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TIFF 2021 Preview: 20 Films We Can’t Wait to See

It’s that time of year again! The Toronto Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, September 9th, 2021, amidst waves of concerns over the pandemic and virtual access to a festival that doesn’t really seem like it’s going to be all that virtual. The 2021 edition of TIFF seems to have one foot in a precautionary state with another across the line of perceived normalcy. The result is much controversy over what will be available to critics and even fest goers who didn’t feel comfortable traveling to Toronto after a Labor Day that saw COVID rates at a significantly higher level than the one in 2020. We will have a hybrid approach with some journalists in Toronto and others handling premieres that are available virtual. We picked out 20 films that we plan to cover with their synopses from the official TIFF site. Watch for reviews of all 20 and about 20 or so more from yours truly, Robert Daniels, Marya E. Gates, and Nick Allen, along with a fest recap from Torontonian Jason Gorber. It may be the strangest TIFF year ever, but it’s still all about the movies. And these are the ones that look the most interesting, alphabetically. (Note: There are a lot of TIFF entries from other fests like “Dune” and “Last Night in Soho” and several Cannes premieres, but we’re focusing on the more exclusive stuff to TIFF, as many of those have already been covered, although we will be running a full review of the Wright next week.)

“Attica”

Stanley Nelson examines the largest prison uprising in US history, conducting dozens of new interviews with inmates, journalists, and other witnesses.

On September 9, 1971, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York enacted the largest prison uprising in United States history, taking staff as hostages. After protracted negotiations and a five-day standoff, the New York State Police raided the facility with shocking brutality, leaving 43 dead, followed by vicious reprisals against survivors and then an elaborate cover-up. It was the bloodiest one-day clash on American soil since the US Civil War. Now, five decades later, when the country has the world’s highest incarceration rate, the story of what happened at Attica deserves fresh attention.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson has a distinguished career focusing on stories of Black struggle against white supremacy. To tell the story of Attica, he conducts dozens of new interviews with prisoners, journalists, and other eyewitnesses. He makes powerful use of surveillance footage and the extensive news coverage that made Attica a national event. We hear White House tapes of President Richard Nixon asking Governor Nelson Rockefeller, “Are these primarily Blacks that you’re dealing with?”

“Becoming Cousteau”

Liz Garbus dives into the archives of the undersea explorer who tried decades ago to warn the world about the climate crisis.

Say the name Jacques Cousteau and people all over the world can conjure an image of the French sea adventurer in a red cap aboard his ship Calypso. His groundbreaking films and TV series opened the world’s eyes to the undersea realm. He became a dedicated conservationist, starting The Cousteau Society to preserve marine life. While many of us can cite those basic facts, we may not grasp much more.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, known for her complex portraits of Bobby Fischer, Nina Simone, and Marilyn Monroe, takes a fresh look at this explorer’s evolution in “Becoming Cousteau”. Her profile is neither hagiography nor exposé, but rather a nuanced look at his passions, achievements, blind spots, and tragedies. She draws upon an extraordinary archive of his newly restored footage.

“Belfast”

Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, and Jamie Dornan star in Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age tale set amid the tumult of late-1960s Northern Ireland.

In his three decades of filmmaking, Kenneth Branagh has ushered us into Henry V’s campaign at Agincourt, Thor’s celestial chambers on Asgard, and murderous intrigues aboard the Orient Express. Branagh’s latest work unfolds in a much more real-world and familiar setting for the prolific actor, writer, and director. Named after the city of his birth, Belfast is Branagh’s most personal — and most affecting — film yet.

A coming-of-age drama set during the tumult of late-1960s Northern Ireland, the film follows young Buddy (Jude Hill) as he navigates a landscape of working-class struggle, sweeping cultural changes, and sectarian violence. Buddy dreams of a glamorous future that will whisk him far from the Troubles, but, in the meantime, he finds consolation in his charismatic Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe), and his spry, tale-spinning grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench).

“Benediction”

Terence Davies’ latest is an equally sombre and sumptuous portrait of 20th-century English poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon.

Writer-director Terence Davies was last at the Festival with the Emily Dickenson biopic A Quiet Passion. A companion to its predecessor, Davies’ latest is a sumptuous portrait of 20th-century English poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the first time the filmmaker has explicitly portrayed love and desire between men.

