While we here at Hollywood North Magazine strive to shine a spotlight on Canadian cinema, we have not always been overly strict on what exactly constitutes it. At times, links can be as tenuous as a film like Logan, which is a fully-fledged American production we previously reviewed despite having no notable Canadian input whatsoever. However, its titular character is himself Canadian, so we judged that a film about the most well-known Canadian superhero in the world deserved our attention.
Nonetheless, what actually defines a Canadian film can be a contentious topic. While some would argue that it must be a film by a Canadian production company, others would say that a Canadian director at the helm, or perhaps even a Canadian screenwriter, is enough to lay Canuck claim.
For the purposes of my list though, I will only include films that at the very least feature a Canadian film company, and thus will not be including any films by Canadian directors or screenwriters who are working on an otherwise international production.
I will admit that as an Irish contributor to this site, I still have my blind spots when it comes to what is considered some of the greatest films in Canadian film history, such Antanarjuat: The Fast Runner, so I will only be including films I have already seen. If there is any that have been notably excluded from my list, be sure to comment below.
So without further ado, here is my list of the Top 5 Canadian Films.
I open my list with the C.R.A.Z.Y., the 2005 film that launched Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallée’s illustrious career, establishing himself as the one Canada’s most talented filmmakers, a reputation he has maintained since both home and abroad.
After helming a number of low-budget films in the ’90s, Vallée found his footing with this coming-of-age drama, about a young bisexual man named Zac, played by Marc-André Grondin, who grows up during the ‘60s and ‘70s in a household consisting of a four brothers, who project varying types of masculinity, a conservative and homophobic father, and a doting, supportive mother.
Vallée chronicles Zac’s sexual awakening with great wit and empathy, ensuring that his direction applies the perfect degree of humanity in its most crucial moments, whilst never neglecting to find the comedy in it all. This is most true of Gervais, who not only provides some of the greatest laugh-out-loud moments through his own ignorance, but also proves to be a revelation in screenwriting, going from an unwavering homophobe devoted to the nuclear family, to an empathetic and loving father who ultimately just wants the very best for his children.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is a constant balancing act with its sensitive subject matter, but Vallée somehow manages to pull it off. Even despite Zac’s narratively jarring excursion to Jerusalem in the third act, I believe it is the greatest coming-of-age film Canada has ever produced.
- Mon Oncle Antoine
Another period piece and the oldest film on my list by quite a margin, Claude Jutra’s 1971 film Mon Oncle Antoine is a masterclass in direction, and stands as one of the most effectively scathing commentaries on religious and industrial institutions in the history of Canadian cinema.
Set in the rural Asbestos Region of Quebec in 1949, Jutra and co-writer Clément Perron use this period in history as a powerful signifier of the social changes that were to overcome the suffocating conservative belief systems of the area. Jutra and Perron were unafraid to critique established belief systems of depicted time, placing one struggling community under the microscope to examine the true casualties of industrial greed and clerical control.
What shines most, though, is Jutra’s direction. The director’s intimate understanding of his characters in the screenplay is perfectly complemented by deceivingly complex camerawork and silently intense moments of humanity, which together say more than mere words ever could.
Mon Oncle Antoine is revered to this day in both Canadian and international films circles, and deservedly so. It is one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers at his absolute best, resulting in not just one of the best Canadian films of all time, but one of the greatest Christmas films of all time…just don’t watch it if you’re looking for a jolly old time around the holidays. It’s not that kind of Christmas film.
- I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
Perhaps the most notable entry in Patricia Rozema’s sizeable filmography, 1987’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is not just a monumental achievement in the realm of feminist cinema, but a revelation in subversive character work.
At the centre of it all is Polly (Sheila McCarthy), a twenty-something temp worker with little aspiration or drive in life, or at least not until she starts working for art gallery owner
Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon).
