Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," which received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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No two people have the same film festival experience. There’s the thumbing of the program and picking out titles, making priorities and curating your own double, triple, quadruple bills. There’s the hopping between venues, meeting faces old and new, emerging from dark rooms disappointed or elated or somewhere in between. For press, there’s a lot of work (I promise) concealed between start and finish too.

But the shape of your festival is usually dictated by you. That wasn’t the case for some covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year, where a hybrid physical-virtual festival and a dose of bureaucracy fractured one festival into many, depending on where you were in the world.

For those in Toronto, life was rosy. The virtual component was rather more trying. After rolling with the punches last year and hosting a successful, largely virtual festival, similar access was expected in 2021, with international press pointed to the digital viewing portal that had served everyone so well in 2020.

Only this time around film after film was held back, either playing in cinemas only or restricted to certain countries. What was available where seemed to change daily in the lead up to opening night. In one territory your cup runneth over, in another you were left parched. Plenty of hustling was required to see films by other means.

One can’t blame the festival for everything; these decisions are in the hands of studios and distributors. For some titles like “Dune,” with a mammoth release on the horizon, it made sense to play it in theaters only. For smaller arthouse films or those with limited distribution, the logic seems harder to justify. Festivals are exactly the place where these films are able to burst onto the scene. Limiting their audience and the buzz generated feels self-defeating.

Yet there was still a lot to love in the slimmed down lineup this year. The festival’s People’s Choice Award, in recent years an Oscars bellwether, went to “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age drama set in North Ireland during the Troubles. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue,” about the miraculous 2018 Thai cave rescue, walked away with the same prize in the documentary category. But for awards season prognosticators, the picture out of Toronto was perhaps murkier than in previous years.

As a film festival that entered the multiverse, where what you saw was dictated by IP address as much as taste, it’s hard to sum up TIFF. This writer is the first to admit he has blind spots – blind spots he’d rather not have, but simply couldn’t be filled. Nevertheless, let’s try. With a towering asterisk attached, here’s what we enjoyed at Toronto.

“The Power of the Dog”

Benedict Cumberbatch as rancher Phil Burbank in "The Power of the Dog."

Jane Campion doesn’t release films often, but when she does people pay attention. With good reason – her adaptation of John Savage’s novel, a Western set in 1920s Montana but filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, is prestige cinema of the highest order.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank, joined by blood and precious little else. But their uneasy codependency is interrupted when the urbane George marries young widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), much to the chagrin of rough-hewn Phil, who launches psychological warfare against the “cheap schemer” and her gentle son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) once they move to the homestead.

Cumberbatch, all sinuous guile and calculated cruelty, haunts their footsteps like Mrs. Danvers in a 10-gallon hat. Galoup, the imperious drill sergeant played by Denis Lavant in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” also springs to mind. However, the brand of calloused machismo Phil projects doesn’t land as wholly authentic. Why is he trying so hard? And what caused him to curdle inside? Over time and a series of menacing interactions with Peter, cracks in the facade are pried open until they become the film’s chief concern.

Taut and as well engineered as the rope Phil weaves with dedicated fervor, Campion’s film is one of great restraint. Ari Wegner’s compositions of New Zealand’s Otago peninsula are to die for, but rather than let the film become swallowed by the epic setting, her eye for expression and gesture allow us to feel every beat of the characters’ journeys. Another corking score from Jonny Greenwood is used sparingly; just enough to harmonize with the moment, but never so much as to try to dictate how we feel. Campion trusts the craftsmanship in front and behind the camera to tell a story without needing to dig the spurs in. For that and much else besides, more power to her.


Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides in "Dune."

The road to “Dune” is long and fraught with peril. Just ask Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch, with one aborted film and one critically-panned between them. Both failed in their separate ways. Was it hubris that made Denis Villeneuve believe he could crack the “unfilmable” tome by Frank Herbert? In any case, he’s succeeded in finally doing justice to the book – the first half of it, at least.

This is a cavernous cathedral of a film, full of spectacle and awful beauty. The scale of it all, from vast landscapes to monolithic buildings, is huge, the battles epic, the Hans Zimmer score thundering and sonorous, all designed to have audiences cowering in the pews. It’s Sturm und Drang sci-fi by way of the Old Testament – fitting for a film centered on a messianic figure.

That would be Paul (Timothée Chalamet), heir of House Atreides, who travels with his parents (Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson) and entourage to the planet Arrakis, where they have been commanded by the Emperor to take over its valuable spice mining operation. Previous colonizers the Harkonnen are none too pleased, nor the Fremen, natives of Arrakis. Much politicking and violence ensues, along with a heavy dose of mysticism and premonition courtesy of Paul and his mother, a member of an intergalactic society of witches called the Bene Gesserit.

As you might have guessed, the film is plot-heavy, and Villeneuve is forced to abandon the old maxim “show don’t tell.” We’re told a lot, often more than once, and the script occasionally strays toward coddling the audience. Exposition rather than fear may be the mind killer. But one can’t knock the film’s ambition: a serious blockbuster that makes for an overwhelming experience, precision-made for the big screen.

“Mothering Sunday”

Odessa Young and Josh O'Connor in Eva Husson's "Mothering Sunday."

French director Eva Husson has made one of the most maddeningly, intoxicatingly British films of the year in “Mothering Sunday,” an adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel about love, loss and the straitjacket of propriety in upper class England.

Three families have been ravaged by the First World War, with only one son, Paul, returning from battle between them. Played by an insouciant Josh O’Connor, he’s unhappily engaged and having an affair with Jane (a luminous Odessa Young), the maid of family friends the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). On Mothering Sunday, the two lovers wriggle from under the feet of their respective families and meet for a long, languid day away from prying eyes and society’s expectations. If only life were so simple.