“Benediction”’s form is a lyrical stream of consciousness, following associations of memory rather than chronology. Davies crafts Sassoon’s experience of the First World War in layers of heroism (he was decorated for bravery on the Western Front), loss, and unfathomable trauma. His attempt at conscientious objection to the war leads to his being committed to a Scottish hospital, where he meets and mentors fellow poet and soldier Wilfred Owen. Davies tracks much of Sassoon’s life after the war as a chain of fraught romances — most notably with actor and homme fatale Ivor Novello — and ongoing questions of sexual identity, social mores, and integrity both artistic and personal, leading to Sassoon’s late conversion to Catholicism and struggle to connect with his son.

“Colin in Black and White”

Ava DuVernay’s limited series chronicles what inspired activist and athlete Colin Kaepernick to risk his livelihood in support of civil rights.

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick silently took a knee during the US national anthem in 2016, he risked his future as a professional athlete to protest police violence against Black Americans. The response divided a nation. Former president Donald Trump, current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and team owners branded him unAmerican. Civil rights activist Harry Edwards, filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”), and fellow Black athletes labelled him an activist. Kaepernick’s courageous act exposed the racism embedded in professional sports. He never started another game in the NFL, and was quietly blacklisted by every team in the league for inciting Black athletes to rebel against white owners and executives.

Five years on, Kaepernick and DuVernay bring his adolescent awakening to audiences with this limited series, co-written and co-executive produced by Michael Starrbury (“When They See Us”). A young Colin, played by Jaden Michael (“Wonderstruck,” “The Get Down”), navigates the insecurities, complexities, and revelations he experiences growing up as a biracial kid with adopted parents (played by Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman) in a predominantly white neighbourhood in California.

“Dear Evan Hansen”

Julianne Moore and Ben Platt star in this adaptation of Steven Levenson’s Tony Award–winning musical about adolescence, grief, and transcendence.

Winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for star Ben Platt, “Dear Evan Hansen” comes to the big screen with all the heart and soaring inspiration of its Broadway origins. Director Stephen Chbosky made one of the best contemporary high school dramas in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which premiered at the Festival in 2012. He brings that same insight to bear here, illuminating how secret wounds can be expressed and maybe even healed in glorious song.

High school student Evan Hansen (Platt) suffers from social anxiety disorder. Under the advice of his therapist, Evan writes letters to himself with the goal of recognizing the good things in his life, such as his classmate Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, TIFF ’18’s “The Front Runner”), on whom he has an enormous crush. But when a fateful encounter with Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan, also reprising his role from the stage production) puts Evan in an awkward position, that self-correspondence provides an irresistible opportunity for deception. Evan concocts a friendship that never existed, constructing a whole new life for himself — one that could come crashing down at any minute

“Encounter”

Suspenseful, wildly imaginative, and eerily resonant, British director Michael Pearce’s follow-up to his TIFF ’17 Platform competitor “Beast” catapults us into a world where every encounter could lead to peril. Featuring an adrenalized lead performance from Riz Ahmed, this is a thriller for the age of cultural division and seemingly endless existential threat.

A decorated marine, Malik Khan (Ahmed) is trained to identify risk. But what if the risk appears totally ordinary? Malik sees bugs. Evil bugs. Alien bugs that seem to be seizing control of people, one after another. Malik can’t convince the world to sound the alarm, but he can at least protect his two young sons from global parasitic invasion — which might involve kidnapping them from the home of Malik’s estranged wife.

Written with Joe Barton (TIFF ’17 world premiere “The Ritual”), Pearce’s leap into large-scale filmmaking, with its nod to genre classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, brilliantly fuses dazzling spectacle with character-driven drama. “Encounter”’s visuals are by turns gorgeous and shocking. Its atmosphere of American heartland creepiness is both familiar and unnerving.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Jessica Chastain stars as flamboyant televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in this humanizing portrait of the rise and fall of the Bakker network empire.

