Canadian Cinema Through the Ages

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Though it may not be able to boast some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, Canadian cinema has a long, varied, and accomplished history. Ultimately prevailing in an otherwise monopolized Hollywood culture, the Canadian film industry has worked hard to overcome the odds stacked against it. This is particularly relevant in terms of limited awareness within the global community that promotes quality Canadian movies.

In 1896, Ottawa residents George and Andrew Holland brought Thomas Edison’s Vitascope to West End Park to show The Kiss to an enthralled Canadian public. This set the wheels in motion for the birth of the Canadian film industry, and by 1897, Manitoba farmer James Freer had produced several films depicting life on the prairies such as Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield and Pacific and Atlantic Mail Trans. Freer’s home movies were so popular, in fact, that he was eventually sponsored to tour England as part of an attempt to encourage British immigration to Manitoba.

In 1903, Joe Rosenthal produced Canada’s first fictional biopic, Hiawatha, the Messiah of the Ojibway, a short film based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” This was followed by the creation of Canada’s first ever feature film Evangeline, shot in Nova Scotia in 1913, and produced by the Canadian Bioscope Company.

By the 1920s, film production was mainly restricted to newsreels and government-sponsored documentaries, except for the production of the silent movie Carry on Sergeant!, which depicted the lives of Canadian soldiers.

The National Film Board of Canada, established in 1939, was subsequently merged with the Government Motion Picture Bureau in 1941, creating one of the largest film studios in the world, now renowned for its animation and documentary productions. In 1948, the Canadian Cooperation Project was developed to encourage the Hollywood film industry to shoot some films on location in Canada as well as favorably referencing Canada to promote tourism to the area. This led to the production of Canadian Pacific (1949) and Saskatchewan (1954).

By the late 1950s, independent filmmakers were starting to make a name for themselves. Sidney Furie, a Toronto native, directed two internationally-acclaimed movies: A Dangerous Age (1957) and A Cool Sound from Hell (1959). Animator and director Norman McLaren won eight Canadian Film Awards, two awards at Berlin International Film Festival, an Academy Award for Neighbours (1952), and an Oscar nomination for A Chairy Tale (1957).

In 1968, the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) was established to develop a long-lasting Canadian feature film industry. Shortly after, Claude Jutra directed Mon oncle Antoine (1971), which is considered one of the most seminal Canadian films ever produced. This was followed by the first ever fiction film made by a Canadian woman: Sylvia Spring’s Madeleine Is… (1971).

The movie Meatballs (1979), starring a relatively unknown Bill Murray, ended up being one of the most successful Canadian films of all time, taking in $43 million at the box office in the U.S. It was only surpassed by the release of Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), which grossed $280 million, making it the most successful production in Canadian film history.

While epic Canadian landscapes are perfect backdrops for movies, Canadian filmmakers have also experienced success shooting abroad such as Eugene Levy who took his team to stylish Monte Carlo to film Once Upon a Crime (1992). The mid-90s and early 2000s also saw the emergence of Gary Burns and his edgy, suburban comedies Kitchen Party (1998) and Waydowntown (2000). Director Guy Maddin also played an instrumental role as he was one of the first Canadian filmmakers to garner an international cult following with the films The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Keyhole (2011). Additionally, Canadian directors such as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Philippe Falardeau, and Jean-Marc Vallee have all established themselves as big players on the Hollywood scene. Most recently, Denis Villeneuve received international acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for his work on Arrival (2016), further cementing the presence of Canadian films in cinematic history.

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