Seventh Row’s editors pick the best films of TIFF 2021, from The Worst Person in the World to I’m Your Man to Benediction.
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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) began life as the festival of festivals, playing the best films from major festivals around the world. But in recent years, the festival has been increasingly chasing world premieres, refusing to programme excellent films if they had the audacity to screen somewhere else first. The battle began with Venice and Telluride a few years ago, but has since extended to limiting TIFF’s programming of titles that screened at other festivals, such as Berlin and Locarno.
It’s ironic, then, that TIFF’s best offerings this year would have fit better in its mandate from years past as the festival of festivals, but so many great titles that played elsewhere were deliberately ignored by programmers. Instead, the only major world premiere that we loved at the festival was Terence Davies’s excellent Benediction, so despite a handful of other good films, TIFF 2021 was a bit underwhelming. That’s not to say it didn’t play plenty of great films: The Worst Person in the World, Bergman Island, I’m Your Man, and more will surely end up high on our best of the year list. But these all premiered at other festivals. Indeed, more than half the films that made up our list of the best twenty films at TIFF were not world premieres.
In such a strange year, it’s hard to tell if the disappointing programming was because the press were so restricted in what we were allowed to watch digitally. We can’t report on what we couldn’t see. Unlike last year, most of the big, awards-contending titles were not available on the digital platform; some films were only available in the UK or Canada, where our two editors live, but not both. With positive Covid cases popping up at festival after festival, and the virus still raging on throughout the world, it was never a reasonable or safe option for us to attend in-person screenings.
Fortunately, most of the smaller, international films were available, which allowed us to fulfill our mandate of seeking out hidden gems. But even those were few and far between this year. You’ll notice that numbers 1-5 on this list are all films we saw before TIFF at other festivals, and only eight of the films on this list world premiered at TIFF. Many of the films from countries that are high profile in the cinema world were off the digital platform or restrictively geoblocked, like America (Dune and a bunch of other films that will win Oscars but probably not be very good), the UK (People’s Choice award winner Belfast, Last Night in Soho, Spencer), and France (Palme d’Or winner Titane).
As a result, our list is as international as ever. By the end of the ten-day festival, it felt like we’d taken a trip around the world and learned so much about different countries and communities. Canada, the UK, and Denmark, are the only countries that show up on this list twice, if we’re counting purely by where the film is set; other than that, we’ve got films from Croatia, Djibouti, Indonesia, Kosovo, Iran, Norway, and so many more.
While we’ve had stronger years at TIFF, we recommend seeking out all twenty films on this list, which stood out from the approximately fifty our editors watched at the festival. From flawed but promising debuts to news works by our favourite contemporary filmmakers, there’s something valuable in each of these titles.
Before we kick off the list, we’d like to name three worthwhile honourable mentions: Aloners (Hong Sung-eun), Huda’s Salon (Hany Abu-Assad), and Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun). We’d also recommend seeking out the shorts highlighted in C.J. Prince’s roundup.
20. Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic)
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s debut feature, Murina, transports us to coastal Croatia where the sea is sky blue, the sun is shining, and the beaches are sandy. It seems like paradise, but for Murina (Gracija Filipovic), it’s a living hell because she lives under the thumb of her abusive father. Set over the course of a week, the film follows Murina as she starts to hatch a plan to escape her father with the help of her father’s visiting friend — a hopelessly idealistic plan but one born out of desperation. Much of what happens in the film works more on a metaphorical level than a literal one, including a long sequence where Murina is locked inside a boathouse by her father and tries to escape. Murina’s one great love is diving, and there are gorgeous sequences of her capably diving, in her element, and finding a freedom in the water that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
The film is carefully observed in the relationships between the characters, especially as it relates to how abuse is carried out and overlooked. Early in the film, Kusijanovic establishes the relationship between Murina and her father and Murina and her father’s friend through two dances with each of them as partners: one starts joyful and ends violently, the other is a carefree respite from tyranny. Murina’s view of her situation is sometimes simplistic, wondering why her mother doesn’t just leave. But Kusijanovic hints at why her mother is trapped in this marriage and how she’s become complicit in the abuse of her daughter — both from fear and because she benefits. The kindness Murina’s father’s friend shows her is such a rarity that Murina overlooks — though Kusijanovic never lets us — how his concern for Murina’s well-being, in private, never actually translates to him standing up for her in public. Alex Heeney
19. Listening to Kenny G (Penny Lane)
I wouldn’t have typically picked out a documentary about ‘smooth jazz’ instrumentalist Kenny G, whose widely popular music can be heard in hotel lobbies and elevators everywhere. But the great documentarian Penny Lane has a knack for making any subject interesting, and Listening to Kenny G is no different. The film spends some time laying out the life of Kenny G, who is a pretty wacky and engaging interview subject, whether you like him or not. (At one point, he says he’s so intent on giving Lane the best interview she’s ever done that he’ll sit in front of the camera for twelve hours if he has to.) But it’s also just as concerned with the question of what makes music good or not, and who gets to decide?
Lane speaks with critics who loathe Kenny G’s music as the lowest common denominator; she interviews avid fans attending one of the musician’s concerts; and she connects his work to the history of jazz, and explores how it isn’t really jazz at all. Here, Kenny G is less the subject than he is a jumping off point to talk about how the world interacts with music. Orla Smith
18. Good Madam (Jenna Cato Bass)
From our review: “Good Madam begins with a punishing series of images and sounds: hands scrubbing surfaces, then dipping into dirty, sudsy water. They’re actions that could seem mundane, if they weren’t shot in extreme closeup and enhanced with skin-crawling sound design so as to make them feel like something out of a horror movie (and they are). What’s also significant is that these are Black hands, and these images of housework are intercut with shots of old, black and white family photos, which portray the white madam of the house and her family. This is modern day South Africa, but stripped of context, these opening of Good Madam could easily set up an apartheid-era story.” Read the full review.
17. The Odd-Job Men (Neus Ballús)
From our review: “Neus Ballús’s The Odd-Job Men is a quiet, lovely little film that charts a week in the life of three ‘odd-job men’ — plumbers and electricians — on the outskirts of Barcelona. Moha (Mohamed Mellali) is a Moroccan immigrant who takes a job working for the Instalaciones Losilla, a small plumbing company where the eldest member of the team, Pep (Pep Sarrà), is about to retire. The head of the plumbing team, Valero (Valero Escolar), takes an immediate dislike to Moha, for entirely xenophobic reasons, but is overruled by his wife, the boss, who hires Moha regardless. The film follows them during Moha’s one-week trial period (and Pep’s last week on the job) as they venture into people’s homes and lives to attend odd jobs.” Read the full review.
16. Night Raiders (Danis Goulet)
From the introduction to our interview: “The logline for Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet’s sci-fi feature debut, Night Raiders, sounds eerily familiar: “In a post-apocalyptic future, children are considered state property. Separated from their parents, they are trained in boarding schools to fight for the regime.” Is it sci-fi or the history of how Canada has treated Indigenous People? To paraphrase Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, the apocalypse already happened for Indigenous People.” Read the full interview.
15. Yuni (Kamila Andini)
From our review: “Kamila Andini’s coming-of-age story, Yuni, follows the eponymous seventeen-year-old Indonesian girl on the cusp of adulthood as she figures out who she wants to be. Having seen friends her age get unhappily married, Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) wants to go to university, but there are strong pressures on her to get married and many suitors calling. Much of Yuni’s life is easily recognizable to western audiences: she hangs out with friends, goes to see a band play, lusts after boys, poses for Instagram, and discovers just how female masturbation works. But the patriarchal norms in her small town are strong; her suitors talk to her parents about the value of Yuni’s virginity, which Yuni only overhears by peeking through closed doors. At the same time, men hold the keys to her education: a male literature teacher stands between her and top grades, and she needs the help of a male student to succeed.” Read the full review.
