Canada’s Top Ten of 2016, TIFF’s annual list of the 10 best Canadian films of the year, broke from tradition this year with many films from emerging filmmakers, which reflect our country back at us. The films will be touring the country as part of Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival.
Over the last sixteen years, the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival has grown from a barely noticed blip on the annual cinematheque schedule to a major January celebration.That’s partly because more and more Canadian auteurs have been getting major international recognition. Indie darlings like Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan have become household names outside of Canada — and not just because of their reliable presence on La Croisette every time they have a new film.
Can you predict Canada’s Top Ten?
There’s a fairly reliable algorithm you can use to predict which films will make Canada’s Top Ten. The two Canadian film award winners from the annual Toronto International Film Festival are usually guaranteed a spot. Anything that was programmed at the Cannes Film Festival almost always gets an automatic in — in Canada, we’re notoriously good at only valuing our own once they’ve gotten international recognition. Add whichever Canadian auteur is making noise this year, regardless of the film’s quality — last year, this was Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room and Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest — and the rest is anybody’s guess.Generally speaking, if Thierry Frémaux anoints a film, Canada’s Top Ten will honour it.Click To Tweet
There are exceptions. Atom Egoyan’s much hated (but not actually that bad) Cannes Competition film The Captive was left off the 2015 list. Even the excellent and hilarious Cannes hit, Maps to the Stars, by frequent Top Ten member David Cronenberg, was seemingly deemed too weird and off-the-beaten path for the selection. But generally speaking, if Thierry Frémaux anoints a film, Canada’s Top Ten will honour it. That’s part of how Xavier Dolan rose to fame quite so quickly.
Canada’s Top Ten of 2016 breaks with tradition
This year’s list follows some of the usual patterns. The one established director on the list is Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk whose previous narrative film, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was recently selected by TIFF as one of the Top Ten Canadian Films of all time. Winning the Grand Prix at Cannes guaranteed Xavier Dolan’s critical flop, It’s Only the End of the World, a space on the list. I’m in the minority for both liking it and thinking it earned its place here. But only one of the two Director’s Fortnight entries Mean Dreams, directed by Nathan Morlando, made the cut; Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear did not. Both suffered from weak scripts but had strong direction.
The surprise winner for Best Canadian film at TIFF, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a three-hour experimental, political film that mixes documentary footage with a fictional narrative, is also on the list. It’s probably the most daunting and formally complex film on the list, but it’s worth persevering through — and fully earns its spot. And as expected, Johnny Ma’s Best Canadian First Feature winner, Old Stone, a harrowing tale of how the Chinese bureaucracy made life hell for a good samaritan, rounds out the usual suspects.
Putting a spotlight on emerging filmmakersThis year’s selection is made up almost entirely of first time or emerging directors.Click To Tweet
What makes this year’s selection particularly exciting is that it’s made up almost entirely of first time or emerging directors — and their movies are really good. These filmmakers will now benefit from the weight of TIFF’s influence across the country and the U.S., hopefully gaining them a larger audience. Anne Émond, whose Our Loved Ones was on last year’s list, is back again with her third feature, the exquisitely stylized anti-biopic Nelly, which is about Québecois sex worker and author Nelly Arcand. Kevan Funk’s directorial debut, Hello Destroyer, about toxic masculinity in minor league hockey was one of the most exciting debuts of last year. Though a bit over-long, every frame is extremely well-considered and proves Funk is a director to watch.
Read more: Ashley McKenzie talks Werewolf at TIFF16 >>
Cape Breton filmmaker Ashley McKenzie’s debut, Werewolf, about the lawnmower junkies of Nova Scotia, is a quiet, compassionate, and equally thoughtful debut. Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming), the Canadian entry in a year full of films about poets (Paterson, Neruda, A Quiet Passion), is a gorgeously animated story of immigration, assimilation, and identity. And Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s activist documentary, Angry Inuk, the only film that wasn’t screened at TIFF in the fall, having already taken home the top prize at HotDocs, is an urgent, passionate film about Inuit culture and the necessity of the seal hunt.
