Festival Dispatch

These 8 Movies Were Standouts at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

Published on September 17, 2021

If you ever want to experience real A-list glamour without traveling to Hollywood, go north to the Toronto International Film Festival. This is where Jennifer Lopez, Natalie Portman, Michael B. Jordan Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman all turn up on red carpets and support their movies . . . and that was just in 2019. But the pandemic led to a major upheaval in the lay of the Canadian land. In the interest of safety, this year’s stripped-down event was free of lines and crowds and concessions and, sigh, all-night after-parties. (During my first TIFF in 2011, I watched George Clooney and then-girlfriend Stacy Keibler live it up at the Soho House until 4 AM.) I didn’t even receive a physical press pass!

What was left? The movies. Lots of them. On a big screen, these big efforts proved mostly captivating, as many will linger on through the upcoming awards season. And in the case of the buzzy Kristen Stewart-led Spencer, some came directly from previous festivals such as Telluride and Venice. Here’s an early peek at what drew audible cheers and jeers, even through the N-95 masks.



The Eyes of Tammy Faye

In case you don’t know, Tammy Faye Bakker was an American evangelist, singer, author, talk-show host and altogether wacky personality. Back in the 1980s, she and her slavish devotion to mascara were featured magazine covers and spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Now she gets the biopic treatment, with Jessica Chastain gamely taking on the titular role. See Tammy Faye fall for preacher husband Jim (Andrew Garfield, miscast); see her move into a mansion the size of Cleveland, see her champion AIDS against her bosses’ wishes; see her embezzle money from her disciples; see her fall from grace; see her take a stab at redemption. What you won’t see? Any true insight into what made this complicated woman tick — including why she felt the need to hide her face behind so much makeup. Her husband’s scandalous affair to a woman named Jessica Hahn is glossed over as well. At least Chastain is convincing as always. (In theaters September 17)


Dear Evan Hansen

When this musical debuted on Broadway in 2017, its themes about teens and mental health seemed refreshingly daring. Buzz, acclaim and trophies followed. That goodwill is put to the test big time in a rocky big-screen transition. Ben Platt reprises his Tony-winning role as Evan, the highly jittery high-school senior who, one day, has a chance encounter with another classmate. After that classmate dies by suicide, Evan tells a white lie about the pair’s relationship that spirals into a web of deceit. But what’s supposed to be a sympathetic hero’s arc is shockingly cloying and annoying here. It doesn’t help that Platt, at almost 28, is a grown adult in a polo shirt; hello, he played a college student nearly a decade ago in Pitch Perfect! The real problem is that the movie hits the wrong notes as a purported coming-of-age story. Every emotion feels overwrought and synthetic, and the notion of characters spontaneously breaking into song — even gorgeous ballads — comes off like a distracting narrative cop-out. Evan may be found, but you’ll be frustrated. (In theaters September 24)



Your sprawling 155-minute, $165 million-budgeted sprawling sci-fi epic has landed! Adapted from a novel (which spawned a 1984 cult classic flick), this is a fantastical tale involving warring families seeking power and control over a spice mélange only found on a desert planet named Arrakis. Timothee Chalamet is the young prince of a noble family, ostensibly a Chosen One, determined to lead his people. Jason Momoa (providing the scant comic relief), Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Oscar Isaac all drift in and out. Zendaya pops us in visions, then in the flesh. As you may surmise from Denis Villeneuve, the guy who has delivered Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, the visual achievements are stunning will surely amass trophies in the very near future. People in screenings have gone bonkers for it. But they overwhelm a joyless and deeply convoluted story that requires Cliff’s Notes to understand. You’ve been warned. (In theaters and HBO Max October 22)        



Last Night in Soho

Try not to read too much about this ultra-stylish ultra-mesmerizing kinetic thriller, which admittedly features flaws galore in its clue-dropping mystery and yet is absolutely worth seeing. In a theater. Meet Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit), an introverted British fashion student obsessed with all things 1960s. (The soundtrack is chock full of classics from soul singers Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and is as decadent as you would imagine considering Baby Driver Edgar Wright is behind the camera here.) Seems innocent enough, no? After moving into a stranger’s spare upstairs bedroom, she learns that romanticizing the past can yield dangerous consequences. I should note that Ellie is also obsessed with a glamorous aspiring singer played by The Queen’s Gambit star Anya-Taylor Joy . . . as well she should be. (In theaters October 29)


The Power of the Dog

This quietly strong effort from Oscar-nominated director Jane Campion (The Piano) is making the prestigious fall festival rounds — Telluride! New York! Venice! — for good reason. It’s a 1925-set Western set in Montana starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as cattle rancher brothers with opposing personalities. Cumberbatch’s Phil, you see, is hostile and sadistic; Plemons’ George is warm and plain-spoken. Their relationship takes a turn after George abruptly settles down with a kindly local innkeeper (Kirsten Dunst, Plemons’ real-life partner), who’s also the mom of a sensitive teen boy. The tension among the three characters simmers until the emotionally resonant final stretch. Not an easy one to shake off. (Streaming on Netflix November 17)




If you thought Jamie Dornan was endearing after Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar — you did see his musical number, no? — wait until you see him as a caring, conflicted dad circa the late 1960s in Northern Ireland. Still, this charming, if slightly mawkish, light drama belongs to his onscreen son (Jude Hill). All the kid wants to do is see movies and figure out how to convince the cute smart girl in his class to befriend him, but amid conflicts on the street, his family wants to uproot to England. (“I want to stay in Belfast!” he shrieks.) Director Kenneth Branagh based this black-and-white gem on his childhood, and let me assure you that this goes down a lot easier than the similarly themed but much more laborious Roma. (In theaters November 12)   



It’s time to know and appreciate the uncensored story of one of the most influential albums of all time, don’t you think? Alanis Morissette is front and center in this fascinating (and unnerving) documentary, as she details everything from Canadian upbringing to her stint as a teen pop singer to her allegations of statutory rape. This is all before she transitions into adulthood and conceives the cultural phenomenon known as 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. But with mega-breakout success came a misogynist-tinged backlash that continues to haunt her. As always, Morissette is outspoken and brutally frank — alas, she still won’t name the ex that served as inspiration for “You Oughta Know.” (Sorry Team Dave Coulier!) And though she is publicly distancing herself from this project, her fans should watch intently. (On HBO this fall)


The Humans

Plucky Bridget (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend (Steven Yeun) invite her family over for Thanksgiving dinner in her downtown New York City duplex; awkward-yet-heartfelt conversation ensues. Behold the set-up for a based-on-a-play dramedy that’s essentially one extended set piece and yet somehow works. The clan includes her older sister Amy (Amy Schumer), who’s still getting her a breakup with her girlfriend and dealing with medical issues; her parents (Jayne Houdyshell, Richard Jenkins) and her dementia-addled grandma (June Squibb). The laugh, fight and cry over the course of the day, with the most resonant moment arriving via the reading of a single email. Indeed, it’s impossible not to have deep empathy and affection for this flawed family. (In theaters TBA)