Your ultimate TIFF Cheat Sheet: 20 of your absolute must-watches

From the buzziest to the most underrated, we got you.
September 8, 2021 4:51 p.m. EST
Warner Bros./Searchlight Pictures Warner Bros./Searchlight Pictures

What is life without the cinema? Fortunately, we no longer have to attempt to answer that question, as this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is upon us, with both in-person and virtual screenings aplenty. The festival is set to feature over 100 movies, many of them highly buzzed-about (Dune, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Last Night in Soho) and many of them a little more low-key and in need of your attention (Charlotte, Flee, Night Raiders).

To make it easy for you, we’ve compiled a list of what we consider your must-sees this year, including what they’re about, who they star and why they need your love. Get your schedules (and line-up survival kits) ready!

Dune

What's it about?

Paul, a young genius, is tasked with travelling to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. But evil lingers, leading to a war over a special drug that can extend human life and provide superhuman levels of thought. It's based on the acclaimed 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, and has been adapted by the unparalleled Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. This adaptation only covers the first half of the novel, meaning a sequel is on the way. No film has greater TIFF buzz than this, so start preparing for that queue.

Who does it star?

His highness Timothee Chalamet, her highness Zendaya, along with Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, and more. Basically every gorgeous human in Hollywood.

Why should you care?

If you're a hopeless Chalamet fangirl or a Zendaya fangirl, but especially if you're a Villeneuve fangirl. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

What's it about?

The entirely eccentric and totally fascinating televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who built a controversial Christian empire in the '80s with her husband, preacher Jim, but then came to a tragic end.

Who does it star?

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye, this being her passion project, and perhaps finally a role she's actually well-suited to. Andrew Garfield plays Jim, while The Big Sick's Michael Showalter directs.

Why should you care?

The prosthetics alone!

Last Night in Soho

What's it about?

The plot for this one has been kept largely under wraps, but the tease is good enough: a young woman finds one day that she can enter the 1960s whenever she so chooses, and there she meets a fascinating young singer, but soon, their realities begin to blend in concerning ways.

Who does it star?

The great Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen's Gambit) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), along with Matt Smith and Terence Stamp, so expect a lot of deer-in-the-headlights and eerie, woeful glances from all.

Why should you care?

Edgar Wright, he of Scott Pilgrim, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, writes and directs. And apart from Baby Driver, he will never steer you wrong and only into totally weird wonder.

Bergman Island

What's it about?

A couple heads on vacation to the island of Fårö, where film legend Ingmar Bergman spent the end of his life. That's really all you need to know, but expect plenty of romance, tension and artiste warfare.

Who does it star?

Tim Roth, who is always great, but more importantly, Vicky Krieps, who is a one-of-a-kind talent, and made an unforgettable splash in Phantom Thread, and is set to have a very good 2021.

Why should you care?

If you love movies, this is for you. And if you don't know who Krieps is yet, this is especially for you.

Charlotte

What's it about?

This film follows the harrowing story of the incredible German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who created one of the world’s first graphic novels during the Second World War while hiding from the Nazis and before her capture and gassing at Auschwitz.

Who does it star?

Oscar nominee Keira Knightley is the eponymous artist in the English version, while Oscar winner Marion Cotillard plays her in the French version, alongside Romain Duris; both Knightley and Cotillard also serve as executive producers. Oscar nominees Brenda Blethyn and Sophie Okonedo, Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, as well as the late Helen McCrory co-star with Sam Claflin, Mark Strong, and Henry Czerny. They all turn in remarkably empathic performances.

Why should you care?

This animated take on Saloman's life will have you feeling as if you're swimming inside her work. This is a woman and artist worth knowing, and no better way to get educated.

Titane

What's it about?

You're gonna have to sit down for this: Titane follows the story of a woman who, after a car accident when she was young, was left with a titanium plate in her head, and grows to become an ironic car model who feels an innate attraction to the vehicles around her. After then developing a taste for murder, she masquerades as the long-lost son of a man who takes her at her word. Phew.

