The Best Movies of TIFF 2021 – The Burning Eyes of a Unique Year

It was great to write about my TIFF experiences earlier this week, but what about the movies themselves? 

Maybe it was because I was breathing through a cloth for 10 days straight and barely able to enjoy a popcorn or even sparkling water with a movie while I was working my way through the TIFF lineup, but this feels like a much lighter and lower-rated festival than years previous. I felt no GREEN BOOK’s or I TONYA’s or WESTERN STARS were here this year; movies that I would sing my praises to anyone who would listen. It almost feels like as we continue to move through the pandemic that the movies themselves are suffering a little bit; I couldn’t tell you how many stories I heard from filmmaker Q&As about filming before or during the COVID pandemic for starters!

The following represent my personal favourites from this year’s TIFF based on the 60 features that I was able to check out in person over the ten days of the festival. 


#1. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (USA, dir. Michael Showalter)

Having grown up sneaking a few peeks of televangelists inbetween my regular TV show fare and laughing at what I thought was an alternate lifestyle to my own, THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE was a big flood of memories of my 80s and 90s coming back as we see the rise and fall mostly through the eyes of Chastain’s outstanding, award-worthy performance as Tammy Faye and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield, hardly recognizable here). You can tell she worked really hard at this role and had a great deal of passion (and fun) doing this role, and it was great to finally hear Faye’s story which had much more tragedy than I thought. Filmmaker Michael Showalter, who impressed me in years past with the likes of HELLO MY NAME IS DORIS and THE BIG SICK, is in top form here with a great eye for detail and the past, and it certainly brought back a lot of those TV memories and scandal in the late 80s. 


#2. Hold Your Fire (USA, dir. Stefan Forbes)

The best documentary I have seen in 2021, Stefan Forbes’ stunning and investigative look into a small group of Black Muslims who hold up a sporting goods store in New York City in 1973 and the effects it has on the robbers, the police and its hostages is incredibly effective in simply wanting to get to the bottom of this case, while also inviting the viewer to listen to both sides and differing viewpoints of the history of what the city and the society was like at the time. Using a delicate but powerful mix of interviews, archival footage, recreations and commentary, HOLD YOUR FIRE I felt was overlooked at the festival but I hope it finds an audience in one way or another, as it has such a unique doc perspective but it’s also very powerful in how it tells its story. Of particular mention is some NYC police officers who feel like they have not been listened to until now, and it’s simply great to see many different perspectives get total respect in this doc. 


#3. Belfast (Ireland/UK, dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Kenneth Branagh is one prolific filmmaker; having directed everything from my favourite Shakespeare adaptation of HAMLET in 70mm back in 1996 to more recent Marvel movies and studio pictures (he even has the still un-released DEATH ON THE NILE in the waiting), here he has went back to his childhood in a stunning coming of age story that centres on late 60’s Belfast showing the family bonds and political strife all crashing together at the same time. What’s fascinating is how the movie manages to find a good balance between heavy political drama while still remaining a charming slice-of-life story. While there is great contributions by Catriona Balfe (FORD V FERRARI) and Jamie Dornan (ENDINGS BEGINNINGS), the real winner here is young Jude Hill as the young Branagh-type character who lovingly keeps his head above his shoulders throughout all of the changes in his place in the world. Oh, and BELFAST has some of the best scenes IN a cinema I have seen in quite a long time, reminding us of the power of going out to the movies. 


#4. Dune (USA, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

A movie so overwhelming that I even tried watching it a second time at the festival just to sink in all the details (spoiler alert; I didn’t get in), the long awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel of complex and warring nations and socieities, all set against the backdrop of this story’s Skywalker, really named Paul Atreides (Timothy Chalamet) and the world around him is rich, complex…and yes, even confusing as all get out at times. I am a pretty hardcore moviegoer and even I had trouble following some of the storylines, yet was also completely fascinated by the rich storytelling and incredible, large-format visual design. When it comes to your town, make sure you see it at a theatre that knows their projection quality, either in a regular theatre or an IMAX one. My only real question is what would Alejandro Jodorowsky, who tried and failed to bring this to screen decades ago (and there’s a great documentary about him that is worth seeing) would think of Villenenvue’s vision? 



