Every year in January, TIFF brings films from across the country for a celebration of the best in Canadian cinema with Canada’s Top Ten, this year running from Friday, January 13th to Thursday, January 26th at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The centrepiece for this event has become a selection of ten feature films produced within the past year that will screen over the course of two weeks, chosen by an independent group of Canadian film insiders and enthusiasts. The significance of those films shouldn’t be understated, but we’ll discuss those selections tomorrow.
Today, let’s start with the handful of short film programmes and selections that are a part of Canada’s Top Ten, because while it’s sometimes hard for Canadian features to get noticed in the marketplace, it’s even more difficult to get noticed as a short filmmaker. Often producing films of less than half an hour in length (and in many cases, considerably less), the best short filmmakers produce works of art and/or narrative depth that are borne from a love of filmmaking and storytelling. These films are rarely, if ever, profitable, often get screened solely at festivals, and are sometimes blips on the resumes of the people involved with them.
That’s a huge shame, especially when one considers that many directors with features in the main program of Canada’s Top Ten have rock solid foundations in short filmmaking. Filmmakers Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf), Kevan Funk (Hello Destroyer), and Johnny Ma (Old Stone) are all being heralded as emerging talents for getting their debut feature efforts accepted into this year’s Canada’s Top Ten Selection, but this distinction wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who saw the short films they produced. All three of these “emerging” artists have already created some of the best films to come out of Canada in the past decade. These films just weren’t long enough to be theatrically exhibited.
More and more, the shorts programmes of Canada’s Top Ten provide an indispensible primer for savvy audiences who want to learn “what’s next” in Canadian cinema, and TIFF kicks off a day packed with short filmmaking at the Lightbox with one of the earliest indicators of emerging talent possible.
This daylong celebration of shorts at the Lightbox – on Saturday, January 14 – kicks off with a showcase of Canada’s Top Ten Student Films at 1 pm; selections of outstanding movies from universities and colleges across the country that will include intros and Q&As with each of the filmmakers. These shorts contain filmmakers with a lot of promise just starting out and experimenting with genre, form, and narrative in interesting ways.
In Ryerson alum Lauren Belanger’s Nothing Grows Here, a little girl becomes perplexed when she realizes that her heart has stopped beating, despite remaining a completely functional human being. The adults in her life are patently useless, but the girl finds an eager helper for a solution in a fellow classmate with a crush on her. Once Belanger’s metaphor becomes apparent, this one is a real charmer. Also, the kids are exceptional, and the film contains probably the only adoring love letter to Cheetos in cinematic history.
Olivia Lindgren’s Drifter, which comes by way of Vancouver’s Langara College, is a tense genre exercise and old school western about a female bounty hunter (played by Marissa Burton) out for vengeance. University of Regina filmmaker and Finland native Ella Mikkola’s SAARI (which takes its name from the Finnish word for “island”) is a gorgeous looking and assembled experimental biography that melds new and old footage that explores the link between feeling and memory. In Ivan Ramin Radnik’s haunting, atmospheric, beautifully shot The Land of Nod (from Humber College), a bullied teenager who desperately hopes he turns out nothing like his troubled father continues an uneasy, complicated friendship with a fellow female student.
There’s no shortage of outstanding animated offerings on display in this programme. Jessica Tai’s adorable Bumby the Barely-Witch (from Emily Carr University of Art and Design) finds an academically underachieving young witch’s mistake turning into a heartwarming positive. Sarah Kieley’s stop motion animated Feathers (from Sheridan) takes the “empty nest” metaphor in new directions as a mother watches her aviation obsessed daughter slowly transforming into a bird. Concordia’s Pascal Huynh melds detailed stop motion animation (borne largely from everyday items) and documentary technique in My Invisible Mother, an interview with an Australian man recounting the wrenching circumstances that led to his mother being forced to give him up for adoption in 1952.
Perhaps the most clever and cheeky animated offering in this programme comes from Sheridan and filmmaker Federico Kempke. Ceci n’est pas une animation is a mockumentary about four prideful animation students forced into coming together for a thesis project. Each of the animators adheres to a different style that they want to pursue and varying degrees of arrogance, and Kempke depicts each in their own chosen field. There’s a cokehead control freak who loves hand drawn animation, a sensitive, tattooed stop motion animated bro, a guy who loves anime because it gives him the chance to draw scantily clad girls, and a goth woman who can’t be bothered to get bent out of shape over any of this. The punchline of a film they created is outstanding, but everything else around it is pretty great, too.