In a captivating performance that is nothing short of alchemy, Jessica Chastain (also at the Festival in “The Forgiven”) transforms into flamboyant televangelist and singer Tammy Faye Bakker, the woman who would, alongside husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), build a multimillion dollar ministry empire. The Bakkers’ spectacular fall from grace thrust Tammy Faye into the mainstream spotlight. Her fashion and makeup choices were regular subjects of derision in late-night talk shows and sketch comedies, which cemented her place in popular culture.

Director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) brings sincerity and compassion to this humanizing portrait of Tammy Faye, from her humble beginnings as the secret only child of her mother’s failed first marriage, to her unexpectedly passionate college courtship with Jim. Together, they refined the message and delivery of the prosperity gospel that would attract so many followers to their satellite network and Heritage USA theme park at the height of their success, before Jim’s conviction for defrauding viewers and donors in 1989.

“The Forgiven”

Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes lead a strong ensemble cast in this tense drama about the perilous fallout from a debauched weekend in Morocco.

Jessica Chastain, Ralph Fiennes, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Abbott, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Marie-Josée Croze lead a stellar ensemble cast in this wild foray into opulence, sin, and reckoning set deep in the Moroccan desert.

On the verge of divorce, wealthy couple David (Fiennes) and Jo (Chastain, also appearing at the Festival in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) are on their way to a lavish weekend party, and accidentally run over and kill a young Moroccan man trying to sell fossils by the roadside. They put his body in their car and arrive at the party at a mansion hosted by a worldly gay couple. Once the body is tucked away in the bowels of the villa, the partygoers return to the circus of dancing, drugs, and debauchery. The next morning, David’s buzz becomes a hangover as he’s forced to reckon with the boy’s father and meet his own fate. For the others, the party must go on.

“The Good House”

Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline play ex-flames who rekindle their romance, in this drama from directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky.

“I need a good year.” When Hildy (Sigourney Weaver) makes that pronouncement, she’s talking about her sales prospects as a realtor. But there’s also an unspoken acknowledgement that her best years just might be behind her. Bold, brash, and practiced in the ways of her affluent New England town, Hildy’s barely controlled chaos is a bit too familiar to her friends and family. So is its fuel: booze.

Veteran screenwriters Maya Forbes (who also directed “Infinitely Polar Bear”) and Wallace Wolodarsky adapt and direct Ann Leary’s novel as a piercing observation of a woman capable of great charm, but always ready to sabotage her own success when the mood descends. Seeing the risk escalate, her family stages an intervention. It goes about as well as expected.

The Guilty

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Antoine Fuqua’s thriller set over the course of a single morning in a 911 dispatch centre.

Versatile action auteur Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” screening at the Festival as part of TIFF Rewind) reunites with his “Southpaw” star Jake Gyllenhaal in this riveting film about an emergency responder’s desperate race to save a distressed caller. Unfolding in real time within the confines of a frenetic 911 dispatch centre, Fuqua’s “The Guilty” delivers on its high-concept premise, channelled through another powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal.

As a wildfire rages towards Los Angeles, embittered police officer Joe Bayler (Gyllenhaal) winds down a chaotic but tedious shift answering emergency calls — a punitive demotion he received ahead of an imminent disciplinary hearing. His ennui is soon interrupted by a cryptic call from a woman (Riley Keough) who appears to be attempting to call her child, but is in fact discreetly reporting her own abduction. Working with the meagre clues she is able to provide, Joe throws all his skill and intuition towards ensuring her safety, but as the severity of the crime comes to light, Joe’s own psychological state begins to fray and he is forced to reconcile with demons of his own.

“The Humans”

Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, and Richard Jenkins star in Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Tony Award–winning multi-generational family drama.

An adaptation of his own Tony-winning play, Stephen Karam’s directorial debut is a Thanksgiving dinner invitation you won’t want to turn down. Featuring poignant, funny, lived-in performances from an impeccable ensemble — Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein (TIFF ’19’s “How to Build a Girl”), Jayne Houdyshell (“Little Women”), and Oscar nominees Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, and June Squibb — “The Humans” tracks the emotional intricacies of a working-class family bound by tradition, contention, and unshakable loyalties.

