The 15 GREATEST CANADIAN FILMS
There was a time not so terribly long ago when the mainstream cinema emerging from Canada was something of a joke. Films were horribly written and directed, the acting was high schoolish, and nothing about the films truly appealled. So much has changed, yet so much remains the same.
Our citizens do not support homegrown work; in fact if they know it is Canadian they might stay away for that single reason. So while the rest of the world celebrates our films, Canadian audiences do not see them, cheating themselves of some extraordinary experiences.
With smaller budgets, most films produced in this country are character-driven pieces dealing with social issues and life, reflecting society. Getting Canadian films distributed remains a huge challenge – to see many of them you must attend the Carlton Cinema on Carlton St. in Toronto, which regularly programs homegrown film. Most of those I see are at TIFF, and often they are never heard from again.
Usually the films are government funded, meaning the artists have jumped through hoops for many years before finally being given the funds to make a film. Sadly, the same names continue to get the bulk of the funding, making it very difficult for emerging talent to have their voices heard.
Give Canadian films a chance, seek them out, experience them. Our artists explore our lives, and have given us an identity on the world film stage. They deserve to be appreciated and celebrated.
RUNNERS-UP — WARRENDALE (1967) — MON ONCLE ANTOINE (1971) — THE CHANGELING (1980) — THE GREY FOX (1983) — LE BONS DEBARRAS (1983) — THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE (1986) — DEAD RINGERS (1988) — BLACK ROBE (1991) — THE RED VIOLIN (1998) — KISSED (1998) — ROOM (2015)
15. POLYTECHNIQUE (DENIS VILLENEUVE; 2009) — Brutally honest in its documentary-like style, explores the 1989 massacre of several young women at a university in Quebec. This is a difficult masterpiece brimming with life that quickly turns to violence and death. Superbly directed by the rising Quebec filmmaker Villeneuve, his camera prowls the hallways and school like a voyeur, listening in on last conversations, capturing the abject terror of the young women in that school. Stunning in its raw realism, horrifying in its subject matter, it perfectly recreates the incident. In so many ways this is a modern-day horror film, the monster being man. Horrors happen in the safest of places every day, as this masterpiece displays.
14. LAST NIGHT (DON MCKELLAR; 1998) — In American films that explore the impending end of the world, an astronaut or hero always rides in at the last minute to save the planet. Not in Canada, oh no. Here the world ends in a blinding flash of light, with no explanation as to what is happening. We are told the end is near. It is daylight around the clock, the streets are empty as families head home to be with their loved ones. Many spend their last hours fulfilling dreams, such as the young guy with a sex bucket list, or the husband and wife with a suicide pact that they will never keep.
MccKellar wrote and directed the film, also playing an important role along with a bevy of strong Canadian actors, including Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Sandra Oh, David Croeneberg, and many others, all bringing to life the magic of McKellar’s words and the haunting power of his images. In a blaze of light, this really is the last night, ending not with darkness, but with light and hope.
13. INCENDIES (DENIS VILLENEUVE; 2011) — An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film, winner of multiple international awards, Denis Villeneuve (again) directed this startling film about a brother and sister searching for their mother’s roots after her death.
An Arab immigrant, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) never discussed her past with her children, and as they dig into it, they discover why. Through flashbacks we learn that she became pregnant by a refugee whom her family murdered, sparing her out of love, and the promise she leave the village after the birth of the child, given away as an orphan. The deeper they dig, they come to realize the terrible life and secrets their mother kept from them, a bold act of courage, finally felled by a stroke after learning the child she gave away has come to Canada as well.
The performances in the film are superb, especially Azabal as the tragic heroine Nawal, but there is strong support from the excellent cast, which includes Quebec star Remy Girard, and Maxim Gaudette.
Shot in and around Montreal with 15 shooting days in Jordan in the Middle East, Villeneuve perfectly captures the atmosphere for the characters in this electrifying film. The secrets people keep…the lives people lead. How do we live through such terrible tragedy and consequences? Is it truly that we are hard-wired to survive above all? Brilliant and deeply moving.
12. NIGHT ZOO (JEAN CLAUDE LAUZON; 1985) — Before Xavier Dolan was crowned the enfant terrible of French-Canadian cinema, Jean Claude Lauzon held the crown. His shocking death in 1997 ended what was becoming a very promising career, having also directed the extraordinary drama Leolo (1992).
His explosion into the forefront of Canadian film came with Night Zoo, a dark, seething tale of corruption. After his release from prison, Marcel (Gilles Maheau) hopes to reconcile with his dying father, but finds himself harassed by a vicious gay police officer who takes a firm dislike to him. Marcel’s father tells his estranged son he has money and drug stashed away for him, and revenge is taken on the gay cop by Marcel and his former cellmate, also gay.
