The Best (and Worst) Films We Saw at TIFF 2021

Including a beloved director's award-winning film inspired by his own childhood and a dismal horror movie about an anti-mask troll

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Sep 21, 2021

After 2020's severely stripped-down version, this year's Toronto International Film Festival was almost back to its old self. In-person audiences were smaller (and masked), and there was a lot more focus on digital screenings than ever before — but the fundamentals were the same as ever, as celebs descended upon Toronto for the world premieres of some hyped Hollywood blockbusters and promising indie flicks.

And as usual, TIFF 2021 brought the usual standouts and disappointments. From a beloved director's award-winning film inspired by his own childhood to a dismal horror movie about an anti-mask troll, the festival covered the full spectrum of cinema. Our highlights and lowlights are below.

The Best Films at TIFF 2021:

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

The winner of the People's Choice Award, Belfast is the coming-of-age tale of Buddy in 1969 when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland. Fuelled by award-worthy performances by Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, the film is heartwarming and beautifully made. Based on his childhood, writer-director Kenneth Branagh brings together the imminent violence of the times with the heart and soul of a community. An ultimate crowd-pleaser, the optimism Belfast exudes in spite of its context is exactly what we need right now.
Rachel Ho

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation to bring to life the story of the pseudonymous Amin and his journey to Denmark from Afghanistan. Retelling the harrowing details of Amin and his family's escape, Flee is an intensely gripping and compelling documentary that will have you deeply engaged. Amin's coming-out story adds an extra layer of depth to the film, giving Flee a rich duality.
Rachel Ho

Huda's Salon
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

A visual and narratological filmmaking feat, Huda's Salon is expertly wound, unspooling at a breakneck pace as it becomes a thriller and subtle war commentary. This film excels in every aspect — but its most stunning feat is how it is able to so delicately and sympathetically tell iterations of the same story of survival amidst a faceless but violent occupation. 
Alisha Mughal

Montana Story

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Childhood pain bubbles to the surface as two siblings reunite at the bedside of their ailing father at their childhood farm. Parts of the characters are forever tied to childhood and the home where they grew up, but what Montana Story demonstrates best is that the meaning of home never stays the same.
Sara Clements

Silent Night
Directed by Camille Griffin

Though it opens with the cheesy optimism that heralds other ensemble Christmas favourites like Love Actually or The Holiday, Silent Night is actually the most depressing movie you'll see all year. Sublimating climate anxiety into a beautifully-paced comedy that knows when to stop laughing, Camille Griffin's film is inimitable; with singeing black humour and a cast that works like a well-oiled machine, you will fall in love with every character — especially its breakout star, young Roman Griffin Davis, who reflects so much of younger generations' desire to survive. 
Alisha Mughal

The Worst Films at TIFF 2021:

Directed by Rob Savage

Incredibly annoying and little more than a few jump scares, DASHCAM is the ill-advised sophomore effort from director Rob Savage. The main character's anti-mask, anti-lockdown politics are meant to raise the blood pressure of audience members — but instead, the inane drivel and senselessness of the film as a whole are what will make viewers desperate for the film to end. Perhaps it's meant to be subversive and alternative, but there is nothing redeemable about DASHCAM and a recount of the People's Choice Midnight Madness Award should be demanded immediately.
Rachel Ho

The Forgiven
Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Despite solid performances from its all-star cast, including Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes, The Forgiven is a bland thriller that attempts to make sweeping social commentary but ultimately says very little. A movie that believes it to be more clever than it actually is, The Forgiven does not offer much for audiences to hang their hats on, ultimately leading to a rather anti-climatic climax.
Rachel Ho

Directed by Fabrice Du Welz

Not only does this movie expect you to believe that two beautiful young women are enamoured of an old, mediocre writer, it also has some incestuous vibes, not to mention a beautiful dog whose safety is constantly threatened. It's not terrible for the traditional reasons; rather, this movie is viscerally repellant, bringing on a full-body ick.
Alisha Mughal

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