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If the 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival isn’t the organization’s big blockbuster comeback year, it is certainly a giant leap toward the normalcy of previous editions. For starters, there are about twice as many films screening this year compared to 2020 – which means ticket-buyers (both those headed to the cinema and those staying home with TIFF’s virtual platform) need all the help they can get in knowing where to focus their attention. To that end, The Globe and Mail’s Arts team has been picking through this year’s programming to bring you our most anticipated TIFF 2021 titles. Catch ‘em all, if you can.
Deep in the most depressing of the pandemic’s many waves (was it No. 2 or No. 3? Does it matter?), I revisited Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2014 drama Eden, a wonderfully melancholy and consuming character study. While I was not as enamoured with the director’s follow-ups, Things to Come and Maya, I still cannot wait to watch her latest, Bergman Island. The concept, for starters, is dangerously irresistible: a filmmaking couple head to the island of Faro, hoping to draw inspiration from its most famous resident, Ingmar Bergman. Then there’s the cast: Tim Roth, Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska.
Last Night in Soho
If his touching Sparks documentary wasn’t enough of a 2021 surprise, director Edgar Wright is seemingly determined to spin your head right round again with this new high-concept thriller. If the trailer is anything to go by, Wright seems to deliver both a time-travelling freak-out starring two of today’s most-talked about actresses (Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie) and a homage to the crimson-soaked giallos of Dario Argento and company. Sold.
Including this Celine Sciamma drama is a bit of a cheat, given that I already had the opportunity to watch its world premiere via the virtual Berlinale this winter. But I couldn’t in good conscious offer a list of TIFF heavy hitters without highlighting the best film I’ve seen this year so far: a touching and wonderfully compassionate look at one little girl’s fantastical encounter with her mother’s younger self. Petite Maman may be produced on a far smaller scale than Sciamma’s TIFF 2019 hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but it is even more memorable.
For film buffs, the insider premise of Official Competition is intriguing: A billionaire intent on making his mark in the movie business puts together a dream team for his ego project – only to discover that his actors, one a Hollywood heartthrob, the other a veteran stage actor, can’t possibly get along. And the casting is irresistible: Antonio Banderas plays the movie star, the Argentinian actor Oscar Martinez plays the thespian, and Penelope Cruz is the highly inventive director who must keep them from upstaging – or killing – each other. Experimental Argentinian auteurs Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat direct (and wrote with Andres Duprat) what promises to be a wicked Spanish-language satire.
All My Puny Sorrows
This is one of the most promising Canadian titles on this year’s program. Can Michael McGowan (Still Mine; One Week) successfully translate to film the delicacy, humour and insight of Miriam Toews’ delightful and surprisingly funny semi-autobiographical novel? Surprisingly, because the story is about the narrator’s relationship with her mother and her suicidal sister, both before and after the woman’s death. Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill star as the sisters.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion remains best known for the 1993 historical drama The Piano, once acclaimed (rather condescendingly) as the best film ever directed by a woman. With The Power of the Dog she returns to another period story that places a vulnerable woman between a cruel man and a potential saviour. In this instance, the men are brothers, successful Montana ranchers in the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a sadistic bully determined to humiliate the widow (Kirsten Dunst) who his sibling George (Jesse Plemons) has chosen to marry. Like The Piano, The Power of the Dog promises a finely balanced psychological drama in a wild frontier setting – as well as another of Cumberbatch’s rich character studies.
The Middle Man
Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news – hence the apologetic sentence-softener, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” So, in this oddball comedy from Norwegian art-house auteur Bent Hamer, an economically distressed American town hires a PR guy to do the dirty work of delivering sad dispatches to its citizens. The movie was partly filmed in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., a city that gets a lot of work as a stand-in for U.S. locales. That’s good news.
More good news: Barry Levinson has made another film. This one is a biographical drama about boxer Harry Haft, a Polish Jew who began his fighting career in the German concentration camps of the Second World War. The ever-intense Ben Foster stars as Haft, who survived the Holocaust – that’s not a plot-spoiler, given the film’s title – to fight Rocky Marciano.
Have you noticed that when white people riot, it’s called a rebellion, and when Black people rebel, it’s called a riot? It’s doubtful the observation has escaped documentarian Stanley Nelson, whose films focus on resistance. His previous work includes Freedom Riders, Wounded Knee and The Murder of Emmett Till. His latest is on the Attica Prison riot/rebellion of 1971.
