Movies from the Great, Northern Village
One of the most unfairly underappreciated and frequently maligned national cinemas is that of Canada. This is a cinema that is often dismissed by its own audience, despite the many masterpieces that it has produced throughout the past century. I was asked to create a personal toplist of this cinematic canon and before I do, I feel like some explanation is necessary. Canadian cinema is a heavily segmented cinema, not just between Anglo and Quebecois tendencies, but also between diasporic filmmakers, narrative and experimental, queer cinema and films by women. Unfortunately, the canon is also fairly slanted in favour of some groups, resulting in some films disappearing and others being placed on pedestals. As a result, this toplist is not a perfect representation of the cinemas of Canada. However, it is still a list of great films. I will leave you with two final notes: these lists often discriminate against individuals who work exclusively in shorts. In order to avoid that bias, I have removed all shorts from this list and added a top five of those filmmakers at the end. And I have made this a top twelve list, not because I had difficulty making the list shorter, but because I felt that some of the films which would have been cut deserve to be recognized, sought out and seen.
Top twelve Canadian films (in alphabetical order):
Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)
This film, released to Anglo-Canada as Good Riddance, tells a truly original story of a young girl who wants her mother’s attention all to herself. In the sort of story that is often reserved for a more Freudian analysis, this young girl has to compete for this love with her mother’s lover and her alcoholic, mentally-challenged uncle. Once you add in the incredible performance by a young Charlotte Laurier and the picturesque Quebec backdrop, what results is a film that deftly walks the line between a family drama and a psychotic thriller.
The Ernie Game (Don Owen, 1967)
Don Owen is one of the unsung heroes of Anglo-Canadian cinema and several of his films could have occupied this spot, but this one may well be a stand-in for his works due to its mastery of one of Owen’s favourite themes: alienation. Ernie is alienated in countless ways: by way of mental illness, homelessness, being a non-practicing artist and being an Anglophone in Quebec. He is a veritable lost cause with no redeeming qualities and the film still manages to make the viewer sympathize with him between screw-ups. Also, look out for a beautiful party scene that includes a cameo from up-and-coming poet and singer Leonard Cohen (who is the subject of Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen (1965) which almost took this spot).
Hard Core Logo (Bruce McDonald, 1996)
Hard Core Logo is often compared to This is Spinal Tap (1984). However, this comparison does not do justice to just how depressive this mockumentary really is. To commemorate the death of Canadian legend Bucky Haight, the punk band Hard Core Logo reunites and goes on a five-date tour of Canada, which is all filmed by a documentary crew. With all four members being in such close proximity after so long, the circumstances behind the breakup begin to manifest themselves and what comes up is mental illness, sexual conflicts and the horror of moving on. Included among this story are performances from some of Canada’s greatest bands (including a performance from hardcore legends DOA), performances of original songs and covers (including Sonic Reducer by the Dead Boys) by Hard Core Logo (headed by Headstones’ frontman Hugh Dillon) and a hilarious drug hallucination scene. This film tosses the concept of a constant tone right out the window and it is all the better for it.
Jesus de Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989)
This is the first film on this list that will not be controversial by anyone’s standards: this new, purely-Canadian take on the passion play was recently voted the second greatest Canadian film ever and it is difficult to argue against that notion. An underground theatre company elects to perform an expansive version of the crucifixion of Christ and inadvertently brings the story to life, not only gathering followers to the site of the play, but also taking the character of Jesus outside of the play into urban Montreal. By removing the slaughter and torture of the average passion play, Arcand managed to create a subversive and transgressive version of the death of Jesus (let’s just say that a director living during the decatholicization and separatism of Quebec would not make a traditional Christ story), while also sticking closely to the original story.
Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)
One of the main characteristics of Canadian cinema, particularly Anglo-Canadian cinema, is to take the notions of American genre films and subvert them in a way that makes them more Canadian. Last Night is, thus, an exemplary Canadian apocalypse film, due to how passively the Canadian masses treat it. The film takes place on the last day of existence. It was announced several months ago that the world would end on this particular day at midnight. In an American film, a small group of ragtag heroes would come together to avert the apocalypse. In the Canadian version of the end of the world, the people take this opportunity to party and do the things that they have always wanted to do. In other words, instead of fighting back, they take it: they go into the abyss with no questions. And, yet, at the end of the film, many of these people seem way more fulfilled than their American counterparts. Note: if you have not seen this film, but the plot sounds familiar, that may be because this concept was ripped off by the producers of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which was less successful due to the fact that it was made by Americans.
Les Ordres (Michel Brault, 1974)
In 1970, the Wartime Measures Act was invoked to allow the Canadian government to arrest anyone who they felt was involved with the FLQ and detain them without charging them. This film tells the story of those people. At least, that is one of the things it does. Four years after a large number of Quebecois were arrested, the majority of them with no cause, Brault made this film as a way of showing the solidarity of these people: the actors in the film introduce themselves before they introduce their historical characters and explain the connections between them. The rest of the film, shot mostly in stark black and white, is a beautiful and important reminder of one of Canada’s darkest moments.
Maelstrom (Denis Villeneuve, 2000)
A woman, in a dazed state, hits and kills an old man on the road. After driving away from the scene, she meets and falls in love with a man who turns out to be the son of her earlier victim. All of this is narrated by a fish on a butcher’s table. Villeneuve’s first truly successful film is a great example of the cross that can occur between bleak and magic realism, as the conflict between life and death results in love. The majority of this film’s success rests on the shoulders of Marie-Josee Croze, a woman at the end of her rope whose troubles just seem to multiply. Villeneuve has broken through into American success, but this film continues to be his best.