Who does it star?

Agathe Rousselle is the dark lead, while Vincent Lindon plays the father to devastating effect.

Why should you care?

It sounds wild, and it is, but director Julia Ducournau (Raw) knows what she's doing, and received massive raves at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this summer, winning the year's Palme d'Or. Oh, and there's a scene in which our lead fornicates with a car and ends up pregnant. Just FYI.

Flee

What's it about?

This animated doc tells the story of Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym), who fled Afghanistan as a boy for Denmark, and describes the conditions that forced his family to escape his home, how he became separated from his siblings in Russia, and how he came of age as a gay man in northern Europe.

Who does it star?

Nawabi tells his own story, and if you still need convincing, Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as executive producers.

Why should you care?

Incredibly prescient, these are the sorts of stories we need more of, from people we should be seeing more of on our screens.

The Power of the Dog

What's it about?

Adapted from Thomas Savage's novel, The Power of the Dog is set in 1920s Montana, and follows two rancher brothers: Phil, a cruel, hard individual, and George, his opposite. When George falls in love and marries a woman called Rose, who also has a son, things get much more complicated, as Phil torments them, but also maybe, possibly, sort of, kind of develops a fondness for the young boy.

Who does it star?

One of the best casts at TIFF, Benedict Cumberbatch and his voice star as Phil, but here's the real gem: real-life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons play George and Rose. Sign! Us! Up!

Why should you care?

Jane Campion directs and writes, and when she decides to do either of those things, you go and you bow and you have a damn good time.

Spencer

What's it about?

Princess Diana, just after she knew her relationship with Prince Charles was over, and during Christmas holidays with the dreaded royal fam.

Who does it star?

The often wooden Kristen Stewart plays Diana, and so far, her performance is being billed as a massive success, which makes total sense -- since growing up in Hollywood as a unique personality, she's faced her own share of paparazzi and unfair media attention. Pablo Larraín (who masterfully laid out Jackie Kennedy's days after the assassination of JFK with 2016's Jackie) directs, while Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Eastern Promises, Locke) writes with his usual foreboding pen.

Why should you care?

Because when will we ever have enough Princess Diana? Also, who isn't itching to see if Stewart can nail the accent and head tilt?

Scarborough

What's it about?

Adapted from the wonderful novel by Canadian writer Catherine Hernandez, Scarborough follows the stories of three low-income families struggling to endure within a system that’s set them up for failure whilst in the Toronto suburb.

Who does it star?

Liam Diaz, Essence Fox and Anna Claire Beitel are our young, captivating leads.

Why should you care?

Because this is a stunning portrait of a diverse community that deserves a platform, just as its subjects do. If you're Canadian, and especially if you grew up in Toronto, it's a must-see, because there's so much more to this city than its centre.

Night Raiders

What's it about?

This post-apocalyptic film feels disturbingly topical as it takes place after a war across North America, where a military occupation seizes control of society, taking children from their families and putting them into forced-education camps. Niska is a Cree mother desperate to protect her daughter Waseese, but when they're forced apart, Niska joins a group of vigilantes to get her back.

Who does it star?

The utterly incredible Indigenous actress Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Oh, and Taika Waititi executive produces.

Why should you care?

Again, what could be more topical? The film mirrors the forced assimilation of Indigenous children in Canada and many other places around the world, and with an Indigenous team behind it, this couldn't be more of a necessary perspective.

Mothering Sunday

What's it about?

An adaptation of Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift's novella, Mothering Sunday tells of a maid post-World War I who concocts a plan to meet the man she loves before he leaves to marry another woman. Yum.

Who does it star?

Olivia Colman, which is reason enough, but she is also joined by Colin Firth, Josh O'Connor, Odessa Young and Glenda Jackson, making for a very English film.

Why should you care?

Olivia Colman! Get with the program.

Jagged

What's it about?

