By Michael Sicinski [Note: this review contains mild spoilers.] In his most recent film with Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide More →
We’ve already discussed the majority of the features on this year’s Canada’s Top Ten list in some form or another in the pages of Cinema Scope or on Cinema Scope Online, many during our TIFF coverage. But as it’s still the time of year when film culture is obsessed with lists—writing them, reading them, arguing over them—we thought we’d mobilize some regular contributors and a couple of special guests to weigh in on TIFF’s annual celluloid decathlon. Thanks to our participants, who roused themselves from their respective food comas between Christmas and New Year’s to seriously consider what Rutger Hauer murdering scores of Nova Scotian day-players might mean for the state of Canadian cinema. —Adam Nayman
Jason Anderson is the lead film critic for The Grid. He contributes articles to Cinema Scope, Artforum and The Walrus and teaches a course on film criticism at the University of Toronto.
Angelo Muredda writes for Film Freak Central and is completing his doctorate on modern and contemporary English-Canadian fiction at the University of Toronto.
John Semley is the editor of The Onion A.V. Club Toronto and is a contributor to Cinema Scope.
Curtis Woloschuk is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle and serves as Associate Editor and Programming Consultant for the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Angelo Muredda: The list is about as schizophrenic as you’d anticipate given the eclectic/respectable split of previous programs. It does feel more workshopped than the selection process would suggest, though: you’ve got a high-toned melodrama from a pedigreed returning hero (Café de flore), a box-office heavy and audience favourite (Starbuck), a Francophone star vehicle (Marécages), a sophomore rom-com from a hometown hero (Take This Waltz), a Guy Maddin movie (Keyhole), a Merchant-Ivory costume drama (A Dangerous Method), and an Oscar hopeful (Monsieur Lazhar), to name a few. Not that I doubt the individual panelists’ lists shook down roughly this way, but I sense a tasteful curator’s guiding hand. Hobo With a Shotgun feels like the only idiosyncratic pick rescued by an enthused panelist—Patricia Rozema, obviously.
Curtis Woloschuk: I have some issues with how the list is compiled. Rather than panelists simply submitting their personal lists, I’d prefer to see a dialogue between the parties in the lead-up to their selections. I think this would offer voters the opportunity to campaign on behalf of smaller films that they feel deserve recognition. If this had happened in 2010, perhaps Ed Gass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs would have cracked the list, as opposed to something like The High Cost of Living, which had its profile boosted by the presence of Zach Braff. The diversity of the list is certainly questionable. With the notable exception of Take This Waltz, the other nine films are primarily white male directors telling stories about white male characters. (Monsieur Lazhar would be an exception on the latter count.) In past years, there’s certainly been more female directors and more diverse protagonists represented.
Jason Anderson: Diversity is not the list’s strong suit. Looking at the fairly even split between high-profile and worthy (or semi-worthy) productions from both Ontario and Québec, it strikes me that Canadian cinema might be a victim of its own success. Mind you, that’s “success” in very, very relative terms, as Telefilm Canada wisely acknowledged when it revised the current box office-based criteria to factor in international festival play, DVD sales, awards and critical reception when determining whether a film turned out to be a worthy investment of our ever-more-precious tax dollars. Most of the movies that received any kind of push are here and accounted for, even if several of the most commercially successful ones in either of the two solitudes (e.g., Le sens de l’humour, Breakaway) are AWOL. Two other important categories of Can-con that are poorly served are the smaller features that might’ve actually benefited from the exposure and used to appear on the list with greater frequency (in 2011, that roster would’ve included I am a good person/I am a bad person and Romeo Onze) as well as documentaries and experimental films of any stripe (e.g., Rivers and My Father, At Night They Dance, Wiebo’s War, Pink Ribbons, Inc., Beauty Day, Surviving Progress). In other words, surprises are few.
