I said it briefly in my countdown of the best films of last year, and I’ll say it again: 2016 was not a great year for Canadian cinema. It wasn’t dire, but almost all of the best films produced during the calendar year weren’t released in their country of origin. Of the ten worthy features selected to TIFF’s illustrious, annual Canada’s Top Ten showcase – beginning this week on Friday, January 13th and running to Thursday the 26th at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and touring the country throughout the winter – only four received theatrical releases. Of those four, two of them saw releases that were so limited that one needed to be in the right Canadian city at the right time to catch them.
The remainder of this year’s strong selections will see release at some point this year, but it doesn’t mean 2016 is any less of a drag in hindsight. I understand the desire to release artful Canadian fare in the usual dumping grounds of late winter and early spring to avoid competition (and to qualify for the Canadian Screen Awards, a process I will never in a billion years understand), but from an optics standpoint there’s something off about it. There’s this almost begrudging admission that Canadian films can’t compete against American fare unless it’s an off season for cinema south of the border. Please note this isn’t a slight against TIFF or Canada’s Top Ten, both of which are vital institutions that are doing more for Canadian cinema than a lot of distributors have been, but just a musing that the first part of 2017 is an almost embarrassment of riches. It’s worth going to a lot of the screenings in Canada’s Top Ten to find out why.
The series kicks off on Friday night with Maliglutit (Searchers), the first fictional feature from Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (best known for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) in a decade. For this riveting and politically loaded tale of an Inuk hunter embarking on a dangerous mission of revenge after returning home to find his wife and daughter kidnapped and the rest of his family left for dead, Kunuk draws inspiration from one of the greatest Westerns of all time: John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers. Kunuk still plays the themes about the futility of revenge almost perfectly straight, but he also imbues the film with a sly, vital lecture on the scars of colonialism. It’s a film about desperate people in desperate situations, and constantly on the margins and always unseen are the people who brought on such desperation. It’s also one of the most stunning and visually captivating films in the line-up, using the isolation of the Arctic to perfect effect. The film, like almost every film in the series will screen twice, but in addition to that, Kunuk will be participating in a special “in conversation” on Sunday night at 6:30 pm where the filmmaker will provide a commentary of sorts on Ford’s original film.
While Maliglutit takes place among Inuk characters and comes steeped in history and allegory, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Hot Docs award winning documentary Angry Inuk tackles issues threatening indigenous peoples head on. Angry Inuk seeks to start a conversation about the difference between the subsistence hunting of seals – something people in secluded Northern climates depend on for everything from food to fuel to clothing – and the pointless, tragic seal hunts conducted by privileged white people who have no need to participate in such activities. The problem, as illustrated quite studiously in Baril’s film, is that zealous (and bottom line minded) activist groups refuse to acknowledge that there’s a difference, and efforts to stop on often come at the expense of spiting and endangering the lives of native people. It will anger some, but not in ways they might have initially suspected. It’s a true eye opener.
Three of the best and emotionally heaviest Canadian films I saw at TIFF last year return as part of this year’s Canada’s Top Ten Selection, and they all happen to be debut features from a trio of exceptional filmmakers. East Coast filmmaker Ashley McKenzie’s stark picture of addiction in Werewolf will shake viewers to the core thanks to her keen way of using minimal amounts of flash and technique to depict a loving pair of addicts coming unglued. It’s a brief, gorgeous looking film, but also one of the most viscerally haunting and realistic Canadian films in recent memory. There isn’t a false note to be found, which almost makes it tough to watch and behold. Werewolf is a powerful work of art and social substance.
Equally wrenching and just as great as Werewolf is fellow first time feature director Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer. The Vancouver born Funk, like McKenzie, made a big name for himself with the short films he had been producing, and much like her film he offers up a stark, realistic portrait of people in crisis. Hello Destroyer follows the stressful tale of Tyson Burr (TIFF 2016 Rising Star Jared Abrahamson), a star player and top prospect for a junior hockey club in Prince George, who finds his once promising career go up in smoke following a dangerous hit on an opposing player. An indictment of how one defines “sportsmanship” in Canada’s most beloved sport – one that’s unquestionably built upon a love of sometimes violent outbursts –and how players are treated for essentially following orders to win at all legal costs, Hello Destroyer forces the viewer to empathize with a character they might have vilified under less detailed and nuanced circumstances.
An indictment of a different kind happens in Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma’s suspenseful debut feature Old Stone. After a cab driver accidentally hits a cyclist and saves his life by taking him to hospital, he learns that he’s on the hook for his victim’s lifelong medical costs because he didn’t follow procedural protocols that surely would have seen the man die before responders arrived. A look at how Chinese bureaucracy makes it easier for people to escape blame (but not crushing guilt) and to die instead of live, Ma’s captivating work starts off as a subtle human drama and builds to an intensely unforgettable climax that’s both expected at a certain point and shocking when it finally arrives.
