The Toronto International Film Festival kicks off today, a hybrid event that combines last year’s digital platform with in-person screenings for vaccinated viewers. (Just two days ago Canada’s Border Agency announced that fully vaxxed international visitors do not need to quarantine upon arrival.) The festival boasts about 100 films, roughly double last year’s selection but still much less than a normal year. That said, film historians will look at this ’21 edition to see what imprint the pandemic has made upon the films themselves. As our list of picks below indicates, a large number of films traveling to the festival are pandemic productions, produced amidst on-set zone and testing protocols, COVID safety supervisors and, sometimes, local lockdowns.
Read below 15 films we know — or hope! — will be worthy of your viewing. We’ve chosen from TIFF-premiering films as well as pictures our writers saw in Cannes that aren’t also playing the New York Film Festival.
Earwig. A relatively brisk (five years, when her previous gap between films was 11) follow-up to her 2015 picture, Evolution, which Vadim Rizov described in these pages as “that very rare film that, in its ability to locate irrational/primordial terrors in banal settings, earned the overused label “Lynchian,” Earwig is Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s pandemic production, shot in Belgium just days after a country-wide lockdown went into effect. If Evolution was — again in Rizov’s words — “a clean sweep of body-horror tropes,” the new film, based on its description, er, drills down into a particularly upsetting subset of the genre; call it “dental horror,” if you will. (It’s about a man who cares for a 10-year-girl whose dentures, made of melting ice, must be changed several times day.) Earwig is based on a book by U.K. artist and filmmaker Brian Catling, and Hadzihalovic collaborated with Geoff Cox — who also co-wrote Claire Denis’s High Life — on the screenplay. — Scott Macaulay
Benediction — For years, Terence Davies has been discussing this passion project, a biopic of British war poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon. Drawn to Sassoon’s sexuality (he remained closeted while homosexuality was illegal in the UK) and sense of poetry, Davies has identified Sassoon as a kindred outsider spirit to previous A Quiet Passion subject Emily Dickinson. Now Benediction is finally here, a pandemic production with Jack Lowden as the young Sassoon and recent Dr. Who Peter Capaldi as his older self. — Vadim Rizov
Baby. Director Rebeca Huntt’s debut feature, Baby, produced by Sofia Geld, has been in motion for eight years, garnering support along the way from the IFP (now Gotham) Documentary Feature Lab, the NYFF Artist’s Academy and UnionDocs, among others. Shot largely in 16mm, the film is described as a documentary autobiography that incorporates various filmmaking strategies to explore the ways in which race and class have shaped the director as she’s grown up the daughter of immigrant parents — a Dominican father and Venezuelan mother — in New York City. Huntt signed as a director to UTA a couple of weeks ago, and among the executive producers are Petra Costa, director of the Oscar-nominated Edge of Democracy. — SM
Murina — “The winner of the Caméra d’Or for the best debut feature at Cannes this year was the maritime Murina, a coming-of-age drama of slow-motion escape from Croatian writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic. Premiering in Directors’ Fortnight, the sun-baked film tracks teenaged Julija (Gracija Filipivoc) as she slowly but surely pushes for autonomy from her grumpy father, Ante (Leon Lucev), who runs their family like an impatient captain. A visit from a longtime friend, bekhaki’d and comfortable businessman Javier (Cliff Curtis), sets thoughts spinning for Julija and her youthful mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), as Ante frantically schemes to sell land.
Kusijanovic brilliantly orchestrates the build-up of tensions and the hide-and-seek of intentions and regrets among the four, blocking out subtly charged encounters, gazes, smiles, strides on and around the island the family calls home. DP Hélène Louvart, a frequent lyricist of youthful innocence for Eliza Hittmann and Alice Rohrwacher, lets us feel the sunlight with an edge, and there’s an interplay of resilience and fragility in the film’s images.” — Nicolas Rapold
Listening to Kenny G. “The dizzying variety of ways that filmmakers negotiate the ethical, epistemological and practical complexities of what I call the documentary promise — the promise to in some essential way tell the truth — is precisely what makes the field so exciting,” the documentary filmmaker Penny Lane wrote in a Filmmaker essay pondering the question of docs and footnotes. The quote gets at the essence of her work, in which explorations and portraits — into everything from Richard Nixon to Morgellon’s disease — subtly broaden into elegant and, yes, often humorous epistemological journeys. In her latest, she subjects the smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G to a chorus of voices, adoring and oppositional, that get at the Kantian (among others!) question of why it is that we like what we like. — SM
Montana Story. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose debut feature, Suture, was an early Filmmaker cover, follow up their 2012 pic What Masie Knew with a purely independent drama that, per Deadline, “follows two estranged siblings, played by Haley Lu Richardson (Unpregnant, Five Feet Apart and the upcoming After Yang) and Owen Teague (The Stand, Mrs. Fletcher), as they return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved.” These two directors are immensely cine-literate and as knowledgeable about experimental film as mainstream. It’ll be interesting to see what the freedoms as well as restrictions (this is yet another pandemic production) have yielded as they tackle this family tale. The great DP Giles Nuttgens is behind the camera. — SM