Brilliant, capturing the seedier world of underground crime in Montreal, the film seems to pulsate with some dark inner energy. Lauzon was compared to Martin Scorsese after this film, and rightly so; one can see the impact of the American director on the Canadian. Night Zoo won a record 13 Genie Awards, yet incredibly to this day has never been released on DVD or Blu Ray, and there are apparently no plans to do so, cheating this generation of a chance to view this astonishing film.
11. JESUS OF MONTREAL (DENYS ARCAND; 1990) — Arcand’s second nominee for Best Foreign Language film, this unsettling work deals with a group of actors staging the Passion play in Montreal. When the cast turn against Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) the actor portraying Jesus and the author who wrote the play, Daniel’s life begins to mirror more and more that of Jesus Christ’s. When a performance of the play is interrupted by a man protesting the work, Daniel is injured and rushed to the hospital, where the blood on him confuses the doctors. Despite their efforts, Daniel is pronounced brain dead, and his friends sign for his organs to be donated, thereby allowing others to live on – resurrected.
Bluteau gives a compelling performance as Daniel/ Christ that firmly established him as one of the bright lights of Canadian film. He followed this film as the young Jesuit in Black Robe (1991), a significant Canadian success. So many allegories can be seen in the film, from the metaphorical beheading of John the Baptist, to the disruption at the audition, resembling the clearing of the temple, to Daniel’s followers turning against him. Arcand never saw his film as a religious work, but rather it was about the struggles of an artist and his many temptations. A controversial, powerful work that earned rave reviews around the globe.
10. EASTERN PROMISES (DAVID CRONENBERG; 2007) — David Cronenberg directed horror films for the first part of his career, but more recently has studied very different worlds, equally horrifying. In this complex thriller with so many layers, we enter a dangerous world very much unknown to the rest of the world, the Russian mafia. Transplanted to England, doing their dirty deed behind the facade of a Russian restaurant, the enterprise is overseen by the quietly evil Semyon (Armand Mueller-Stahl). A young midwife discovers that the young woman she is caring for (who dies in childbirth) was forced to work as a prostitute for Smyon; in fact, he is the father of the child.
When Semyon discoveres the girl kept a diary, he very quietly yet very clearly threatens Anna (Naomi Watts). She befriends the family’s driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson) who is mysterious and not at all what he seems. He is violent and fearless, his body decorated in tattos celebrating his crimes. Semyon tricks Nikolai into trusting him and then attempts to have him killed by two hitmen in a bath, leaving Nikolai to fight them stark naked, and though very badly injured, he kills them both.
It is revealed while he is recovering in the hospital that Nikolai is a FSB agent who has gone deep undercover to infiltrate the Russian mob. When Semyon’s son takes the baby out of the hospital and is prepared to throw the child in the river, Nikola intervenes and talks his friend into doing right. “We don’t kill babies,” he tells the confused son, who so badly wants his father’s approval.
Viggo Mortenson is superb as Nikolai, giving a performance that landed him in the race for Best Actor, a richly deserved nomination. Watts is excellent and Mueller-Stahl is sinister just by his presence. The finest film Cronenberg has ever made.
9. STORIES WE TELL (SARAH POLLEY; 2012) — The only documentary on the list, and one of the most accalimed Canadian works of the last 20 years. Unnerved by the comments she looks nothing like her siblings, actress-director Sarah Polley went on a quest to discover who her biological father might be. It was established before the search that the man who had raised her, the man she calls her father, was not in fact her biological father. She discovers that her mother had had an affair and became pregnant while doing a play in Montreal. Slowly Polley opens up the layers of this narrative, revealing bit by bit the dead ends, until finally she is face to face with her biological father.
The film is a very powerful wortk, filled with raw emotion, and a fierce love for the man who raised her whom she calls father. This enormously gifted young woman displayed a courage rarely found these days, establishing herself as one of our greatest artists. I cannot think of a more courageous film.
8. C.R.A.Z.Y. (JEAN-MARC VALLEE; 2005) — The story spans 20 years in the life of Zack, a gay man growing up in a Montreal suburb, struggling with his sexuality, hiding it from his parents and brothers, especially his father whom he adores. Zac eventually tells his father he is gay, and a long estrangement takes place between father and son, though Zac’s mother is fine with it, loving him for his honesty. When he returns from Jerusalem he discovers his eldest brother, who had bullied and taunted Zac his entire life, has overdosed on heroin, and passes away the next day.