Noteworthy omissions from Canada’s Top Ten of 2016
It was a surprise to see films by beloved Canadian auteurs actually left off of this year’s list. Alanis Obomsawin’s three hour documentary We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is conspicuously absent. Yet I don’t think it belongs on the list either: it’s an important document, but not really a work of art — a labourious, preachy watch. TIFF favourite Bruce McDonald was also overlooked for his most recent film, Weirdos, a road trip movie set in 1976 Nova Scotia, about a queer teenaged boy searching for his mother and his identity. It was one of my favourite Canadian films of 2016, but McDonald also doesn’t need the platform that Canada’s Top Ten provides.The most egregious omission is the NFB doc The Apology, by first-time filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, about the so-called “Japanese comfort women”Click To Tweet
The most egregious omission is the NFB doc The Apology, by first-time filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, about the so-called “Japanese comfort women” — young women and teenagers kidnapped by the Japanese army to serve as sex slaves of World War II — who, now grandmothers, are seeking an apology from the Japanese government. These amazing octogenarian women could have become hardened by their traumatic experience, but instead, they became loving parents and community advocates drawing attention to issues of sexual violence. Watching them recall their trauma and fight their fight is incredibly moving and inspiring.
Improved diversity in Canada’s Top Ten of 2016 compared to 2015
While last year’s list had no films by Indigenous filmmakers, this year’s features two films by Inuit filmmakers: Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit and Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk. Last year’s list had only one film by a person of colour, while this year’s features four, including Old Stone and Window Horses. There are once again four films directed by women: Werewolf, Angry Inuk, Window Horses, and Nelly. Geographically, there are two films from Nunavut, three from Quebec, two from B.C., and one from the Maritimes. In a dramatic change from tradition, this year’s list had only one documentary, Angry Inuk, while last year’s featured three.
The state of Canadian Cinema in 2016
The big question that Canada’s Top Ten list raises each year is just what exactly is Canadian cinema? TIFF defines it as films made by Canadian residents and citizens, generally with some Canadian funding. But it can be hard to think of It’s Only The End of the World, which features a cast of exclusively A-list French actors — Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye, Gaspard Ulliel, and Vincent Cassell — and set in some unnamed, but presumably European town, as really Canadian. Is it much different from Arrival, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s most recent English-language film, which was shot in Montreal, but starred American actors? Neither really engage with specific issues of Canadian identity.
Similarly, it’s disappointing to see Mean Dreams trying so hard to be an American film. Morlando cast American stars, like Bill Paxton, and set the film somewhere nonspecific in the heartland — even though it’s very obviously, to Ontarians, shot in Ontario. Even Kunuk’s Maliglutit, which puts Inuit culture front and centre, is a bit of a chin scratcher, given that it’s adapted from the American Western, The Searchers, and features the same regressive gender roles as the 1950s film. Both films feature stunning photography of the Canadian landscape, and at least Maliglutit makes no attempt to conceal the fact that it’s Canadian. Effectively, it’s a Northern, adapting the style of a Western to the Arctic landscape, and a fascinating one. Even when the story is weak, it’s an insider’s guide to a world that’s foreign to most Canadians and a showcase of traditional Inuit customs.
Grappling with the immigrant experience
At first glance, Old Stone may seem more like a Chinese film than a Canadian one: it’s set entirely in China, features Chinese actors, and is entirely in Chinese. But it follows in the tradition of films like In Her Place — Albert Shin’s 2014 film from Canada’s Top Ten, which was set entirely in South Korea and spoken entirely in Korean — in which a Canadian director, and first generation immigrant, explores his roots. Window Horses is in a similar vein, but it’s about a mixed race Canadian character rediscovering her Iranian roots in a trip to Iran.
Read more: Poetry and identity in Window Horses >>
Canada’s Top Ten of 2016 interrogates Canadian cultureEmerging filmmakers in Canada's Top Ten interrogate Canadian culture. Click To Tweet
The rest of the films on the list are more obviously “Canadian” in that they’re all clearly set in Canada and interrogate Canadian culture. It’s exciting to see our national cinema move past silly, excessive displays of patriotism like the 2002 film, Men With Brooms, and start to make critical statements about uniquely Canadian issues.What would a Top Ten Canadian Films list be without a film about hockey? And yet Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer is an indictment of the toxic masculine culture that accompanies hockey, rather than an unabashed celebration of our national past time, like Score: The Hockey Musical. Similarly, Anne Émond’s Nelly is the story of a famous Canadian author, but it’s not an entirely flattering one. It celebrates her genius, but it also grapples with her often contradictory and frustrating personality, her obsession with performance, and her need for constant validation.