Mourir a Tue-Tete (Anne Claire Poirier, 1979)
An early example of Canadian cinema’s interest in feminist issues, this disturbing film looks at the issue of rape from a horrifyingly close position: a large segment of the film is actually a first person view of the rape of a woman walking down the street, who is dragged into an alley and violently raped by a stranger. These sequences are interspersed with scenes which depict the filmmakers discussing their choices in the set-up of this film and several sequences where a sort of choir of women question the way that the Canadian government deals with issues of rape and incest. The laws have changed since then, so some of their issues will seem outdated, but the way that rape is dealt with really has not changed all that much.
No (Robert Lepage, 1998)
Robert Lepage is often recognized as one of Canada’s greatest playwrights, but what is often ignored is his mastery of the cinematic form. Lepage has only made six films across a twenty year span and, somehow, three of those films hold a possibility of inclusion on a list like this. As great as Le Confessional (1995) and The Far Side of the Moon (2003) are, however, No may be his most important film, both from a political standpoint and a storytelling standpoint. This film takes place in two locations: In Japan during Expo ’70, where a pregnant Canadian woman takes part in a Japanese No play, while in Canada, her FLQ sympathizing boyfriend hides some friends who have made a bomb. The whole film is heavily international and conflates so many political themes in such a natural way. Seeing a fairly apolitical woman scream out “vive le Quebec libre” in a Japanese restaurant alone makes this film unforgettable.
Nothing (Vincenzo Natali, 2003)
This is the most unusual and least likely to be canonized film on this list, but it is truly a wonderful film. The film begins on the worst day in the lives of two people: everything that could go wrong on this day, including lost jobs and criminal charges, has gone wrong. At the moment where everything reaches its peak, both protagonists which for everything to just go away. And that is exactly what happens! They open their eyes to nothing, nothing as far as the eye can see. The film takes place in and around this remaining house, but everything around the house is pure whiteness. Of course, as Sartre suggested, hell is other people, and even one person counts. Left with just one other person, the two protagonists begin to get on each other’s nerves, which leaves the audience with a film that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.
Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
Videodrome is a particularly important film for me: I watched it when I was in high school, after midnight, on City TV. It was after this viewing that I truly realized what cinephilia was and it remains one of my favourites to this day. This film is also one of those films that has had genuine crossover appeal, making Cronenberg an international success. In a modern society where sex and violence are prime products for mass consumption, a television producer stumbles across a strange broadcast of pure violence: Videodrome. This broadcast turns out to not be just another broadcast, resulting in grotesque bodily transformations, hallucinations and revolution. Over thirty years later, this film still holds up.
Warrendale (Allan King, 1967)
It has been suggested that documentary is a truly Canadian art form and seeing the documentary works that have come out of the country, it would be difficult to argue against that notion. Foremost among the Canadian documentarians was Allan King, a man who revolutionized the way that documentaries can tell stories. In one of his earliest feature-length docs, Warrendale, King takes a film crew into a home for the emotionally-disturbed and films the daily activities of the children and caretakers. In this particular institution, the children are allowed certain liberties (including drinking and smoking) and the therapeutic practices come from disproven theories, including regression therapy and a practice where children who have tantrums are held closely and stiffly until they calm down, allowing them to get their aggression out. This film has no laid out thoughts on the therapy or much of anything else; King is content to just get into the house and watch, which results in an objective study of childhood mental illness and one of the most beautiful and emotionally honest documentaries ever made.
Top five shorts-based filmmakers (in alphabetical order):
Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby
Duke and Battersby are the preeminent voices in Canadian video art. Their works often incorporate childish visuals, depressive sing-song music and the strangest concepts imaginable. In the end, the audience is left with something that will, pardon the cliché, make them laugh and cry. Some of their most important works include That Sadness One, Great Apes, The Art One and Dear Lorde.
Roman Kroiter was one of the most influential producers at the National Film Board and the inventor of IMAX, but he also found time to direct films, usually in collaboration with the likes of Colin Low and Wolf Koenig. Some of his most important works include Lonely Boy, In the Labyrinth and Universe.
Arthur Lipsett is well-known to Canadian film students and die-hard Star Wars fans, but he is still lesser-known experimentalist elsewhere, despite the fact that his works can be placed right alongside those of his contemporaries. Most of his works were made by taking trashed film and sound from other NFB productions and splicing them together. Some of his most important films include Very Nice Very Nice, 21-87 and A Trip Down Memory Lane.
I have always been wary of writing about McLaren, because he is one of my favourite filmmakers and one of the few people who can make a claim at being the greatest filmmaker ever! McLaren headed the NFB animation department since its inception, aiding some of the board’s best filmmakers in their earlier works (including Claude Jutra, Arthur Lipsett and Evelyn Lambart) and has created innovative, brilliant films in a variety of forms and contents, including pioneering work in pixelization, Canadian queer cinema, cut-out animation and cameraless animation. Some of his most important works include Neighbours, Le Merle, Pas de Deux, Begone Dull Care, A Chairy Tale, Opening Night and Narcissus.
Mort Ransen was a prolific filmmaker but his inclusion here is mainly due to work on one film which I wanted to mention. Ransen “directed” the NFB production You Are on Indian Land, but his directorial method led to one of the greatest Aboriginal productions in Canadian history. Ransen went to a Native rights protest and handed out several cameras to protestors, who filmed the documentary, thus resulting in a documentation of their own story.