From 'Dear Evan Hansen' to 'Spencer' here are the biggest highlights of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

·12 min read
(Photos: Universal Pictures/Searchlight Pictures/Neon/Netflix)
Scenes, clockwise from top left, from Dear Evan Hansen, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Power of the Dog and Spencer. (Photos: Universal Pictures/Searchlight Pictures/Neon/Netflix)

After going virtual last year, the Toronto International Film Festival is welcoming back movie lovers for in-person premieres and screenings of many of 2021’s most anticipated films. Like the recently-concluded Venice and Telluride festivals, though, this edition of TIFF comes with strict coronavirus protocols in place, including proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test as well as mandatory masking for all attendees. (For those who still wish to watch from afar, the festival is making select films available on its digital platform, although those virtual options are almost exclusively limited to Canada.)

What hasn’t changed for the festival’s 2021 edition is the breadth and depth of movies available to festivalgoers. From Oscar contenders like Spencer and The Power of the Dog to future cult favorites like Titane and Memoria, TIFF is ready to kick the fall movie season into overdrive. Yahoo Entertainment will be following the festival virtually and has assembled this curated guide to the buzziest films you’ll be hearing about for the rest of the year.

Can opening night statement from musical Dear Evan Hansen quiet the haters?

For a film based on such a beloved Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen hasn’t endured the smoothest ride when it comes to the pre-release hype train. Social media users have routinely brought out the memes to mock the fact that Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winning stage star Ben Platt, now 27, is still playing a high schooler in the film version — as if 20somethings in Hollywood haven’t been playing teens for the past 50 years. Regardless, Evan Hansen, which adds star power in Julianne Moore and Amy Adams to the mix, remains one of TIFF’s most high-profile world premieres, and the poignant coming-of-age story will get the fest’s first curtain call as its opening-night film on Thursday. Positive reactions to the film could go a long way in reshaping the narrative around the film leading up to its theatrical release later this month.

Jessica Chastain eyes a major awards season run

Jessica Chastain transformed herself to play the title character in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. (Photo: Searchlight/Courtesy of TIFF)
Jessica Chastain transformed herself to play the title character in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Photo: Searchlight/Courtesy of TIFF)

Awards watchers have long predicted that Jessica Chastain will take home an Oscar one day. That day could be… any minute now. The acclaimed actress is an early Best Actress favorite for her literally transformative turn in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which will have its world premiere in Toronto. Chastain plays divisive former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in Michael Showalter’s satirical biopic, and the early trailers for the movie have spotlighted the remarkable make-up work that radically altered her appearance — make-up that may or may not have caused lasting damage to her skin.

If Eyes somehow falls short with critics and audiences, Chastain has another star vehicle premiering at the festival: John Michael McDonagh’s drama, The Forgiven, which casts her alongside Ralph Fiennes as an estranged married couple who use their power and privilege to try and extricate themselves from a tragic incident during a lavish Moroccan getaway. And the Oscars aren’t Chastain’s only shot at a statue. She’s starring opposite Oscar Isaac in the limited prestige series, Scenes From a Marriage — which premieres Sept. 12 on HBO, the same day that The Eyes of Tammy Faye debuts in Toronto — and will almost certainly be a major player at next year’s Emmy awards.

Belfast and Spencer are among the possible Oscar contenders

Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana Spencer in the new biopic 'Spencer' (Photo: Courtesy of Pablo Larraín)
Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana Spencer in the new biopic, Spencer. (Photo: Courtesy of Pablo Larraín)

Toronto has long been established as a bellwether for Oscar contenders — just look at last year, when its 2020 virtual edition had pundits predicting Nomadland for Best Picture a full seven-plus months out at one of the strangest ceremonies ever. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (a deeply personal black-and-white tale about growing up in Northern Island that critics are comparing to 2018’s major Oscar player Roma) and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (already positioning Kristen Stewart as a Best Actress frontrunner for her transformative performance as Princess Diana) arrive in Canada with pre-baked buzz from premieres in Venice and Telluride, while TIFF’s premieres like Dear Evan Hansen (does Platt have any chance of scoring an ‘O’ to complete his EGOT?) and The Humans (featuring Amy Schumer in a rare dramatic role) will try to join the early conversation.

