I had just returned to the theatre this past weekend for the opening of Marvel’s SHANG CHI, starring the incredibly talented Canadian actor, Simu Liu. It felt really good to get back to something I truly love — the big screen. Hey, a Marvel movie is always better on a big screen, right? The theatre was thoroughly cleaned and we noticed the Cineplex VIP theatre was “sold out” of the designated seating. So, while we ease back in to things we enjoy doing, we are  comforted in knowing that venues are adhering to protocols and doing their part in keeping our health and safety in mind. Now that I have had my first foray back into the movie theatre, I have this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on my mind.

Yes, we’re still trying to get through the pandemic but there are more options to enjoy any of the TIFF titles. In-person theatre screenings and some events will have limited tickets and will be socially distanced based on current guidelines (please check the site for what to expect before you book your tickets), there will also be drive-in theatre opportunities, as well as digital viewings. The full line up of films can be found at www.tiff.net

I’ve sifted through the list of films coming to this year’s TIFF (September 9 to 18) and here are the titles (along with a brief description as offered by TIFF) that I am hoping to catch…

DEAR EVAN HANSEN: Directed by Stephen Chbosky (USA).

Julianne Moore and Ben Platt star in this adaptation of Steven Levenson’s Tony Award–winning musical about adolescence, grief, and transcendence. Winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for star Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen comes to the big screen with all the heart and soaring inspiration of its Broadway origins.High school student Evan Hansen (Platt) suffers from social anxiety disorder. Under the advice of his therapist, Evan writes letters to himself with the goal of recognizing the good things in his life, such as his classmate Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, TIFF ’18’s The Front Runner), on whom he has an enormous crush. But when a fateful encounter with Zoe’s brother Connor (Colton Ryan, also reprising his role from the stage production) puts Evan in an awkward position, that self-correspondence provides an irresistible opportunity for deception. Evan concocts a friendship that never existed, constructing a whole new life for himself — one that could come crashing down at any minute.

Dear Evan Hansen. Photo courtesy of TIFF

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE: Directed by Michael Showater (USA)

Jessica Chastain stars as flamboyant televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in this humanizing portrait of the rise and fall of the Bakker network empire. In a captivating performance that is nothing short of alchemy, Jessica Chastain (also at the Festival in The Forgiven) transforms into flamboyant televangelist and singer Tammy Faye Bakker, the woman who would, alongside husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), build a multimillion dollar ministry empire. The Bakkers’ spectacular fall from grace thrust Tammy Faye into the mainstream spotlight. Her fashion and makeup choices were regular subjects of derision in late-night talk shows and sketch comedies, which cemented her place in popular culture.
JAGGED: Directed by Alison Klayman (USA)
Alanis Morissette reflects on her 1990s rise to rock stardom, in this new documentary from Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry). A candid look back at being a young woman in the maelstrom of superstardom in the new documentary Jagged. The Canadian singer, previously a teen pop singer in her home country, was only 21 when her record Jagged Little Pill topped international charts in 1995, powered by hits like “You Oughta Know,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Ironic,” and more. Today they are alt-rock feminist anthems and the basis of a Broadway musical. With the power of hindsight, Morissette can now revisit the good, the bad, and the ugly of that period in her life and career.

Jagged. Photo courtesy of TIFF

DIONNE WARWICK: Don’t Make Me Over: Directed by Dave Wooley, David Heilbroner

This inspiring documentary portrait chronicles the iconic singer’s fascinating six-decade career in both music and Black and LGBTQ activism. A living legend. With that singular voice, both delicate and impassioned, her interpretations of many Burt Bacharach–Hal David compositions — “Walk On By,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” — are regarded as definitive. Her activist work for the Black and LGBTQ communities has had a profound impact, yielding her 1985 version of “That’s What Friends Are For,” sung with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, which raised over $3 million for AIDS research. Warwick’s life and work, encompassing the Black American experience over the past six decades, is the subject of Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s inspiring documentary portrait.
NIGHTRAIDERS: Directed by Danis Goulet (Canada)
Danis Goulet’s singular thriller draws on Canada’s ugly colonial legacy for a propulsive piece of genre cinema set in a dystopian postwar future. After a destructive war across North America, a military occupation seizes control of society. One of their core tactics: taking children from their families and putting them into State Academies, or forced-education camps. Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree mother desperate to protect her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart). But events force mother and daughter to separate, leading Niska to join a group of Cree vigilantes to get her daughter back.

Nighraiders. Photo courtesy of TIFF

LO INVISIBLE: Directed by Javier Andrade (Equador, France).

A dazzling and mysterious film follows a woman who comes home from a psychiatric clinic after a bout with severe postpartum depression. Ecuadorian filmmaking team Javier Andrade and Anahí Hoeneisen return with a strong and carefully observed feature devoted to exploring the dark side of maternity, or, better yet, the ways in which performing our expected roles in society puts inordinate pressure on us.