The best cinematography and editing of this program can be found in Étienne Lacelle’s Les Beiges (courtesy of Concordia), a look at drift racing enthusiasts in St-Eustache, Quebec. Getting up close and personal in the often beat-up jalopies getting raced an wrecked by people seeking an adrenaline rush, Lacelle and cinematographer Peter Hostak nicely convey the allure of a potentially dangerous pastime.
Not that there’s a real winner in this programme, but a major standout here is Ryerson writer and director Teryl Brouillette’s Boys Will Be. Eighteen year old Jack (played by Nick Serino, best known for his attention getting role in Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant), still reeling from his father’s death, gets kicked out of his first year of university after participating in a frat hazing stunt, and comes home to a mother (Delphine Roussel) who doesn’t know how to handle his rebelliousness and a little brother (Davd Webster) with a dark secret. Bolstered by another exceptional performance from Serino, Brouillette’s film subtly changes from a film about a troubled teen to an examination of how a troubled family informs said teen. Boys Will Be is dark, perceptive, and shows promise for great things to come from its filmmakers and lead actor.
Later that Saturday afternoon, the focus shifts from the emerging to the more established with the first of two proper Canada’s Top Ten programmes at 3:30 pm, which contains five of the ten shorts selected for this year’s round-up. Three of the films in the first of the two programmes (both of which feature filmmaker Q&As and intros) played at TIFF back in September, and the other two gained notoriety and acclaim at other festivals.
Rich Williamson’s Frame 394, which was recently shortlisted for Oscar contention as a documentary short, made waves at Hot Docs back in the spring. A look at how people outside an already broken legal system either view truth as something that is either self-evident or somehow up for debate, Frame 394 follows Daniel Voshart, a Toronto man with a background in cinematography and architecture, who unwittingly finds himself in the position of potentially becoming an “expert” witness in the South Carolina trial of a white police officer who was caught on camera apparently shooting a black, fleeing, unarmed suspect in the back following a traffic stop gone wrong. A film aimed squarely at the Reddit crowd, Williamson’s perceptive and unbiased look at civilian justice in the internet age watches as Voshart’s initial and previously unwavering belief in the officer’s guilt turn somewhat into a defense of the officer.
Ben Petrie’s Her Friend Adam garnered a special jury award at Sundance for the leading performance of TIFF Rising Star Grace Glowicki as a woman pushed too far by a possessive boyfriend who thinks she’s cheating on him with her titular gay buddy. It’s a fairly simple story, simply told (a trio of characters arguing in an apartment), and at times it feels like it’s trying far too hard to be hip, culturally relevant for our times, and edgy, but it’s elevated greatly by Glowicki’s star making work.
In Toronto filmmaker Martin Edralin’s black and white Emma a fourteen year old girl (played with great subtlety and humanity by young actor Hailey Kittle) comes to terms with a rapidly advancing case of alopecia. Through this teen’s struggle, Edralin nails feelings of being young and self-conscious that go beyond merely chalking everything up to puberty. It portrays a strong teenage girl as a real person with real problems in a world that takes her feelings for granted. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
If things seem tough for Edralin’s main character, Theodore Ushev’s visually and aurally artful 3D animated NFB effort Blind Vaysha weaves a resplendent tale of a young woman for whom there’s literally no past or future. A purposefully hopeless fable meant to act as a plea for reason and for people to be present at all times, it’s the story of a young woman with a strange form of blindness: with her right eye she can only see the future, and with the left she can only glimpse the past.
Then there’s the appropriately overwhelming plight of the Zherdinsky family of Belgrade in Lee Filipovski’s Fluffy. As they prepare to move from their Belgrade home to a new life in Canada, packing and overbearing relatives become a primary stressor for the family, and the logistics of their move become even more difficult after their little girl wins an enormous teddy bear that might not even fit on the plane. A poignant look at family and the items in life that really matter in life, Fluffy builds in dramatic tension expertly before leading to a poignant conclusion that acts as a nicely cathartic moment for the audience.