This documentary recounts Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette's evolution as an artist, and what it was like growing up in the music industry as a young woman, moving from Ottawa to Hollywood.

Who does it star?

Alanis, Alanis, and more Alanis.

Why should you care?

If you are very Canadian.

Paris, 13th District

What's it about?

The intersecting love stories of friends and lovers Nora, Amber, Camille, and Emilie.

Who does it star?

Young, diverse French actors Noémie Merlant, Jehnny Beth, Makita Samba, and Lucie Zhang.

Why should you care?

Céline Sciamma, who previously gifted us with 2019's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, wrote the script, along with director Jacques Audiard and famed Canadian cartoonist Adrian Tomine. Truly, what a trio. Speaking of Sciamma, it's also worth checking out her other TIFF feature, Petite Maman.

All My Puny Sorrows

What's it about?

Based on Miriam Toews' best-selling novel, this is the story of two sisters who've left the Mennonite community after their father committed suicide, though one of the two finds herself considering the same end. Tissues or a very absorbent face mask are a must.

Who does it star?

Two flawless young Canadian actresses: Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill, along with Mare Winningham as their mother and Donal Logue as their late father.

Why should you care?

It's a gorgeous, if devastating, story, with so much talent behind it, from the leads to Toews.

The Worst Person In The World

What's it about?

This is the final part of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, and follows a 30-year-old woman in the midst of an existential crisis as she navigates between career and romantic choices, and her refusal to be defined. In other words, she's got a gnawing need to blow up her life on the cusp of turning 30 (it's really not a terrible age, folks, calm down).

Who does it star?

Renate Reinsve, for whom this is a breakout film, and it's earned her rave reviews.

Why should you care?

Trier will never lead you astray, with Reprise, Louder Than Bombs and Thelma behind him.

The Mad Women’s Ball

What's it about?

Prepare your anger: this period film follows a woman who finds herself forcibly institutionalized in a Paris asylum, and her attempt to escape with the help of a nurse.

Who does it star?

Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent, one of those actresses who can do so much with a single stare.

Why should you care?

Laurent. Not only is she starring, but directing and writing, remaining a steady filmmaking force.

Colin In Black And White

What's it about?

This limited series chronicles what inspired activist and athlete Colin Kaepernick to risk his career in support of civil rights, from the moment he took a knee during the U.S. national anthem in 2016, setting off the early roots of a new revolution. It also details his upbringing as a biracial boy growing up in California to white parents.

Who does it star?

Jaden Michael plays a young Colin, while Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman play his adoptive parents.

Why should you care?

Co-creator Ava DuVernay and Kaepernick are both such fascinating people, so this is a real meeting of the minds, one that promises to inspire with a unique story-telling style.

One Second

What's it about?

Written and directed by Zhang Yimou, this love letter to cinema tells of a man who escapes a Chinese labour camp towards the end of the Cultural Revolution to see one last glimpse of his daughter, who is immortalized in the screening of a newsreel where she is seen briefly as a model student.

Who does it star?

The equally touching Fan Wei, Liu Haocun, and Zhang Yi.

Why should you care?

Well, first of all, One Second is bound to leave you drowning in your tears, and is unlikely to be a story that will leave you at all. It's also the sort of cinematic love story that is everything to movie lovers. Masochistic, aren’t we?

Belfast

What's it about?

Kenneth Branagh's latest is a personal one, a coming-of-age tale set in 1960s Northern Ireland, his hometown, and which ruminates on the love of family.

Who does it star?

Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe play the beautiful parents of the young boy (Jude Hill) at the story's centre, while Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench play the grandparents.

Why should you care?

For those with big families, for those with deep roots, for those who love nostalgia, Belfast is sure to move you.

BEFORE YOU GO: Jessica Chastain's response to that hot Oscar Isaac moment

[video_embed id='2273969']BEFORE YOU GO: Jessica Chastain's response to that hot Oscar Isaac moment [/video_embed]