THE FORGIVEN: Directed by John Michael McDonagh (UK)
Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes lead a strong ensemble cast in this tense drama about the perilous fallout from a debauched weekend in Morocco. On the verge of divorce, wealthy couple David (Fiennes) and Jo (Chastain, also appearing at the Festival in The Eyes of Tammy Faye) are on their way to a lavish weekend party, and accidentally run over and kill a young Moroccan man trying to sell fossils by the roadside. They put his body in their car and arrive at the party at a mansion hosted by a worldly gay couple. Once the body is tucked away in the bowels of the villa, the partygoers return to the circus of dancing, drugs, and debauchery. The next morning, David’s buzz becomes a hangover as he’s forced to reckon with the boy’s father and meet his own fate. For the others, the party must go on.

The Forgiven. Photo courtesy of TIFF

THE MAD WOMEN’S BALL (Le Bal des folles): Mélanie Laurent (France)

A searing yet sensitive portrait of women enmeshed in a medical system that both misunderstands and fears them. The setting is late 19th-century France and the birth of psychiatry, but the resonances couldn’t be more contemporary. Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) is a young woman with a free spirit, an independent mind, and a quick tongue — qualities her father will not tolerate. Eugénie also has spectral encounters that leave her staring into space and gasping for breath. She is visited by the spirits of the dead. Alarmed by her visions, Eugénie’s family admits her to a neurological clinic in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière overseen by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet). The clinic is populated by women of all ages.

MARIA CHAPDELAINE: Directed by Sébastien Pilote (Quebec, Canada)

A teen in rural Quebec must decide her future by choosing one of three suitors, in Sébastien Pilote’s moving adaptation of Louis Hémon’s 1913 novel. The Chapdelaines live on a remote farm in northern Quebec in the early 1900s. Father Samuel (Sébastien Ricard) has little patience for society, moving when anyone comes too close, which has led to a strangely peripatetic existence for his long-suffering wife Laura (Hélène Florent) and their children. But as the film opens, some decisions are going to have to be made, most involving Maria (Sara Montpetit), who has reached marrying age. Three very different suitors have come forward, each representing a distinct path for Maria. Lorenzo Surprenant (Robert Naylor), who has taken a factory job in the US, offers Maria wealth and an escape from rural hardship. Shy and awkward Eutrope Gagnon (Antoine Olivier Pilon), the next-door neighbour and fellow homesteader who has loved Maria since they first met, will let her remain close to her family. Dashing logger François Paradis (Émile Schneider), meanwhile, seems to promise her the best of both worlds. Whom Maria chooses, and the factors influencing her, will have serious implications for her entire family.

Maria Chapdelaine. Photo courtesy of TIFF

THE STARLING: Theodore Melfi (USA)

Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline star in Theodore Melfi’s bittersweet tale of a couple working their way toward the other side of grief. Lilly (McCarthy) is always the one who holds it together when things go south for her family. A year has passed since she and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) lost their infant daughter. Grief got the better of Jack, who’s now recovering in a psychiatric clinic. Lilly holds down her job at the grocery store, keeps up the family’s expansive rural property, and faithfully makes the weekly two-hour journey to visit her husband. Concerned that Lilly isn’t tending to her own grieving process, a counsellor at Jack’s clinic suggests that she see a local therapist, Larry (Kevin Kline, also appearing in Festival selection The Good House). The counsellor neglects to mention that Larry long ago gave up psychology to become a veterinarian — a practice that will prove germane when a dive-bombing starling begins wreaking havoc in Lilly’s garden.
MEDUSA: Directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira (Brazil)
A gang of young women in Brazil try to control everything around them, including other women, in this genre-hopping film about internalized misogyny. The unexpected rise of radical Christian factions in Brazil prompted writer-director Anita Rocha da Silveira to start working on the ideas behind her new feature, in which religion, politics, and violence — the mythological and the all-too-real — converge. Medusa centres on a gang of fanatic young women who beat up and “convert” other women they deem too sinful. Mariana and Michele, two of the “treasures” of their church’s congregation, go to great lengths to prove to themselves and the world that their path is the right one. However, they end up discovering — not without pain — that the only way for them to be their truest selves is to break free from their hypocritical clique’s tight control of their minds and bodies.
THE OTHER TOM: Directed by Rodrigo Plá, Laura Santullo (Mexico, USA)
A mother risks losing custody of her son when she refuses to continue medicating his ADHD, after an accident alerts her to the drugs’ side-effects. Based on a novel by co-director Laura Santullo, the latest feature by award-winning Mexican filmmaker Rodrigo Plá tells the story of a single mother, blue-collar worker Elena, and her nine-year-old son Tom. Living by themselves in the US, they rely on a thin public safety net to make ends meet, and their tight but fraught bond is pushed to the limit when the kid is hastily diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed psychiatric medication.