14. The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Luàna Bajrami)
From our review: “Set during the summer before their adolescence crashes hard into adulthood, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar follows three teenage girls in Kosovo grappling with their lack of freedom. This is the directorial debut of Luàna Bajrami, whom you may know as the French actress who played the supporting role of Sophie in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019). At only twenty years old, Bajrami is already an exciting actress and, now, a promising new director, who also wrote, produced, and co-edited her own film. Drawing on her Kosovan heritage, she has made this flawed but heartfelt, smart coming-of-age tale.” Read the full review.
13. The Rescue (Jimmy Chin, E. Chai Vasarhelyi)
In 2018, a group of twelve young boys from the same soccer team got trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, and a group of expert divers from around the world came together to save them. We pretty much all know the story, since it was all over the news that summer. Still, The Rescue directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s documentary retelling of the story is as gripping as any thriller.
The Rescue doesn’t quite have the staying power of their Oscar-winning Free Solo, because it doesn’t have a central character as complex and fascinating as free soloist Alex Honnold. But The Rescue is every bit as expertly crafted and compelling as an ensemble piece. It manages to get us rooting for every person on screen, while presenting nail-biting action scenes pieced together from on-the-ground footage, recreations, retrospective interviews, and animated diagrams. OS
12. The Gravedigger’s Wife (Khadar Ayderus Ahmed)
From our review: “In Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s first feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife, which premiered in Semaine de la Critique at Cannes, the great irony is that Guled (Omar Abdi) earns his living by waiting for people to die, but is desperate to make extra cash to save his wife’s life. The film introduces us to Guled and his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), through small, intimate moments — giving Nasra a bath, making meals, crashing a wedding together — to give us a solid, observed relationship worth rooting for. Set in Dijibouti City, Somalia, Ahmed’s wide shots drop us into this world, letting slices of life seep into the frame in the shanty town where they live. You can feel the beat of the sun, the dirt on the road, and the warmth between the family members.” Read the full review.
11. As In Heaven (Tea Lindeburg)
From the introduction to our interview with Tea Lindeburg: “Early in As In Heaven, a scene of Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) play-fighting with her sister comes to an abrupt end with a hard cut to her father’s (Thure Lindhardt) arrival, who gives Lise a task worthy of an adult: collecting debts from their neighbour. Throughout the course of the day in 1880s rural Denmark, Lise’s carefree childish pursuits will continually be interrupted by adult responsibilities over which she has little control. Whether it’s taking care of her younger siblings or something else, Lise is expected to act more and more like a grown up without gaining access to any of the privileges of being an adult, including being admitted to the room where her mother is going through a difficult labour.” Read the full interview.
10. Zalava (Arsalan Amiri)
From the introduction to our interview: “In a remote town populated by, as the film calls them, ‘gypsies’, in northern Iran, a demon has purportedly possessed a girl, causing her to jump to her death. It’s 1978, just before the Iranian revolution, and the townspeople are worried that the demon will jump into someone else’s body. An exorcist arrives (Pouria Rahimisam), especially conspicuous in his western-style suit. He goes into the house where the demon is supposed to be, and comes out with a sealed glass jar which he claims now contains the demon.
The townspeople rejoice; the local sheriff (Navid Pourfaraj) thinks it’s bullshit. His solution is to arrest the exorcist, but there are unintended consequences. Will removing this beloved potential charlatan incite a riot? Should he let the exorcist be to calm the townspeople or should he avoid giving so much power to someone who could misuse it? These are the central questions of Arasalan Amiri’s directorial debut, Zalava, a horror film that is firmly rooted in reality, with a touch of black comedy.” Read the full interview.