Polly frequently indulges in her quirky mental fantasies, preferring their comforts to her own comedic misgivings on socialising and general public etiquette. The manner in which Rozema expresses Polly’s character is ingenious not just in the way it metaphorically conveys Rozema’s own feminist philosophies, but also Polly’s own outlook on the world and the insecurities that comes with it.
These insecurities, along with Rozema’s dynamic direction and McCarthy’s pitch-perfect performance, makes Polly one of the most sympathetic and relatable characters I have ever encountered in cinema.
Really, I could go on all day about the numerous elements that Rozema somehow managed to squeeze into this 81-minute masterpiece (and with not a second wasted either), but its earned a place on my list of all-time favourite Canadian films, which surely says enough.
- The Sweet Hereafter
I can say with great confidence that few films have ever dealt with the effects of tragedy as well as Atom Egoyan’s 1997 drama The Sweet Hereafter.
Arguably Egoyn’s magnum opus, The Sweet Hereafter is equal parts harrowing drama and introspective character piece, examining life of a rural Canadian community before and after a bus crash that took the lives of 14 children. The film opens not long after the tragedy, as attorney Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) arrives at the secluded community to urge grieving parents to file a class action lawsuit, evoking mixed feelings within the locals and indeed Mitchell himself, who carries his own emotional baggage.
As this summary might suggest, The Sweet Hereafter is an emotionally intense experience, but an unquestionably necessary one if you have not already seen it. Too often directors handle such subject matter with a damningly heavy hand, tugging all too hard at the heartstrings. Not so with The Sweet Hereafter.
Egoyan’s graceful direction is matched only by his accompanying screenplay, juggling many numerous timelines throughout to deliver the narrative in the most impactful way possible. Additionally, each and every actor is in superb form here, especially Bruce Greenwood and Holm, the latter of whom could have come off as some shyster with potential ulterior motives, but instead carries Mitchel with an air humane intention.
Atom Egoyan’s seventh film is the pinnacle of his career, and stands as one of the finest examples of deft filmmaking Canada has ever seen. Make sure to bring tissues for this one.
- Away From Her
So here it is, my all-time favourite Canadian film, and it is one that may require a second box of tissues if you’ve just watched The Sweet Hereafter.
Away From Her is the 2007 feature length debut for Sarah Polley, and is about a loving elderly couple, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), who have been together for over forty years, but once Fiona starts to show signs of Alzheimer’s, she opts to move into a home to spare Grant the agony of caring for someone who will eventually forget him. Over time, Fiona’s condition quickly worsens, and to Grant’s dismay he finds that Fiona becomes uncomfortably close to another patient, to the point where he is unsure he she at all remembers the life they had together.
What I find most impressive about Polley handling such a mature, complex narrative the way that she so masterfully did is that she wrote and directed this film while in her late 20’s. I mean, to produce such an emotionally attuned film at such a young age is nothing short of astounding! Polley shows a world-weariness through her characters that is simply beyond almost any director I can think of at that age.
Yet Polley’s achievements here go well beyond her young age at the time. I found Away From Her to be one of the most deeply affecting films I have ever seen. It is staggering just how well each moving part is managed, and how Polley succeeds in conveying such an unimaginable scenario with such tender understanding.
Polley natural sense for structure is something to behold also. If its first half is emotionally agonising, then the second half is refreshingly liberating, showing that Polley possesses a deft sensibility for drama similar to Atom Egoyan (who, perhaps less than coincidentally, directed an adolescent Polley in The Sweet Hereafter), in that she never wallows in emotional turmoil, but rather rather lingers long enough to allow its depth to set in before moving on.
Away From Her is a flat-out masterpiece of dramatic cinema, as well as one the most emotionally resonant films I have ever seen, and I don’t mean just from Canada. There is a reason why I included Sarah Polley in my list of the top 5 Canadian directors, as she has produced a number of wondrous films at such a young age, particularly the deconstructive documentary Stories We Tell (which very nearly made this list). However, it is her feature length debut that proves not just Polley’s very best, but in my opinion Canada’s very best.