We’ll get to the awards presented by juries and critics’ groups in Toronto in a bit, but as the forty-sixth edition wrapped over the weekend, the big story was Belfast. The festival’s in-person and virtual attendees voted to give Kenneth Branagh’s eighteenth feature as a director the People’s Choice award. Recent winners of the coveted prize include Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), so it has a fairly solid record of giving films a propulsive launch into awards season.
Shot for the most part in black and white by frequent Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos, Belfast is set in 1969. In August, tensions broke out on the streets between mostly Protestant unionists who aimed to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and primarily Catholic nationalists who wanted the country to join a united Ireland. The riots signaled the beginning of the thirty years of violence that would become known as the Troubles.
Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is very much a stand-in for Branagh, whose family left Belfast for England when he was the same age. Buddy’s Protestant family—Ma and Pa (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds)—has always gotten along just fine with their Catholic neighbors. But a Protestant rabble-rouser (Colin Morgan) pressures Pa into joining his gang.
Belfast is “a memory piece, evoking a specific time, place, and political crisis in a way that is indelibly, achingly personal,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “And it is also exactly the kind of movie that Oscars voters are likely to respond to and reward at this very moment. We aren’t saying Belfast has been designed to win awards—there’s way too much of Branagh’s blood on the table for that. But its mix of gravitas, sentimentality, salty wit, tragedy, and roman à clef storytelling is most definitely Academy catnip.”
On Twitter, Slate’s Sam Adams puts it this way: “Belfast is lovely and backwards-looking and has super-hot leads and is political in a studiously apolitical way and it won the audience award at TIFF 2021, so yeah, best picture definitely seems like a possibility.” As with every Oscar frontrunner, Belfast has its detractors. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich argues that Branagh “opts for romanticism over realism at every turn. Here is a movie that wants to feel like a Movie, and that artificially sweetened tone helps mitigate the fact that its protagonist appears to live on a studio backlot.”
When Belfast premiered at Telluride a couple of weeks ago, former Variety and LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas sent out a tweet declaring that Branagh’s film “goes straight onto the list of the cinema’s intensely beautiful, sometimes brutal, vividly remembered childhood portraits—The 400 Blows,Amarcord,Hope and Glory,Roma.” “Yes,” Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich replied, “Belfast is fantastic—but its real debt is to Lynne Ramsay’s ecstatic Ratcatcher.”
The first runner-up for the People’s Choice award was Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Scarborough, an adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s Toronto-set novel about three children from struggling low-income families who become tight friends. Scarborough, which also won the Changemaker Award (a prize presented to a film that “tackles issues of social change”) and received a special mention from the jury of the Amplify Voices Award for best Canadian feature, “bursts with a raw immediacy,” writes John Fink at the Film Stage. The second runner-up was The Power of the Dog, which scored a best director Silver Lion for Jane Campion and a first round of terrific reviews in Venice. The film now heads to New York.
The People’s Choice award for best documentary went to The Rescue from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the married team that won an Oscar for Free Solo (2018). Drawn from eighty-seven hours of footage, The Rescue recounts the story of the Thai soccer team—twelve teenage boys and their coach—who were trapped for two weeks in a ten-kilometer-long system of caves in 2018. In Variety,Tomris Laffly calls The Rescue “a rousing film that celebrates humanity at its most selfless and ethically motivated, one that is guided by sharp directorial instincts and dextrous editing by Bob Eisenhardt.”
Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, the first runner-up, isn’t much of a “groundbreaker,” notes TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde, but it’s “as pleasurable as hearing a vintage Warwick hit on the radio.” The second runner-up is Flee, the animated winner of a grand jury prize at Sundance in which Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the story of a friend who fled Afghanistan to live freely as a gay man in northern Europe.
Julia Ducournau’s Titane has now won not only the Palme d’Or in Cannes but also the People’s Choice award for the best film to screen in the Midnight Madness program. Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, the first runner-up, is a “folklore-infused horror” that “crafts an unsettling atmosphere in which the banal and uncanny coexist,” writes Screen’s Wendy Ide. In Rob Savage’s Dashcam, the second runner-up, a pro-Trump, perpetually online anti-vaxxer leaves Los Angeles for London. Dashcam is “a horror-comedy that, in its best moments, recalls prime Sam Raimi,” writes Cory Atad for Cinema Scope. “It’s absolutely wild, becoming increasingly frenetic and, it must be said, exceedingly violent,” warns Daniel Gorman at In Review Online.
In 2015, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey launched Platform, a competitive program named for Jia Zhangke’s 2000 film. This year’s jury—Riz Ahmed (president), filmmakers Clio Barnard, Anthony Chen, and Kazik Radwanski, and Deadline’s new associate editor and critic Valerie Complex—gave the prize to Yuni. “Kamila Andini further proves herself as one of Indonesian cinema’s most vital voices with her third solo feature,” writes Reyzando Nawara at the Film Stage. Yuni, the story of a sixteen-year-old being pressured to accept a marriage proposal, is “a rare teen drama that shines a light on how dated social and gender norms often force young girls in the country to ‘bloom’ before they are ready.”
The jury gave a special mention to Jenna Cato Bass’s Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), which Angelo Muredda, writing for Cinema Scope, calls “an allegory about how the white supremacist violence of apartheid-era South Africa reverberates into the future as demons for the children and grandchildren of Black domestic laborers to exorcise.” Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has been working for a white dame for decades, and while Bass’s horror movie is “admittedly bigger on atmosphere and allusions to sources as disparate as Black Girl,To Sleep with Anger, and the Book of the Dead than it is on scares,” writes Muredda, the “eerie soundscape and elliptical montages of Mavis’s full-throttle cleanings and dustings of her madam’s colonial mansion, pounding her body into the floors as she scrubs unseen dirt out of it, have an undeniably visceral charge.”
The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) gave its prize to Emre Kayiş’s Anatolian Leopard, in which the director of Turkey’s oldest zoo and his assistant attempt to cover up the death of a prized leopard. “In a perfectly controlled comedy of manners,” announced the jury in a statement, “Anatolian Leopard takes the temperature of a country torn between the old ways and modernity—not to say between honor and corruption—while offering up a melancholy portrait of a man at odds with his surroundings.” At Cineuropa, David Katz finds that the “narrative line is slender but the themes considered are vast.”
Costa Brava, Lebanon won the award presented by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC). Set in the near future, Mounia Akl’s debut feature centers on a family that has left the noise and pollution of Beirut only to discover that workers will soon be digging a landfill near their new home. Costa Brava is “a heartfelt charmer that feels sharper and truer in its lovably eccentric character-building than in its grander, more political statements,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety.
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