DASHCAM. The words “shockingly cavalier nihilism” are used by the TIFF programmers to describe this latest Blumhouse production, Rob Savage’s DASHCAM. It follows up Savage’s lockdown hit, Host, and continues his unsettling exploration of online virtual spaces — in this case, the livestream of a quarantine-busting indie musician who plays up for the camera “a self-consciously obnoxious exaggeration of her own polarizing online persona.” “Inventive gore” is promised. — SM
Arthur Rambo. Laurent Cantet, whose pictures Human Resources and the Palme d’Or-winning The Class were trenchant examinations of work, class and education, travels to Toronto with a new picture starring as an adult Rabah Nait Oufella, one of the teen students in the latter film. Oufella plays an Arab author and Parisian literary star who, in a twist reminiscent of Lauren Oyler’s recent False Accounts, is revealed to have an alter ego: the man behind a racist, homophobic and anti-semitic Twitter account. — SM
Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin. TIFF Artistic Director and Co-Head Cameron Bailey says that this program of the work of Alanis Obomsawin (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice) is “the centerpiece of the festival.” Of her practice telling the stories of Indigenous people resisting injustice, Bailey writes, “Her approach to crafting documentaries is as singular as Frederick Wiseman’s or Mike Leigh’s methods of making fiction films. Obomsawin begins with joining her subjects’ community without any filmmaking gear. She goes first to listen. The next step is to document their stories by recording audio only. That intimate relationship between speaker and listener, on a foundation of trust already built, then leads to introducing a camera. It’s no surprise that watching her films is like being invited into their world as an honoured guest.” — SM
Wavelengths: Tense Present — Normally a four-program highlight of TIFF, this year there’s only one experimental shorts program in the “Wavelengths” section, but it promises to be a strong one. “Tense Present” begins with Mexican filmmaker Nicolás Pereda’s Dear Chantal, in which he writes letters to the late filmmaker, the program concludes with Train Again, the latest from Austrian archival/stroboscopic master Peter Tscherkassky. — VR
Good Madam. The TIFF catalog cites Jordan Peele’s Get Out but also Ousmane Sembène’s extraordinary Black Girl when describing the latest from South African filmmaker Jenna Cato Bass, a horror satire that deals with colonial land theft. As Bass says in an interview at Women in Hollywood, it’s the first time she’s tackled the horror genre — one which she’s always shied away from: “For most of my life I’d been completely unable to watch scary movies: I was a sensitive child. At the same time, genre means nothing to me without substance — what it’s saying about our world. So I wanted to tell a story about a domestic worker who gets to reclaims her agency, along with the home she has lived and worked in her whole life. So using this particular genre was a way to provide a literal exorcism of our country’s trauma.” — SM
Medusa — The second feature by Brazilian filmmaker Anita Rocha de Silveira, Medusa is a horror-inflected state-of-the-nation allegory that’s earned comparisons to Bertrand Bonello and Dario Argento. A girl gang that studies at an evangelical high school roams the streets, seeking out women whose mores (sexual or otherwise) they disagree with for beatings. When one of them is injured in a fight, she starts to question their dominant ideology. — VR
A Night of Knowing Nothing — Payal Kapadia won best documentary at this year’s Cannes for her feature debut. Working from a cache of letters discovered at her film school, written by an unknown fellow student, Night enfolds this correspondence into a nonfiction work meditating on recent Indian political history. — VR
Compartment No. 6 — “Laura (Seidi Haarla) lives in Moscow with her Russian girlfriend, and her wavering sense of belonging in her adopted country is challenged over the course of a multiple-overnight train journey from Moscow to Murmansk, north of the Arctice circle near the Finnish border. Her companion for this journey in a tiny sleeper car is yobbish Russian Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), with whom she bonds, initially against her will. Will this unlikely duo transcend their superficial differences and discover a shared humanity? Yes, obviously, but in the meantime please revel in the train journey that takes up the lion’s share of the film. […] For Compartment No. 6, the director [Juho Kuosmanen] found that the dream of the Yeltsin ’90s was alive on many trains still in use by RZD, the Russian railroad: train scenes were shot, on two-perforation 35mm, on rolling stock rented from the company and run on their tracks, showcasing private compartments, sleeper berths and a dining car in all their sickly yellow-green garish glory.” — Mark Asch
Dear Evan Hansen. The director of this Broadway adaptation, Stephen Chbosky, has a career I’ve followed with interest. I loved his first feature, Four Corners to Nowhere, which premiered in Sundance in 1995. But that was the year of The Brothers McMullen, and the juggernaut of that indie hit overshadowed what I thought was Chbosky’s more striking debut. After some TV work (he created the TV series Jericho) and a gig writing the screenplay for Chris Columbus’s film adaptation of Rent, he wrote a novel: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which Chbosky then adapted into one of the best YA films of recent years. Dealing with some of the same themes he handled beautifully in Perks, Steven Levenson’s Broadway musical may or may not be a winning screen transfer, but with Chbosky directing I’m interested in finding out. — SM