This year, TIFF was offering a choice.
A hybrid festival meant we could choose to be INSIDE A THEATRE!
Stay home (as in the 2020 version) for a digital package of screenings, some offered across Canada.
Throw in a few drive-ins; all looked hopeful. Dare we get excited? Drive-ins worked for TIFF last year, after all.
Do we even remember being excited?
Peter and I primarily chose to see the festival back in theatres. DUH! My couch at home and I are now estranged. We tried to work it out during the first 18 months of the pandemic but agreed to part amicably. TIFF brought us back together briefly. Couch closure eludes me.
So back to the theatres it was! Around here at Wit’s End, we are doubly vaccinated. Those who were not were barred entry to all screenings. Festival staff indicated several safety measures, including distanced seating inside theatres and washrooms. No food would be sold as mask removal to eat or drink during a screen would not be permitted.
Emotions threatened to erupt in the first screening (our first time going back inside a theatre!), but I resisted tears. See pandemic mood. Been there, done that.
The Friendly Greek and I grasped hands and squeezed tightly. TIFF has been our school since time immemorial. September new pencils. A new season. It’s all here in this space. Movies are for big screens and extensive sound systems.
Two vacancies between each seat meant I could stretch my achy knee and plunk a handbag on a chair instead of stuffing it under a seat. Ticketed seat numbers told us we didn’t have to hurry between films to find a good heart. Vaccine checks were without incident; nobody gave me cause for Covid anxiety as masks were routine. Indeed, few places are so carefully monitored.
Programmers again delivered. Again, I travelled around the globe from my seat, seeing unknown films. Again, I discovered new storytellers, many of them women. TIFF has worked hard to support female filmmakers in the past several years, and here is the evidence. Again, I heard from diverse directors sharing their creative journeys with audiences. TIFF also works hard to involve audiences; I was again happy to participate in post-screening Q and A’s. Maybe I could forget the pandemic…
Bliss was not mine all the time. I missed my peeps: the lineup chatter with film fans from all over the world. I missed turning to strangers-who-are-really-fellow film nerds and asking, “Seen anything good yet? For years, these encounters have lent me insight and offered instant community. Instead, we were a sea of masks. Indeed, TIFF 2021 in person was (mostly) muted; polite tea-time clapping instead of cheers and long-standing ovations. More than once, I wanted to scream at my fellow in-person risk-takers: YOU DO REALIZE WE ARE LUCKY AS HELL, RIGHT? TO HAVE CULTURE AT OUR DOORSTEP AGAIN? Directors repeatedly gush about the warmth of Toronto audiences; we are considered one of the friendliest markets in the world. Not this year. These 2021 filmgoers were mostly subdued, although being in a theatre full of people still registered. There was still laughter and still gasps, just less volume.
Has the pandemic masked our elation?
Also missing was the welcome chaos from all the international industry creatives filling our Toronto bars, hotels, restaurants and the downtown core. Even buyers stayed home. Walking the streets between theatres has never been duller, however thrilled we were to be out of the house. My head hurt trying to think of all the lost jobs filled to accommodate the thousands who usually travel here for this annual event.
The movies would then have to stand for themselves this year.
We did see a few of the TIFF films at home. With total respect to the hardworking TIFF staff, most of it, this virtual part, was snooze-worthy. We can and have been watching films at home all year round. Streaming has never been easier or more accessible. Making the festival experience at home anything like a festival is a fool’s errand, even with unique TIFF socks…and yes, of course, I own a pair. I can bring hoopla without too much effort to our domestic den, but bringing that festival vibe? Even my party magic has limits.
Is it worth trying? That’s an answer for the industry number crunchers. Cannes, Venice, Telluride: all these festivals went for in-person only, preserving the integrity of a film festival. Should TIFF do this? This writer knows only this: Immersive communal experiences sit precariously on the edge of doom. We need to fight to keep them.
My list of favourites follows, but first, a word on families:
Filmmakers return to themes; many of them involve families. Families with secrets. Families with dysfunction. This year, I saw many heartwrenching family stories. Most of them rang authentic, escaping the storyteller’s enemy: cliché. Not Belfast, this year’s People’s Choice award winner. In recalling his youth, Director Kenneth Branagh dumped a magnum of syrup over a profoundly dark chapter in Northern Ireland. From the beginning of this black-and-white fairy tale, Belfast was all gauzy sentiment. I groaned through parts of a script full of Irish blarney, even as I knew it would win the hearts of many filmgoers, weary of bleak headlines. I share that fatigue but need truth more. It wasn’t here, not in a story about a terrifying chapter for real Irish families. Belfast is Roma-lite. Still, I’m not immune to charm, even if Writ Large. Memory projects are often infused with this heady nostalgic glaze. Any film with Judi Dench is worth seeing. She joins a heavyweight cast, including a dimpled boy right out of Hollywood Casting 101.