Performances that pack a punch

Ben Foster plays real-life pugilist Harry Haft in The Survivor (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)
Ben Foster plays real-life pugilist Harry Haft in The Survivor (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Toronto always offers a stage for actors to flex their dramatic muscles in new ways. Take Ben Foster, who reunites with Liberty Heights director Barry Levinson for the Holocaust drama The Survivor. The Leave No Trace star plays Harry Haft — a real-life Polish pugilist who endured a harrowing experience in Nazi concentration camps before facing off on the American boxing circuit opposite heavy hitters like Rocky Marciano. Jake Gyllenhaal knows a thing or two about bulking up for boxing scenes, having gotten seriously ripped for his star turn in Antoine Fuqua’s 2015 fight picture, Southpaw. The actor and director are reuniting for The Guilty, a real-time Netflix thriller with Gyllenhaal as a 911 emergency responder who has to solve a possible abduction case without leaving his desk.

Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline in Netflix's drama The Starling (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)
Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline in Netflix drama The Starling (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)

The streaming service is also debuting The Starling at TIFF, which finds expert comedian Melissa McCarthy navigating more serious subject matter as a grieving mother mourning the death of her infant daughter. Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline — who are no strangers to juggling laughs and tears as well — round out the cast as McCarthy’s husband and therapist, respectively. Speaking of Kline, festivalgoers will be treated to an unexpected Ice Storm reunion with The Good House, where he and Sigourney Weaver play former lovers who enjoy a late-in-life romance in an adaptation of Ann Leary’s bestselling novel. Celebrated Canadian author, Miriam Toews, also scores a TIFF showcase with an adaptation of her award-winning 2014 book, All My Puny Sorrows, which features standout performances from Alison Pill and Sarah Gadon as sisters working through some intense family drama.

The return of last year’s Oscars nominees

Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed is back in another TIFF offering, Encounter (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)
Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed is back in another TIFF offering, Encounter (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun scoring historic nods for their films Sound of Metal and Minari, respectively, were two of the best storylines of the 2021 Academy Awards. Ahmed became the first Muslim person and Yeun was the first Asian-American person nominated for Best Actor. Both could potentially be awards candidates again this year with TIFF titles. In Amazon’s sci-fi drama Encounter, Ahmed plays a decorated marine who must attempt to save his two young sons from an extraterrestrial threat. And in the family ensemble The Humans, Yeun is a polite Manhattanite dealing with the overbearing family of his girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein) in their tight Chinatown duplex as they host Thanksgiving festivities.

It’s been a minute

Kirsten Dunst in Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, the director's first feature film in 12 years (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)
Kirsten Dunst in Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, the director's first feature film in 12 years (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)

It’s been 12 years since Jane Campion brought a feature film to TIFF — 2009’s exquisite Bright Star — but the New Zealand-born auteur is finally back with The Power of the Dog. Arriving in Toronto fresh off strong reviews from Venice and Telluride, the period Western stars Benedict Cumberbatch and real-life married couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons playing out an intimate story against an expansive backdrop. Campion isn’t the only Toronto-bound filmmaker who has taken significant time off in between TIFF premieres. Australian director Philip Noyce is back at the festival for the first time since 2006’s Catch a Fire to debut Lakewood, a fast-paced thriller featuring Naomi Watts as a mother whose morning run is interrupted by an urgent call about her children’s safety. And critically acclaimed cinematic poet, Terence Davies, follows up the 2016 TIFF premiere of A Quiet Passion with his new film, Benediction, which movingly chronicles the life story of renowned poet Siegfried Sassoon. Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi play the younger and older versions of Sassoon, as he survives World War I and returns home to a country that’s not ready to let him openly love the men that stir his heart.

