By John H. Foote
I freely concede it took a long time for me to recognize that the films made in this country are powerful worthy works, something the rest of the planet had discovered before most Canadians. The struggle to get Canadians to watch Canadian cinema is still an ongoing battle, but things are far better than they were in the seventies. During the infamous “tax break” years in the seventies, the films were generally terrible with cheap production values, made for the sake of income tax write offs. But through the decade every once and a while a truly great film would be made and audiences, just might find it.
I wrote this article chronologically, to explore each film as I discovered it in my life. By the time I was a full blow film critic in 1991, I was seeking Canadian cinema because it was stronger with each passing year and in 1997 a Canadian film was the finest of the year, Atom Egoyan’s haunting The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Ten years later Sarah Polley’s magnificent love story about a couple struggling with Alzheimer’s, Away from Her (2007), was the year’s best film behind There Will Be Blood (2007), Zodiac (2007) and No Country for Old Men (2007), a very hefty achievement indeed.
Here are the 10 Canadian films which have had the greatest impact on me and in the order I saw them. Obviously I have seen them at various times in my life and more than once.
Bear in mind these are not necessarily the best, though some are, nor the worst, just those that hit me hard.
Yes I love American cinema, I believe the best films in the world are made there, but Canada is no longer a slouch. We are doing just fine, if only our citizens would give the films a greater chance to be seen.
GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (1970)
I first saw Don Shebib’s now classic film on CBC one night and was shocked at the language and nudity, hey I was 11. Through my life and career I have returned to the low budget masterpiece over and over again, and to my eternal surprise it retains its power. A true Canadian work, by Canadians and for Canadians, it played in New York City an entire year in a single cinema so great were the crowds and reactions. Two Maritimers seeking money, women and a better way of life pack up Joey’s boat of a car and head to the big city and night life of Toronto. They find work, blue collar, not so different from what they left and try to carve a place for themselves. Joey (Paul Bradley) gets his girlfriend pregnant so they marry while Pete (Doug McKeon) stays single, playing the field but more often than not they are looking for work. Finally broke and helpless they move in together and in a botched robbery for groceries, end up heading west, without the pregnant girlfriend (portrayed by the great Jayne Eastwood), once again goin’ down the road to a better life. It is a tough, honest and uncompromising film, made for $25,000 on 16 mm, shot entirely in and around Toronto. Brilliance need not cost a lot; it all starts with a soul.
FACE OFF (1971)
Hockey, real hockey in a movie? This was the very first Canadian film I paid to see. Art Hindle portrays Canadian hotshot Billy Duke, modelled obviously on Boston Bruins star Derek Sanderson, a gifted rookie playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the National Hockey League cooperating on the making of the film, real NHL stars are seen throughout the film, having been filmed for the movie. Hindle’s scenes on the ice were doubled by then Leaf favorite Jim McKenny. Watching Bobby Orr, Sanderson, Jacques Plante, all the stars of the era, on the big screen was a thrill and gave the film some credibility and realism, but then off the ice a dumb love story took over and things went awry. Billy falls for a drugged-up singer and all hell breaks loose and he is asked to choose his career over the doomed singer. Like all Canadian boys he chooses hockey, leaving his little pot head and much worse to kill herself. The on ice scenes are wickedly realistic, the rest … silly. How I wish we had outtakes of the scenes, rumors circulated that Plante would not let in a goal, he constantly held up filming stopping the shots. Bobby Hull finally whistled a couple of 120 mph slapshots around his head to get him to let the puck go in for the shot. Virtually forgotten now, but it was quite something back then.
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1975)
Having read Mordecai Richler’s classic novel in high school, I was excited when the film came to Oshawa for a screening. Already a film junkie, I was interested to see how American actor Richard Dreyfuss would bring life to Duddy, described in the book as “a little Jew on the make”, a dishonest, crooked hustler who will lie and steal to get what he wants. Dreyfuss was a year after American Graffiti (1973) and a year before Jaws (1975) and after seeing his performance in the film as the swindling Duddy, I knew this guy was going places. When they started discussing the Academy Awards for Best Actor, his name was floated about though he was not nominated. He should have been. He was brilliant, electrifying and perfect as Duddy, as though the character had sprung from the pages of the Richler book. Every nuance was right, it was a flawless piece of acting. Though by the end he has the respect of his father, the one he most wanted it from, but everyone he cares about knows he is heartless and a black souled punk. Behind his relentless energy, his cocky laughter and ambition, Duddy is a monster. One of the greatest films ever made, directed by Ted Kotcheff who had a Hollywood career afterwards. Jack Warden is superb as Duddy’s cab driving pimp of a father. The recreation of post war Montreal is magnificent. The constant motion, energy and relentless scheming of Duddy will wear you out, but good God what a piece of acting.