John Semley: There are some great films here: Lazhar, Edwin Boyd, and Hobo With A Shotgun. This last film was probably the nicest surprise. But while it’s great to see a sturdy piece of splatter comedy elbow its way into the ranks of Canada’s Top Ten, I can’t help but feel that its placement comes at the expense of more genuinely commercial English-Canadian films. It always rankles how these lists will inevitably tout unabashed Québecois crowd pleasers (Starbuck), but preclude the English-language stuff that may have the same prospects. I’m talking about Mike Dowse’s Goon, which I just wrote about for the magazine and which I’ve now seen twice. Last year, CTT gave Dowse’s excellent Fubar II the short shrift, which seemed kind of understandable. TIFF’s catered CTT to-dos, after all, are no place for pilsner-soaked headbangers like Terry and ol’ Deaner.
Anderson: Further to Goon’s absence, it strikes me that for all of the pride Canadians take in their contributions to the comedy world, we’ve done some serious injustice to our most adventurous examples in recent years, especially those by young troupes who’ve managed to squeeze some funds out of Telefilm but didn’t get their due. The disco-crazed, spandex-clad debut by Halifax’s Picnicface, Roller Town, is the most recent one to deserve a fairer shake by jurors and fest programmers alike. Maybe one problem is that material like this owes its anarchic sensibility more to the meta-buffoonery of Adult Swim cartoons or Tim and Eric than to the kinds of movie comedies that generally pass for funny among those with something good to say about Score: A Hockey Musical (2010). Instead, Roller Town belongs in a league with Peepers (2010), Who Is KK Downey? (2008), and You Might as Well Live (2009), movies that may not be perfect but are all sufficiently daring and ingenious to deserve cults of their own.
Muredda: No Afghan Luke? More seriously, Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a notable omission given its reception at the festival; there seems to have been an invisible requirement against nonfiction in general. I’ll vouch for Léa Pool’s film as a good case study of what the NFB can still do. Formally, it’s the usual talking-head stuff, but I was impressed by how smoothly Pool connected the dots between the survivor-championing narrative pushed in fundraising circles—as one subject sums it up, those who “lose their battles” are eulogized as tragic victims of their own deficient personalities—and the corporate culture that’s all too happy to back peaceful walkathons and cute pink magnets as long as no one gets very angry about carcinogens. Something about the politeness of the film’s presentation makes the incendiary rhetoric work really well, when it comes. Last Train Home (2009) and Up the Yangtze (2007) placement might suggest otherwise, but I wonder if Pink Ribbons’ absence from this list can be chalked up to its insufficient Can-con: maybe A Dangerous Method’s internationalism was just more palatable than Pool’s American focus.
Woloschuk: Anne Émond’s Nuit #1—which, admittedly, I haven’t seen yet—was awarded Best Canadian Feature Film at VIFF. It would seem to be a film worthy of more attention. Furthermore, recognition for Émond—a female director helming her first feature—would also have lent some welcome diversity to the Top Ten which, as I’ve already noted, is a bit of a boys’ club this year. Another noteworthy aspect of Nuit #1 is that it was one of only six narrative features that played both TIFF and VIFF this year. (Three of the other five features—Take This Waltz, Starbuck, Marécages—ended up on Canada’s Top Ten.) I’m always fascinated how a Vancouver film like Doppelganger Paul can generate discussion at TIFF (and subsequently be selected to play Slamdance) but be excluded from its hometown festival. Given how there seems to be little agreement between the country’s two largest festivals when it comes to Canadian programming, one appreciates the unenviable task Canada’s Top Ten has in trying to achieve some sort of national consensus.
Semley: Hobo With A Shotgun would almost seem curious if the rationale for this weren’t so obvious. As good as Hobo is, it feels very much like an exercise: a stylized exploitation romp with obvious ties to the Rodriguez/Tarantino/Wright template. Personally, I feel like Hobo’s a much more honest affair than a lot of these pictures: as he’s a first-time director, we’re not really laughing at Jason Eisener for making something look calculatedly crummy, because we have no sense that, unlike Tarantino et al., he knows better. Still, there is something recognizably de rigueur about its punkish, hysterically violent “grindhouse” gestures. (“Grindhouse” in quotes there because the film’s more indebted to the culture of samizdat VHS mail order and tape-trading circuits than the rowdy rep house, in a lot of ways.) So, as much as Hobo is legitimately lively and electric, it’s also recognizably of a piece with a largely tired movement in nostalgia filmmaking.