9. Scarborough (Rich Williamson, Shasha Nakhai)
From our review: “One of TIFF’s most stirring crowdpleasers is Scarborough, a tough story with a huge heart. Catherine Hernandez adapts her own award-winning 2017 novel into the screenplay for this film about three kids and their parents living in Scarborough, a multicultural and low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. At a hefty 136-minute runtime, it’s a film that sometimes struggles to know what to cut from the source text. But it’s also easy to understand why: the filmmakers’ love for their characters is so palpable, it’s infectious. When the film ended, I, too, wished I could keep spending time with them.” Read the full review.
8. Benediction (Terence Davies)
From our review: “Benediction begins with a young poet, Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), fresh out of catching an inspirational Stravinsky concert, signing up with his brother to fight in World War I. Davies moves so quickly here that whatever excitement Sassoon may have felt as a young soldier is almost immediately dampened by the sad look in his mother’s eyes as he leaves the station, the lament in voiceover that he never said goodbye to his brother, and the black-and-white archival footage of men dying on the battlefield, narrated by Lowden with one of Sassoon’s poems. The war changed him quickly, and the film’s tone changes quickly, too, almost brutally so.” Read the full review.
7. Ali & Ava (Clio Barnard)
From our review: “‘I love this city,’ Ali (Adeel Akhtar) tells Ava (Claire Rushbrook) partway through the film. As British cities go, Bradford is oft-maligned or forgotten, especially by those who live in London and in the south of the country. In her films, especially Ali & Ava, Barnard takes the time and care to show us the heart of the city, exhibiting why the people who live there, like Ali, might love it. She portrays Bradford as a small and tight-knit community: we see Ali make a cup of tea in his kitchen, then carry the mug outside to the next house over, where his mum lives. Later, when Ali is stuck in a traffic jam, he spots a group of funeral goers and rolls his window down to ask who died; there’s a good chance it’s someone he knows, even just in passing. Everyone knows each other here, and in turn, everyone is always helping each other, whether it’s Ali constantly offering people lifts in his car, or Ava regularly babysitting her neighbour’s daughter.” Read the full review.
6. Ahed’s Knee (Nadav Lapid)
From our review: “With a global pandemic, wars, genocide, and climate change raging on throughout the globe — all of it preventable — there’s a lot to be angry about at the moment. Yet as individuals, it can seem like there’s little we can do to stop these things: our small actions can only go so far if they aren’t supported by the world’s leaders. I’ve felt so much rage and nihilism lately over how little agency I have to fix global problems; it makes it easy to stop thinking of yourself and others as individuals whose personal problems are also worthy of concern. Nadav Lapid’s latest, Ahed’s Knee, bottles this frustrated feeling better than any other piece of art I’ve seen in the last few years.” Read the full review.
5. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
Flee, the Sundance World Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, is told almost entirely through animation in order to preserve the anonymity of its subject. Amin is an Afghan refugee living in Denmark after migrating there from Moscow twenty-five years earlier. He’s also one of documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s best friends, and together (with Amin narrating and Jonas directing the animation), the pair tell Amin’s story for the first time. Animation isn’t just a necessity in Rasmussen’s film; it allows him to bring Amin’s memories to life in full colour and detail, and to fill in the blanks that Amin is too traumatised to state in words. But importantly, Flee is just as much about exploring how Amin copes with and recovers from his trauma today as it is about recounting his horrific past experiences as an asylum seeker. OS
4. Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Early on in Bergman Island, Chris (Vicky Krieps) declares, “I would like to have nine kids from five different men.” She and Tony (Tim Roth) are filmmakers who came to Fårö Island, the land of Ingmar Bergman, to work on respective projects. While they have a daughter together and often seem like a couple, Chris describes Tony as “a friend.” Hansen-Løve doesn’t define the specific parameters of their relationship, but demonstrates the differences in the way they each think about art and life. Chris envies and disdains Bergman, a prolific artist with nine kids from six different women. When she asks Tony how he feels about Bergman’s lack of involvement in his kids’ lives, he responds, “I should feel bad, right?” This is the crux of the film. Chris (and Hansen-Løve) thinks deeply about her responsibility as an artist and parent, along with the gender-based limitations she faces; so much, in fact, that those themes are prevalent in her own art. Tony, on the other hand, is not burdened in the same way. Like Bergman, his work revolves around women sans any of the complications they actually face.