The Power of the Dog
A fabulous slow burn of solid performances and stunning direction, The Power of the Dog is a revisionist western set on a Montana cattle ranch featuring 2021’s most menacing macho dude: Benedict Cumberbatch. To give away any of the taut storylines is a spoiler. Do not bother to guess what’s coming. The film unwinds one brilliant frame after another as Jane Campion’s craft deftly demonstrates what Branagh’s doesn’t: subtlety. The 67-year-old New Zealand director (the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in 1993 for The Piano) remains at the top of my list as to how best to use the film medium: the colours, the pace, the edits, the use of sound and silence—all here in perfect cohesion. Like many TIFF gems, this one belongs on the big screen.
From another master dramatist, Asghar Farhadi comes a film set in Shiraz, Iran, about a prisoner out on a two-day pass who comes across a bag of gold coins he hopes to use to pay off the debt that landed him behind bars. The first scenes cue us: our protagonist climbs a seemingly unending long series of stairs alongside scaffolding. What follows is a compelling moral dilemma. Farhadi’s spectacular grasp of the family and community had me in awe. This artist’s work has tremendous grace, universal connection, and humanity, which has been honoured with the industry’s highest awards over the years. I found much to love in this film. There are no real villains. It touches on honour: how one gains and loses in life’s many compromises. It manages to be urgent and complex, seemingly without effort. The family here is so well-sketched they made me cry.
I badly wanted to interrupt French director Eva Husson to congratulate her as she ate breakfast across from me in a downtown hotel. Her film, Mothering Sunday, swept me away. I have thought of it often since seeing it early in the festival. For those who haven’t read the Graham Swift novel of the same name, Odessa Young plays a maid, Jane, who works for Colin Firth and Oliva Colman, or rather their characters, the quietly despairing Nivens, who lost their sons in the First World War. On Mothering Sunday, Jane has a secret rendevous on her day off with her lover, Paul, son of the Nivens’ neighbours. Mothering Sunday traditionally was a day for domestic servants to take the day off to visit their families. What happens on that day in this film sets the course for Jane’s future life as a writer. This story is about grief and its heavy toll over time, yet it also highlights triumph and resilience. The film skirts back and forth through different times of Jane’s life as the class system around her collapses, creating a new space of creativity out of servitude. I loved every moment, watching it all like a dream.
Going to the Cinesphere, as I’ve done for many years, was a kick. Ditto the chance to see a film in IMAX, a Canadian invention, and yes, I was happy to be a patriot on this occasion. Imagine the anticipation in the house from readers of the most famous science fiction book ever. If buzz was missing on the streets, it was pouring out of pores in the seats here. If I could bottle it, I’d be rich. Then hotshot Canadian director Denis Villeneuve popped out to introduce his film, pointing to the screen. “We dreamed together about making this movie,” he said, “we dreamed about THAT” (pointing to the big screen). “That is the future of cinema right there.” He followed that up with a fist bump and, “VIVE LE CINEMA!” Ok, now here we have it, folks—an actual festival moment. We all went nuts. You can feel it, can’t you?
Villeneuve for PM. Where’s the ballot?
Dune is stuffed with thrills of massive scope, sound, and sandworms—giant ones. We saw Part 1, and the ending is a deliberate set-up for Part 2. Franchise films are usually a turn-off for me, yet there is always a grandeur to Villeneuve’s vision. Wild, weird, and visually commanding…here is movie magic. His cast? Not as sound. I was sure I caught out Timothée Chamalet the Thespian instead of the young royal Paul Atreides at times: death for any actor. We need them in character for every single moment. Pacing, too, is off here and there. I might have shaved off some minutes, but that this guy is an auteur worth applauding is certain. Do not see Dune on a tiny screen. You’ll miss the symphony entirely.
Kudos to Indonesian director Kamila Andini for winning the TIFF Platform prize competition for her coming-of-age film, Yuni. Traditional expectations and freedom are explored here as our clever heroine evades multiple marriage proposals while trying to finish high school so she can go to college. I liked the film for avoiding Big Messaging, emphasizing intimacy and poetry to highlight the tragedy of robbed youth. In a year where actual headlines have provoked many fears about the fate of young girls and women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, this film resonates as a powerful portrait of a contemporary crisis. It never once felt dishonest. Lead actor Arawinda Kirana is wonderful.
Unclenching The Fists
Regular readers will know that what remains for me, post-TIFF, are stand-out scenes rather than whole films. This film has one of them: a trio of siblings clinging to one another on a dance floor. I cannot get it out of my head. Yet another prize winner (the Cannes film festival Un Certain Regard Award July 2021), yet another talented female filmmaker, Russian rising neorealism star Kira Kovalenko directs a heartbreaking story, again a teenage girl trying to escape her current situation. Ada is damaged, thanks to a horrific incident involving a school siege, hostages, and carnage of children. All of that happens before the film begins but haunts the characters throughout. The location, an industrial town in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, is central to the story as a bleak backdrop for this family in crisis. This is an intense film, but it’s on my list for going deep and raw: here is what oppression looks like. You can’t escape this one without caring deeply about all the characters.
