TIFF announces Canada’s Top Ten films of 2021

Danis Goulet's Night Raiders and Thyrone Tommy's Learn To Swim are among the features chosen by the festival group as the year's best


It’s December, everybody’s compiling their end-of-year lists, and as always the Toronto International Film Festival has the jump on the rest of us, announcing the features and shorts selected for this year’s TIFF Canada’s Top Ten.

Certain titles were, shall we say, expected: Danis Goulet’s dystopian allegorical knockout Night Raiders has been the most visible Canadian film of the year, rolling around the festival circuit directly into an October theatrical release. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s novel Scarborough was the first runner-up for the People’s Choice award at TIFF; Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds (reviewed here) is Canada’s official submission for this year’s international film Oscar.

Sébastien Pilote’s Maria Chapdelaine is a lush literary adaptation from a rising Quebecois director; All My Puny Sorrows would be the austere English Canadian analogue, with Michael McGowan adapting Miriam Toews’s 2014 novel into a pas de deux for Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill. And Eric Warin and Tahir Rana’s Charlotte is an ambitious animated biopic of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon – voiced by Keira Knightley – who left behind almost a thousand paintings before dying in Auschwitz at the age of 26.

It’s a little surprising to see All My Puny Sorrows make the cut, since it wasn’t exactly embraced by critics when it premiered at TIFF in September. On the other hand, it’s as close to an all-star picture as this country produces, and McGowan is a regular presence on TIFF’s year-end lists. (The organization has been assembling its year-end laurels internally for several years now, no longer relying on juries of critics or industry figures.)

But then there are the four features that round out the list, none of which felt like a sure thing – and all of which are more than deserving of the Top Ten spotlight.

Subjects of Desire

There’s Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne (reviewed here), an expertly structured, beautifully photographed story of a contentious family reunion outside Winnipeg. And Thyrone Tommy’s Learn To Swim, a thoughtful, complex drama about a young jazz musician that marks the filmmaker as a robust new voice in Canadian cinema. Igor Djrlača’s The White Fortress refracts a Romeo and Juliet love story through a modernist lens in post-war Sarajevo, and Jennifer Holness’s Subjects Of Desire, the sole documentary to make the cut, is an utterly of-the-moment examination of how the systemic racism baked into the North American ideal of beauty so often excludes Black women.

Djrlača’s producing partner Albert Shin has a project of his own in this year’s Canada’s Top Ten shorts; Together, his spare study of two strangers who meet at a remote Korean hotel, made the cut alongside Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Araya Mengesha’s DEFUND, Alanis Obomsawin’s Honour To Senator Murray Sinclair and Terril Calder’s Meneath: The Hidden Island Of Ethics and Fawzia Mirza’s The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, all of which screened at TIFF in September in the same YYZ Shorts program spotlighting local filmmakers.

Zacharias Kunuk’s Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice and Marie Valade’s animated Boobs also screened at the festival; Kunuk’s film won the IMDb Pro Short Cuts award for best Canadian film. Three more Quebec projects, Sarra El Abed’s Ain’t No Time For Women, Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers and Carmine Pierre-Dufour’s Fanmi and Annie St-Pierre’s Les Grandes Claques, were plucked from other festivals.

All 20 of the titles on this year’s lists came from Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Angakusajaujuq is a Nunavut-Ontario collaboration, but there’s nothing at all from western or eastern Canada, which I’m pretty sure is a first.

Four of this year’s features and eight of the shorts were directed or co-directed by women, and the lists include five Indigenous filmmakers.

Subjects Of Desire and Night Raiders are now streaming on TIFF’s digital platform, and Drunken Birds is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox; Maria Chapdelaine is streaming on other VOD platforms and coming to TIFF’s digital December 14. Scarborough is scheduled to screen in the new year. Details of further in-person screenings will be announced in the coming weeks. 

Top Ten Canadian Features

All My Puny Sorrows Michael McGowan| Ontario

Charlotte Eric Warin, Tahir Rana | Ontario

Drunken Birds Ivan Grbovic | Quebec

Learn To Swim Thyrone Tommy | Ontario

Night Raiders Danis Goulet | Ontario

Maria Chapdelaine Sébastien Pilote | Quebec

Scarborough Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson | Ontario

Ste. Anne Rhayne Vermette | Manitoba

Subjects of Desire Jennifer Holness | Ontario

The White Fortress  Igor Drljača | Ontario

Top Ten Canadian Shorts

Ain’t No Time for Women Sarra El Abed | Quebec

Angakusajaujuq – The Shaman’s Apprentice Zacharias Kunuk | Nunavut |Ontario

Boobs Marie Valade | Quebec

DEFUND Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Araya Mengesha |Ontario

Fanmi Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers, Carmine Pierre-Dufour | Quebec

Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair Alanis Obomsawin | Quebec

Les grandes claques Annie St-Pierre | Quebec

Meneath: The Hidden Island of Ethics Terril Calder | Quebec

The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night Fawzia Mirza | Ontario

Together Albert Shin | Ontario

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