TIFF’s Latest Edition of Canada’s Top Ten Crosses Boundaries and Borders

by Andrew Parker

Canada’s Top Ten, TIFF’s annual celebration of some of the past year’s greatest achievements in Canadian cinema, once again showcases a wide range of voices, tones, genres, and styles. From fantastical larks, to movies about big thinkers and dreamers, to authentic, stripped down depictions of everyday life, Canada’s Top Ten spans not only the country, but the world. And this year’s selections are some of the most inspired yet from the early-in-the-year retrospective.

Canada’s Top Ten kicks off with the latest work from a veteran filmmaker, Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils (Thursday, January 25 at 8:30pm), which premiered at TIFF’s proper festival back in the fall and will see a wider release later this spring. For this one, Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) mashes-up his career as an opera director of some renown and his more widely seen cinematic works, spinning a tale of a harried director (a brilliantly stressed out Amanda Seyfried) trying to keep a make-or-break production Salome (and her own personal life) from going off the rails. Filmed in part at the Canadian Opera Company while Egoyan was putting on his own production of Salome, Seven Veils offers a compelling and compulsively watchable tale of the ways real life can become more operatic, overstimulating, and nerve wracking than any grand epic.

Although younger than Egoyan, Canadian boundary pusher and low-key cinematic veteran in his own right Matt Johnson (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche) also finds his latest film becoming part of TIFF’s year end retrospective, but probably not by surprise. Under the strength of its leading performances from Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton and its much talked about real life inspiration, BlackBerry (Sunday, January 28 at 7:30pm, closing out this year’s programme) was the most high profile Canadian release from 2023 on a global scale. And with good reason. Blending powder keg intensity, a multi-layered storyline, and a wicked sense of humour, BlackBerry is a pitch-perfect send up of corporate culture and the various ways competing interests helped to destroy one of the tech industry’s most innovative inventions and brands.

But beyond Johnson and Egoyan’s contributions to Canada’s Top Ten, this year’s retrospective carves out space for filmmakers whose voices are still emerging and growing, pointing the way towards a fascinating future for Canadian cinema.

Seagrass (Friday, January 26 at 6:15pm), Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature about an unhappy family trying to muddle their way through a retreat meant to strengthen the marriage at its core, is (for this writer, anyway) the finest and most thought provoking Canadian film of the year; a moving look at how children process their parents’ unhappiness. Neck and neck with Brown’s film for title of the year’s overall best in Canadian cinema is Sophie Dupuis’ stylish and emotionally potent, Solo (Friday, January 26, 9:15pm), which follows a queer drag performer (the always wonderful Théodore Pellerin) who strikes up a potentially destructive relationship with the new guy in town (a brilliantly cocky Félix Maritaud). Both films together make for a fascinating double feature that illustrates how parental decisions can forever inform the lives of their children, and each takes a granular, empathetic look at the formation of traumas and neuroses. They are challenging, but emotionally accessible and accepting films that balance the powerful and the delicate with tremendous tact and grace.

Similarly playing off those same fears of becoming one’s parents, albeit in a more crowd pleasing fashion, is Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams (Saturday, January 27 at 9:15pm), which delighted audiences during TIFF and as the opening night selection for Reel Asian back in the fall. A smart, snappy, and musically inspired look at a rocky mother-daughter relationship told across generations, The Queen of My Dreams values the viewer’s intelligence, while simultaneously offering up an inspired piece of entertainment.

Canada’s Top Ten also plays host to another pair of unique genre efforts in the form of Cody Lightning’s hilarious mockumentary Hey, Viktor! (Sunday, January 28 at 4:30pm) and Ariane Louis-Seize’s wry, darkly comedic coming of age story Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person (Saturday, January 27, 6:30pm). In the former, Lightning (who can currently be seen giving another wonderful comedic turn in Marvel’s Echo) plays an amped up version of himself, a struggling actor trying everything in his power to manifest a sequel to the 1998 film Smoke Signals, where he can reprise the same role he played as a kid. In the latter, rising star Sara Montpetit stars as, you guessed it, a young vampire who’s having trouble feasting on the blood of the living because she needs to form an emotional connection to her victims. Both films play brilliantly with genre constructs and balance pathos with bursts of wit and ingenuity.

A trio of films in this year’s line-up also examine traumas within minority, marginalized, and ethnic communities with eye opening results. Set in the mid-1970s, Henri Pardo’s Kanaval (Sunday, January 8 at 1:15pm) looks at the life of a young boy (Rayan Dieudonné) forced to start a new life in rural Quebec after his mother is attacked in his native Haiti. Set during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk’s Tautuktavuk (What We See) (Friday, January 6 at 3:30pm) follows a pair of sisters trying to maintain a close bond in different parts of Canada – Montreal and Nunavut – while processing the emotional fallout of childhood sexual abuse. And Zack Russell’s Hot Docs award winning documentary Someone Lives Here (Saturday, January 27th at 3:30pm) documents the efforts of carpenter and activist Khaleel Seivwright’s highly publicized fights with the city of Toronto over his providing of sturdy, well constructed tiny homes to members of the local houseless population who fear going to shelters. Each film take a tumultuous look at obstacles faced by human beings placed under enormous amounts of emotional stress and the struggle to adjust to an ever changing world that seeks to push them further into the margins. They are all inspiring in some way, but none of them speak down to the difficulty of their subjects’ experiences and tragedies.

Those who prefer a more bite sized overview and sampler of the state of Canadian cinema would also do well to check out one of TIFF’s pair of Canada’s Top Ten shorts programmes. The first one (Friday the 26th at 1:00pm) includes Jasmin Mozaffari’s exceptional character drama Motherland, Zoé Pelchat’s resplendent coming of age drama Gaby’s Hills, and Nicole Bazuin’s deeply empathetic and lived in Thriving: A Disassociated Reverie. The second batch (Saturday the 27th at 1:00pm) of shorts finds memorable standouts in Raquel Sancinetti’s delightfully animated road movie Madeleine, Andrea Nirmala Widjajanto’s disarmingly complex and culturally significant sci-fi effort Sawo Matang, and Ryan McKenna’s moving docu-fictional hybrid I Used to Live There.

Whatever your preference, Canada’s Top Ten this year offers plenty of necessary variety that goes beyond the established mainstream of national cinema. This year’s selections, both short-form and long-form, offer a compelling picture of Canada in as close to cultural totality as a limited series of offerings can get. The array of perspectives, styles, and forms is something to truly behold, and proof that Canadian cinema can still be exciting and boundary pushing if one knows where to look.

Canada’s Top Ten runs from Thursday, January 25 to Sunday, January 28th at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. All screenings are free for TIFF members.

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