The must-see films and performances from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
Kristen Stewart, Jessica Chastain, Riz Ahmed, Benedict Cumberbatch, and more give standout turns in awards-bound films playing at TIFF this year. See EW's best-of-fest picks.
Winter — and awards season — is coming, and judging by the army of potential contenders descending on Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival, the hunt for Oscar glory is starting to get fierce.
Among TIFF's 46th edition are stories from filmmaking giants (Denis Villeneuve, Jane Campion), bold takes from fresh voices (Rebeca Huntt, Julia Ducournau), and career-best turns from stars like Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Kristen Stewart. Below, EW highlights the best films and performances playing at TIFF in the coming days, before many of them hit the awards trail in full force.
The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 9-18. Join EW for coverage throughout the event, including interviews, awards analysis, and more. Read on for the standout, can't-miss offerings you need to see, whether at TIFF or as the Oscar race heats up in the months ahead.
Jessica Chastain — The Eyes of Tammy Faye
There are "performances," and then there are lived-in creations that transcend the films built around them. Chastain's turn is a religious experience that sees the actress operating at the best she's ever been as Tammy Faye Bakker, the late, neon-garbed televangelist who bucked traditions, butted heads with industry patriarchs, and embraced gay rights on TV sets across the country during the AIDS crisis. At first glance, it's all theatrical actress-in-wigs-and-costumes heaven, but, like the best biographical turns, Chastain cakes on layers of internal depth atop her startling physical transformation. Here, she finds the same vulnerable softness that allowed Bakker to reach millions without sacrificing her standing as a formidable, sturdy force of empathy as much as she courted mocking attention for her appearance.
Kristen Stewart — Spencer
As a sort of dream-concept Diana in Jackie director Pablo Larraín's gorgeously hallucinogenic drama, Stewart sheds all of her native California in a performance of the People's Princess as intimate, empathetic, and unsettling as anything she's ever done. — Leah Greenblatt
Caitríona Balfe — Belfast
There's a current of delicate ferocity buzzing through every beat of Outlander star Caitríona Balfe's deeply moving turn as a working-class mother trying to keep her family together amid social upheaval in 1960s Ireland. Whether she's hurling dishes at her husband in the street or shielding her young from bricks and glass shattered through their living room windows, Balfe proves the lioness can be the lamb as she masterfully embodies a nurturing calm and a fierce matriarchal storm in her finest performance to date.
Naomi Watts — Lakewood
Naomi Watts has kindled strange flames of passion throughout the years: bonding with a mammoth ape in King Kong and putting her life in the hands of a healing magpie in Penguin Bloom, but Lakewood sees her saddled with a seemingly impossible acting partner for most of the white-knuckle thriller: an iPhone. Shot during the pandemic, Salt helmer Phillip Noyce's latest takes advantage of global limitations and charts its well-paced, anxiety-inducing story with a camera trained only on Watts. The actress fires on all cylinders as a worried mother who, while out on a morning jog, learns of her son's entanglement in a mass shooting. Armed with nothing but adrenaline and her cell, her story unfolds through rapid-fire phone calls and video chats while she zooms through the woods. The concept could've quickly worn thin in another actress' hands, but Watts is appropriately gassed up for the challenge, all rage, tears, sweat, and raw energy.
Shuya Chang — Snakehead
From the head to its tail, the unflinchingly gritty drama Snakehead draws most of its lifeblood from Taiwanese star Shuya Chang's revelatory performance as a woman smuggled into the United States as a sex worker in pursuit of finding her young daughter in New York City. Her journey begins as a desperate one, but Chang carries her Sister Tse through Chinatown's criminal underworld as she rises through the ranks of the gang that brought her into the country. Thanks to the grace of the gang's sinister female leader, Tse is a hardened warrior by the film's end, and Chang never drops the emotional baggage she picked up along the way. Every beat carries the full, impassioned weight of a mother bear paying whatever price it takes — from wounded flesh to social honor — to keep hope for the future of her family alive.
Maisa Abd Elhadi — Huda's Salon
Director Hany Abu-Assad wants us to feel exposed, in every sense of the word, while watching Huda's Salon. And the filmmaker finds a fitting conduit in lead actress Maisa Abd Elhadi, who plays a young Palestinian mother, Reem, roped into a dangerous web of deception when her hairstylist drugs her, removes her clothes, and threatens to distribute photographs of Reem's bare body if she doesn't spy on her small community for Israeli intelligence. The star's performance is a master class in tonal balance, beyond a willingness to commit her body to exploring the full, outward range of Reem's dizzying anxieties as she traverses disturbing moments of physical vulnerability; Elhadi lights an internal fuse that slow-burns behind the character's eyes before bubbling over during the film's overwhelmingly satisfying conclusion.
