Once a year, my city becomes alive with excitement as the Toronto International Film Festival comes to town. But as the Hollywood elite descends to walk red carpets and showcase their work, it’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour and forget for every Dune or Last Night in Soho that will be in multiplexes by the end of the year, there are ten others that may never see the inside of a film theatre again. Not because they aren’t good, but because they don’t have the same star power.
This list is by no means definitive of the best of the festival, (there’s so many that play it would be impossible to watch them all!) but a list of affecting films that stuck with me after and are definitely worth checking out if you ever get the chance.
Dir. Allison Klayman
Even as a young boy growing up in Northern England, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was inescapable (my older sister played her cassette on repeat). Now 26 years later, Jagged, documents Morissette’s incredible rise to superstardom, from Ottawa to Hollywood to a world tour. Filmmaker Alison Klayman’s interviewing style gives Morissette room to breathe and reflect on her rare perspective of a young woman in the music industry at a time when studios tried to control every move of its female acts. Other interviewees include drummer Taylor Hawkins, Garbage’s Shirley Manson and filmmaker Kevin Smith (who cast Morissette as God in Dogma) who cast light on the influence of this trail-blazing feminist icon.
‘Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over’ (2021)
Dir. Dave Wooley & David Heilbroner
There’s a moment in this documentary, where Snoop Dogg recounts a story of him and a group of other rappers being called to Warwick’s home at 7am for donuts and a stern message to stop using misogynistic language in their songs. It’s a beautiful illustration of Warwick’s wisdom and audacity. Her influence is evident through the wide range of interviews, from the previously mentioned Snoop Dogg to Alicia Keys, Quincy Jones, and Bill Clinton but the core of the film is Warwick herself. Charming and outspoken, she’s a wonderfully soothing presence as she chronicles her early success at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, to being the first Black artist to win a Grammy in the Pop category, to her recording of “That’s What Friends Are For” which raised over $3 million for AIDS research.
Dir. Micheal Pearce
Knowing an Invasion of the Body Snatchers like invasion is happening under his nose, U.S. Marine Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) kidnaps his two young boys in the middle of the night, with the plan to drive them across the country to safety and raise the alarm. But are they in more danger now than they were before? TIFF returners Michael Pearce (Beast) and Joe Barton (The Ritual) deliver a taught family drama with some fantastic world-building as the road trip starts to unravel. It plays its cards a touch too early, taking the suspense with it but its performances, not just from veteran character actors like Ahmed and Octavia Spencer, but also Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada as Malik’s children, are more than enough to keep audiences engaged.
Dir. Shasha Nakhai & Rich Williamson
Set in its titular Toronto neighborhood, Scarborough is the story of three children and their families who become friends at a community daycare while living in a low-income neighborhood. Adapted from her own novel, Christina Hernandez gets a lot of heavy topics into its 2 hour running time, from addiction to domestic abuse and racism but still manages to find time to raise spirits. Liam Diaz, Essence Fox, and Anna Claire Beitel are all incredible as the kids just trying to be kids and they’re backed up by beautiful performances from Cherish Violet Blood, one of the struggling parents, and Aliya Kanani as the social worker constantly being told she cares too much. As heart-wrenching as it is warming, the film’s bottom line is that while systems may fail, communities led by the right people will not.
‘Hold Your Fire’ (2021)
Dir. Stefan Forbes
In 1974, four young Black Muslim men tried to rob a cache of weapons from a Williamsburg sporting goods store, in an attempt to protect themselves and their families from increasing threats of violence. It all went horribly wrong and what followed was the longest hostage situation in NYPD history as well as the most groundbreaking. Using interviews with the robbers, hostages and members of the police interspersed with news footage of the siege (it received round-the-clock coverage at the time), filmmaker Stefan Forbes tries to reconstruct what took place and the misunderstandings that raised tensions so high. It also includes the perspective of the late Harvey Schlossberg, an NYPD psychologist who, over the course of the heist, implemented many techniques that hostage negotiators still use today.
‘You Are Not My Mother’ (2021)
Dir. Kate Dolan
Folklore is always a rich breeding ground for terrifying horror, something that director Kate Dolan uses to full advantage in her debut feature (her short Catcalls is definitely worth checking out). One morning after an argument, teenager Char’s mother goes missing, seemingly due to her living with depression. She returns later that night, unharmed but both Char and her grandmother begin to notice that, as the title of the film indicates, she doesn’t seem quite the same. I’m not sure how much the script had to change to accommodate for Covid (it was all shot during the pandemic) but the small nature of the shoot really gives the film a claustrophobic and unsettling feel, never giving the audience respite and delivering excellent jump scares.
‘Costa Brava, Lebanon’ (2021)
Dir. Mounia Akl
Set in Lebanon’s near future, this family drama/comedy follows three generations of the Badri family; Walid, a former political activist, his singer/songwriter wife Soraya, their two children, and Walid’s elderly mother. After fleeing the political corruption of Beirut to live off the grid in the idyllic Lebanese hills, their life is shattered when the government shows up on their doorstep to use the land next to them as a “green” landfill. The chemistry between the family is purely electric with incredible performances, especially Rim, the youngest, played by twins Ceana and Geana Restrom. Lebanon has been rocked by many tragedies in recent years and it’s more important than ever to listen to their voices and understand that with no one to stand up to corruption, it will seep into every facet of life with no escape.
Dir. Rob Savage
Found footage has always been a friend of horror. Since The Blair Witch Project scared the shit out of audiences in 1999, it’s seen its fair share of imitators, from Paranormal Activity to REC. After last year’s Covid lockdown-inspired Host (Zoom seance goes awry, or as planned, depending on your stance on seances?), director Rob Savage secured a three picture deal with horror studio Blumhouse, DASHCAM is the first. The audience follows an L.A.-based streamer as she escapes lockdown to the U.K. Representing the worst of online culture and egged on by her comments feed, she ends up running from a supernatural force out to get her. Shot as though on a livestream, Savage takes full advantage of the medium to deliver a bat shit eighty minutes that keeps you guessing every step of the way.
‘Night Raiders’ (2021)
Dir. Danis Goulet
The best science-fiction is often a bleak mirror image of our own world, forcing us to recognize our flaws. Night Raiders is ready to take its place among them. Set in the near future, the North Americas are under a dictatorship that uses inhumane tactics to control its population, chiefly that any child under 5 is property of the state and sent to military schools to be used as tools. Niska (Elle Máaijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree mother desperately trying to keep her daughter out of these schools. With thorough worldbuilding reminiscent of films like Children of Men and video games like The Last of Us, director Danis Goulet brings Canada’s painful colonial past (and countries around the world) to light through this speculative yet powerful future and keeps us grounded with beautiful performances from Tailfesthers and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart.
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