By John H. Foote
There was a sense for many years that there were no great, even good films emerging out of Canada, and our actors and directors bolted for the U.S. the moment they could.
No good films in this country?
Or should I say poutine!
Some of the films emerging from Canada over the last forty years are world class films, acclaimed by critics and audiences around the world. Some have been nominated for Academy Awards, major critics awards and made many ten best lists.
For years Canada was renowned for the documentaries produced through the war years and after, the National Film Board being a regular Oscar winner. Animation grew as an art form in Canada, and our nature docs became famous around the globe. How many Canadians grew up watching the Hinterland nature shorts? How many young filmmakers found work at the National Film Board?
Nobody Waved Goodbye (1963) was the first narrative feature film made here to attract global attention, a well-made film about Canadians, for Canadians, made by Canadians. In the mid-sixties the short film won the Oscar for short documentary, and the feature doc, Warrendale (1967) stunned critics with its raw power.
The seventies began with promise, the rollicking Goin’ Down the Road (1970) played for a solid year in a New York City Theatre, and made clear our films could be entertaining, accurate and topical, while being art. Promising works followed before things went sour, and schlocky horror films became the norm. The Changeling (1980) was a fine horror film, to begin the eighties, and many great films came out of that decade. But still, not enough.
Interestingly, the rise of what is now the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) coincided with the visibility of great Canadian films. The festival had always championed Canadian film, but now there seemed an abundance of them and they were celebrated around the globe.
One of the issues I have with the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that their foreign language Oscar excludes all English-speaking countries, despite their foreign status. So, for a Canadian film to qualify for an Oscar nomination as best foreign language film, it must be in French, Innuit, Hindi, any language but English, which is sad.
Preparing for this piece, I got to go back and look at several films I truly admire, always a treat.
I combed through the best in homegrown films and came up with these five as our greatest. You will not find car chases, explosions, or films loaded with great visual effects. Instead Canadian films are chock full of humanist stories about life, in the past, present or future. Oh, that Hollywood would take a lesson. Oh, that our films would actually play in cinemas and Canadians would go see them! A beautiful film such as Maudie (2017) struggles to make its money back while junk like Justice League (2017) makes untold millions. Sad, sad state.
- A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
That this little movie is now a holiday staple is something very special indeed. Made with loving care, if you were born before 1975, it will feel so familiar to you. Watching this film is watching the Christmas build up and Christmas days of my youth. The love in the film, the warmth, the sense that the day was a truce between siblings, a day to remind our parents that we loved them. I wonder when they were making it if they knew what they had, which was lightning in a bottle. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants a Red Ryder BB rifle but every adult he encounters shoots, sorry, the idea down with a curt, “you’ll put your eye out”. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are perfect as the imperfect parents, and the moment the film begins you smile with affection and memory. It washes over you like Christmas morning love.
- STORIES WE TELL (2011)
One of the honest documentaries ever made, Sarah Polley leaves herself naked and vulnerable in this fine film. Her courage in finding the truth about who her birth father is leaves one in awe of this gifted national treasure. Raised by the man she thought was her father, she listens to rumours and begins digging in her late mothers past. She discovers that despite her parents love for each other, her mother was promiscuous, and while doing a play in Montreal was known to have slept around. One of the men she was with fathered Sarah, and after much digging, she comes face to face with him. Imagine telling her siblings what she is doing, imagine asking them to go on camera? Raw courage. One of the most startling documentaries ever made, the very honesty with what it was made is apparent on every single frame. Polley is an artist.
- THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003)
A sequel to the popular French film The Decline of the American Empire (1986), it is both better, more powerful, and ultimately, deeply moving. The same group of friends return to Montreal, learning that Remy (Remy Girard) is dying of cancer. The intellectual who spent a lot of time chasing younger women is terrified, but recognizes his friends gathering around him. His estranged wife and son do the same, which allows him to become friends, and a father with his son. The son goes to great lengths getting his irascible father proper care, spreading his wealth around to do so. He even manages to procure heroin from a pretty young user to help his father with pain. Marie Jose Cruz is a revelation as the young addict who finds herself in helping Remy. The film is a lovely ensemble piece, with a shattering, emotional conclusion. It won the Oscar for foreign language film and earned Director-writer Denys Arcand an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
- EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
Director David Cronenberg is a world class filmmaker who has given us such classics as The Brood (1978), The Dead Zone (1984), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1992), and A History Of Violence (2006). This brilliant, troubling film is the finest work of his career, his second collaboration of three with actor Viggo Mortenson and a remarkable film. As a driver for the head of the Russian mob in London, Mortenson is so very much more which I cannot divulge without spoiling the film. When a young midwife approaches him for help in finding out what happened to a young woman who died after giving birth, he first warns her, then is gradually drawn to her and helps her at great personal peril. Mortenson is superb in the film, giving a brilliant Oscar nominated performance. The film is taut, powerful and looks unflinchingly at a vicious, dangerous world.
- THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1974)
Based on Mordecai Richler seminal novel, the film was brought to life with loving care by the many artists who worked on the picture. As Duddy, American actor Richard Dreyfus was absolutely sensational, seeming springing from the very pages of book. Described in the book as a “ghetto Jew on the make” Duddy is a Hustler with no visible scruples, he is prepared to screw anyone over to achieve success. Told by his loved grandfather that a man without land is nobody, he finds a beautiful piece of land where he envisions hotels and cottages and proceeds to buy it, hustling, lying and scamming his way closer to the deed. Dreyfuss is brilliant, because despite being the truly nasty piece of work he is, he makes us care about him. Director Ted Koetcheff lovingly brought the book to the screen, and in each frame, we feel and see the love that went into the film. Richler was Oscar nominated for his screenplay adaptation.
- GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (1970)
Don Shebib directed this spiky, brilliant film about a couple of Maritimers who come to Toronto in 1970 looking for better jobs, women, good times and a better life. Sadly, they encounter nothing but despair. Uneducated, ignorant of the ways of the city, they are fish out of water who never stood a chance. Doug McGrath and the late Paul Bradley are superb in the gritty film, their subtle work as two losers struggling to just exist were remarkable, giving the film a documentary feel. Stubby beer bottles, Maple Leaf Gardens, a bustling Yonge T., Sam the Record Man, The Toronto iconography of the seventies is well represented. When their lives fail in the big city, they pack their tacky car and head down the road again. In 2012 a sequel was released, Down the Road Again, with McGrath returning East, following letters from the late Joey that offer clues to his past. Bittersweet, it lacks the raw power of the first, but is a very good film.
- C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
The province of Quebec has an excellent, highly regarded film industry that frankly does not need the rest of Canada. Denys Arcand’s great films Jesus of Montreal (1990) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003) which won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film put Quebec on the map as a major filmmaking province. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) from writer director Jean Mark Vallee is a superb film that spans two decades about a blue-collar family in Quebec with five sons whose names make up the title. In many ways they are a typical Canadian family with the same troubles as anyone, grounded by a fierce love for one another. Wonderful look at Quebec through the seventies, the film offers insight into Canadian life few films have. Powerfully acted with a rawness that can lead to some discomfort watching the film, it is altogether brilliant.
- ATARANJUAT: THE FAST RUNNER (2002)
Shot on digital video in the frozen wastelands of the North, the film tells a story which takes place one thousand years ago. Warring tribes force a man on the run, eventually running naked across the frozen tundra to save his life, one of the most extraordinary images I have witnessed on a movie screen. Much like a western, though set among the shocking white vistas of ice and snow, the sprawling film is a majestic wonder of a film directed by the gifted Zachariah Kunuk. It feels like a fantasy, the stark snows apes looking otherworldly. Acclaimed around the globe, winner of several Canadian Screen Awards, it is without question a stunning piece of history for the Innuit people and all Canadians.
- THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
The bus is moving down the curving mountain road, the children have their faces pressed against the windows waving, the bus driver good naturedly talks to her kids. Then suddenly, an ice patch, the driver loses control and drives off the road down an embankment onto a lake. The bus slides, helplessly across the lake and stops. Then there is a horrible cracking sound cut through the silence and the bus goes through the ice. All but one child dies, she is left paralyzed from the waist down. The driver too is spared, but one gets the feeling she wishes otherwise. This staggering, powerful drama about grief and loss in small town Canada possesses near overwhelming power. Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Alberta Watson, and Ian Holm are superb in this landmark film that landed Director-writer Atom Egoyan in the Oscar race as a Best Director, Best Screen writer nominee. Haunting, unforgettable.
- AWAY FROM HER (2007)
Gifted actress Sarah Polley directed and adapted the Alice Munro short story into this powerful love story about we are willing to sacrifice for those we love, what we will give them for their happiness. Fiona (Julie Christie) is in the throes of Alzheimer’s and becoming a danger to both herself and her retired husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Knowing the burden she is about to be to him, she checks herself into a long-term care facility, where in the initial non contact month, she forgets her husband. Devastated, Grant watches helplessly as she appears to have fallen in love with another man, a patient in the same facility. Yet Grant persists and the deep bond between them keeps a flicker of their love alive. Christie was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress and Polley received a nomination for her eloquent screenplay. The film dominated the Canadian Screen Awards and was on countless ten best lists shout of the border. Christie was haunting as Fiona, truly ethereal, and Pinsent shone, a determined man who knew just one thing in his life. He never wanted to be away from her. Oh, that we all experience a love this deep.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.