I’m Your Man
Downton Abbey fans choked up when the creators killed off Dan Steven’s character way back when. Finally, they’ll get their fill (and then some) of the British actor, here playing a sexy cyborg created especially for a scientist charged with determining what rights these robots can and should have in society. The script comes from German director Maria Schrader, and it finally offered a film in our schedule with wit, romance, and surprise, including hearing Stevens speak German-who knew. Don’t believe me? Just watch the beginning of this trailer.
Monarchists will want to skip this outing. Ditto curious Hello magazine readers looking for a juicy royal biopic. It’s not here. Instead, Chilean director Pablo Larraín chose to open his film with a message on screen: A fable about a real-life tragedy. A reimagining then, not factual but a fable…and we’re off, watching Kristen Stewart pull off the performance of her career. The film follows Diana over three days of the Christmas holidays at Sandringham as she teeters close to a breakdown. No one watching this will escape without feeling claustrophobic, and that’s purposeful. I mentioned stand-out scenes I won’t forget earlier, and one in this film made me weep. Diana drives with her boys in a car, singing, “All I need is a miracle.” It comes at you all at once, which is the filmmaker’s great skill. Larraín’s direction is as precise as a palace place setting.
It’s always exciting to witness the debut of a significant talent at TIFF. From Cree-Metis director Danis Goulet in her first feature film, a tense thriller set in a postwar future that follows a Cree mother who joins a resistance movement to save her daughter—children in the year 2043 are now the property of the State. I was on the edge of my seat through this. There are connective plot points to real-life horrors on Canadian soil, as many of us learned this year especially. I also loved the serious star turns from the two leads: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, the mom, and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart as her daughter. The film was shot in the Toronto area two years ago with a delayed release due to the pandemic.
Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11
He may have done so before, but it was the first time I’ve heard TIFF head Cameron Bailey warn audiences that what they were about to see may be triggering for some. We were at the Canadian premiere of a riveting emotional documentary on the morning of September 11th. Directed by David Belton and Bjorn Johnson, Memory Box features self-recorded eyewitness testimonies, all recorded mere months after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, in a small booth made out of plywood by artist Ruth Sergel. Twenty years later, the same witnesses gathered again in the same cubicle to share insights and reveal what it means to have survived. I had thought I had heard all the stories, but how could that be? These “testimonials” were profound and sobering enough that we skipped the next film on our schedule.
Sometimes a film is just that impactful.
Flawed but worthy:
Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as a bored wealthy couple heading to a lavish party in the middle of the desert in Morocco. En route, their car accidentally hits a local Morrocan teenager. What ensues splits off into two storylines that don’t connect tonally, but these two actors are both terrific to watch here, as are all the party guests, who are the kind you love to hate.
Are you Lonesome Tonight?
Another hit-and-run narrative, this time from Chinese director Wen Shipeo, here making his feature film debut. A repairman lives up against tragedy in this sultry thriller starring Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng. He is tormented when he meets the man’s widow and considers telling her. I spent most of this film incredulous that this sophisticated, polished film was a debut.
All My Puny Sorrows
Beloved books adapted to films are often tricky as fans want faithful adherence, especially readers of Canadian author Miriam Toews. Her acclaimed 2014 bestseller deals with a family in severe crisis: the emotional core belongs to two sisters, damaged by their father’s suicide. I loved this book, as I do all of Toews’s work, and was hopeful Canadian director Michael McGowan’s adaptation would capture her brilliance. It does, and it doesn’t: the essence and heart of this story are certainly there, brought to life by a solid cast of Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham and Amybeth McNulty. Pill is powerful, and her performance was one of the highlights of TIFF 2021. She brought the magic of Miriam Toews’s funny-sad words back to me. (Gadon, however, was miscast to me, as fine an actor as she is). If the current zeitgeist is all about mental health, All My Puny Sorrows prefaced it years ago with the real thing: the book is fictional, but many elements come from Toews’s life. If you are not a reader, this film is a must. If you love to read, skip the movie and read the book instead. I’ll lend you my copy.
Dear Evan Hansen
The Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon is now adapted for the screen. One of the first productions to shoot during the pandemic, this adaptation suffers from overt staginess. There is also zero nuance. And, well, there’s the star, Ben Platt: is he too old now to play a teen? Who cares?! This guy can sing! At the premiere here in Toronto, a pair of young fans a few feet away from me, sporting Dear Evan Hansen ballcaps, sang along with every word. It makes my list because of that music. I was singing along too. You are not alone is a simple and compelling message to take away. We all need to hear it.