Woloschuk: I’d argue that Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009) offers clearer evidence of a Canadian genre renaissance. Whereas Hobo seems an offshoot of the American trash pastiche movement, Splice proudly wears its Can-con (read: early Cronenberg) influences on its sleeve. In this vein, Panos Cosmatos’ Videodrome-indebted Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) also deserves mention. After debuting at the 2010 Whistler Film Festival, it played Sundance, Tribeca and Fantastic Fest this past year and is slated for theatrical release in 2012. While I’ve yet to see the film for myself, all reports are that Cosmatos brings bold aesthetics and a unique sensibility to his brand of druggy sci-fi. When I attended the genre shorts program at the Austin Film Festival in October, I was surprised to discover that four of the nine selections —Blind Spot, How (Not) to Become a Vampire, Last Christmas, The First Zombie—were Canadian. Also curious: While finding fans in this genre-hungry city, none of those shorts were deemed worthy of either TIFF or VIFF. So, while there’s certainly evidence that a renaissance is underway, it seems that festival programmers might be slow on the uptake.
Anderson: Top Ten juries have never been particularly snobby in regards to genre titles (Splice, Peau Blanche and Pontypool have all been duly honoured). Too bad they didn’t go for Steven Kostanski’s Manborg, an equally canny simulation of late-‘80s/early-‘90s straight-to-video dreck, or Evan Kelly’s more genuinely novel thriller The Corridor.
Woloschuk: Pardon my ignorance on this, but is there a mandate with the Top Ten to recognize narrative films ahead of documentaries? Aside from Last Train Home in 2010, there’s been a noticeable absence of docs from these lists. While it’s somewhat of an aggravation as a Western Canadian not to see any films from this region represented, I’d also be hard-pressed to cite any films that deserve to be in the Top Ten.
Semley: As far as the exclusion of documentaries, I’m fine with this. I’m not sure if it’s in the official mandate, but CTT seems to exist to promote Canadian narrative features. And if there’s a worry that Québecois cinema is over-represented, then documentaries would seem to pose the same problem. There were some great docs in 2010—Wiebo’s War, Patron Saints, Pink Ribbons, Inc.—but I think one of the more progressively-minded aims of the Top Ten is to look outside Canada’s guiding documentary tradition.
Anderson: I’m surprised to see Le Vendeur on the list given its lack of profile in English Canada. The French Canadian voting bloc was obviously strong this year and could’ve honoured several more of their own, including Stephane Lafleur’s En terrains connus, Ivan Grborvic’s Romeo Onze and even Coteau Rouge, a welcome almost-return-to-form by André Forcier. Bruce Sweeney ought to make more movies, too.
Muredda: I also would have liked to see Ingrid Veninger’s humane and very funny i am a good person /i am a bad person recognized. It’s the kind of film that would have thrived in a small program like this, given its hall-of-mirrors setting on a festival tour. Romeo Onze would have been nice, too: it doesn’t stick the landing, but it deserves some attention for its surprisingly nuanced depiction of disability, which is to say its title character comes across like an average creep rather than a tragic failure. In disability studies circles we call that progress.
Woloschuk: I think i am a good person/i am a bad person was a significant step forward for Ingrid Veninger after Modra (which made the Top Ten cut last year), and does a rather skilful job of navigating some dark subject matter. I’m surprised by the adulation that Starbuck continues to receive. It’s a considerable annoyance to me that such lazy storytelling is now being held up as the “crowd-pleasing” standard that more Canadian films should aspire to.
The Cronenberg Question: Does a film with a European setting, financing and stars belong on this list?
Muredda: This is a question that’s been asked of 2011’s Giller shortlist, too: how Canadian is Canadian enough? In a piece for The Globe and Mail a couple months back, John Barber pointed out that only two of the six books nominated were recognizably set here, and another two were set in transit, with Canada serving only as a vague way station. I’m perfectly all right with the way-station approach, and I think you could comfortably read Cronenberg’s European sojourn within a recent tradition of tony cosmopolitan work recognized as Canadian largely for awards purposes—e.g., The English Patient (1996). (It’s probably for the best that Christopher Hampton didn’t turn Vincent Cassel into a Montréal psychoanalyst just because.) That said, if the idea behind Canada’s Top Ten is both to “celebrate and promote” contemporary Canadian cinema, I’m not sure I get the promotion angle here: isn’t Sony Classics already dangling the film as Oscar-bait in the US? Is the goal simply to bolster eOne’s release here on the 13th?
