TIFF 2021 Cheat Sheet: The Films We’ve Seen So Far

Highlights we caught on the circuit

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival is just a few weeks away. Festivalgoers looking for TIFF 2021 pointers are in luck. Shelf’s team has been busily covering festivals year-round and some favourites from the circuit are finally making their Toronto debuts. The TIFF 2021 schedule drops this Tuesday, so take note of these films that we heartily recommend—or recommend avoiding. Here are some quick looks at the TIFF 2021 movies we’ve seen so far.



Making its North American premiere at TIFF’s Midnight Madness bonanza after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Julia Ducournau’s Titane is a historic hit. It’s only the second film directed by a woman to win the top prize at Cannes. Titane is also a rare case of a genre film scoring the acclaim and prestige usually afforded to far less out-there work. The film lets audiences ride on the wild side with its story of a woman, Alexia, who survives a car crash and responds with an appetite for the fast lane. Taking a cue from David Cronenberg’s Crash, Alexia gets kinky with cars. She makes a career by performing on hoods acts that are usually reserved for back seats.

Jason Gorber caught Titane at Cannes where he dug into it energetically. Although he didn’t love it as much as Spike Lee’s jury did, he found many reasons for cinephiles to be excited. “A horror movie, a serial killer movie, a romance, and an adoptive family movie, it’s a story about the lies we tell each other in order to get by,” said Gorber. “Think of this as an incredibly dark version of Yentl… it’s gender fluid, it’s violence and romance fluid, and it’s playing with our expectations in a way that is really quite captivating.”



Not one but two of That Shelf’s critics picked Flee as the best film of 2021 so far in our mid-year poll. Both Shane Slater and myself agree: there simply hasn’t been anything to match it this year. Flee makes its Canadian debut after winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary (World Cinema) at Sundance. Dropping at a moment when all eyes are again on Afghanistan, Flee is bound to resonate even stronger as it tours the circuit. This beautifully realised animated documentary interprets visually the confessional narrative of an Afghan refugee. “Amin” tells his friend, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the story of his family’s escape from the Mujahideen. He only then continues a life of hiding as life in Russia with his conservative family forces him to stay in the closet and suppress his awakening sexuality.

Flee is palpably therapeutic, as Amin describes a life spent on the run. Rasmussen animates the tale to convey the journey of which Amin speaks. In doing so, he takes audiences to places that a camera could never go along the perilous journey, like the bellies of boats carrying crowds of refugees,” I wrote in our mid-year survey. Shane, meanwhile, said, “This stunningly animated odyssey leads to a cathartic conclusion as he strives to embrace his gay identity amid the lingering traumas of his past.”


Bergman Island

Also making its North American debut at TIFF after the Cannes BOGO sale is Mia Hansen-Løve’s first film in English. Bergman Island whisks audiences to Faro Island, the home of beloved film icon Ingmar Bergman. Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps play a screenwriting duo in search of inspiration from the Swedish auteur’s environment. Naturally, there’s a movie-within-a-movie that stars Mia Wasikowska as the story in their minds blurs with the drama of daily life.

“On one hand, it’s a tangential celebration of all things Bergman, which don’t have a lot to do with Hansen-Løve’s own filmmaking,” said Jason Gorber on the film-within-a-film when reviewing Bergman Island at Cannes. “But it’s nonetheless a really interesting and engaging exploration of what happens when we have an artist and freeze them in place…thanks to the bouncing back and forth between narratives, it ends up being quite enjoyable, dare I say entertaining.” Jason also gives shout-outs to the performances, including Tim Roth (“beautifully aloof”) and Wasikowska (“has really emerged as a tremendous, tremendous talent”).



Speaking of shout-outs for great performances, here’s a potential dark horse in the Best Actor race. Character actor Clifton Collins, Jr. scored a well-deserved special jury prize at Sundance for his performance in Jockey. However, this kind of subtle, understated, but fully committed work is the kind of performance that wins plaudits from festivals and critics, but not necessarily the Academy. “Jockey offers a great example of the magic that happens when a character actor lands the perfect lead role,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance. “This is a passionate understated performance, sharp and focused, with eyes on the prize.”

Jockey invites comparison to Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature The Rider with its understated portrait of a rider trying to reconcile his place in the world when it comes time to giving up the reigns of his passion. The film features many real life jockeys in the saddle, which further situates Clint Bentley’s direction in good company with Zhao’s work. (As do the authenticity and magic hour cinematography.) However, the TIFF launch should mostly serve as a refresh for attention on Collins’ performance heading into award season. Watch out for a great performance too from Canadian treasure Molly Parker.



We saw London, we saw France: it stunk worse than Jason’s underpants!


Jason’s Twitter feed was in better spirits after seeing Memoria. The Cannes Jury Prize winner is proof that every good festival needs a healthy dose of Tilda Swinton. Apichatpong Weerasethakul might not be for all tastes, but cinephiles looking to wade into the waters of slow cinema might find this film more accessible than his Palme winner Uncle Boonmee. It’s a “festival film” if there everyone was one—perfect for any line-up.


Dune (sort of)

Atop everyone’s “What TIFF movie would you risk the Delta variant for?” poll is Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Its IMAX Cinesphere debut will surely be the event of TIFF 2021. And it’s exactly the escapism we all need after the past year-and-a-half. Fortunately, we saw a sizzling sample of the film at an event earlier this summer. Big screens were made for this kind of movie. Dune promises to be grand entertainment, but also an extraordinary accomplishment for one of Canada’s hottest directors if the rest of the film is as good as the parts that we saw. Move over, James Cameron: Denis Villeneuve could be the new king of the world. At the very list, he’ll inevitably be crowned King of Arrakis.


TIFF 2021 runs Sept. 9 to 18.