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All the best movies we saw at Toronto Film Festival, ranked (including Alanis Morissette doc ‘Jagged’)

  • September 15, 2021

next year’s Oscars? Pay attention to the Toronto International Film Festival.

After last year’s events were all affected by COVID-19, the fall film-festival season is back in somewhat full swing in Venice, Telluride and now Toronto (running through Sept. 18), which is a hybrid in-person/online affair this year. Whatever the presentation, the Toronto fest has played hosted to the past six best-picture winners, including 2021’s “Nomadland.” So all eyes are going to be on the hottest movies, including the movie musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” with Jessica Chastain, the sci-fi epic “Dune” and “Spencer,” which has won Kristen Stewart raves as Princess Diana.

Like the 2020 edition, we’ll be watching from afar and keeping readers up to date on the coolest stuff we see (ranked, of course):

Oscars 2022:Kristen Stewart vaults to the front of the best-actress race as Princess Diana

18. ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

In director Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Ben Platt reprises his Tony-winning role as the title high school senior suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who’s finally noticed by others – and his crush (Kaitlyn Dever) – when he manufactures a close friendship with a classmate (Colton Ryan) who committed suicide. In the onscreen telling, Platt seems peculiarly out of place – although no one quite does the memorable songs like him – but he’s not the biggest problem: The film version is devoid of the vibrancy and gripping nature of the dynamic stage show, and the result is a musical with fits of greatness that unfortunately turns into an angsty teen-movie slog.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’director has no doubts about Ben Platt’s casting

17. ‘Mothering Sunday’

Talky and a little bland but full of young love (and steamy early 20th-century sexual energy), director Eva Husson’s well-acted period drama stars Odessa Young as Jane Fairchild, an English house maid to a high-class couple (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman) who gets time off on a particularly nice Mother’s Day in 1924. She meets up with her secret lover Paul (Josh O’Connor), a dude working at a nearby manor house who’s engaged to his posh childhood friend (Emma D’Arcy). There’s not nearly enough Firth or Colman, though Jane’s story is deftly told over multiple decades as it weaves together a constant sense of foreboding tragedy but also the birth of a writer’s spirit.

16. ‘Kicking Blood’ 

The thoughtful Canadian horror film uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction and it totally works. An immortal life and drinking human blood to get high just isn’t working for anymore for Anna (Alanna Bale), who works at a library by day while attacking victims – and not usually nice sorts – by night. She takes in Robbie (Luke Bilyk), a suicidal alcoholic, when he needs it the most, and him getting sober and trying to turn his life around inspires Anna to rethink her own vices as well as the high-class vampires she parties with in her pack.

15. ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’

Although “Power of the Dog” is the higher-profile Benedict Cumberbatch film this festival season, don’t sleep on the one with a whole bunch of cats. In the sweet, weird and somewhat heartbreaking Amazon Prime biopic, Cumberbatch plays the eccentric and twitchy Louis Wain, an English artist forced to support his family of five sisters who found the love of his life in an equally curious governess (Claire Foy). Most notably, though, Wain became a sensation for his feline drawings – which persuaded late 19th century society to think of cats as pets instead of vermin. Cumberbatch is a quirky delight, even if the historical drama has the attention span of a kitten with a yarn ball.

14. ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the seminal Frank Herbert sci-fi novel certainly is full of spectacle, with amazing starships, huge action sequences and bigger sandworms. If only its storytelling was as ambitious: The journey of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), a young man thought to be a messiah, to a dangerous planet where his family heads up mining efforts for a precious natural resource is only really half a movie. While many of the main players are hard to root for and “Dune” is full of arcane mythological elements to juggle, Villeneuve definitely delivers in terms of large-scale special effects, production design and a sprawling, awesome world-building.

13. ‘Night Raiders’

Executive produced by Taika Waititi, the Canadian dystopian thriller has “Hunger Games” vibes and a social conscience. Director Danis Goulet imagines a future North America ravaged by a civil war where a military state north of the border rounds up indigenous kids and children of color for forced education “academies” (inspired by Canada’s toxic colonial legacy). Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree woman separated from her 12-year-old daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), who’s taken to one of these schools. While working to save the youngster, Niska falls in with a native group who believe she’s a prophesied savior.

12. ‘The Starling’

Melissa McCarthy turns in her best movie role since “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and Kevin Kline shines in this sentimental dramedy directed by Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures”). After the sudden death of her baby daughter, Lilly (McCarthy) struggles in every way, from her job to the her relationship with her husband (Chris O’Dowd), now in a mental health facility. It’s the worst time for a feisty bird in her garden giving her a load of extra trouble, but the critter – and a prickly yet wise veterinarian (Kline) – help her begin to turn things around. There’s tonal whiplash between fallout from the tragic loss of a child and slapstick shenanigans with a dive-bombing bird, but it mostly works.

11. ‘A Banquet’ 

The pre-apocalyptic streak of “Donnie Darko” meets family drama in director Ruth Paxton’s female-led psychological horror. Jessica Alexander impresses as a young woman who stops eating after a night of partying leads to her believe there’s a cataclysmic event incoming and her body is now a vessel for what’s on the way. Worried, her widowed mom (Sienna Guillory) becomes obsessed with getting her to consume something, even a few peas – there’s a number of culinary closeups that’ll make you lose your appetite – though weeks go by and she doesn’t lose any weight. It’s a thought-provoking, often chilling take on parent/teen dynamics and eating disorders. 