#5. Julia (USA, dir. Julie Cohen & Betsy West)

The true surprise of the festival and one of my very last screenings at TIFF; a movie that made me hungry even though I just ate BEFORE the show! Fearing another talking-head documentary from the filmmaking pair behind RBG (the Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc that I wasn’t in love with), this loving and cheerful tribute to Julia Child is a food lovers’ delight that really does focus on a decades-ahead-of-her-time, feminist food icon that is 100% herself all of the time, inspired others and most importantly, brought good food and cuisine to a society that absolutely needed it at the time. Of course, there is a lot of vintage footage, clip-shows (many of those where you laugh along when you spot the reference…looking at you Dan Akyroyd SNL clip) and solid interviews, but it all works especially when it is balanced by professionally shot food footage that re-creates a lot of Julia’s creations. If you were a fan of the JULIE & JULIA movie from a few years ago or wanted something a bit more, this really is a warm and entertaining experience on Julia Child that I think will do really well on release. 


#6. Petite Maman (France, dir. Celine Sciamma)

Like with BELFAST, this coming of age story kind of sneaks up on you and wows you with its simple but effective premise. Here, young girl Nelly (Josephine Sanz) is sad after her grandmother passes and is taken to her mom’s childhood home. There, she meets another girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks and acts exactly like her. From there, a unique bond forms that may or not have a connection between the two. Simple and light at 75 minutes but sneaking in a surprising level of power as it moves forward, filmmaker Celine Sciammia takes such a different turn from PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE here but her effect is no less than outstanding. 


#7. Benediction (United Kingdom, dir. Terence Davies) 

A huge Terrence Davies fanboy here, just a heads up. There’s just something about his work, from the earlier DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES to THE DEEP BLUE SEA, SUNSET SONG and the more recent A QUIET PASSION that just stick with me, and yet I wish he was regarded in the same vein that Mike Leigh is. His new movie, which continues his amazing streak of character-driven think-pieces, focuses on poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden, also memorable from DUNKIRK a few years ago) during the First World War and his hidden relationship with fellow power Willed Owen. This movie is very long at 137 minutes but Davies has no problem taking his time studying his characters and giving them their time to breathe and grow. While Lowden is the star here,  there’s also a great performance here by Peter Capaldi that is much later in the movie but also just as effective. BENEDICTION was filmed during the pandemic and you could kind of tell, but this is nevertheless a strong addition to a very underrated lineup. 



#8. Titane (France, dir. Julia Ducournau)

The unexpected winner of this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes, TITANE is a movie that truly got under my skin (no pun intended) not by what it showed, but also what it DIDN’T show. To describe TITANE is nearly impossible without revealing its hidden genius, but it involves a young girl who has permanent recovery after a childhood automobile accident and becomes even more challenged when a particular automobile has an interaction with her (don’t ask, just watch the movie) and changes everything, even to an unexpected relationship with a firefighter who thinks she is his lost long son. Filmmaker Julia Ducournau (who was at TIFF a few years ago with RAW, still unseen by me) takes a crazy idea and completely runs with it. Any movie that can remind me of David Cronenberg’s CRASH is a good thing in this film buff’s mind too. 


#9. The Starling (USA, dir. Theodore Melfi) 

I know quite a few didn’t like this one at TIFF, but for mainstream, character-driven pictures I feel like I haven’t seen this out of a major studio in years. It features the estranged couple of Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) who are distanced after the loss of their infant daughter and how both of them are dealing with this grief in different ways. Corny as all get out especially when the Starling bird comes into play, this movie still won me over in the midst of serious movies at the festival and really does have some career-highlight moments from both Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. Bonus points for a wonderful Kevin Kline as a therpaist-turned-vet that reminds me that he needs to be in WAY more movies. Helmed by Theodore Melfi (who wowed me all the way back at TIFF 2014 with ST. VINCENT then directing the hit HIDDEN FIGURES a few years later), it’s a delicate mix of comedy and drama that stuck with me for its entire running time. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I really recommend discovering it for yourself. 


#10. Drunken Birds (Canada, dir. Ivan Grvobic)

My favourite Canadian movie at TIFF this year, this multi-character story featuring many different Quebecois backgrounds is fresh and exciting, doesn’t overstay its welcome and it has a great lead performance by Marine Johnson who is the best example of “acting is reacting” at the festival this year. She is just part of the ensemble here, beginning with the story of a migrant who comes to Canada to escape his drug-dealing past. Showing a lot of different perspectives but also in such a visual and entertaining way, DRUNKEN BIRDS is a movie I hope doesn’t slip through the cracks and does find an audience. It’s also something I wish could be seen by more people in a theatre setting. This is also Canada’s official submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, so if you see me crossing my fingers in person you’ll know why.


