2021 Toronto International Film Festival Dispatch #1

Welcome to my two-part coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. This year’s more limited set of movies made for a much leaner lineup that allowed me to digest more movies than usual properly. I saw 3-4 movies a day, rather than the 6-8 movies I’m used to cramming in. I started the festival with Memoria (B+), a film that examined trauma from our brain’s link between sound and memory. Tilda Swinton was a transfixing match for director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and she never allowed the slow-paced film to grow dull as it slowly builds to an incredible finale payoff. The accomplished sound design was also truly radical work that deserves proper recognition.

One of the festival’s biggest surprises was Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (Grade: A-). It gave us an exclusive glimpse inside the filmmaker’s childhood that had the childhood innocence of an Irish The Wonder Years-type intermixed with the growing civil unrest he and his family experienced in 1960s Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics. It’s a 90-minute movie jam-packed with so much emotion, and not a single moment feels unearned or manipulative. Jamie Dornan, in particular, is a career revelation in the role of the lead’s father. Dornan doesn’t trek after big showcase moments. Still, our empathy is transfixed as he’s so utterly charming while navigating work outside Belfast and raising a family. All at the same time, his home is being threatened by his community. It may have to come to the difficult decision to leave before it’s too late. Caitríona Balfe and young Jude Hill (who plays a likely inspired young version of Branagh himself) were both strong breakthrough acting performances, which are nothing short of revelations.

Another festival highlight was Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (Grade: A). It is best described as taking your favorite elements of staple romantic comedies like Anne Hall with the coming of age aspects of something like Frances Ha and putting them in a blender, but what pours out is genuinely a new guiding and deeply personal cinematic voice. I adored this movie that features a lead character played by Renate Reinsve that is navigating her 30s. A film so well-written, it’s designed to become a staple movie for any millennial approaching the end of their 20s, feeling like Trier expertly prepared a movie uniquely for them. It is an utter joy to watch someone figure themselves out in this unpredictable world and learn from the relationships we pour our hearts into. It is wise, thoughtful, humorous, deeply personal, and will probably go down as one of my favorite movies of the year.

There was no movie at the festival this year more highly anticipated than Denis Villneuve’s Dune (Grade: B-). It is a very engaging watch through and through. The visual imagery is grand, and the sound design is as impressive as expected from an external standpoint. Still, as much exposition is dumped at us, it’s not the most accessible movie to follow, and the collective film moments are not sticking all too well with me. While I’m still on board with the sequel, its cliffhanger isn’t precisely leaving me on the edge of my seat wanting more. Those fans of the source material will likely feel Villeneuve did it as much justice as possible, though. Jason Mamoa stands out most from the massive ensemble, but Dune, unfortunately, did not sell me on Timothee Chalamet’s blockbuster leading role capabilities.

Official Competition (Grade: A-), a satirical farce on the entertainment industry and macho ego, centering on an affluent pharmaceutical executive producing and hiring top talent to make the next great auteur-driven masterpiece. The cast, which includes Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, has a great deal of fun as the Director and Lead Co-star. Still, it’s also terrific insight into what actual film direction is like, what drives an actor’s artistic pursuit, and the rehearsals/acting done when making movies. It contains consistent gut-bustlingly hilarious fun and never once fizzles out. To give you a taste, one standout scene features every major European Film Award from the Palme-d’Or to the Volpi Cup going through a trash compactor that is bound to leave any audience member out of breath from laughing. 

Finally, we have Asghar Farhadi channeling his inner-Curb Your Enthusiasm in A Hero (Grade: B) by poking fun at the self-serving nature of philanthropy thru the gripping morality tale of how no good deed goes unpunished. It contains vital and immensely entertaining storytelling where an extension of the truth by an act of charity is spiraled by the threat of a deception that causes chaos throughout the community. Farhadi deconstructs the notions of social media and the modern forms of a current form of ostracism. It’s a minor cinematic effort by Farhadi, but it’s no less gripping and worthy of your attention.

Look forward to Part 2 of my TIFF coverage coming your way tomorrow!

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