Early September is usually an exciting time to be a filmgoer in Toronto, but last year’s largely digital Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) did not give much of a respite from the looming stress of lockdowns and safety protocols. Now, TIFF is on its way back to its pre-pandemic scale and scope as one of the city’s premier cultural events.

TIFF 2021 integrates its pre-pandemic format with some of the successes from its 2020 iteration. Most of TIFF’s regular theatres are back in service, with the addition of the enormous Ontario Place Cinesphere. However, in-person venues have reduced seating to accommodate social distancing. Audiences can also catch films at various drive-ins and “open-air” seated theatres centred around Ontario Place, whose outdoor settings might provide a little peace of mind with regards to COVID-19.

Speaking of COVID-19, TIFF requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for attendance at any in-person events. Additionally, masks are still required. Movie theatres have apparently not been sites of high COVID-19 spread over the pandemic so far; given the safety measures and full vaccination requirement, the risks of attending TIFF don’t seem astronomical.

Nevertheless, if you want to catch some movies while staying as safe as possible, digital screenings are available for most of the festival’s lineup. Last year’s digital platform was polished and intuitive, with solid streaming quality. 

Tickets for online screenings must be bought in advance and provide a four-hour window for you to complete — not just start — the film. If you watch with even one or two other people and split the price of even the most expensive $26 premium digital ticket, home viewings become a leading option in terms of both accessibility and price.

The choice to present most of the festival’s films online in parallel to their in-person screenings may have led to several highly anticipated films skipping TIFF. This list includes The Last Duel, C’mon C’mon, and Halloween Kills. Last year, TIFF had similar circumstances amid scattered pandemic release delays, with most of the ‘big’ films still feeling like second-best. Nevertheless, TIFF 2021 has a wealth of very interesting smaller titles to choose from.

The festival’s biggest film is undoubtedly the newest adaptation of the classic sci-fi epic Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Last Night in Soho is also playing, a foray into horror from British director Edgar Wright.

Have I gotten you excited for these screenings? Don’t hold your breath — getting tickets for them is another matter. At publication time, all screenings of Dune and Last Night in Soho are sold out, and spots are unlikely to open unless additional screenings are added. The seating limitations also make securing these high-demand tickets more difficult. Thankfully, not everything has Dune’s blockbuster level of public awareness. Here are a few recommendations of lesser-sought films to get you started!

Titane features in the Midnight Madness program, which is consistently filled with insane movies — usually horror- or action-oriented — about wildly weird subjects. This one stands out for having won the Palme D’or, the highest prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It is director Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to her 2016 film, Raw — its title alluding to cannibalism — so it’s definitely going to be a harrowing experience that probably defies being synopsized.

TIFF also quietly announced the world premiere screening of a new film by Steven Soderbergh, the prolific auteur best known for his Ocean’s trilogy, shortly before ticket sales opened. No information exists on the film — not even a name — which suggests that it was made entirely in secret. Tickets have dried up for now, but keep an eye on it!

In Spanish director Juanjo Giménez’s OUT OF SYNC, a film sound designer’s life is upended when her hearing falls out of step with her vision. It’s a strong enough conceit to inspire curiosity, especially given the reflexive use of film in the story. Sometimes that’s all you need!

The western drama The Power of the Dog is another of the biggest premieres at TIFF 2021, helmed by acclaimed director Jane Campion and featuring a heavy-hitting cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons. Cumberbatch plays a harsh rancher whose family is thrown into turmoil. It has received very positive buzz so far and, at publication time, there are still tickets available for its digital screening.

All in all, a partially in-person year of TIFF is an exciting way to rediscover in-person events and the energy movies bring to the city throughout the week. You’ll soon become absorbed in the hustle and bustle of the new semester — until the rush begins, why not catch some movies?