Toronto So Far: It’s Good to Be Back, but Where’s the Buzz?

Toronto 2021: In a weird year, crowds are deliberately small and nothing has broken out as a sure-fire awards contender

TIFF 2021
The Scotiabank multiplex at TIFF on Saturday afternoon / Photo by Steve Pond

Out of the many ads that precede public screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, there’s one that has drawn consistent applause this year. It comes from Bell, which welcomes fans to the Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF and also to ADNOIFF, the “Amazing Date Night Out International Film Festival,” and to INBSGTBBIATIFF, the “I’ve Never Been So Glad to be Back in a Theater International Film Festival.”

That last line has regularly spurred cheers at this year’s TIFF, which has returned to a model that focuses on in-person screenings and allows international visitors for the first time in two years, with socially-distanced and carefully-controlled screenings of every film in the lineup. The physical screenings have been a relief to virtually everyone in attendance in Toronto, definitely including festival organizers, like artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey, who has introduced many films by saying, “I’m honestly thrilled to be presenting films in a theater – it’s been so long.”

But make no mistake, this is a very different Toronto Film Festival. As TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers has said in his own introductions, “We know that this is a weird year and that it takes a lot of extra effort to attend the festival.”

The press and industry contingent in Toronto is markedly down, parties are small and scarce, and one of the awards-season functions of a festival – to stir up buzz in crowded theaters and in lobbies and receptions afterwards – is essentially missing. Some of the films that have screened so far are likely to be long-term contenders, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” foremost among them, but the circumstances simply don’t exist to give them a big word-of-mouth boost. “Have you run into anybody you know?” asked one publicist on Saturday morning. “I feel like I’m the only person here.”

Most films are screening both in person and on the festival’s streaming site for the press and industry, although the movies missing from the virtual site include a number of the most substantial entries: “Dune,” “Spencer,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Belfast,” “Last Night in Soho,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Forgiven” and the international entries “The Worst Person in the World,” “Bergman Island,” “Memoria” and “Titane,” among others.

The recent Telluride Film Festival filled its screenings to capacity and drew largely positive reviews from those who did attend, but Telluride is a far smaller event than TIFF. Working under the Canadian government’s strict COVID protocols, Toronto has created a festival environment that works if you want to see movies, but also feels weird – as does, to be fair, just about everything else in this age of the unending pandemic.  

Vaccination cards have been as obligatory for entry as tickets — which, by the way, are digital only, with no pesky paper changing hands. 

Credentials are nonexistent: no lanyards hanging around your neck with badges that’ll get you into press & industry screenings. Instead, you had to sign up for what you wanted to see during a narrow window before the festival began — and the number of movies you could sign up for was limited by the badge type. Some press members got 10 films, others got 12, certain buyers got 16 — but if you’re accustomed to binging at TIFF and seeing, say, 20-plus films in six days, you were out of luck.

And if you had a habit of supplementing an eat-on-the-run festival diet with theater popcorn or candy, forget it: All TIFF venues were refreshment-free zones. Or if you liked to grab, say, an aisle seat, you were out of luck there, too: The Ticketmaster-run system assigned seats without asking your preference, which could cause big problems when most of the viewers at a sparsely-attended press screening in a huge IMAX theater were put in the front few rows, way too close for a comfortable viewing experience. The only recourse was to wait until the lights went down and then move back, as long as you told the staff where you’d moved so as not to mess up their contact tracing.

(FYI, every time I use the word you in those last two paragraphs, I obviously mean me.)

The huge lines for which TIFF is often known were for the most part missing, though the first screening of “Dear Evan Hansen” brought a doozy. The wall-to-wall weekend crush in the Scotiabank multiplex, home to most of the P&I screenings, was a thing of the past (and, one presumes, the future).

Audiences were spaced out, and that’s not a drug reference: No theaters were filled to capacity, with tickets sold (or allocated) in blocks of one or two or four seats, with at least one empty seat between each block. 

And in the hotel rooms where talent did their mini-junkets to meet the press who did attend, COVID testers were nearly as ubiquitous as publicists. (Let’s not get carried away — I said nearly.) “Is anybody here going to New York who hasn’t been tested?” asked a swab-sporting tech as a group of “Dear Evan Hansen” actors and filmmakers walked out of one interview.

Such is a film festival during a pandemic, which means that any comments about how TIFF was back have an unspoken subtext: “TIFF is back under these sad new circumstances, but it won’t really feel like it’s back until this damn thing is over.”

As for the films, 2021 may end up being the 14th time in the last 15 years that the Oscar Best Picture winner plays Toronto, but that’s not to say that anything broke out on the first weekend the way “Nomadland” did last year (virtually, of course), or “Green Book” or “The Shape of Water” or “Moonlight” before that. 

The opening-night film, “Dear Evan Hansen,” was enjoyable but it isn’t really an awards film, except for Best Original Song, where a new collaboration between Amandla Stenberg and Pasek & Paul has a real shot. “The Power of the Dog,” Campion’s richly textured look at toxic masculinity in the fading days of the American West, debuted at TIFF the following night and immediately became the festival’s strongest Best Picture contender, as it was in Venice and Telluride (although the “it’s better than ‘The Piano!’” gushing from Telluride died down a bit in Toronto, and rightly so). 

And then Branagh’s rapturous and moving memory piece “Belfast” ended the first weekend on Sunday night in stirring fashion, drawing a rousing ovation and bringing Branagh to tears in the post-screening Q&A.

Of the other films that have screened so far, Denis Villeneuve’s epic “Dune” played on IMAX screens and remains a powerhouse for tech awards, while Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” followed its Venice and Telluride raves by thrilling TIFF audiences with the way it veered from character study to horror flick. (That mixture may make it more of a dark but fun audience movie than awards bait.) Films with noteworthy performances include “The Guilty” with Jake Gyllenhaal; “The Forgiven” with Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain; “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Chastain’s other TIFF film, in which she’s nearly unrecognizable as evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” with Benedict Cumberbatch; and, for some, “Encounter” with Riz Ahmed.

There’s more to come later in the festival — Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” with Kristen Stewart, and Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” with Ben Foster, among them. But it doesn’t feel like a TIFF of years past, when half the eventual Best Picture lineup might well have been unveiled between Thursday and Monday and the entire awards race had become clearer by the end of Toronto’s first weekend.

Still, there have been worthy movies throughout the lineup, including smaller films like “Montana Story” and “Mothering Sunday” — and if you’re looking at nonfiction films, the TIFF lineup has already delivered a slate of satisfying high-profile docs, including “The Rescue,” “Becoming Cousteau,” “Attica” and “Julia,” as well as potential sleepers like “Hold Your Fire” and “Beba.”

But however buzzworthy TIFF’s 2021 movies might be, there’s just not that much room at this year’s festival for buzz to develop. In a way, this feels like the start of awards season, but in a way it feels as if we’re in an odd holding pattern, waiting for the old ways to return.

They won’t return, at least not for the foreseeable future. So for now, we have to settle for the TIFF we can get.


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