If those selections are perhaps a bit too downtrodden for your taste, Anne Marie Fleming’s Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming) is a lighthearted, uplifting, animated delight. When the titular everywoman of Chinese and Persian lineage decides to forward her burgeoning career as a (self)published poet by going to Iran for what she doesn’t realize is a slam competition, her parents show great concern since her absentee father has been living there since she was a child and there’s a fear that she’ll try to contact him. It sounds heavy, but there’s a lot of heart to Fleming’s work, and her animation does a splendid job of portraying how out of place Rosie feels in the world. Sandra Oh voices Rosie with great warmth and relatability, but the real stand outs here are Don McKellar voicing a high strung German poet that she befriends and Shohreh Aghdashloo as a mentor type. Together they have remarkable chemistry and elevate Fleming’s already charming story.
One of the few films on this list to have already had somewhat of a wide(ish) release across Canada is Nathan Morlando’s second feature Mean Dreams, a genre effort about a pair of teens (Josh Wiggins and Sophie Nélisse) fleeing their prairie lives and troubles with a load of cash that they stole from the girl’s abusive, alcoholic, and corrupt police officer father (a terrifying Bill Paxton). Gorgeously shot and consistently suspenseful, Morlando’s work here is a solid genre effort that went somewhat overlooked upon its release late last year, and now would be a perfect time to catch up to it on the big screen where the visuals really pop.
The other film here to have seen a wider release might be the most obvious and potentially controversial inclusion in this year’s line-up: Xavier Dolan’s familial drama It’s Only the End of the World. Although it won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and was selected as Canada’s pick for Best Foreign Language film for this year’s Academy Awards, critics were lukewarm to downright catty about this adaptation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play of a writer returning home to tell his dysfunctional, fractured family that he’s dying. It’s melodramatic, and Dolan’s decision to film almost the entirety of the dialogue heavy script in extreme close-ups doesn’t always work, but it’s not nearly as dire as some critics have painted it out to be. It’s fine for what it is, and much like he did with his underrated adaptation of Tom at the Farm (which I personally think is Dolan’s best directorial effort) the Quebecois filmmaker proves that he’s at his best when dealing with close relationships where people often speak what’s on their mind, both for better and for worse. Is it the best Canadian film from 2016? I really don’t think so, but it deserves better than it got here at home. Also, I would like to remind you that 2016 was a dire year for Canadian theatrical releases to begin with, both in English speaking Canada and in French speaking Quebec.
There are two other French language films hailing from Quebec in this year’s line-up. The first of those is Nelly, an unconventional sort of biopic from writer-director Anne Émond, who continues to impress and astound with her work despite still having a relatively young career. The filmmaker behind Nuit #1 and Les êtres chers returned to TIFF last year with this chronologically skewed and fascinating look at the life of Canadian novelist Isabelle Fortier, better known to the public as Nelly Arcan. The writer made a name for herself by courting controversy around the time of her debut effort, Puritan, in 2001, a semi-autobiographical work that pulled from Arcan’s past as a sex worker. Depicting Arcan’s characters as part of a greater whole and as entities with their own agency, Émond wants the viewer to constantly question what’s real and what has been made up for the sake of the narrative. Bolstered by a powerhouse performance from Mylène Mackay as the various parts of Arcan’s personality, it’s a deep, insightful, and intelligent take on a complicated woman.
The other film from Quebec is also the only Canada’s Top Ten selection that I haven’t seen yet. Those Who Make Revolution Only Halfway Dig Their Own Graves comes from the directorial pairing of Mathieu Denis (Corbo) and Simon Lavoie (Le Torrent). It’s a speculatively fictional account of radicalized students protesting in Quebec in 2012 and what might have happened if their efforts were more focused, well defined, and successful. It proved divisive among audiences at last year’s TIFF, where it took the prize for Best Canadian Feature but alienated just as many as it enthralled thanks to an almost three hour running time and a unique tone. I can’t wait to catch it at Canada’s Top Ten because I know whether I love it or I don’t that I’m at least in for something unique.
And to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday as a country, TIFF’s classically minded Canada On Screen kicks off during Canada’s Top Ten. A yearlong celebration of the best in Canadian cinematic history, Canada On Screen will offer free screenings of Atom Egoyan’s early film Calendar (Wednesday the 18th at 2:30 pm, with a Q&A and presentation by Egoyan), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (Monday the 16th at 3:30, with a Q&A from screenwriter Norman Snider), Michel Brault’s Les Ordres (Tuesday the 17th at 3:00 pm), Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes (Saturday the 14th at 11:00 am, with a Q&A from Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier), Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (Friday the 20th at 12:00 pm), Sarah Polley’s deeply personal Stories We Tell (Friday the 13th at 1:00 pm), and Michael Snow’s watershed experimental work Wavelength (Sunday the 22nd at 4:00 pm, with a Q&A from Mr. Snow).
That series will continue throughout the year, but there’s won’t quite be another celebration of Canadian cinema quite like this until TIFF proper rolls around again in the late summer and early fall, so let’s celebrate what’s shaping up to be a stacked year for Canadian cinema while we can.
For a full list of programmes, showtimes, films, special events, industry programming, tickets, and more information, check out the TIFF website. And if you don’t live in Toronto, you can check out TIFF’s website to find out when Canada’s Top Ten will be coming to your city.