In the second half of the film, Chris asks Tony for feedback on her screenplay. As she describes it to him, the film melts into the world of her work (which also happens to take place on Fårö). Her protagonist, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), is a film director who is in town for a friend’s wedding along with her ex-boyfriend, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), whom she still loves. Like Chris, Amy has a young daughter and a partner back home, but her identity is not completely wrapped up in those relationships. In another striking similarity to Chris’s life, Joseph reveals that Amy “wanted two children with two men at the same time,” a desire that he found “absurd.”
As the screenplay develops, the autobiographical resemblance becomes undeniable. Chris uses her work as a lens through which to view her own life and perhaps, so does Hansen-Løve. Women don’t have the luxury of shirking their parental responsibilities to focus solely on creative endeavours; however, they have the ability to examine their unique experiences and turn them into art. Lindsay Pugh
3. I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader)
From our review: “How big is the gulf between what we think we want from romantic relationships and what we actually need or would settle for? Is part of the joy of a relationship the knowledge that you’re needed? Is a flawed partner more attractive because they make you feel less alone for also being flawed? How do we change to suit our partners in a relationship? Wouldn’t it be convenient if you could store your partner in the spare room with the vacuum cleaner and the exercise bike? These are some of the many complex questions at the centre of Maria Schrader’s Berlinale competition film, I’m Your Man. In the film, cuneiform researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked to test out a new AI robot, Tom (Dan Stevens), who has been designed to be her perfect man. For three weeks, he’ll live with her and learn from her, and at the end, she’ll write a report about the experience, evaluating what he’s like as a partner.” Read the full review.
2. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma)
From our review: “In Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature, Petite Maman, getting to know your mother is like chasing after a ghost. Parents are elusive, in life and death, living in an adult world that, as a child, you only ever get to visit. The disconnect between parent and child is in the constantly moving camera of the opening scene, which follows eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as she says goodbye to the many women in the hospital where her grandmother recently died, chasing the goodbye she didn’t get to have with her own grandmother. And in the first moment of stillness, when Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), looks out the window of her mother’s room, at the grass and trees below, exhaustedly resting on a table, as if she might find her mother outside. As the camera pulls back, we feel the weight of Marion’s grief — and Nelly’s absence from the frame. They’re both experiencing loss, but it’s not quite a joint experience. Mother and daughter are moving at different speeds, in different rhythms. The camera reveals Nelly’s perspective, watching from behind, aware of her mother’s slumped physique, but unable to reach it.” Read the full review.
1. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)
From our review: “In any other hands, and perhaps any other time, The Worst Person in the World would centre around Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), the sometime boyfriend of Julie (Renate Reinsve), the film’s actual protagonist. While remaining largely in the background of the film, Aksel pens a comic, gets a film adaptation of his work, loses the love of his life, goes off on cancel culture on the radio, and then has to reckon with his mortality. But since this is a Joachim Trier film, which, like all his films, was penned with Eskil Vogt, the driving engine of the film is not plot; instead, it’s a cinematic exploration of a more passive character’s emotional and intellectual experiences. Most of Julie’s plot occurs within the film’s five-minute prologue: she switches fields of study from surgery to psychiatry to photography; has as many love affairs as career changes; and culminates by meeting Aksel, with whom she has a rom-com-esque meet cute before falling in love and moving in with him. What follows is the harder part: dealing with the consequences of your choices and finding the courage to keep making choices, to combat the passivity and complacency that it can be so easy and comfortable to fall into.” Read the full review.
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