Thursday, May 7, 2015

10 Best Canadian Films of All Time

Two weeks back, TIFF announced the results of their most recent survey of the Greatest Canadian Films of All Time – something they do every 10 years, give or take. For the first time since the survey started in the 1980s, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine did not win – that went to Zacharis Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner for 2001 – which shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering it placed 5th in 2004, just three years after it came out. Apparently, the race was close, but Atanarjuat won it. Is it the greatest Canadian film of all time? Not to me, but it’s pretty damn close, so why complain?

Their list was as follows:
1. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharis Kunuk, 2001)
2. Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971)
3. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
4. Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992)
5. Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989)
6. Goin’ Down the Road (Don Shebib, 1970)
7. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
8. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean Marc-Valle, 2005)
9. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
10 (tie). Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
10 (tie). Les Ordres (Michel Brault, 1974)

When the list came out, I started thinking about what my top 10 list of all time Canadian films would look like. I almost immediately knew that if I was going to make one up, I’d have to limit myself to one film per director – if not, I could easily have 6 Cronenbergs, 2 Egoyans, and only have two spots left. And what would be in the fun in that. I think one can argue that perhaps the reason why Cronenberg – Canada’s best known, and best director, ranked all the way down at number 6 is because he has so many films that could qualify, and there seems to be no real consensus as to what his best is. Browsing through the ballots, there was obviously a lot of votes for Dead Ringers, but there were also a lot of votes for Videodrome and Crash, and scattered support for Eastern Promises, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ, Spider, Shivers, Scanners, The Brood – even a couple of lone votes for M. Butterfly and Rabid. A few, possibly confused, individuals voted for Cronenberg’s American films – The Dead Zone, The Fly and A History of Violence. My guess is that if you were to ask this same group who the best Canadian director of all time was, Cronenberg would win. But that’s just a guess. In case anyone is interested, I do have a ranked list on Letterboxd of the Best Canadian films of all time, where I don’t limited myself to one film per director (and actually, only three Cronenberg’s made the top 10 – although he makes up a third of the top 21 films).

Cronenberg is hardly alone in having multiple films split his vote. While almost everyone who voted for a Kunuk, Jutra, Lauzon or Shebib film voted for Atanarjuat, Mon Oncle Antoine, Leolo and Goin’ Down the Road respectively – Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter came third, but also found a lot of support for Calendar (one of the few films of his I have missed), Exotica, Family Viewing and The Adjuster. Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal came 5th – but his The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions got lots of votes as well. Sarah Polley has only directed 3 films – but while Stories We Tell came in at number 10, she also got a lot of votes for Away From Her. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg made the top 10, but lots of people loved The Heart of the World, The Saddest Music in the World, Careful and Archangel as well. Canadian cinema remains a nice market even within Canada (and especially outside of Quebec) – so it’s not surprising that the same directors show up on everyone’s lists – they’re the only ones getting things made.

After making my list, I have to say, I think the TIFF survey did an excellent job. 6 of my top 10 are on it – and 2 others are by directors who made the list, but for different films. After some honorable mentions, I’ll get to my top 10 – which I ranked to make things more fun.

Honorable Mentions: C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean Marc-Valle, 2005) is a funny, touching and heartfelt movie about being a gay teenager in 1970s Quebec (ask me another day, and I may put Vallee’s wonderful Café de Flore for 2011 here instead). The Dirties (Matt Johnson, 2013) was a funny and disturbing DIY movie about a school shooting. Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett) is one of the only truly original werewolf movies – which brilliantly, and hilariously, likens turning into a werewolf with teenage girl puberty. Goin’ Down the Road (Don Shebib, 1970) is undeniably one of the most important Canadian films in history – and has a brilliant documentary like feel to the story of two men who come from Out East to the Big City, and find it just as miserable. Goon (Michael Dowse, 2011) is perhaps not a great movie – but it’s a great hockey movie which is FAR rarer. Hard Core Logo (Bruce McDonald, 1996) has rightfully become a cult hit – it perfectly captures the messiness of punk rock and self-destruction (although sometimes, I think McDonald’s under seen Pontypool – a zombie movie with no zombies - is even better). Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998) is a very Canadian movie about the end of the world. Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999) is as good a Jane Austen adaptation as more celebrated ones by Ang Lee or Joe Wright. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014) is the wunderkind’s best film so far, and I doubt that it will be too much longer before he’s made a film good enough to be in the top 10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009) may not been as original as his Cube, but makes up for it by being batshit fucking insane – which is what I want from a Canadian movie like this. Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1994) is a musician’s biopic, but one with none of the usual trappings and clichés that mar even the best the genre have to offer.