Brigid Blake (Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Yeun) have just moved into a rundown duplex in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Before they’ve had a chance to settle in, Brigid’s parents Erik (Jenkins) and Deirdre (Houdyshell), along with Erik’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (Squibb), arrive from her hometown to celebrate Thanksgiving, as does Brigid’s big sister Aimee (Schumer), who lives in Philadelphia. As the evening proceeds, the almost pathologically polite Richard tries to busy himself with meal preparation while the Blakes ease into their habitual teasing. Long-standing grievances are resurrected and difficult announcements are made.

“Jagged”

Alanis Morissette reflects on her 1990s rise to rock stardom, in this new documentary from Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”).

Alanis Morissette takes a candid look back at being a young woman in the maelstrom of superstardom in the new documentary “Jagged”. The Canadian singer, previously a teen pop singer in her home country, was only 21 when her record Jagged Little Pill topped international charts in 1995, powered by hits like “You Oughta Know,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” and more. Today they are alt-rock feminist anthems and the basis of a Broadway musical. With the power of hindsight, Morissette can now revisit the good, the bad, and the ugly of that period in her life and career.

Filmmaker Alison Klayman has created indelible documentary portraits of artists such as Ai Weiwei and Carmen Herrera. Her sensitive interviewing style gives Morissette the space to reflect on her journey from Ottawa to Hollywood and around the world. The film brings added perspectives of the male band members who toured with Morissette and bonded in the whirlwind of performing before massive crowds from one city to another. We also hear from admirers such as musician Shirley Manson of Garbage, critic Hanif Abdurraqib, and filmmaker Kevin Smith (who cast Morissette as God in his film “Dogma”) as they celebrate Morissette’s songwriting.

“Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)”

Residues of apartheid-era domestic servitude confront legacies of colonial land theft in South African auteur Jenna Cato Bass’s daring horror-satire.

Jenna Cato Bass (whose films High Fantasy and Flatland both played the Festival) transforms the legacies of South Africa’s colonial land theft and Black domestic service to white bosses into a gutsy psychological thriller. Co-written with Babalwa Baartman, “Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)” grapples with the daily violence that haunts the nation’s most pressing political issues, long after the end of apartheid.

Following the death of her grandmother — the woman who raised her — Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter are forced to move in with Tsidi’s estranged mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), who has lived and worked in the wealthy suburbs of Cape Town for most of Tsidi’s life. There, Tsidi finds the sprawling manicured property from her faint childhood memories, owned by Diane (Jennifer Boraine), Mavis’s ailing and mysterious white “Madam.” With the house feeling more eerie than she remembers, and with Mavis more enthralled by Diane than seems right for South Africa’s fabled days of democracy, Tsidi pushes past tangled resentments to try and convince Mavis that she deserves better. When that doesn’t work, Tsidi even considers broaching the subject with her brother, who, unlike her, was taken in and raised with Diane’s children. Finally, Mavis explains: if Diane dies, there is nowhere for them to go. The good Madam’s house is the only home she — and now Tsidi — have.

“Montana Story”

Two siblings returning to the family ranch to care for their ailing father must confront painful truths, in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s latest.

From “Suture” and “The Deep End” through “Bee Season,” “Uncertainty” and “What Maisie Knew,” Scott McGehee and David Siegel have charted a unique path in American cinema. Fluent in the experimental outer reaches of film, they have also explored more approachable storytelling, acting almost as doppelgänger figures within their own body of work. For those who choose to see it, though, there is a consistency in McGehee-Siegel films — a confidence in the strength of human character that pairs well with a parallel skepticism in how we perceive one another.

In “Montana Story,” Owen Teague plays Cal Thorne, a young man drawn back to the family ranch to be with his ailing father, Wade. A migrant nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), has been hired to care for the old man, and longtime employee Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) tries to help manage the sprawling property. But Wade has dug his family a deep debt to the bank, and Cal is ill-prepared to take the reins. His answer to what to do with their horses infuriates his sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) when she arrives from back east. The stage is set for an eternal conflict that pushes Cal and Erin to see each other truly.

“The Rescue”

Oscar-winning directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin detail the headline-making rescue of a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave for 16 days.

When 12 young soccer players and their coach were trapped by monsoon floods inside a cave in Thailand, the world watched for 16 days as reporters gave updates from outside the rescue zone. Now we gain a perspective that no reporter could ever capture, through the eyes of the Thai and international rescue divers and never-before-seen footage from their cameras.

