This TIFF 2021 preview is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
Pandemic be damned, the Toronto International Film Festival is now underway. Whether or not you’re attending (be it remotely or in person), you’ve likely heard rumblings about the fest’s biggest tickets. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has attracted hype bigger than an intergalactic sandworm. Edgar Wright’s latest genre effort Last Night in Soho entices with its high-profile stars and mod-meets-giallo look. And Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning automotive genre flick Titane looks like an absolutely wild ride.
But not every film has the hype to propel it to the top of prospective audience watchlists. So in the interest of making sure that the little guys get their due buzz, we’ve assembled a preview of seven films at TIFF 2021 that we think deserve your attention. From a bananapants acid-western to body horror thrillers, here’s our breakdown of the smaller, weirder TIFF offerings that we think look like absolute bangers.
Starring: Paul Hilton, Romola Garai, Alex Lawther
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović
Country: Belgium, France, United Kingdom
What is it?: Set in the 20th Century in a shuttered European apartment complex, Albert cares for a 10-year-old-girl named Mia with teeth made out of ice. His main duty is to change her dentures several times a day, all while fielding mysterious phone calls inquiring about the girl’s well-being. Then, one day, the voice tells Albert to prepare Mia to leave.
Why we’re excited: What? Did you expect us to read a phrase like “ice for teeth” and not get super excited? That’s one of the most upsetting and intriguing visuals we’ve ever come across. What if you clench your jaw? If you want to enjoy a hot beverage? So many questions.
In all seriousness, Lucile Hadžihalilović‘s name is more than enough to send icy shivers of anticipation down our spines. Those familiar with her past films (notably Innocence and Evolution) will know her to be a deliciously unconventional talent with a penchant for blending the bizarre, beautiful, and downright disturbing. With an adapted script co-written by Geoff Cox (of Claire Denis’ High Life), Earwig marks Hadžihalilović’s first English-language film. So, in addition to what is sure to be a haunting and hallucinatory experience, we’re positive Earwig will mark Hadžihalilović’s introduction to an even broader cinema-going audience.
Starring: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Ruth Paxton
Country: United Kingdom
What is it?: A widowed mother grapples with her eldest daughter’s disturbing conviction that her body has become a vessel for an unknown higher power. Despite being robbed of her appetite, the daughter loses no weight, strengthening her faith and edifying her terrible sense of purpose. As her daughter’s mental health continues to spiral, the mother finds herself teetering over the boundaries of her own beliefs and trauma.
Why we’re excited: The intersection of psychodrama and body horror is an absolute chef’s kiss as far as we’re concerned. Parental fears, wretched up to a fever pitch in the wake of a situation that defies logic, also provide fertile ground for nightmarish possibilities. Promising grotesque culinary close-ups that teeter into the realm of nightmarish surrealism, A Banquet looks wholly disturbing and intimate. A Banquet marks director Ruth Paxton’s feature film debut, and we’re looking forward to sampling the disquieting delicacies she has in store.
Starring: Altaf Khan, Gaurav Soni, Yogendra Singh, Durgalal Saini
Director: Ritwik Pareek
What is it?: A 40-year-old alcoholic named Thakur is bisected in a freak accident on a rural road. The Dug Dug-brand motorcycle he was riding is recovered and held at a nearby police station. But the following morning, the bike is inexplicably parked back at the crash site. Time and time again, the Dug Dug continues to return to the place of Thakur’s death, sowing a rumor that the dead man’s spirit lurks within the vehicle. A religious cult soon springs up around the motorcycle, inspiring an intensely infectious explosion of religious fervor.