After the funeral, Zac attempts to leave his father’s home, only to be stopped by his father, who, weeping, gathers his son in his arms and holds him.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, is a superb slice of life from Quebec in the late 60s and early 70s, all lovingly recreated. Acted with true purity by the entire cast, standouts are Marc-Andre Brondin as Zac, a brilliant performance; Michel Cote as Gervais, his father; Danielle Proulx as his mother; and Pierre-Luc Brilliant as Raymond, the dangerous, wayward son. Hugely popular when premiered at TIFF, the film went on to collect 11 Genie Awards and appear on countless Ten Best lists at the end of the year. Very few films capture Canadian life in the 70s as did this. Masterful.
7. THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (TED KOETCHEFF; 1974) — One of the great Canadian novels by Mordecai Richler comes to the screen with a screenplay written by the author. Richard Dreyfuss is brilliant as Duddy, an iconic performance for the ages that nearly earned the young actor an Academy Award nomination.
Greedy, grasping, and corrupt, young Duddy is seen by his own people as “a little Jewboy on the make.” He will do anything to get ahead, to be somebody, even if it is at the cost of his own decency. Told by his beloved grandfather that “a man without land is nothing,” he finds a beautiful piece of property that could be turned into a lakeside hotel and resort, and he cheats, lies, steals and destroys friendships to get the money to buy that land. He makes an enemy of the local crime lord, the friendship he has with a young epileptic is ruined, and his love for Yvette is forever shattered when he does something unthinkable, all in the pursuit of being a “somebody.” He eventiually gets his coveted land, but at the cost of his mortal soul.
Richard Dreyfuss is electrifying as Duddy, a stunning, star making performance that had him in discussions for an Oscar nomination. A brilliant adaptation, and loving recreation of a time long gone by.
6. MOMMY (XAVIER DOLAN; 2014) — An electrifying film from Dolan documents the wild relationship between a mother and her out-of-control son, who suffers with ADHD and a deep dislike of authority.
As portrayed by the gifted young actor Antoine Oliver Pilon in a performance that calls up memories of the young, explosive Marlon Brando, Steve is a deeply troubled young man who has managed to stay out of jail by being a minor. He is dangerous, ready to lash out violently at every turn and does not hesitate to turn that violence and rage against his mother, Diane (Anne Dorval).
Once home, it does not take long for Steve to turn their world upside down with his menacing behaviour, yet his charisma and apparent love for his mother always saves him. The two of them befriend a lonely young neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), who at first helps them enormously but becomes frightened of Steve and his furious temper. Eventually, after several acts of criminal behaviour and violence, Diane has Steve committed, and a few months later he seems on the right track. His final act in the film is an attempt to escape, his sombre quiet behaviour a ruse to cause the guards to drop their awareness of him.
Dorval is exquisite as Diane, filled with hope that her son will eventually come around and excel at something, her hope both heartbreaking and pathetic. As Steve, young Pilon is a revelation, an absolutley astonishing performance from this young man. The film was acclaimed the world over, winning several critics awards and eight Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. Demanding and difficult, it is a bold and brash film, explosive and raw.
5. THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (DENYS ARCAND; 2003) — This sequel to Arcand’s Oscar-nominated Foreign Language film The Decline of the American Empire (1986) actually surpasses the genius of the first film with a deeper, more complex work. For this film, Arcand won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the first Canadian work to earn that esteemed award.
Picking up years after the first film, Remy (Remy Girard), the womanizing history professor, finds himself dying of cancer. His family and friends close in around him, opening old wounds, but healing them as well. Nothing comes easy in this film, just as in life. Remy’s weealthy estranged son Sebastian (Stephane Rosseau) comes back to Quebec with his fiancé, and immediatley uses his wealth and power to get his father better care. One of his father’s good friends has a daughter who is a drug addict, and he contacts her to cut a deal – he will pay for her habit if she administers heroin to his father for the agonizing pain he is experiencing. Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze) agrees to do so, but in the process begins to get herself clean. Old wounds heal, father and son find common ground and a deep love develops, and Remy has a chance to say goodbye to his friends and family at his bedside. Sebastian takes his father to a cottage by a lake where the first film took place, and it is there Nathalie injects Remy with enough heroin to kill five men.
The film is heartbreaking in its authentic power, and portrayal of a group of friends who see one another as they are and love anyways, flaws and all. Superb performances dominate but the film’s heart and soul is Remy in a superb performance from Girard, one of the treasures of Canadian cinema. Equally brilliant is Crose as the troubled Nathalie, a performance which won the young actress the Best Actress award at Cannes, leading her to be cast in Steven Spielbergs’ Munich (2005).
4. GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (DON SHEBIB; 1970) — The breakthrough film for Canadian cinema, made for $25,000 in less than a month, using short ends and fresh film stock. Shot in and around Toronto, often without permits, the film is a masterpiece of characterization and perfectly captures what Toronto was in 1970.
