That Shelf TIFF 2021 Picks Learn to Swim, Belfast, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

TIFF 2021: What We’re Most Excited to See

The countdown begins today! With just one week to go until this year’s Toronto International Film Festival kicks off, movie lovers are running out of time to finalize their must-see movie list. Despite a slightly pared-down slate, largely due to COVID-19 restrictions and logistics, there are still close to 200 titles to choose from over the 10 days of screenings. Then there’s the inevitable, yearly dilemma: do you try to see all the buzzed about biggies or set out to discover something completely new and different? There’s definitely plenty of the former including Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog; but likewise, between an inordinately great slate of documentaries (The Rescue, Becoming Cousteau) and an impressive list of contemporary international pieces (Saloum, Snakehead, Întregalde), there’s lots to be found outside the spotlight.

The team here at That Shelf has combed through the full schedule and made our must lists. Then we revised them, and revised them again until our minds were solely filled with screening dates and times. But now it’s time to commit. So whether it’s a movie with built-in buzz (Spencer), an under-the radar indie with potential (Learn to Swim), or just something that makes our film-loving hearts flutter (Night Raiders), here’s what we’re excited to see at TIFF 2021. —Emma Badame




Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was my favourite film of 2016 for its hypnotic and unconventional portrait of Jackie O. This time, Larraín gives the Princess of Wales the moody dark psychological probing with Kristen Stewart tackling the beloved Lady Di. The only question is: can she match Emma Corrin’s take on Spencer from The Crown? Both the director and star invite high expectations, but I think they’ll deliver.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer

The Rescue

Free Solo Oscar winners (and TIFF People’s Choice Award for Documentary winners) Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow their daring mountain movie with a deep dive on the 2018 Thai cave rescue saga that gripped the world. Screening at in IMAX Cinesphere during TIFF, this film should be one gripping adventure. Take that, Dune!


Terence Davies has enjoyed forty years as a queer cinematic icon despite only directing eight features, none of which focused on a romantic relationship between two men. Benediction sees Davies step out of the closest, so to speak, with this portrait of poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, played by Jack Lowden and Jeremy Irvine.



The Forgiven

Lawrence Osborn’s novel painted a picture of decadence in the Moroccan desert that feels like it will translate seamlessly to film. It’s as though he wrote the roles of the strained, privileged couple with dream red-headed duo Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in mind. Having John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) behind the camera to fully explore the themes of debauchery, colonialism, and white privilege is an exciting prospect that makes The Forgiven my number one TIFF pick this year.

Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

Silent Night

A darkly comedic Christmas movie set on humankind’s final evening is exactly the edgy and unique take we need. In her feature film debut, Camille Griffin directs an ensemble cast of actors including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Lucy Punch, Lily-Rose Depp, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Jojo Rabbit’s Roman Griffin Davis who make the darkness all the more delectable.


Kenneth Branagh calls Belfast his “most personal film to date” as he sets his coming-of-age story in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench are on board but the focus of the story is young Buddy (Jude Hill) who dreams of a glamorous life far away than what the Troubles will bring him. It’s a no-brainer for any Irish film lover to want to take in.



The Power of the Dog

It’s a cinematic sin that it’s taken so long to adapt Thomas Savage’s intensely compelling 1967 novel for the big screen. That said, it’s hard to think of anyone more capable of bringing this intensely nuanced tale of 1920’s repression to life than Jane Campion. Add in a fabulous cast fronted by Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and this TIFF 2021 pick has epic written all over it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is The Power of the Dog at TIFF 2021

Learn to Swim

There are so many potential gems flying under the radar at TIFF 2021 that it’s hard to focus on just one but Thyrone Tommy’s feature debut is up there. A homegrown and heartfelt story about love, loss and jazz looks like it just might hit all the right notes. A close second: Agustina San Martín’s tropical gothic tale To Kill the Beast.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Tribute Award recipient Benedict Cumberbatch fronts two eye-catching films at TIFF 2021, including this true-to-life tale which also counts Cumberbatch as Executive Producer. The interesting yet tragic life of eccentric artist Louis Wain—a man who introduced the Victorian world to the delights of anthropomorphized cats—takes centre stage here and looks to deliver audiences something a little more enlightening than your standard biopic fare. Meow.