Oscar-winning filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) excel at revealing the human stories behind incredible feats. The Thai cave mission required navigating four kilometres of flooded passageways, some barely wider than a human body. The world’s most elite rescue teams had never trained for those conditions. In order to supplement their local expertise, the Thai Navy Seals collaborated with an international collection of devoted cave specialists including British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen.

“The Starling”

Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline star in Theodore Melfi’s bittersweet tale of a couple working their way toward the other side of grief.

Melissa McCarthy has long proved she can play both wild comedy and heartbreaking drama. Working again with her “St. Vincent” director Theodore Melfi and buoyed by a superb supporting cast, she soars in a complex role that draws upon her impeccable timing and emotional instincts.

Lilly (McCarthy) is always the one who holds it together when things go south for her family. A year has passed since she and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) lost their infant daughter. Grief got the better of Jack, who’s now recovering in a psychiatric clinic. Lilly holds down her job at the grocery store, keeps up the family’s expansive rural property, and faithfully makes the weekly two-hour journey to visit her husband.

“Sundown”

Tim Roth stars in writer-director Michel Franco’s chilling drama about a wealthy Briton attempting to abandon his life while vacationing in Acapulco.

From the outside, it would appear that Neil Bennett (Tim Roth, also at the Festival with Bergman Island), a wealthy Briton vacationing with loved ones at a luxury resort in Acapulco, wants for nothing. Until, that is, a single phone call shatters Neil’s idyll: there’s been a death in the family, and he, his sister Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the kids must return to London immediately.

At the airport, just before their flight is to depart, Neil pretends to have forgotten his passport at the resort. He insists the others go ahead; he’ll catch the next flight. Instead, Neil checks into a budget hotel, drinks beer at the beach, meets a beautiful local named Berenice (Iazua Larios), and begins concocting reasons to delay his return home. What is Neil up to? How long can he linger abroad while his family grieves and contends with legal matters? And what if things go from bad to worse?

“The Survivor”

Barry Levinson’s biographical drama stars Ben Foster as boxer Harry Haft, who looks to carry on after fighting to survive in WWII concentration camps.

In films like “Leave No Trace,” “Hell or High Water,” and “The Messenger,” Ben Foster has delivered one deeply authentic performance after another. In “The Survivor” he takes the title role as a man bent, bruised, but never broken by his experience of the Holocaust. This remarkable Barry Levinson film, based on a true story, offers irrefutable proof that Foster is one of the very best actors of his generation.

When the Nazis invade Poland, Harry Haft (Foster), who is Jewish, is sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp. He is a powerfully built man, so a charming but sadistic officer (Billy Magnussen) offers him an impossible deal: fight fellow prisoners in the boxing ring for the amusement of his captors, or die. The winner of the bout survives to fight again. The loser is shot or sent to the gas chamber. How far will Harry’s will to live take him? What will he do to escape the death all around him?

“You Are Not My Mother”

An eerie Irish folk horror wherein a teenage girl’s mother goes missing only to return with an increasingly uncanny change in personality.

Something strange has happened to Angela (Carolyn Bracken). Of this her teenage daughter Char (Hazel Doupe) is certain. Ever since her single mother returned home following an inexplicable absence, Char has observed subtle changes in posture, personality, and appetite. The differences are welcome at first — prior to her disappearance Angela had been bedridden and quick to shirk parental responsibilities to her brother or mother. But as Angela’s behaviour grows increasingly wayward, Char’s scrutiny quicklys turns to dread as a disturbing and titular possibility emerges.

So ensues an anxious horror scenario, one that sensitively evokes the devastating dissonance that can occur when caring for a family member coping with mental illness. Bracken is a transfixing presence as Angela, fully embodying an erratic persona that is becoming less and less recognizable to the terrific Doupe, whose lonely Char navigates a simultaneous fear and love for her mother with a disarming vulnerability. Before long, suppressed family secrets begin to arise, and the premise only gets eerier from there as writer-director Kate Dolan applies supernatural intervention rooted in the more sinister swathes of Irish folklore.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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