TIFF 2021: Top 5 & wrap-up

Another edition of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) is in the books, with 2021 being a hybrid version of the fest – a combination of in-person and digital screenings. Last year’s festival was an all-digital affair, so it was a treat for me to once again make my way to Toronto for some in-person screenings. Of course, with the spectre of COVID-19 hanging over things, it was a lower-key festival than usual, with masks and vaccinations required for all screenings. There was an absence of the glitz and glamour one associates with the festival, but everyone was doing their best and, despite everything, the lineup of movies was quite good.

For me, the fest’s highlights included getting an early look at Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and getting to see a few under-the-radar gems like The Forgiven and The Power of the Dog. Of course, there was one disaster – Dear Evan Hansen – but I digress. Overall it was a terrific festival, and I’m excited to return next year when hopefully everything is back up and running at 100%. TIFF at 50% is still better than pretty much every other festival anyway.

Here are my picks for the best movies I saw at TIFF this year:

5. The Power of the Dog:


I have a confession to make. I’ve never really gotten the appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch. While I’ve always thought he was a fine actor, I never entirely fell for him as a superstar, which many people have. However, he blew me away in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Playing a troubled, charismatic rancher in the dying days of the American West, Cumberbatch is electric in a way that calls to mind Daniel Day-Lewis. He vanishes into the role without a trace and not through makeup or anything like that. The transformation is psychological. To me, if anyone delivers a leading performance that bests Cumberbatch this year, I’ll be pretty surprised. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) is also really good in this, as are Jesse Plemons and Kirstin Dunst. (Read my review)

4. The Forgiven:

While Jessica Chastain’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye got most of the hype at TIFF, for my money, the better of the two Chastain vehicles was John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven. While arguably Ralph Fiennes’ movie (his best role since The Grand Budapest Hotel), Chastain plays way against type as a Western wife vacationing in Africa who dives deep into a bacchanal hosted by some expatriates (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones) while her husband is on a dangerous journey into the desert to make amends for accidentally killing the son of a Berber chieftain. While it sounds pretty heavy, the film is also darkly humorous and not afraid to poke fun at the more “enlightened” crowd, such as a great scene where a character lectures another on American imperialism while about to inhale a massive rail of cocaine. This won’t be for everyone, but I really liked it. (Read my review)

3. Belfast:

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast seems like a surefire Oscar contender. A tender coming-of-age tale set in 1969 Belfast, with the coming of The Troubles as the instigating incident, the film focuses on one family juggling the need to leave Ireland for a better life and their deep ties to the community. There’s terrific acting all-around in this one, with young Jude Hill stealing the show but ably supported by Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Dame Judi Dench (give her the Oscar now) and Ciaran Hinds. This is probably my favourite Branagh film since Dead Again. (Read my review)

2. Last Night in Soho:

While Edgar Wright’s horror flick is getting mixed reviews, I had a blast with his dark ode to 1960’s London. Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy are terrific in this visceral thrill ride, and the movie probably has the best soundtrack of the year. (Read my review)

1. Dune:

What else can I say about Dune other than the fact that Denis Villeneuve has made a sci-fi masterpiece. Suppose he doesn’t get the chance to finish his epic two-part adaptation of the novel. In that case, it’ll be the most significant cinematic tragedy since RKO burned the negative of Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. If you love cinema, please go out and support Villeneuve’s film. (Read my review)


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.