The top pick for two That Shelf writers as their favourite film at the halfway point of the yearFlee is an animated documentary telling the story of a refugee fleeing Afghanistan and his sexual awakening as a teen in Denmark. I love that such a harrowing and poignant story is told through animation, and I can’t wait to get lost in “Amin’s” tale.

Flee at TIFF 2021
Night Raiders

Danis Goulet’s short films made her a filmmaker to watch, and her feature debut Night Raiders promises to be thrilling and thought-provoking.


I’m a big fan of Catherine Hernandez’s novel of the same name and never would have thought that it would receive the cinematic treatment. There’s so much Canadian talent to celebrate!



Dug Dug

A satire about a motorcycle that sparks a new religion? Consider my curiosity piqued.

A still from Dug Dug TIFF 2021


At this point, any film that features Riz Ahmed is an automatic must-see.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)

Having enjoyed Jenna Cato Bass’ High Fantasy, I am eager to see this psychological thriller about the legacy South Africa’s colonial land theft.



Learn To Swim

I loved Thyrone Tommy’s previous short, Mariner, about a Naval cadet undergoing his final exam. The very film itself took on the qualities of an anxiety attack in motion. Now as Tommy returns with his debut feature, a difficult story of love and loss, I can’t help but imagine how he’ll masterfully imbue this troubled tale of a jazz duo with the complexities and dense emotions of the music itself.

Learn to Swim TIFF 2021


When I saw Waseem’s Shahzad at TIFF ’16, I recognized a sympathetic soul who understood how to mine the depths of a single telling moment. This is rare. Returning with Quickening, her debut feature, I am excited to witness that sensitivity in play again as she explores the complex world of a young Pakistani woman navigating the clash between cultural expectations and her own desires and dreams.



Petite Maman

On the evidence of her impressive career from her delicately wrought debut Water Lilies to her striking breakout hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma seems incapable of making a bad film. Her latest festival darling Petite Maman sees her returning to the evocative childhood narratives of her earlier work, promising typically empathetic and affecting storytelling.

Petite Maman still TIFF 2021

The Power of the Dog

The name Jane Campion should be enough to generate excitement for this adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel The Power of the Dog. But when you couple her pedigree with the quality of its headlining cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), its prime awards season release date and Netflix’s obvious confidence in its prospects, it’s clear that this film will be talked about passionately in the months to come.

The Rescue

Some of the best discoveries at TIFF reliably come from the documentary slate, and if you’ve seen the nerve-wracking Free Solo, then you won’t want to miss directing duo Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s The Rescue. Recounting the extraordinary rescue of a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave for 16 days, you can expect a similarly riveting viewing experience.




Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, this Canadian drama, based on the award-winning novel by Catherine Hernandez, takes a look at a diverse community, portraying three low-income families as they struggle to survive the system. This heartfelt film is definitely going to be one to watch out for!

Scarborough TIFF 2021


I’m looking forward to Kristen Stewart’s turn as Princess Di. The Pablo Larraín film takes place over three days as the late Princess of Wales decides to end her marriage to Prince Charles. Watching Stewart step into this highly anticipated role will be very interesting.

Learn to Swim

Toronto’s Thyrone Tommy makes his debut feature film as he takes a dive into the contemporary jazz scene, exploring romance between two very different contemporary jazz musicians. Tommy was previously at the festival with his acclaimed short Mariner, and his feature certainly looks promising.

Colin in Black and White

Ava DuVernay’s Netflix limited series chronicles what inspired activist and NFL athlete Colin Kaepernick to risk his livelihood in support of civil rights. Jaden Michael stars as young Kaepernick while the real Colin serves as co-creator and executive producer, and provides a narration for every episode. After Selma and When They See Us, I have no doubt this is going to be another moving series not to be missed.


This upcoming Netflix K-drama series is the first Korean television series to be invited to the festival. Helmed by Train To Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, the thriller is set in a dystopian world where supernatural entities deliver a final judgement on people based on their sins. As a fan of K-dramas and all things supernatural, I’m looking forward to this one.


TIFF 2021 runs from September 8 through to September 18.