Why we’re excited: Look, you had us at “deified haunted motorcycle.” But really, if slick satires of contagious, hysterical faith (and the commercialization that tends to follow) are your jam, then you need to keep an idolatrous eye on Dug Dug. Promising a sly portrait of uninhibited religious zeal, Dug Dug also features a jazz (!) soundtrack from Salvage Audio Collective (the folks behind Gully Boy). Start your engines, lads. This here looks like a wild ride.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ethan Hawke, Riley Keough, Christina Vidal Mitchell, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Castañeda, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Country: United States
Program: Special Presentations
What is it?: Unfolding in real-time within the claustrophobic confines of a 911 dispatch center, an embittered emergency responder must do what he can remotely to save an abducted woman as a wildfire rages towards Los Angeles. Working off the vague clues the woman is able to discreetly provide over the phone, what started off as a tedious, punitive demotion becomes a frenetic race against the clock.
Why we’re excited: We are enormous fans Gustav Möller’s 2018 film Den skyldige a rare entry in “broadcast horror” that actually delivered on its subgenre’s premise: nothing is seen, everything is heard. Very few “broadcast horror” films fully commit to the restrictive limitation. But The Guilty is an exception; a claustrophobic auditory nightmare that fully immerses you in the shoes of its morally shaky 911 dispatcher. Time will tell if Fuqua’s remake will follow through with the same sensory extremity. But as far as anticipation goes, we’re all ears.
I’m Your Man
Starring: Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller, Hans Löw, Wolfgang Hübsch, Annika Meier
Director: Maria Schrader
Program: Special Presentations
What is it?: With her research funding on the line, Alma Felser reluctantly accepts a job evaluating a new line of human cyborgs. Her task: to determine what rights robots should be granted in society. Enter Tom: a robot relentlessly eager to make her as happy as humanly possible.
Why we’re excited: Whoever made the call to cast Dan Stevens as a people-pleasing boyfriend robot deserves a one-way ticket to casting director heaven. Also, and this bears emphasizing, I’m Your Man is a German-language film. And Dan Stevens will be speaking entirely in German. If that wasn’t enough to secure the film’s place on your watchlist, Eggert’s Berlin Silver Bear–winning performance and playfully unique occupation in the sci-fi rom-com space ought to do the trick.
After Blue (Dirty Paradise)
Starring: Paula Luna Breitenfelder, Elina Löwensohn, Vimala Pons, Agata Buzek
Director: Bertrand Mandico
Program: Midnight Madness
What is it?: It’s the distant future and humanity has abandoned Earth for After Blue, a bizarre planet whose strange effects on hair make the territory only hospitable to women. Roxy, the lonely daughter of the colony’s hairdresser, unearths an infamous criminal who promises to grant her three wishes. In the aftermath of the ensuing violence, Roxy and her family are exiled and tasked with venturing out into hostile alien territory to track down the killer.
Why we’re excited: Acid westerns have a long, and delightfully buck wild history. The term was first coined by film critic Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), and over the years has come to mean Westerns that make room for the hallucinogenic. Entering into the tradition of Greaser’s Palace, Dead Man, and Zachariah with an intriguing sci-fi twist, After Blue feels right at home with recent fantastical Midnight Madness entires Let the Corpses Tan and The Twentieth Century. Sign us up. This looks like a mesmerizing trip well worth taking.
Starring: Maria Popistasu, Ilona Brezoianu, Alex Bogdan, Luca Sabin
Director: Radu Muntean
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
What is it?: Three volunteers, Maria, Dan, and Ilinca, are en route to the town of Întregalde to deliver humanitarian aid to the remote village. When they encounter an elderly man who asks for a lift to a nearby sawmill, they feel obliged to help. What begins as a gesture of performative philanthropy quickly descends into a perilous detour that tests the limits of the trio’s empathy.
Why we’re excited: A central figure in the Romanian New Wave, director Radu Muntean is a master of balancing deviously calibrated tension with mordant humor. Who doesn’t love a film that makes you squirm in your seat? Performative philanthropy is by no means a new invention. But the gulf between intent and action has certainly widened in the wake of the still-ongoing global pandemic. Having enjoyed Muntean’s literalist touch in 2015’s One Floor Below, we’re excited to see what the uncomfy delights Întregalde has in store.