Clifton Collins, Jr. — Jockey
In a rare leading turn, prolific actor Clifton Collins Jr. gives Jockey's dire material a vibrant spark of life. The Traffic and Westworld star flexes breathtaking range in this tale of an equestrian champion fighting off a grim prognosis to win one last race in a career-best showcase for the actor's consistently underrated talents.
Riz Ahmed — Encounter
Fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in The Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed takes a gamble on a pseudo-sci-fi thriller that, by the film's stirring conclusion, defies all genre classification with help from the actor's varied approach leading the charge. Its story — about an ex-military man who kidnaps his children to save them from a mysterious extraterrestrial threat — veers off into absurdist territory, but Ahmed is an anchoring force who always meets the material where it is, scaling the tonal range right alongside it.
Benedict Cumberbatch — The Power of the Dog
With a mocking American drawl and a menacing swagger, Cumberbatch delivers his greatest performance to date in Campion's twisted Western. Even more surprising than his transformation into a ruthless cowboy, however, are the deep layers he reveals beneath the grimy, growling façade. — Mary Sollosi
Jamie Dornan — Belfast
Belfast takes Jamie Dornan from steamy Hollywood zaddy to heartwarming dad as the troubled-yet-lovable patriarch on the brink of uprooting his life in Northern Ireland to protect his wife and sons. Known for darker parts in projects far saucier (the Fifty Shades series) or sinister (The Fall), here Dornan gives a subtly moving performance in a role that demands a specific sensitivity, and he delivers with grace and restraint. Kenneth Branagh's script cleverly refrains from giving him a proper name, perhaps so we fall for him as a universal symbol of loyalty and security as the world crumbles around him during the early days of the country's sectarian conflict. And Dornan makes it easy, with his gruff exterior melting away to reveal a soft, boyish charm that anchors the family — and the film — in protective warmth.
Andrew Garfield — The Eyes of Tammy Faye
With a performance like Chastain's leading the costumed charge in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, standing out as the right-hand man against such divine acting prowess could've been an impossible task. Instead of matching his leading lady's spectacular approach, however, Andrew Garfield goes inward, grounding Chastain's dazzle as the titular preacher's husband, Jim.
Silent Night — Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Lucy Punch, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Sope Dirisu, Rufus Jones, Davida McKenzie, Gilby Griffin Davis, Hardy Griffin Davis
From the start, Silent Night is jarringly upfront about what it intends to do with its starry cast: Kill them. All of them. No, really; that's in the second sentence of the official plot description. But the why of it all is a jolly mystery weathered with wild energy by an expert crop of actors who, whether sharing secrets around a grim Christmas dinner table or drunkenly dancing away their final moments as friends and family, work through mutual joys and shared demons with endearing vigor that makes parting with them a bittersweet sorrow.
Belfast — Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench
There are individual standouts in director Kenneth Branagh's personal tale of an Irish family's collective struggle for a better life (Balfe's maternal turn, in particular, seems poised for Oscar glory), but, having been on both sides of the camera throughout his career, the actor-director is well versed in creating a synergistic hum between cast and material. Every performer — whether it's young Jude Hill's wise-beyond-his-years wit or Judi Dench's all-knowing wisdom — brings a unique element to Belfast that compliments the whole, the sum of their work weaving a relatable, funny, heart-wrenching, complex tapestry of lived-in experience that, like family itself, might grate and prod, but always feels just like home.
Jane Campion — The Power of the Dog
Not since 2009's Bright Star has Campion released a feature, and the Oscar-nominated filmmaker makes a brilliant return to the big screen with this quietly vicious adaptation of Thomas Savage's novel. Starring the aforementioned Cumberbatch as a cruel cowboy and Kirsten Dunst as his despised new sister-in-law, The Power of the Dog is a slow-burning Western melodrama of great psychological depth and irresistible tension. — Mary Sollosi
Edgar Wright — Last Night in Soho
Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver director Edgar Wright is known for his genre send-ups, but he doesn't satirize genre in Last Night in Soho as much as he creates a new one altogether. Fusing ghostly horror with delicious camp, comedy, and period flair, the film — about a fashion student (Thomasin McKenzie) who experiences nightmarish visions of a woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) in peril on the streets of 1960s London — resists constraints of tone and settles into its own wild groove.
Julia Ducournau — Titane
Believe it or not, a serial killer (with a sexual attraction to cars) getting pregnant with a chrome-covered auto-baby is merely the jumping point for Julia Ducournau's genre-bending Titane, a shocking, stylish, surprisingly heartfelt film that melds together seamlessly by its maker's delicate hand. As bombastic as its external flourishes might seem (this is a film that subscribes to a reality where a woman can leak motor oil from down below, mind you), Ducournau maintains her focus as the film swerves from visceral thriller to deeply moving familial drama with manic adrenaline. Through it all, she never loses sight of her thematic meditation on the consumption of bodies in an increasingly artificial, technologically ravaged world, never easing the gas on the warm, human engine revving beneath the cold metal hood of her wild aesthetic.