Meanwhile, Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf highlights the limitations of our social welfare system. Its leads seek social housing, but the waitlist is too long, so they’re homeless. They participate in a program for methadone addicts, but they’re still just scraping by. The film is about the barriers they face rather than a celebration of our beloved socialized medicine.
Read more: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril on Angry Inuk, seal hunting >>
Documentaries and pseudo-documentaries about political problems
Angry Inuk is about the rampant misinformation about the seal hunt disseminated in the south which has dire consequences on Inuit up north. Of course, it’s also a celebration of Inuit culture, and an effective activist film because it gets us riled up and angry about the injustices Inuit face without ever feeling preachy. The film continues a tradition, among films from Canada’s Top Ten, like 2013’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls and 2015’s Ninth Floor, of highlighting Canadian colonialism and Canadian racism — very real issues that we don’t particularly like to discuss.
Read more: Mina Shum talks Ninth Floor and Canadian racism >>
While Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves has been touted as the Canadian La Chinoise, Jean Luc-Godard’s 1960s film about student protests, it’s something much more experimental and original. Made by Simon Lavoie and Mathieu Denis (Corbo, Canada’s Top 10 of 2013), the film seriously questions the efficacy and means of the 2012 Montreal student protests of tuition hikes, but it also grapples with why it’s vital to engage politically. And it doesn’t let the Canadian government off the hook either: documentary footage of police brutality and real footage is interwoven with the fictional story of protesters.
Last year’s list focused on coming-of-agers from emerging directors
Read more: Philippe Lesage talks The Demons >>
The films in last year’s Top Ten could be loosely divided into two categories: personal, coming-of-age stories by emerging directors; and films that more directly engage with Canadian issues. Three of the coming-of-age films — Closet Monster, Our Loved Ones, and The Demons — were absolutely terrific, while Sleeping Giant and Into the Forest didn’t quite earn their place. But it was a delight to see these films recognized here since they were then criminally ignored at the Canadian Screen Awards, which favoured the Irish-Canadian co-production Room, with very little Canadian talent in front of or behind the camera in creative roles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the documentaries Guantanamo’s Child and Ninth Floor grappled with Canadian racism while HURT looked at the fallout of experiencing hero worship. And Philippe Falardeau’s satire, My Internship in Canada, gave a critical but hilarious look at problems unique to Canadian politics. The one outlier was Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s experimental silent film, The Forbidden Room.
Read more: Philippe Falardeau talks My Internship in Canada >>
In 2016, emerging directors tackle issues in Canadian society
This year, however, it’s the first time or emerging directors who are grappling with issues in Canadian society, from the social welfare system to racism, while the more established directors tell more commercial stories. Xavier Dolan, now on his sixth feature, and Nathan Morlando, with his second, don’t even want their films to be associated with Canada. Even Zacharias Kunuk is more interested in taking an American story and setting it in a Canadian context than grappling with current, cultural issues. Maliglutit was programmed in the Platform competition at TIFF last September, and it invited comparisons to the Australian western Goldstone. But where Goldstone grappled with colonialism and Australian issues, Maliglutit is blissfully divorced from such difficulties.
Uniquely Canadian character studies
Hello Destroyer, Werewolf, Nelly, and Window Horses are all character studies. But they’re also all uniquely Canadian stories that tackle problems in our society. Only in Canada can you make a film about minor league hockey and expect viewers to get your shorthand about this world without explaining it. Only in Canada can you consider the lives of drug addicts in the context of socialized medicine and a developed welfare system. Only in Canada will you find an author who was a celebrity in just one province and overseas in France, Nelly Arcand, and yet a virtual unknown in the rest of the country. Most especially, only in Canada can you tell a story of a mixed race young woman who has so assimilated into Canadian culture that she’s lost a part of herself — and hasn’t even realized it. And only in Canada can she get that part of her back and still be embraced by society.
Uniquely Canadian political cinema
Even Those Who Make Revolution…which was programmed next to the French student terrorist film, Nocturama, at TIFF, is uniquely Canadian. If Nocturama was about how little teenagers cared about the consequences of their terrorist actions, Those Who Make Revolution…is all about the devastating personal consequences, and the guilt that comes with hurting others. What, after all, could be more Canadian?