Diana, according to its director Pablo Larraín. At times, it’s more a horror film about spending an opulent weekend with a family of militarized, joyless robots. Whether it’s an accurate depiction of anything is beside the point. It advertises itself as a fable, the visuals are antiquely opulent, the soundtrack inspires dread, and Kristen Stewart’s unique streak of crust and vulnerability are perfect for this laconic performance.
Courtney Small: Saloum – There were films that touched my heart (Petite Maman, Scarborough) and works that had me marvelling at the level of craft on display (The Power of the Dog), but Saloum was a genuine surprise. Rarely has a genre-bending thriller that touches on everything from personal trauma to mysticism to a country’s political history felt so exhilarating and concise. This film went in directions that I was not expecting, and I loved every minute of this wild journey.
Norm Wilner: Three Minutes – A Lengthening – There were plenty of strong offerings at this year’s festival — Julia Ducournau’s Titane, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Thyrone Tommy’s Learn to Swim, Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man — but they’ll all be opening in the coming months. (I’m Your Man is in Canadian theatres this Friday.) The film I keep thinking about is the one that might never see the inside of a Toronto theatre again: Three Minutes – A Lengthening, Bianca Stigter’s evocative, elegaic repurposing of three minutes of colour film footage shot in 1938 in the city of Nasielsk, Poland, a year before the German invasion. Images of Jewish citizens — most of whom will be shipped off to the camps in a year, never to return — cycle in front of us over and over, willing these people back into existence, healthy and happy on the screen. Stigter’s partner Steve McQueen, a producer on this project, did something similar with his video installation Ashes a few years back; Stigter takes the concept and builds on it, creating a memorial of almost devastating clarity. Maybe it’ll turn up at next spring’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival; if it does, make sure you don’t miss it.
For more highlights from TIFF 2021, read emerging critic Rose Ho’s report from the virtual fest.