Toronto: Best of the Fest

The films we'll all be talking about for the rest of 2021 were on display at TIFF

Toronto: Best of the Fest

The Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Saturday night, is the third of the Big Four festivals that recalibrate the movie year every September. The others are Venice, Telluride, and the New York Film Festival, which begins this Thursday at Lincoln Center. Between them, they don’t just debut the movies that will dominate the awards season to come, they set the stakes and inaugurate the themes of the cultural discussion that unfolds through the rest of the year and beyond.

One of those themes for 2021 will be the take-no-prisoners visions of women filmmakers established and arriving. Jane Campion (“The Piano”) bolstered her claim as one of the great filmmakers of her generation with “The Power of the Dog” (coming to theaters on November 17 and to Netflix December 1), in which Benedict Cumberbatch gives a performance of almost Biblical patriarchal cruelty as a rancher in 1920s Montana. Julia Ducorneau confirmed the hellacious promise of her 2016 debut “Raw” with “Titane” (in theaters October 1), a tale of body horror and twisted family dynamics that won the top prize at Cannes in May and the audience award in the “Midnight Madness” category at Toronto and which positions her both as an heir to David Cronenberg and a thoroughgoing original.

Warner Brothers brought Denis Villeneuve’s long-delayed “Dune” to Venice and Toronto, where it won over critics and audiences alike; it arrives in theaters and on HBO Max October 22. Universal came with the Broadway musical adaptation “Dear Evan Hansen” – it opens theatrically this Friday – which was warmly received by Toronto audiences while being ruthlessly mocked by critics.

If there was a genuine Best Picture bellwether, it was probably “Belfast” (in theaters November 12), Kenneth Branagh’s memory play of growing up in Northern Ireland during the tumultuous 1960s. Some in the press pooh-poohed the film as a more crowd-pleasing version of “Roma” – wait, is that a problem? – but it’s difficult to argue with a cast that includes Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe (“Outlander”), Ciarán Hinds, and Judi Dench.

Among documentaries, the standouts included “The Rescue” (in theaters October 8) an audience award winner from the directors of Oscar winner “Free Solo” about the efforts to free 12 boys and their coach from a cave in Thailand in 2018, and the self-explanatory if long-overdue “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (no release yet scheduled), the best-received bio-doc in a field that included films about Jacques Cousteau and Julia Child.

Watching selected TIFF films for the second year from home is a mixed blessing for a critic. The festival’s digital screening set-up is a model of the format, but many of the major titles could be streamed in Canada only, if at all, and the buzz of a live festival audience reacting positively or negatively is a special experience indeed. That said, I was happy to see “Petite Maman,” in which director Celine Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) lowers her gaze to childhood level for a delicately powerful magical-realist tale of mother-daughter bonding. (Indie distributor Neon has the rights to the movie but no release date has been set.)

I enjoyed the eccentric charms of “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” (in theaters October 22 and on Amazon November 5), in which Benedict Cumberbatch, busy boy, plays the Victorian artist who popularized cats as both pets and subjects for painting; Claire Foy is briefly wonderful as his wife and the movie grows more psychedelically surreal as it goes, as did Wain’s art.

Any documentary from filmmaker Penny Lane (“Nuts!” “Hail Satan?”) is worth your time, and “Listening to Kenny G” (coming to HBO soon) is a very funny sit-down with the mega-selling purveyor of smooth saxophone jazz and the critics who hate the very thought of him. Among other things, the film asks us to contemplate what it is about one’s musical taste that can be so enraging in others. Kenny G himself is happily complacent in his success, as well he should be, and watching New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff discuss the music as if he were in actual physical pain is entertainment in itself.

“Bergman Island” (in theaters and on demand October 15) is the first film from Mia Hansen-Løve that I’ve really warmed to, a subtle comedy of marriage and art that stars Vicky Krieps in her best role since “Phantom Thread” and Tim Roth as a possible stand-in for the director’s husband, filmmaker Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”). The setting is the island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman shot some of his most celebrated films, and much of the movie’s sneaky humor comes from observing how the place has become an Ingmar Bergman theme park for disconsolate tourists.

The Good House” came to Toronto looking for a distributor and left without one. That’s too bad, because Sigourney Weaver gives one of the most expansive performances of her career in this adaptation of an Anne Leary novel about a New England realtor with a sharp tongue and a drinking problem. The comedy-drama’s subplots don’t always add up, but the cast includes Rob Delaney (TV’s “Catastrophe”), Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”), and the always welcome Kevin Kline, who’s in especially fine form here. I liked this imperfect movie and its imperfect heroine, and I hope you get to see it.

Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver in “The Good House”

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