Woloschuk: As David Cronenberg is arguably the greatest product of the Canadian filmmaking system (and remains a staunch proponent of it), it strikes me that any work he subsequently produces is deeply indebted to Canadian cinema. While I have quite mixed feelings about A Dangerous Method, I really have no issue with it being on this list.
Semley: This may be cynicism (or paranoia), but it’s hard to feel like Cronenberg wouldn’t be de facto included precisely to represent CanCine’s old guard, and to keep him on good terms with TIFF as an organization.
Anderson: I for one would welcome an effort to reclaim the films of Ivan Reitman and James Cameron as Can-con (I promise you that My Super Ex-Girlfriend  will have its day!). Cronenberg retains his exemption and I’m fine with that, especially since he generally retains the same Toronto creative team even when the occasional production (including this one) is otherwise wholly international.
Woloschuk: Having already made my dislike for Starbuck known, I suppose I’d like to take this opportunity to applaud Café de flore. After struggling through The Young Victoria (2009), I would’ve never guessed that Jean-Marc Vallée still had a film this ambitious in him. In my mind, it’s far and away the Canadian film of the year, exhibiting both narrative audacity and formal inventiveness.
Muredda: Café de flore is worst in show for me, despite its unimpeachable (if sterile) production values and Vanessa Paradis’ best efforts. She almost overcomes Vallée’s grotesque trick of throwing to two Down Syndrome children’s sincere faces whenever he wants to signify True Love Through the Ages—almost. I get why people like it, but it’s basically a disabled variation on that Friends episode where Phoebe keeps comparing Rachel and Ross to lobster soulmates.
Anderson: Café de flore’s velocity is its chief virtue and quite possibly its saving grace—it’s too swift and too crafty to ever really get bogged down in the excesses of sentiment and new-age twaddle that might’ve otherwise derailed it. Its flagrant nuttiness is kinda irresistible too, especially among those of us who secretly long for more contemporary filmmakers to follow the trail once blazed by the overindulgent likes of Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell.
Woloschuk: Was anyone else perturbed by the anachronistic music in Edwin Boyd? The idea seemed to have been lifted wholesale from the trailer for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). Otherwise, that struck me as an uneven, often listless film that was more commendable for its intentions than its execution.
Semley: Curtis, I agree with you, in part, about the music. I spoke to Morlando during TIFF and he said the garage-pop soundtrack (by The Black Keys, I think) was intended as a means of bringing Boyd into the present, and of making him seem like a contemporary anti-hero: theatricality, baiting the media and all that. This seems like a suitable answer, and proof that it was at least a choice, more than the copping of music videos or movie trailers. Edwin Boyd is marked by a certain deliberateness that I find commendable: it’s clear what kind of biopic Morlando wanted to make, and he made it. There are some wonderful performances (not least of all by Scott Speedman), and it was gorgeously shot. Its melodramatic ambitions prevent me from easily including it as part of a straight-up Canadian genre renaissance (signalled by stuff like Hobo, Splice, Defendor , etc.), but it’s a sturdy film, an impressive debut feature and (apparently) one of the ten best Canadian pictures of the year.
Muredda: Take This Waltz is an amiable curiosity, for all its flaws, and it confirms my hunch that despite her screenplay Oscar nomination for Away from Her (2008), Polley is a much better director than a writer. It feels like the messy debut we might have expected of Away from Her, which pruned most of the irony from Alice Munro’s short story, not going near its suggestion that dementia can be a game as well as an illness. This one’s crammed with precious speeches and clumsy music cues (plus a good one), but Polley is generous to her actors, especially Seth Rogen, who’s very affecting. Michelle Williams is characteristically strong, too, and I like that the film has the nerve to suggest that ditching a long-term relationship to privately sway to “Video Killed The Radio Star” is a perfectly good decision for some people—some women, even. There are things to like if you can get past its concussed Toronto geography, where rickshaw drivers snag all the boho lofts and the College streetcar just loops around Cafe Diplomatico all night.
