AFS’S Lars Nilsen Shares His Top Picks from the 2021 Toronto International Film Fest

(Still from NEPTUNE FROST)

For the second straight year the various COVID protocols dictated that the Toronto International Film Festival offered a virtual version of the international festival, albeit one that lacked access for certain of the more interesting titles. Still, there were a lot of films to be seen and we saw a few dozen of them. Here’s hoping that we’ll be able to visit Toronto again next year and see some of our far-flung and probably much grayer film-biz associates soon. Here are some of the best films I saw while sitting on my couch. – Lars Nilsen, AFS’s Lead Film Programmer


Directed by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s first film, winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or, is a fraught four-hand ensemble piece that takes place on the Croatian coast. A teenage girl, desperate to escape the constricting confines of her ambitious and controlling father, sees a possible escape route when a very wealthy friend of the family – a handsome man of the world who offers to pay for her college education – visits their seaside home. Complicating matters is the attraction felt between the girl’s former beauty queen mother and the visitor. The film is tense, urgent and full of rich visual storytelling. This is the kind of Cinema that charges the batteries and awakens the senses.


Directed by Stanley Nelson 
Stanley Nelson is to Ken Burns what Howard Zinn is to a high school history textbook. For years now he has documented the American experience particularly as it pertains to Black Americans and has done it with a scholarly rigor that puts other documentarians to shame. This, his latest, must surely be the definitive statement about the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion, in which prisoners protested their shocking living conditions by taking over the prison and for which they paid dearly in lives and blood by the time it was all over. In addition to interviewing the survivors, Nelson and his associates have gone through the available material and much of the footage included here is searing – prison guards shouting “white power” for instance, or a recorded conversation between New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Nixon in which Nixon is reassured to hear that the prisoners killed were Black. This is history that is undigested, history that sticks in the throat, history that we can’t go forward without understanding.


Directed by Céline Sciamma
With her latest, Céline Sciamma continues to impress as a filmmaker whose style meshes serendipitously with her story choices. This film could not be more different from GIRLHOOD and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, but her touch with the smallest details is completely in tune with her purposes. The story is about the connections between generations of women in a family, and it is achieved with a bold narrative gambit, which I will not spoil here. The point of view character is a child, and the world pulses with the mystery and wonder of childhood. It’s a very good film and one that deserves to be watched as carefully as it was made.


Co-directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman
Speaking of bold narratives, this is a film that seems to have more ideas per minute than any other film I have seen in years. Written by Saul Williams and co-directed with the Rwandan-born artist Anisia Uzeyman, this film is a colorful melodrama/pageant/allegory of Afrofuturist aesthetics, set against the backdrop of a colonial mining community in Burundi. Bursting with music, poetry, radical political and cinematic ideas, it leaves the viewer feeling supercharged with exciting ideas about alternate futures that do not invariably place humankind on a collision course with oblivion.


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