SPENCER: Directed by Pablo Larraín (UK, Germany)

Kristen Stewart stars in Pablo Larraín’s haunting chamber drama that imagines a tumultuous Christmas in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. Starring Kristen Stewart, Spencer follows the Princess of Wales as she navigates a precarious Christmas holiday with the Royal Family at their Sandringham estate in Norfolk — a moment that will set Diana on a path to independence, however tragically short-lived. The Prince’s infidelities with Camilla Parker Bowles have become public knowledge. The fairy-tale façade of Charles and Diana’s marriage has crumbled. Arriving at Sandringham tardy and alone, Diana is expected to adhere to a series of soul-draining exercises in empty propriety, routinely changing outfits and posing for photos. She savours whatever hours she can secure with her sons, William and Harry, but her sole confidant is her personal attendant (Sally Hawkins). As Diana begins to disobey decorum, her every indulgence is tracked by a former Black Watch officer (Timothy Spall) newly employed by the Queen to keep paparazzi at bay — and the Princess on a tight leash.

Spencer. Photo courtesy of TIFF

THE GUILTY: Directed by Antoine Fuqua (USA)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Antoine Fuqua’s thriller set over the course of a single morning in a 911 dispatch centre. As a wildfire rages towards Los Angeles, embittered police officer Joe Bayler (Gyllenhaal) winds down a chaotic but tedious shift answering emergency calls — a punitive demotion he received ahead of an imminent disciplinary hearing. His ennui is soon interrupted by a cryptic call from a woman (Riley Keough) who appears to be attempting to call her child, but is in fact discreetly reporting her own abduction. Working with the meagre clues she is able to provide, Joe throws all his skill and intuition towards ensuring her safety, but as the severity of the crime comes to light, Joe’s own psychological state begins to fray and he is forced to reconcile with demons of his own.

VIOLET: Directed by Justine Bateman (USA)

Olivia Munn stars in writer-director Justine Bateman’s feature debut, a formally daring, psychologically incisive portrait of a woman at a crossroads. A Los Angeles–based film executive, Violet (Olivia Munn) has worked arduously to gain status in an industry still dominated by older white men, often at the expense of her dignity and taste. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her relationship to her boss (Dennis Boutsikaris), who exerts his power by regularly humiliating her in front of clients. Violet presents as confident, chilly, even callous, but inside her a cauldron of desperate anxieties is on the brink of boiling over.

Violet. Photo courtesy of TIFF

QUICKENING: Directed by Haya Waseem (Canada)
The debut feature from writer-director Haya Waseem explores the life of a young woman of colour navigating love, heartbreak, and family turmoil. Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a Pakistani Canadian teenager living in the suburbs. Nearing the end of first-year university and having fallen in love for the first time, with her classmate Eden, Sheila desires a freedom that her mother and father (played by Azeem’s real-life parents) are unwilling to offer. After Sheila loses her virginity to Eden, he abruptly breaks up with her, and her sense of reality begins to unravel, further alienating her from her friends, family, and community.

BELFAST: Directed by Kenneth Branagh (UK).

Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, and Jamie Dornan star in Kenneth Branagh’s coming-of-age tale set amid the tumult of late-1960s Northern Ireland. The film follows young Buddy (Jude Hill) as he navigates a landscape of working-class struggle, sweeping cultural changes, and sectarian violence. Buddy dreams of a glamorous future that will whisk him far from the Troubles, but, in the meantime, he finds consolation in his charismatic Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe), and his spry, tale-spinning grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench).
MOTHERING SUNDAY: Directed by Eva Husson (UK)
Olivia Colman and Colin Firth star in this deeply affecting adaptation of Graham Swift’s bittersweet novel about secret love in post-WWI England. Featuring captivating performances from up-and-coming talents Odessa Young (TIFF ’18’s Assassination Nation) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown), and Oscar-winning veterans Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Glenda Jackson, this exquisite adaptation of Booker Prize–winning author Graham Swift’s eponymous novella transports us to Britain’s inter-war years for a story of grief, responsibility, and hidden love.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS: Directed by Michael McGowan (Canada).

A moving adaptation of Miriam Toews’ beloved novel All My Puny Sorrows is propelled by nuanced direction, an affecting script, and a truly stellar, fearless cast. The story revolves around the women of the Von Riesen clan: writer Yoli (Alison Pill), who’s tormented by self-doubt and is going through a tough, protracted divorce; her sister Elf (Sarah Gadon), a well-known concert pianist whose bouts with depression threaten to consume her; their steadfast mother Lottie (Mare Winningham); their no-nonsense aunt Tina (Mimi Kuzyk); and Yoli’s precocious daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty).

All My Puny Sorrows. Photo courtesy of TIFF

LAKEWOOD: Directed by Phillip Noyce (Canada)

Naomi Watts stars in Phillip Noyce’s nerve-rattling thriller about a mother racing desperately against time to save her child. Amy Carr (Naomi Watts) is out for what should have been a restorative morning run when a friend calls with terrifying news: authorities are in pursuit of an active shooter, and her teenage son, Noah, may be caught in the middle. Deep within a network of forest paths surrounding her home, miles from town and nearly overwhelmed by panic, Amy refuses to succumb to hopelessness. With her smartphone as her sole means of intervention, she will draw upon every resource she can think of to ensure that her son survives the attack.