Denis Villeneuve — Dune
The director of acclaimed films like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 has been waiting his whole life to make a Dune movie. This result (the first installment of a hoped-for duology) delivers on that promise. Though Villeneuve's passion for the material is evident, it's never overbearing; in fact, splitting Frank Herbert's heady novel in two gives the complex characters and intricate plot more room to breathe. World-building details are encoded in the design of sets and costumes — there for those who want to see them, another natural element of Villeneuve's cinematic ecosystem for everyone else. — Christian Holub
Agathe Rousselle — Titane
No other performance this year goes to such disparate reaches than Agathe Rousselle's portrayal of a murderess-turned-mother who, after racking up a gruesome body count and having sex with a car, seeks refuge with a lonely, aging firefighter while carrying her automobile lover's mecha-baby. It sounds ridiculous, but Rousselle (in her feature debut) seamlessly runs an emotional gamut that would've been an imposing challenge for a seasoned vet, let alone a newcomer. At times tapping into the most grotesque, unhinged, primal parts of the psyche before finishing it all off with the sensitive, soothing instincts of a mother in the most vulnerable stage of life, Rousselle is a revelation.
The golden boys: Belfast's Jude Hill and Encounter stars Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada
It wouldn't be a modern awards season without a few additions to the ever-growing pantheon of irresistibly adorable children who became red carpet staples on the trail. Like Brooklynn Prince, Roman Griffin Davis, Alan Kim, and Sunny Pawar before them, expect to see lots from Belfast's Jude Hill and Encounter stars Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, not only for their natural charisma, but because their roles in heavy-hitting contenders (Hill's timing and wit are wise beyond his years in Kenneth Branagh's familial tearjerker, while Chauhan and Geddada match Riz Ahmed's dramatic weight in their pseudo-sci-fi thriller) signal the arrival of mini superstars in the making.
Renate Reinsve — The Worst Person in the World
Norwegian breakout Renate Reinsve occupies almost every frame of director Joachim Trier's Cannes prize winner, and she fills each second with an indescribable presence that flits between lived-in passion and wide-eyed wonder as she explores four formative years in one woman's love life.
A world without Alanis Morissette's revolutionary lyrical coup against mainstream superficiality is a world without Olivia Rodrigo, Fefe Dobson, Avril Lavigne, and, for better or worse, Ashlee Simpson's punk-pop phase — a legacy paid dutiful tribute by Alison Klayman's nonfiction portrait featuring insights straight from the rocker's mouth. Instead of giving us a broad skim of the Canadian singer-songwriter's career, the film is a careful yet expository overview of a key point in her artistic surge: The creation of 1995's Jagged Little Pill, which went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. Klayman doesn't shy away from the bruises, both personal and professional, that Morissette endured at the time. It's a deeply intimate and, at times, disturbing account of an upward battle (pop culture was both immediately excited by yet wholly terrified of a woman rocking out with unfiltered emotion), but one Morissette waged, unflinchingly, in a baggy T-shirt with a harmonica on her lip — all in pursuit of giving a throaty voice to the complexities of womanhood too often swept under the rug.
At times a surreal, expressionistic, highly personal amalgam of sounds and images from one woman's life, at others a pointed construction with weighty commentary on race and equality in America, director Rebeca Huntt's engrossing documentary Beba is an unmissable cinematic experiment that, just like the visionary driving it forward, doesn't care to fit in with expectations. Refusing to conform to a familiar structure, the New York-based artist probes and purges her family history through unfiltered discussions and raw revelations about the past, crafting an expository dive akin to cinematic therapy, a living diary unfolding in real time as Huntt lays bare her anxieties and exorcises demons.
There's no timelier big-screen exercise in empathy than Flee, the story of a gay Afghan refugee's lifelong struggle to separate himself from the clutches of trauma. Though the central Amin's face and body are hidden through the film, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen brings his audience face-to-face with his tale through vivid animated recreations of his plight as he recollects a past that's horrific and hopeful.
Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over
As her recent viral popularity proved, legendary songstress Dionne Warwick's voice — whether it's crooning iconic ballads or denying a fan's request to buy them a PlayStation 5 — can't be confined to a single generation. And she knows it: Warwick is front and center as a talking head in her own documentary, which sees the 80-year-old revisiting influential moments from her life's work with the same signature, endearing, against-the-grain frankness that made her a boundary-breaking icon in the first place.
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