Anderson: I wrote about Marécages in the magazine, along with Nuit #1 and Romeo Onze. Though it is marred by the one-note, almost kneejerk miserabilism that makes so many recent French-Canadian movies more predictable than they ought to be, Guy Édoin’s debut feature is still a powerful (and even positive) portrait of rural life and a worthy showcase for Édoin’s best asset, Pascale Bussières.
The Big Finish
Semley: Clearly, there’s no accounting for the taste of the voters, and it’s hard to fault anyone for not including movies I like. (The Lafleur film was also a good deal better than Café de flore, but again, there’s this nagging sense that a Vallée film can’t not get placed on the list.) The biggest problem seems to be procedural, in how the list is put together. I have no idea how the qualifying films are made available for voters (or balloteers), nor how many. But it seems to me that like any other major award—like those meted out by juries at festivals or critical organizations at annual closed-door pow-wows—the Canada’s Top Ten cadre should discuss, campaign, and rally for their awards. People should bring in films they really care about, pass them around, discuss and then vote. It seems like restructuring this list would make it more eclectic, with more titles people are passionate about instead of reading, as it does pretty much every year, as “Yeah, I saw these ten movies.” This may be a lot of work. Or at least more work. But considering the integral function the Canada’s Top Ten list plays in forming the national canon, it’s probably worth it.
Woloschuk: Ultimately, I think it is inevitable that the responsibility for an undertaking like CTT will fall to an established gatekeeper. With TIFF’s cultural clout, it ensures that a worthy panel of voters can be assembled and that the press (and, in turn, public) will take notice when the results have been tabulated. Maybe I’m being naive, but I tend to believe that CTT represents what the voters, for better or worse, truly believed to be the year’s best films. Consequently, I’m not so sure that there would have been much variance in the list if the “winners” weren’t going to be screened at the Bell Lightbox. Conversely, if filling seats at the theatre was at the forefront of voters’ minds, it seems likely that more commercial films—as Jason noted, Goon, Breakaway, Le sens de l’humour—would have populated the list. Perhaps there would be value in sharing the voters’ individual top-ten lists; this might reveal that, although a particular film (Nuit #1 as a hypothetical example) didn’t crack the final list, it did receive votes from multiple panelists.
Muredda: I think it’s both inevitable and worrisome. Distribution is important: for comparison’s sake, the Polaris Prize longlist can be consumed in a day or two by anyone with an iTunes account and $50, and retailers like Indigo regularly stock up on newly stickered editions of books that make, say, CBC’s Canada Reads list. (It was a big deal when the small Nova Scotia publisher behind last year’s Giller winner couldn’t produce enough copies to meet the sudden demand in the days immediately after its win.) Both of these prizes seem close in spirit to TIFF’s list in that panelists are summoned to advocate for their pet cultural products. But advocacy can be a dead end if there’s no viable way to push the films to actual audiences. It’d be nice to see these films released separately from TIFF’s program—if only for people outside of Toronto to have a look at them before they land on DVD, without subtitles in some cases—but in this situation the cultural gatekeeper is necessary.
Anderson: Seeing as it’s as hard as ever to get a Canadian in front of a Canadian movie—and possibly even harder now that so many viewers have come to expect that festival-style experience with guests and whatnot at all of their outings—I don’t have an issue with the packaging of the CTT as a series for exhibition in Toronto and Vancouver. It’s often the last (only?) good house that some of these films will enjoy. The CTT does create value insofar as it can get bums in seats. Yet it inevitably highlights the struggle of Canadian filmmakers to get any kind of attention for their wares outside of the context of the national festival circuit or special events like the CTT or MoMA’s Canadian Front series. We’re still dealing with a reality in which the number of Canadian films to receive a relatively wide national release in any given year (and in English and French regions) can be counted on one hand and still leave you with a couple of fingers, and no worries about being accidentally exposed to a TV commercial for anything starring Molly Parker. As for the matter of canon formation, the CTT may be imperfect as a generator in that regard, but the Genies and the Jutras usually present a far more bizarre and distorted version of the film culture as it exists from year to year. In the absence of larger, more difficult reforms to the system as a whole, the CTT’s inventorying and exhibiting activities are proving to be not just valuable but possibly essential.
Canada’s Top Ten plays January 5-15 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto before travelling to Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa.