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The Best Films at TIFF 2021

‘Spencer’ and ‘Dune’ were the biggest names at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but more unexpected hits like ‘The Power of the Dog’ and ‘The Humans’ were the ones that truly captivated

Neon/WB/Focus/Netflix/Ringer illustration

Meet the new normal, same as the old normal. Sort of. Whereas last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was an almost entirely virtual experience, the 2021 edition encouraged locals and visitors alike to return to theaters provided they were masked, vaxxed, and willing to forgo concessions regardless of a movie’s running time. (Sitting through 160 minutes of Dune’s dusty desert vistas without so much as a soda was its own sort of endurance test.) So yes, TIFF featured lines and filmmaker Q&As and celebrity sightings. But between the conspicuously modest turnouts at most of the public screenings—partially, but not fully, a by-product of spacious seating policies to promote social distancing—and a programming slate noticeably short on certain high-end titles (including new movies from Joel Coen, Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, and Paul Verhoeven, all slated to show next month in New York), the overall feeling was of a transitional year. Given larger shifts in the way movies are being distributed and consumed, it’s worth wondering whether a festival that has always prided itself on volume will accept the impending necessities of compression. TIFF 2021 hosted about 100 feature films instead of the usual 250-plus. Notwithstanding the economic and logistical impacts of that change, the result was a lineup that felt more coherent and navigable than usual, and with a better ratio of wheat to chaff.

For years, TIFF’s M.O. has been to declare that all films are created equal. The festival and its downtown ivory-tower home base, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, represent, in the best egalitarian Canadian tradition, a sort of cinematic mosaic wherein red-carpet glitz, art-house elitism, and multiplex populism can coexist. But of course, industrially speaking, that isn’t always the case, and it’s telling that the films that were not available for at-home streaming in the festival’s digital screening rooms were the ones with the biggest budgets or shiniest award prospects. For example, if you wanted to see Dune, you had to trek out to the Ontario Place Cinesphere IMAX, where big-screen proselytizer Denis Villeneuve dutifully journeyed to introduce his mostly impressive sci-fi epic. And if you wanted to take in Kristen Stewart’s inevitably-to-be-Oscar-nominated impersonation of Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, the place to be was the Princess of Wales Theatre—which must have made Spencer’s premiere the first time in history that a biopic screened in a cinema named after its subject.

Casting Stewart, an actress famed for her alienation from her own celebrity, as a rare bird in a gilded cage was a savvy move. Like Larraín’s Jackie, with its heavily accented tour-de-force performance from Natalie Portman, Spencer tries its best to have it both ways, lamenting the insularity and claustrophobia that comes with being a global icon while luxuriating ever so ostentatiously in the deluxe trappings of aristocracy. But where Jackie’s complex array of formal and storytelling devices seemed to be disguising an essential lack of perspective on its namesake, Spencer’s script by the wildly uneven British screenwriter Steven Knight deploys a more focused group of metaphors. Set entirely over the Christmas holidays in the early 1990s at the royal family’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk—a fraught moment when Diana and Charles (Jack Farthing) had begun occupying separate rooms and could barely make eye contact—the film is staged as a kind of ghost story about a woman who feels hunted and haunted in equal measure. Stumbling around her room in an insomniac trance, an increasingly paranoid Diana imagines the ghost of Anne Boleyn watching her from the corner, a melancholy harbinger of some impending decapitation.

Between the Bluebeard-like atmosphere, lurking ghouls, and Jonny Greenwood’s gliding, coruscating piano score, it’s obvious that Larraín has seen Phantom Thread. In a way, Spencer is about the same thing as Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece: a study of a woman who wonders what she’s doing trying to occupy a household whose history bears down on its inhabitants at all times. (Another possible comparison: The Shining.) The setting is crucial, because just down the road from Sandringham lies Diana’s childhood residence, and amid all the mounting anxiety and awkwardness of the weekend—silent dinners followed by the princess secretly stress-eating in the kitchen; cryptic, judgmental exchanges with the queen; gossipy whispers between staffers about their mum’s mental health—we know that Knight’s script is building toward a cathartic homecoming.

Not everything in Spencer’s “fable based on a true tragedy” works the way its creators intend. There are lines of dialogue so on the nose that they could cause a deviated septum. Still, Stewart’s uncanny magnetism—her ability to mesmerize the camera even in moments of stillness or repose—keeps it watchable even in moments of extreme silliness.

An unhappy marriage is also at the center of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which earned its director a prize in Venice and also features a score by Greenwood—this one more than a bit reminiscent of his atonal accompaniment for There Will Be Blood. Campion’s film, adapted from a novel by Thomas Savage, unfolds against a similar early 20th century backdrop, in a Montana landscape still very much in social and economic formation. Facing middle age as a bachelor, dumpy rancher George (Jesse Plemons) proposes to widowed road-house proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst), much to the chagrin of his hard-working (and drinking) brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Tremulous and vulnerable—and devoted to her painfully shy teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—Rose’s presence obliviously drives a wedge between two men whose codependence is as thick as blood.

Because Campion plays her hand so slowly, The Power of the Dog keeps us off-balance as to the true nature of the tension; it’s the rare drama where it’s legitimately hard to know what’s coming next. Paul’s irritation with Rose seems to run deeper than simple jealousy (or desire), and the same goes for his bullying fixation on the slender, birdlike Peter after the latter returns from medical school to join the household. At once taciturn and eloquent, and bristling with contempt for phoniness that belies his tendency to hold his own cards close to the chest, Phil is a welter of potentially dangerous contradictions, and Cumberbatch, who can be a mannered actor in the wrong role, etches the character’s off-kilter machismo with considerable skill. When Campion is on her game—as in her great breakthrough The Piano—she can make repression and enigma into their own form of pleasure. By applying her elliptical style to a familiar, dusty set of Western tropes, she generates the suspense of a great thriller, and comes close to regaining her old form.

For those of us who are fans of British filmmaker Edgar Wright—a hometown favorite in my neck of the woods for the Torontopian masterpiece Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—the hope was that Last Night in Soho would reverse the downward trajectory he’s been on since 2017’s enervating Baby Driver. Sadly, the new movie is just as frustrating, albeit in a different way. Where Baby Driver found Wright trying to hotwire an American action-movie template—and getting his dry wit lost in transatlantic translation—Last Night in Soho finds him hailing Britannia in extremis. Its heroine, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, who’s also in The Power of the Dog), is a shy fashion student who so desperately fetishizes swinging ’60s London that she hypnotizes herself into immersive, lucid dreamscapes of Carnaby Street. Each night in her rented flat in Soho, she channels the exploits of aspiring chanteuse Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), appearing in her own fantasies as the singer’s mirror image—a wonderful metaphor for a character whose insecurities have turned her into a lonely spirit, even during her waking hours.

The setup is seductive, and the production design is sumptuous; Wright’s claim that he was inspired to recreate old-school Soho by the Los Angeles–plays-itself imagery of his pal Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood contextualizes the luminous beauty (and detail) of Eloise’s foray into the past, including a rapturous view of a movie theater marquee advertising Sean Connery in Thunderball. The problem is that in trying to say something about the dangers of idealizing the past—with Eloise gradually growing tormented by demonic presences tied to Sandy’s tragic narrative—Wright and his cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns get caught up in the kind of sub-Scooby Doo narrative convolutions that can turn a romp into a drag. It also doesn’t help that the director’s often-brilliant sense of staging and timing—his gift for transforming editing and music cues into their own tricky comic language—is off here. Last Night in Soho isn’t very funny, but it isn’t scary either, which, for a movie riffing so laboriously on the structure and iconography of classic giallos, is unforgivable.

There’s a more elegant vision of two women’s lives intersecting across time and space in French director Mia Hansen-Love’s characteristically intelligent Bergman Island, set in the remote Swedish archipelago of Faro, whose tourist traps include the lovingly maintained home, shooting locations, and personal effects of the director of The Seventh Seal and Persona. The story takes place during Faro’s annual “Bergman Safari” and focuses on a pair of guests who’ve arrived for a joint residency: decorated auteur Tony (Tim Roth) and festival-circuit writer-director Chris (Vicky Krieps), who loves, envies, tolerates, and withholds from her older and more successful husband in equal measure. Glancing over Tony’s notebooks while he’s off being feted at some screening or another, Chris sees he’s written out voluminous notes for a new project; her own pages, meanwhile, remain blank.