10. 21-87 (Arthur Lipsett, 1963)
The montage films of Arthur Lipsett are fascinating to watch – his first film, Very Nice Very Nice – was Oscar nominated, and remains probably his best known film, and the consensus pick for his best. I, however, was much more impressed with his follow-up film – 21-87, made in 1963. Lipsett uses a mixture of found footage and footage he himself shot, and made a pessimistic, almost dystopian, view of society – where machines were taking over, and soon we would all be reduced to a number, not a name. It’s a sad portrait of our culture, and one that has only become more relevant in the 50 years since he made the film and today. The film was a key influence on George Lucas – especially for THX 1138 (although there is a reference to the title in the original Star Wars movie as well). Sadly for Lipsett, he didn’t last long at the NFB, where he made the film – his bosses didn’t like, and didn’t get his films, and so by the end of the 1960s he was off on his own – and slowly slide into mental illness. But this short film – only 8 minutes long – deserves a spot on this list.

9. The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003)
Jesus of Montreal is a more daring film, and The Decline of the American Empire is out and out funnier, but Arcand’s Oscar winning The Barbarian Invasions is still my favorite of his work. The films takes place 17 years after The Decline of the American Empire, and revisits the same characters – and their now adult children. Remy (Remy Girard), the leftist, womanizing history professor of the original film, is dying – and although he has done his best to alienate those around him, they all come back as he faces death. This may seem sentimental or unrealistic – and to a certain extent it is, as everyone from his adult son, who has embraced everything he rejected, to his ex-wife, who he cheated on constantly, to former lovers come back to send him off. Yet Arcand isn’t only being sentimental here – he has some points to make. The older generation was idealistic – the younger generation isn’t – and the older generation may complain about how the world is going to hell, but Arcand makes clear that they are as responsible for that as anyone else, and if the kids are screwed up, well just look at who they had for parents? (The younger generation has Remy’s overachieving side and Marie Josee Croze’s heroin addict as flip sides to the same coin – and interestingly, they become characters perhaps more complex than anyone else). The film touches on issues like 9/11, the overburdened Canadian healthcare system and others as well. But through it all, Arcand remains his funny, whip-smart self. 

8. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharis Kunuk, 2001)
The newly minted “Best Canadian Film of All time” really is a masterful film – and unlike anything you have ever seen before, or likely will ever see again. Running nearly three hours long, the film takes place in an small Inuit community – the time period could be now, or 1,000 years ago, it doesn’t much matter. It is a film that both shows the Inuit culture in a way that it has never been seen before, and tells a story of passion, jealously and murder. The film is both very specific to its culture, and yet universal. It’s also not a boring film – not in the least – or some dull history lesson. The film is moving, and at times exciting – the three hour runtime moved by very fast for me. Kunuk has, unfortunately, not really been able to follow-up the film with much success – The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) is fascinating, but feels much longer than Atanajurat, despite being an hour shorter. No, I do not think this is the best Canadian film of all time (obviously) – but it is one of the only films I can think – from anywhere in the world – that I would describe as truly one of a kind.

7. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
I could have easily have put Polytechnique here – Villeneuve’s gut-wrenching, black & white film about the massacre in 1989, or Incendies, his Oscar-nominated film about a legacy violence passed down from generation to generation (hell, ask me another day, and perhaps I would). But for now, I’ll go with Villeneuve’s most recent film – Enemy – an adaption of the Jose Saramago novel, The Double, about a history professor who discovers his exact double (both played by Jake Gyllenhaal in an excellent performance). The movie is 90 minutes long, and neatly twists itself at the 30 and 60 minute marks, taking the film in a new direction each time. Villeneuve’s film is a surreal nightmare – evoking Cronenberg – and making both Toronto and Mississauga seemed darker and greyer than ever before. The film is really about Gyllenhaal’s relationship to the women in life – brilliantly played by Isabella Rossellini as his other, Melanie Laurent as a new girlfriend, and best of all Sarah Gadon as his pregnant wife. The shock of a finale is ingenious – because it works first as per shock value, and then as something deeper. Villeneuve is a talented filmmaker – and Canada may well lose him forever to Hollywood (he has already directed the wonderful thriller Prisoners there – has completed another Hollywood film (which will premiere at Cannes this month), and has two more on the go (including a Blade Runner sequel). But if this is it for him in Canadian film – he’s left his mark.

6. Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992)
The fact that Jean-Claude Lauzon died far too young – in a plane crash at the age of 43 having just completed two films – is a tragedy, because Leolo is one of the most inventive films I have ever seen, and I wish I could have seen more by him. It is a tale inspired by Lauzon’s own childhood in Montreal – and centers on an introverted 12 year old from an insane family – and not a lovably eccentric insane family like most movies of this sort, but genuinely crazy. Not that Leolo isn’t himself a little crazy – he believes that his real father was an Italian farmer who masturbated into some freshly picked tomatoes, and the semen eventually impregnated his mother when she fell in them in the market in Montreal. Oh, and he’s devising an intricate machine of pulleys to murder his grandfather – who is a horny old bastard anyway. It’s one of those films that defy description, and must be seen to be believed. If you haven’t seen it, then do so. Now.

5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
There has never been a filmmaker like Guy Maddin before, and there will likely never been a filmmaker like him again. His films are inspired by cinemas’ past – particularly melodramatic silent films – but while his films often take that form, it doesn’t begin to describe them. His greatest film is My Winnipeg (although you could vote for any number of his films, and be right – and I hear his latest, which premiered at Sundance is one of his best) is his ode to his hometown of Winnipeg. Maddin both seems to love and loathe Winnipeg, and gives us a “documentary” about his town, and everything that happened in its history – none of it, and all of it being true. Maddin attributes the movie’s unique take on Winnipeg as laziness – he was hired to make a documentary about his old hometown, and decided not to do any research, and just do the whole thing from memory. In its way, it gives a more interesting insight into the city because it isn’t researched – and is about how it feels like live there. Basically though, it’s much more about Maddin than about Winnipeg. That’s why, to me, it’s the most fascinating film Maddin has made so far.

4. Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971)
In small town Quebec, in the 1950s, a young teenage boy learns a lot about life and death, and loses his innocence, all over one Christmas Eve. He lives in the kind of small town where most of the men work at the asbestos mine, and the entire town will congregate at the local general store – which has everything one could need to buy. The store is run by his uncle Antoine – who is also the local undertaker – and the boy works there, alongside a girl around his same age, from an abusive background. Claude Jutra’s beautiful movie is shot with documentary like realism in the early scenes – as the film plays as a coming of age film. The final act of the movie takes on a darker tone though – as the boy is confronted with a series of uncomfortable truths on a long, cold, snowy sleigh ride to pick up and return a dead body with his uncle. The film works wonderfully as a coming of age/loss of innocence story – but there’s more here than that, as the movie also functions as an allegory for Quebec from the time the film takes place (the 1950s) to when it was made (1970s) that makes it a deeper experience. Jutra never hit these heights again – but in Mon Oncle Antoine he made a perfect film.

3. Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)
Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her is a subtle heartbreaker of a film. The great Julie Christie stars as a woman who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and eventually has to go into a nursing home. Her husband, the great Gordon Pinsent has to deal with the fact that he has been left alone – the woman he has loved all these years is still there, and yet gone – she even finds a new love interest, and doesn’t realize that she is already married. Pinsent is hurt, and tries, in vain, to try and get her back. But this isn’t The Notebook – but something deeper and truer to life. Polley shoots the film is bright whites – it takes place during the winter, and there is white snow everywhere, the sun is shining, the fluorescent lights of the nursing home non-ceasing. There is nowhere to hide. Polley does a remarkable job adapting Alice Munro’s short story – something that is hard to do, because Munro’s genius is often about what happens outside the story – that is not written, but felt. Polley has directed two other films since Away From Her – Take This Waltz, a wonderful, underrated examination of infidelity and divorce, and Stories We Tell, a personal documentary about Polley’s past (that easily could have been here instead of this one). Alongside Xavier Dolan, she is probably the brightest hope of Canada’s future cinema, especially since Vallee and Villeneuve seem determined to go Hollywood (not that I blame them). This is a subtle, heartbreaking masterpiece.

2. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
Over the lifetime of this blog – started in 2009 – I have been hard on Atom Egoyan as he makes one disappointment after another (Chloe, Devil’s Knot, The Captive). But I’m hard on him because during the 1990s – and into the 2000s (I will still stand up for films like Ararat, Where the Truth Lies and Adoration), he seemed poised to perhaps one day rival Cronenberg as the greatest Canadian director in history. That hasn’t happened – but Egoyan has made at least three truly great films (Exotica and Felicia’s Journey are the others) – but The Sweet Hereafter really does tower over the rest. The film is subtle and heartbreaking and shot in the winter, with snow covering everything (much like the previous two films on this list come to think of it). It tells the story of a tragic school bus accident that takes the lives of 14 children, and its aftermath. Ian Holm delivers a remarkable performance as a lawyer who comes to town and hopes to sign up the parents for a class action lawsuit. But he isn’t a slime ball or a crusading hero – The Sweet Hereafter is too complex for that – but a sad man, dealing with loss of his own. The film is not about assigning blame, but is really about grief, and how nothing will ever make everything whole again. Adapting the book by Russell Banks, Egoyan has crafted a masterpiece. I want this Egoyan back – not the one who made Devil’s Knot.

1. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
I’ve been working on this piece for a couple of days now, and I have gone back and forth and back and forth multiple times as to what David Cronenberg film should be #1. I could easily have put Crash (1996) here – and its disturbing portrait of a sexual car crash fetish, which acts, in its way, as the culmination of Cronenberg’s career up to that point. Or I could Videodrome here, with its genre leanings mixed with media messages, and gory special effects. What about Naked Lunch – a brilliant blending of the sensibilities of Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs, to come up with something wholly unique. Spider is a wonderful examination of a schizophrenic mind that came out the time as the feel good version – A Beautiful Mind. eXistenZ was a virtual reality film the same year as The Matrix – and Cronenberg’s film was smarter. Eastern Promises was an exciting, brilliant acted and directed Russian mob movie. The more I think about it, the more I love Cosmopolis – the Wall Street giant as emotional vampire film from a few years ago. Even Cronenberg’s less successful stuff – like the early Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, or later A Dangerous Method or Maps to the Stars are fascinating to watch. Luckily The Dead Zone, The Fly and A History of Violence are technically American films, or that would have made things even more complicated. So finally, what was it that made me land on Dead Ringers as his best (Canadian) film? Part of it is the technical mastery on display in the film – it may be easier now to have one actor play two characters and interact with each other, but it was much harder in 1988 – and Cronenberg pulls it off brilliantly. Not only that, but the whole movie is coldly, almost surgically, directed, making an exploitation like premise come across as something much more serious – and tragic. Part of it is the performances by Jeremy Irons – who makes the two Mantle twins completely different characters, even as they are wholly dependent on each other. But it’s really the final scene that makes me vote for this one, finally, over Crash. Both films have a tragic conclusion in their way – Crash with a marriage only temporarily “saved” as the characters continue to careen towards their deaths. But Dead Ringers final shot is haunting, tragic, sad, inevitable and just plain brilliant. Ask me another day, and perhaps Crash gets my vote (in fact, when I initially wrote this up, it did) – but for now, I’ll stick with Dead Ringers.

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