Special Jury Mentions & Runner Ups:


#11. Bergman Island (Denmark, dir. Mia Hansen Love)

All the way back at TIFF 2013 I remember seeing Mia Hansen Love’s movie EDEN and remarking on her quiet but brilliant visual design and flair for storytelling. Here, she has a simply outstanding concept . The lead is Vicky Krieps, who was recently in OLD but is most famously known for playing Daniel Day Lewis’ troubled wife in PHANTOM THREAD, and this solidifies her as one of the best actors in the industry right now. It takes a dramatic turn in the second half featuring a story starring Mia Wasikowska (ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and changing perspectives that keeps this movie very alive and fascinating. 


#12. Memoria (Thailand/UK, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) 

The very first movie I saw at TIFF, at 9am at a press screening as all of the limited, socially distant rules about attending public screens began, was a very bizarre way to start out the festival. How to describe it? Tilda Swinton plays a woman who hears a sudden booming sound and becomes obsessed with discovering its origins. Like many foreign movies at the fest this year, this is a very slow but effective burn of a movie, and as it slowly played out I became more and more engrossed. This movie comes from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who wowed me many years ago with his Palme D’Or winning UNCLE BOONMEE which was also a tough movie to put into words, but like this one, it’s a fascinating watch. 


Honourable mentions also go to the following: 

  • FRANCE, Bruno Dumont’s latest picture featuring a terrific and layered performance by the mega-talented Lea Seydoux as a troubled news-woman in a controversy. I have had a love-hate relationship with Dumont’s movies (in particular his polarizing TWENTYNINE PALMS from many many years ago) but this is a timely story that is worth looking out for. 
  • MOTHERING SUNDAY, a period piece about a forbidden post-WWI love affair with a stunning edge and a total showcase for actors Odessa Young and Jack O’Connor, the latter of whom who definitely had a lot of fans when he attended the premiere screening in person. The festival noted more Colin Firth and Olivia Colman but they are more supporting performers in more of a showcase for these younger talents. 
  • THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, a fascinating end to Jochaim Trier’s trilogy featuring a fearless lead performance by Renate Renisve (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year) as a conflicted 30-something woman trying to find her balance in her career and her love life. Trier’s wonderful style and fearlessness to show the warts-and-all of its characters, in particular its conflicted lead, is fascinating. 
  • SPENCER by Pablo Larrain which showcases a pivotal time in young Princess Diana’s life and featuring a career-high performance by Kristen Stewart as Diana. 

Best TIFF Experience: The outdoor screening of THE GRAVEDIGGER’S WIFE at the West Island Open Air Cinema

In my decades of moviegoing, I have never been able to attend a drive-in film screening (there WAS a nearby venue for this at the festival this year) but I have attended the occasional outdoor screening, of which I have never been a fan of. Until now.  Ontario Place was very generous to offer up THREE spaces for TIFF this year; a gigantic drive-in which when I walked by seemed to have space for hundreds of cars, the original IMAX auditorium at the Cinesphere (which I also watched a screening at and loved), and by far my favourite, the West Island Open Air Cinema which was like a magical space in the midst of a crazy, unpredictable city. 

I could tell that TIFF and its planners really did their homework. The space was large, attractive and it was like entering a movie paradise. As I was a covering journalist I was even surprised to obtain a ticket and I sat by myself (oh lonely, moviegoer me), it was like every single detail was planned out precisely to entertain. Free coffee was offered. There were standard and hot food concessions available for purchase. That $10 bag of salty popcorn, paired with Ferrero chocolate samples and a large coffee went down so well. The projection and sound were also state-of-the-art and surprisingly the presentation held up on a slightly cold but clear evening. 

That night’s movie, THE GRAVEDIGGER’S WIFE, was also one of my favourites of TIFF; it’s a very human story featuring a powerful lead performance by Omar Abdi as Guled, a grave-digger who has a wife who needs a transplant but does not have enough money to do so. The absolute realism of this movie and filmmaker Khadar Ahmed’s pacing here is wonderful, and it really shows a great side of the world that I rarely see in movies. The entire filmmaking team and friends were in attendance at this show, and after the screening I witnessed pure joy in the filmmaking team as they celebrated this premiere (and they too remarked on the experience).

After the show I thanked and commented positively on the experience to the volunteers and staff (socially distant, of course). This was such a treat to experience and it was towards the end of a very strange festival where a lot of changes were made, but this is something I hope TIFF continues into future editions of the festival as a truly unique and special festival experience. My thanks to the TIFF team and Ontario Place for providing these venues for such an amazing experience.


And that wraps up my #TIFF21 experience! Please see TIFF.net for more information, and watch for full reviews of TIFF titles as they find their release into major theatres in the rest of 2021 and 2022. Many thanks to TIFF PR for assistance with my attending the festival this year. Can’t wait to come back! 

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