Husson frames the story via Jane’s recollections as an older woman, now a successful writer. It’s not the only point of comparison with Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” but whereas that Ian McEwan adaptation went for maximum emotional wallop, here events are largely underplayed. We watch a generation trying to hold back a tidal wave of grief with starched collars and cucumber sandwiches, retreating into nostalgia and routine. Of course, it cannot, and when emotion does surface it breaches like a hernia. Colman and Firth both get their time to shine.

In fact, there’s fine performances all round, and sumptuous camerawork from Jamie D. Ramsay casts everything in a hopelessly romantic light. But it’s the smouldering duo of O’Connor and Young who set the screen ablaze as the young lovers grasping for a future of their own, however unlikely it may be.


"Attica" by Stanley Nelson.

The US has no shortage of shameful chapters in its history, and Stanley Nelson’s documentary pulls out a particularly egregious one in his retelling of the Attica prison riot in New York state, 1971.

Nelson kicks off with the initial uprising in the prison courtyard, before doubling back to provide context. Correctional officers from the local town of Attica were White and worlds apart from the majority Black inmates at a facility known as “the last stop.” Degrading treatment is detailed by former inmates, who looked for but were denied humane conditions. “It was a timebomb ready to blow,” says the daughter of one of the guards.

Blow it did, but former inmates describe the opposite of chaos in the fall out: erecting tents, building latrines, establishing a medical station and voting on leadership. One inmate wistfully recalls looking up at the stars and falling asleep without hearing the clang of metal bars locking. But the only thing that allowed this state of empowerment were the guards inmates had held hostage (an irony and story element the film does not engage with as much as it might).

The “naked fist of power,” as one voice describes it, was ready to show its hand. The intervention of state police and correctional officers is shown via harrowing surveillance footage and graphic photography, showing the deadly assault and brutal reprisals – a savage reassertion of authority and the status quo.

A furious, blistering film, Nelson’s combination of testimony and searing visuals is potent, and has no qualms pointing the finger of blame. As one interviewee laments, “It didn’t have to be this way.”


Tim Roth as a tourist on a bad trip in Michel Franco's "Sundown."

Tim Roth saw how Michel Franco depicted prison in “New Order” and said, “sign me up!” The Mexican provocateur behind last year’s incendiary revolutionary drama is back with another bleak tale, albeit on a smaller scale and with a lower body count.

Neil (Roth) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are wealthy Brits on holiday in Acapulco with her children Colin and Alexa when an emergency forces them to return home. Everyone does except Neil, whose passport has gone missing. He’s forced to hang out in Acapulco in holiday overtime, as the city begins to show its ugly side and so does he.

Only it turns out he didn’t lose his passport after all. There’s a sense of unraveling, an abdication of responsibility at play. He’s abandoning himself, his relationships become fraught, without us really understanding why.

But perhaps we’re looking for answers in the wrong places. Like the director’s previous works, these characters are playthings for Franco – a new set of pawns to explore contemporary Mexico. His Acapulco has a thing for casual violence, a huge wealth disparity, and a side order of grubbiness alongside the tourist traps. These observations only find the center of the frame in snatches, but it’s always there. That, rather than the crises of wealthy tourists, is what Franco believes to be the true tragedy, one suspects.

“Petite Maman”

Sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in "Petite Maman."

Celine Sciamma’s follow up to critical hit “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” sees the director swap rugged coastlines and period setting for a small-scale fable that nevertheless delivers big.

We follow eight-year-old Nelly as she travels to her mother’s childhood home. Her grandmother has recently died, and her parents have the task of clearing it out. Left to her own devices, Nelly heads into the woods only to discover Marion, her doppelganger, who inexplicably may also be her mother.

Shot during the pandemic, Sciamma (once again directing her own screenplay) interweaves three generations, compressing and stretching time, allowing her characters to gain a deeper empathy for one another. Sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz as Nelly and the young Marion carry the picture, finding wisdom in their performances that belies their years. “Secrets aren’t always something we try to hide. Sometimes we just have no one to tell,” one says to the other, and you believe every word. It’s a lovely film, understated and deeply felt, and told with great economy.

“The Rescue”

"The Rescue," directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

Part of the thrill of “Free Solo,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s terrifying ascent of El Capitan, was that we knew the outcome. It meant we could sit back and enjoy the peril. Similarly, the rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team from a Thai cave in 2018 made headlines around the world. Watching an account of the fraught mission to free the boys and their coach from a flooded cave network in northern Thailand therefore comes with its own safety net: however bad it gets, we know it’ll be ok in the end.

That doesn’t make Vasarhelyi and Chin’s documentary any less tense. Through some helpful graphics and a good spread of talking heads we’re walked through the rescue efforts, which would eventually involve some 5,000 people, including Thai Navy SEALs, the US military and an international cohort of specialists and volunteers. But it’s the role of a group of amateur cave divers – call them the Avengers of middle-aged hobbyists – that is given prominence. Rightly so. Without Britons Rick Stanton and Jon Volanthen, and later Chris Jewell, Jason Mallinson and Australian doctor Richard Harris, among others, the situation might have turned to tragedy. They were able to find the boys, and would eventually take them out under heavy sedation (the details of which were not fully-disclosed at the time).

Some sharp questioning reveals these divers have much in common – they’re insular, single-minded, shy. But without them this huge team effort wouldn’t have happened. They made the impossible possible, and it’s clear the experience changed them. Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film is a fitting tribute to them and a huge crowd-pleaser to boot.

“Dug Dug”