Hansen-Love has never been shy about the autobiographical content of her work, and it’s tempting to read her latest as a collection of scenes from a very specific marriage—the director’s since-dissolved partnership with Olivier Assayas. And yet Bergman Island is cleverer than that. It’s less an example of art-imitates-life than a meditation on the endlessly multifaceted relationship between the two—a drama set in a hall of mirrors. The second half consists mostly of Chris telling Tony the story she’s having such a hard time getting on the page, about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska), also vacationing in Faro, who may or may not be her younger self, thus (maybe) casting its narrative of a passionate extramarital affair as a veiled confession. Between the location and the dialogue, the ghost of Ingmar Bergman hovers everywhere, yet Hansen-Love’s style and worldview are very much her own. As heady and intellectually stimulating as her movie may be, it’s more potent as a catalogue of elusive, melancholy sensations, including a late karaoke rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” that pays homage to Sweden’s other great 20th century cultural export.

The other most affecting film I saw at TIFF is one that comes with its own impressive pedigree: Stephen Karam’s film adaptation of his 2016 Tony Award–winning play The Humans—a Bergman-esque chamber piece set in a dilapidated Chinatown duplex during a dark Thanksgiving-evening dinner of the soul. On stage, The Humans is both figuratively and literally multileveled, featuring a two-story stage connected by a perilous spiral staircase: the audience is constantly forced to choose which plane of action to focus on. For the film version, Karam has retained the setting but uses his camera to explore every corner of an apartment whose almost comic state of disrepair—blown-out light bulbs; cracking plaster; ominous rumbles from above and below—suggests the failing internal landscape of some weary, battered giant.

The Blakes are in the belly of the beast: In town from Scranton to bless their younger daughter Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) Manhattan cohabitation with nice guy Richard (Steven Yeun), Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) can barely mask their anxiety about her new place, or any other aspect of her chaotic life. Not that their own house is in order—arriving with their older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) and Richard’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (June Squibb) in tow, they’re each on the verge of their own separate, desperate breakdowns. The play’s title comes from Richard’s sweet childhood reminiscence of a comic book about a world where sci-fi monsters creep each other out with campfire tales about human beings, and Karam’s script just keeps excavating phobias and fears from its characters. As it turns out, just hearing Richard Jenkins talk about his nightmares of faceless intruders is freakier than seeing the same thing onscreen in Last Night in Soho.

There’s a fascinating contrast between The Humans and last year’s Oscar magnet The Father, which was also directed by a playwright making his film-directorial debut, and which used the visual language of horror movies to convey fear and disorientation in an apartment space. As filmmaking, The Humans is at least as accomplished, deploying prismatic, asymmetrical compositions and a genuinely sculptural use of light and shadow; as drama, it’s more sophisticated, diffusing conflicting feelings across an ensemble of well-drawn characters instead of focusing on a sole protagonist. The cast standout is Houdyshell, who won every award imaginable for playing Deirdre onstage and holds her own with old pro Jenkins in scenes that suggest love curdled into something past boredom, resentment, or even hate.

All families are psychotic, as Douglas Coupland wrote, and yet the genius of The Humans is how thoroughly it normalizes these pathologies while giving them their traumatic due; with the exception of a running subplot about Erik’s experiences on September 11, the stuff being dredged up during the various arguments and throwdowns is banally relatable (as opposed to the rarefied, ritualized torment on display in Spencer). Which is also why it’s terrifying, and in the homestretch—much of it set in the sort of pitch-black darkness usually stalked by Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees—The Humans develops and sustains a startling intensity. Of all the movies I actually saw in theaters during TIFF—including Dune—this is the one that benefitted the most from being watched alone in the dark, and which revived a lost tradition of festival-going: the hope that every time the lights go down, you’ll be swallowed whole.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.