Siegfried Sassoon, the British soldier and poet (1886-1967), lived a life that had a natural cinematic arc. Cricket player at Cambridge University. Privileged. Bisexual. Motivated by patriotism, he volunteered for the First World War. Mired in the horrors of trench warfare, he became manically, almost suicidally brave (his comrades dubbed him Mad Jack), and crafted visceral poems about the ugliness of war that inspired generations of writers, including the poet Wilfred Owen, who idolized him, and the novelist Pat Barker, who included him in her magnificent Regeneration trilogy. The British writer/director Terence Davies isn’t prolific, but his films are polished gems (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The House of Mirth; The Deep Blue Sea). He creates characters with simmering inner lives and grounds them in a specific time and place. I can’t wait to see what he does with Sassoon.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar
Three teenage girls form a gang and commit petty (but escalating) crimes to escape the boredom and patriarchal limitations of their small-town lives. Is there a more enticing log line for a movie? Admittedly, I am a sucker for films in which women misbehave their way to freedom, and I especially love that the setting here is Kosovo, and the goal is to get to university. But add in the fact that this is the writing and directing debut of Luana Bajrami, who played the maid Sophie in the 2019 arthouse hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which earned her a Cesar nomination for Most Promising Actress; that she shot it when she was only 18; that she wrote herself a juicy part as a Zola-quoting visitor from France, who offers a tantalizing glimpse of life elsewhere; that it was nominated for the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Festival; and that critics are comparing it to films like Mustang and The Virgin Suicides – and I expect I’ll be roaring along.
Sometimes I read about a piece of art and I get all squirmy inside – I want to meet the people in it and eavesdrop on their conversations; I feel certain they will make me laugh at their in-jokes, flinch at their rawness and leave thinking about their (all of our) need for connection. The Humans first appeared off-Broadway as a one-act play, then moved to Broadway, where it was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the best play Tony. The playwright himself, Stephan Karam, wrote and directed this film version. It’s set in a crappy Manhattan apartment on American Thanksgiving; the daughter who’s hosting (Beanie Feldstein) is a musician and her sister who’s visiting (Amy Schumer) is a lawyer and their parents (Jayne Houdyshell, who starred in both versions of the play, and Richard Jenkins) are from Scranton, Pa. and their grandma (June Squibb) has Alzheimer’s disease and yeah, this is the kind of story I live for. Especially this year, while we’re still crawling out from under the wreckage of 2020, when no one saw anyone and we all learned what luxury a family squabble over turkey can be.
Drive My Car
As a long-time Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) fan, I feel anything that brings the critically renowned author’s vividly-written worlds to the screen is a must-see. Drive My Car, based on Murakami’s 2015 short story of the same name from his collection Men Without Women, follows two lonely characters who begin to open up to each other about their buried pasts: a widowed, acclaimed actor with damaged eyes from a car accident, and the young driver who is hired to take the actor around Hiroshima. Like previous Murakami adaptations (Burning), it is difficult for a film’s dialogue and visuals to translate the writer’s abstract concepts exploring the inner workings of souls with external surrealism, and the acting will need to be strong to tell a story that almost entirely takes place between conversations in a car. I am hopeful, as the film was among the best-received at the Cannes festival, winning Best Screenplay from Spike Lee’s jury, and its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won the Silver Bear in Berlin for his film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
It’s rare to find a horror film that truly shocks. In what the BBC called “the most shocking film of 2021,″ Titane centres around a woman (Agathe Rousselle) who has sex with cars after growing up with a metal plate in her head from a car accident. If you can stomach violence, extreme sexuality and stories that don’t make any sense, this bizarre, French, monster-car-ride of a film experience might be for you. Anticipation for Titane’s premiere at TIFF’s Midnight Madness is high after director Julia Ducournau became the second female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes’ 74-year history. In 2019, the Palme went to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, which later won best picture at Academy Awards, so this top honour is not to be overlooked.
How often do we get to see Toronto actually playing itself in a film, and much less one that represents the culturally diverse inner-city? This adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s novel follows interconnected lives of families trying to keep things together, and will hopefully paint a realistic portrait of people who don’t usually have their stories told in film. It is sure to hit home.