Two down and out Maritmers, portrayed with gritty honesty by Doug McGrath and the late Paul Bradley, pack up their car and head to the big city of Toronto hoping for better jobs, a better way of life and women. Clearly out of their depth in the city, they find nothing but despair. Joey (Bradley) impregnates his girlfriend and they marry, financing their entire apartment, while Pete (McGrath) continues to work away, until the two are laid off from their jobs and cannot find work. When they attempt to steal a boatload of groceries, they severely injure a young clerk and are forced to leave their life behind and head further down the road.
Often heartbreaking, but beautifully authentic in every way, with fine, realistic performances from the entire cast. Shebib downplays the film when interviewed, but truly it is a Canadian masterpiece, and if anyone ever wanted to see what Toronto was in the 70s, watch this film. Brilliant. It ran in a New York City cinema for over a year, the first major cross border hit.
3. ATANARJUAT: THE FAST RUNNER (ZACHARIAS KUNUK; 2002) — Kunuk magically plunked his digital cameras down in the frozen Arctic and created this mesmerizing tale set 1,000 years ago in the icy tundra that sets a shocking white backdrop for the events within this extraordinary narrative. The film marked the first film to be acted, directed and written entirely in the Inukitiut language, exploring in grand detail the lives of this group of natives. Betrayals, deceit, lies, a struggle for power, magic spells, strange beliefs, and a dedication to the past and the gods are explored brilliantly in the film, all played out against a pristine background of ice and snow.
A striking look at a civilization that existed long ago, and in many ways exists today, often exactly as things where. Talk about “once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…” Cinematic brilliance.
2. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (ATOM EGOYAN; 1997) — The bus is travelling down the winding highway when suddenly the driver loses control and though she tries valiantly to hold it, it speeds down the embankment and slides out onto the frozen lake, children screaming. Sitting there for seconds there is a terrible crack heard and the bus begins to fill with water and sink. The driver lives, as does one girl, Nicole (Sarah Polley), though she is left paralyzed from the waist down. The small town is robbed of its children, and a lawyer seeks to put together a class action law suit to get the grieving families compensation.
Egoyan brilliantly captures the grief of the families who have lost their precious children, and the burning rage of Nicole, who betrays her father in an act of defiance. Superbly acted and directed, Ian Holm is superb as the lawyer, Bruce Greenwood magnificent as a grieving father, Arsinee Khanjian heartbreaking, and Polley, the stunning life force who grounds the film with a superb performance. Egoyan’s masterpiece.
1. AWAY FROM HER (SARAH POLLEY; 2007) — This breathtaking love story is also a profound character study and superb film about the staggering impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the long marriage of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie). Adapted by the director, Sarah Polley from the Alice Munro short story The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Polley fleshed it out to a feature film without an ounce of fat in it or a false moment. If we were not aware of the actors I would swear it might be a documentary.
Long-time married, now retired university professor Grant lives in Brant, Ontario, with his wife Fiona, who has begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s . Labels decorate their kitchen letting her know where things go, but even now she is forgetting what items are. When she gets lost while out cross country skiing, she recognizes she poses a danger to herself and her husband, so checks herself into a long-term care facility that cares for Alzheimer patients. One of the rules of the place is that Grant cannot see Fiona for 30 days after her admittance, during which time she forgets him as though she had never known him. Her attentions turn to Aubrey, another patient who is confined to a wheelchair, jealously guarding his relationship with Fiona. Grant does not know what to do, and enters into a strange friendship with Aubrey’s wife, Marian, more out of primal need for connection than anything else. He, however, does not fool himself, he loves Fiona, something Marian realizes as time goes on. Devastated when Aubrey is removed from the facility due to lack of funds, Fiona begins to fail terribly, until the day Aubrey is returning and suddenly her memories of her love for Grant fleetingly come back to her. She marvels that he never gave up on her, that he was always there for her, wanting to be near her, never wanting to be away from her.
This might be the most moving love story I have ever experienced, a masterpiece of emotion and raw human feelings. Christie won a slew of critics awards for her luminous performance, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award and National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, the Golden Globe for Best Actress, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Broadcast Film Critics Award, the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress, and the Washington Film Critics Award again for Best Actress.
The film won seven Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Film Editing. Polley won several critics awards for her screenplay and awards for first time feature film director. Rather shamefully, she and the film were ignored for Academy Award nominations – Polley for Best Director, which she more than deserved, and Best Actor for the glorious Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian institution.
No car chases, no explosions, just a delicate, very human story about a terribly vicious disease that has ravaged minds across the world and the family members force to watch their loved ones disappear. An absolute masterpiece.