Ava DuVernay’s Kaepernick series Colin in Black & White leads the television offerings

Ava DuVernay's Netflix series Colin in Black & White tells Colin  Kaepernick's life story (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)
Ava DuVernay's Netflix series Colin in Black & White tells Colin Kaepernick's life story. (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy of TIFF)

There are less than a handful of television series crashing Toronto’s film party, including Yeon Sang-ho’s Netflix procedural drama Hellbound, the gender-fluid-lead Canadian comedy Sort Of, and New Zealand’s Polynesian Panther Party story The Panthers. The fourth, however, is one of the fest’s most eagerly anticipated premieres: Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick’s Colin in Black & White, the Netflix limited series that chronicles the future football star’s (as played by Jaden Michael) youth and coming-of-age story as a Black child adopted by white parents (Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker) years before becoming a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural lightning rod in the NFL and across America.

Real people, real stories

Julia Child's life is explored in the TIFF-bound documentary, Julia (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)
Julia Child's life is explored in the TIFF-bound documentary, Julia. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Cooking legend Julia Child may have already gotten the biopic treatment with 2009’s Julia & Julia, but there’s more — much more — to her life story. Enter Julia, a new documentary from Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the duo behind 2018’s Oscar-nominated RBG. Viewers hungry for fresh details about the arc of Child’s career from World War II intelligence officer to world famous food authority will find lots to chew over, when they’re not also marveling at the meals she’s plating. While Child was reinventing the cooking game, French diver Jacques Cousteau was making pioneering expeditions deep into the world’s oceans. Liz Garbus’s Becoming Cousteau examines the French diver’s legacy at a time when climate change threatens to reverse the environmental causes he advocated for throughout his life. The perils of deep water are chronicled in The Rescue, which recounts the international 2018 rescue effort to free a Thai soccer team from a cave flooded by the monsoon rains. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's film earned raves out of Telluride for its ticking clock depiction of how an impossible rescue became possible.

Three beloved music stars get the rock doc treatment

Alanis Morissette is the subject of the HBO music documentary, 'Jagged' (Photo: HBO/Courtesy of TIFF)
Alanis Morissette is the subject of the HBO music documentary, Jagged. (Photo: HBO/Courtesy of TIFF)

What do Dionne Warwick, Alanis Morissette and Kenny G have in common? Besides being popular musicians, not all that much. But all three are now also popular musicians with documentaries about them premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over looks at the long and illustrious career of the soul singer-turned-Twitter sensation; Alison Klayman’s Jagged celebrates the Canadian singer who exploded onto the scene with ’90s hits like “Ironic”; and Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G brings visuals to accompany the sounds of the master of smooth jazz.

Going mad at midnight

A scene from the Cannes-winning body horror movie Titane (Photo: Neon/Courtesy of TIFF)
A scene from the Cannes-winning body horror movie Titane (Photo: Neon/Courtesy of TIFF)

TIFF’s Midnight Madness program is renowned for playing the best in global horror to Toronto’s night owls. And the crown jewel in this year’s six movie line-up is Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Cannes sensation that walked away with the prestigious festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Building on the kind of body horror popularized by David Cronenberg, the movie’s wild narrative involves a young woman who has a titanium plate in her head, a serious urge to kill and an intimate passion for automobiles. (And we do mean intimate.) More car-based scares are provided by DASHCAM, Rob Savage’s follow-up to his breakout quarantine-era ghost story, Host. This Evil Dead-inspired ride takes viewers on a crazy ride through the English countryside as an indie-rock musician tries to outrun the consequences of her obnoxious behavior.

Arrival of the international auteurs

Tilda Swinton stars in Memoria, which will premiere at TIFF (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)
Tilda Swinton stars in Memoria, which will premiere at TIFF. (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

Some of the biggest names in international cinema are starting the North American leg of their around the world journeys at TIFF, starting with Chinese filmmaking legend, Zhang Yimou. The director of Raise the Red Lantern and Hero will premiere the period drama, One Second, which takes place in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and follows a recently-escaped labor camp prisoner who sets off on a quest to find his daughter. Fresh off her collaboration with master Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, Tilda Swinton teams with Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul for Memoria. The typically offbeat narrative casts Swinton as a Scottish orchid farmer on a visit to Colombia where a series of strange events cast a spell over her getaway. Oscar-nominated Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi depicts his country’s growing economic gap in A Hero, about a calligrapher who is imprisoned for his debts and tries to find a way out of his financially perilous state. Celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami provides the source material for Drive My Car, which follows a widower on a soul-restorative road trip.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 9-18

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