The second programme kicks off at 6:00 pm, and boasts four noteworthy shorts from TIFF, and one heartwrenching short from Nova Scotia filmmaker Heather Young that makes its Lightbox debut. In Fish, a pregnant woman with a toddler and twins on the way tries in vain to get the father of the kids to take part in the lives of the kids. Young has made a unflinching, sad film that packs a lot more punch than most features on a similar subject can muster, and that lachrymose feeling comes from an all too tragically real situation that unfolds every day.
Narrated by writer Joseph Boyden and directed by Terril Calder, the animated SNIP is a fable about a privileged, modern day big city hairdresser and a homeless man who are able to travel in and out of Canada’s infamous history of residential schooling. Giving the term “paying witness to history” a whole new meaning, SNIP combines paper cutouts and stop motion techniques to weave an important parable about never forgetting atrocities of the past once one learns about them in great detail.
Although it’s her first narrative film of any kind, Emily Kai Bock’s A Funeral for Lightning suggests a filmmaker with serious chops right out of the gate. Her unique and original vision of a pregnant Tennessee woman gradually realizing her irresponsible, square dance calling, off-the-grid-living husband is full of shit unfolds in unexpected fashion. It’s a fascinating narrative about big dreams and reasonable expectations that fall short that makes the main character’s growing sense of discontent palpable. It’s more visually and tonally assured than most debut films I’ve seen.
My personal favourite film from across both programmes is Toronto filmmaker Thyrone Tommy’s poignant and unnerving Mariner, a loaded and layered look at race, expectation, diversity, post traumatic stress, and anxiety told through the eyes of a black naval cadet (Thomas Olajide, perfect for the material) reaching his breaking point. Getting nice assists from some visually breathtaking cinematography from Nick Haight and a memorably haunting score from Erica Procunier, Tommy creates the rare kind of experience that put the viewer firmly in the shoes of a sympathetic, anxious character.
The second programme also includes the TIFF award winning debut film from Montreal artist Alexandre Dostie, Mutants. A coming of age story steeped in sex about a teenager with a nasty black eye in a summer baseball league who becomes his team’s unlikely coach after their wheelchair bound skipper gets busted for a bit of sexual misconduct, Mutants is an ambitious, singular work where viewers’ mileage will vary. I’ve watched it twice now, and while I appreciate its button pushing, transgressive spirit, I think it still feels like a larger idea packed into a package too small to contain it all. Still, like the other films from up and coming artists, it boasts a lot of potential for future efforts, and I’m excited to see where Dostie goes next.
And if you can’t make it out on Saturday the 14th or would rather catch up to some classics you might have missed in the past instead of looking to the future, TIFF still has you covered. Although not directly affiliated with Canada’s Top Ten but timed to kick off during it, TIFF’s year long Canada On Screen series offers free screenings of some of the best Canadian films from the country’s 150 year history.
The Canada On Screen series includes two shorts programmes that will play during Canada’s Top Ten. The first – screening on Sunday the 15th at 1:00 pm – includes Guy Maddin’s Soviet Cinema homage The Heart of the World, perpetually underrated filmmaker John Paiz’s 1984 punk rock opus Springtime in Greenland, and Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg’s often imitated, never duplicated look at social media Noah, among others. The second package of classics screens on Thursday the 19th at 1:00 pm includes among its six offerings the groundbreaking and Oscar nominated NFB produced look at Arthur Lipsett Very Nice, Very Nice, the experimental and humorous You Take Care Now (from Ann Marie Fleming, whose feature is playing CTT this year), and Clement Virgo’s stark, incendiary, and vital 1993 work Save My Lost Nigga Soul. Each of these shorts is worth the price of a ticket, and the fact that TIFF is giving them away for free makes it all the more worthwhile.
So don’t forget about the shorts programmes this year at Canada’s Top Ten. It’s a place where one just might find their new favourite Canadian filmmaker, or find a way to catch up to some established or still up and coming talents.
For more information about Canada’s Top Ten, tickets, or a full list of programmes, events, films, and screenings, check out TIFF’s website. And if you don’t live in Toronto, check out on their website when TIFF’s travelling version of Canada’s Top Ten might be headed to your neck of the woods.