10. ‘Hellbound’

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho (“Train to Busan”), the six-episode Netflix supernatural drama gets a try-out in Toronto and it’s a cool spin on the police procedural where South Korean detectives investigate people being told by angels they’re going to die and demonic monsters coming to drag them to hell in rather public and freaky fashion. A widowed cop (Yang Ik-june), a broadcast journalist (Park Jeong-min) and lawyer (Kim Hyun-joo) investigate the public’s growing concern and obsession with the “sinners” being chosen and the involvement of a popular religious group with a charismatic young leader (Yoo Ah-in).

9. ‘Jagged’

Isn’t it ironic: Alanis Morissette has publicly bashed the documentary about her hit 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill,” but it’s actually an exceedingly positive study of the alternative-rock pioneer. Director Alison Klayman’s film explores Morissette’s early career as a teenage pop star (including issues of sexual abuse and music-industry misogyny) and rounds up the likes of Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson and filmmaker Kevin Smith to talk about the musician’s pop-culture relevance, though it really sings when digging into Morissette’s work with Glen Ballard in crafting one of the great all-time breakthrough albums.

8. ‘Dashcam’

Director Rob Savage (who did last year’s Zoom-seance-gone-wrong “Host”) teams with horror guru Jason Blum for this pandemic-era, pitch-black horror comedy told over a sputtering “livestream.” Sick of lockdown, a toxic, rapping online troll (Annie Hardy, gamely playing the worst person you’ve never met) who broadcasts her every move flies to England to hang with her old bandmate. She steals his rideshare identity and is tasked with driving an old, masked woman to a mysterious countryside destination. Frequent jump scares, buckets of blood and “Evil Dead”-esque schlock ensue in a movie where every time you think it can’t get any nuttier, it proves you wrong. 

7. ‘The Forgiven’

Directed by John Michael McDonagh (“Calvary”), the thought-provoking drama casts Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes as Jo and David, a wealthy married couple traveling to a hedonistic party hosted by two friends (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones) in the Moroccan desert. Late to the shindig, the couple runs over and kills an Arab boy, puts him in their car and travels on. The rather loathsome David has to travel to a faraway village with the boy’s father to make amends, while Jo – embracing opulence and freedom from her husband – is a part of the callous crew keeping the party going, leading to contrasting stories tackling social oppression, privilege and accountability.

6. ‘Titane’

Written and directed by Julia Ducournau (who did the fantastic “Raw”), this wild and extremely weird French thriller – which won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes – gives new meaning to the term “auto erotica.” Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who has titanium plate in her head from when she was in a nasty highway accident as a kid, is a well-known dancer who twerks on a flame-bedecked Cadillac, has “sex” with the four-wheeled machine and becomes pregnant. (No, really.) Alexia also happens to be a serial killer, but this insane tale of murder and disturbing body horror has a heart, too, displayed when an on-the-lam Alexia meets a troubled aging fire captain (Vincent Lindon) and both find themselves needing one another.

5. ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’

Mélanie Laurent is aces behind and in front of the camera in this 19th-century French drama with a contemporary edge and a whiff of the supernatural. Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) is an independent woman who rebels often against her conservative father, but when the family finds out she claims to see ghosts, they have her admitted to a female-populated neurological clinic where physical and psychological abuse is rampant. Eugénie does find a kind and understanding soul in a stoic nurse (Laurent) still grieving her sister’s death. Scenes of treatment are often hard to watch – and maddening to know they really happened – but it’s an effective star vehicle for de Laâge.

4. ‘Listening to Kenny G’

Whether you heart the iconic soprano saxophonist forever or revert to the fetal position every time you hear “Songbird,” Penny Lane crafts an enthralling documentary about Kenny G, from his early years as a jazzy Seattle kid to becoming the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. But that’s only half of it, as Lane recruits the famously curly-headed musician’s harshest critics to discuss why they dismiss his songs as “wallpaper music” vs. why he’s beloved all around the world. To his credit, Kenny G takes on all comers, including those who argue that his “smooth jazz” appropriates a Black American art form, in a film that reveals more about Kenny Gorelick as a dude than as a legend.

‘Just awful’:Kenny G revisits first music video, ‘Tonight Show’ flap ahead of his new HBO documentary

3. ‘The Guilty’

Director Antoine Fuqua’s ultra-tense remake of the 2018 Danish thriller will keep your stomach in a knot for most of its 90 minutes – before the inevitable gut punch. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a hot-tempered LAPD detective demoted to 911 operator duty, and a call comes in from a woman seemingly in grave danger that sends his night into an emotional tailspin. An impressive voice cast, including Riley Keough and Peter Sarsgaard, literally phone it in as the various important players the cop deals with, and Gyllenhaal deftly navigates a stirring character arc in a twisty story of both accountability and redemption.

2. ‘Attica’

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the infamous rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and director Stanley Nelson’s absorbing documentary is a deep dive on the incident where 1,000 inmates took guards hostage during a five-day standoff that ended in a bloody clash with police. In interviews with former prisoners, the timely film discusses the virulent racism and violence that led to the uprising from the mostly Black and brown population against the all-white guards but also the society that developed during the rebellion, where Muslim convicts kept guards safe from others who wanted to harm them. As one recalls of the tumultuous time, “It’s us vs. them.”

1. ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

Jessica Chastain is amazing as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, she has an amazing scene partner in Andrew Garfield (as embattled Jim Bakker) and director Michael Showalter crafts an excellent biopic – and a sly critique of popular religion – about the rise and fall of a holy super-couple. “Eyes” focuses mainly on Tammy Faye, who goes from being an outcast at her local church as a kid to havinga flock of Christian TV followers in the 1970s and ’80s – that is, until the Bakkers’ huge broadcasting network came unglued thanks to financial chicanery and public scandal. Chastain and Garfield are superb, and the supporting cast is just as praiseworthy with Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mom and Vincent D’Onofrio as arch-conservative Jerry Falwell.

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