THE CHANGELING (1980)
A horror film NOT made by David Cronenberg, released in the spring of 1980 three months before The Shining, this movie directed by Peter Medak actually got better reviews and stronger box office than Kubrick’s now classic horror film. The Changeling is a straight up ghost story, simply told, with deceptively simple effects that cause the viewer to leap out of their seat. George C. Scott is a recently widowed musician who also lost his daughter in a tragic car accident and he rents the massive home for peace and quiet and to manage his grief. But when he moves in strange noises begin to be heard and bizarre circumstances tell him he is not alone. A rubber ball is responsible for the film’s greatest scare and trust me it is a beauty. When it came bouncing down the stairs for a second time, this time still wet from the river Scott threw it into, my heart stopped. The performance of Scott gives the film great credibility and he is superb as the damaged musician trying to solve a riddle and give a dead child peace. Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas offer strong support in this gothic style horror film.
THE BEST DAMNED FIDDLER FROM CALABOGIE TO KALADAR (1968)
Made in 1968, this not quite feature length film opened my eyes to the piercing beauty of the portraits of characters in Canadian cinema. Shot as though they were making a documentary, Margot Kidder gives a fine, fresh, lived-in performance. It has been nearly 35 years since I have seen the film, but I remember walking out of the classroom galvanized in some way I could not explain then. So realistic, you could almost smell the characters.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983)
An absolute masterpiece and Christmas regular, this film could be about my childhood. It has the look and feel of those warm days in Seagrave growing up with my brothers and sister, those wonderful days leading up to Christmas and that delicious morning when our dreams came true. Remember the Christmas Wishbook published by Simpson-Sears? The endless hours circling our wishes, bending over the pages, leaving the book in clear sight of mom and dad? All here. And Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is a wildly imaginative little boy who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but everyone keeps telling him “you’ll shoot your eye out kid”. The film beautifully portrays the relationships between both parents, his warm and loving mother (Melinda Dillon) and tough as nails but loving father (Darren McGavin), each no less than the other, but unique in every way. And Randy, the little brother who hides when he believes his father is going to kill his brother, will not eat his food unless he can pretend he is a pig and looks like the Michelin man in his snowsuit. Warm, lovely, nostalgic and unforgettable.
THE WARS (1983)
I have seen this twice, and it is nearly impossible to get on DVD or Blu Ray, but I have never forgotten it. Directed by theatre whiz Robin Philips, the film is a perfect argument as to why theatre directors might not make it in cinema. It feels theatrical, not cinematic, yet the scenes during the First World War have their own special kind of horror. I am not saying it is a great film, because it is not, but it is important because of the lessons it taught me in great stage directors not transferring well to film, and that not even a great screenplay can save a film. There are images I have never forgotten, all the scenes of combat have remote cold to them, and Martha Henry is superb. My buddy Dan Woods is among the soldiers getting blown to bits in this good but not great film.
THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE (1986)
Witty, whip smart and fun to watch, Denys Arcand’s first great film explored the friendships and affairs of a group of French Canadians with an intimacy we had never seen before. A group of French Canadian intellects gather for drinks and dinner and cottage life and talk relentlessly but profoundly about the state of the world. Remy Girard is the most interesting of the group and delivers a superb performance, but there is not a weak one in the film. The sequel was even better. This for me marked the turning point of Canadian cinema.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
Atom Egoyan’s film scored on the world stage winning awards at Cannes and conquering the Toronto International Film Festival before being nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Director and Best Screenplay, both for Egoyan. It should have been a Best Picture nominee as well. A tragic school bus accident has killed all but one of the children in the small British Columbia town, and she has been left paralyzed from the waist down. Nicole (Sarah Polley) had a career planned as a singer and her father was going to make this happen. They appear to have a very loving connection until is revealed he takes her in the barn and has sex with her. Oh the secrets in a small town. So many come rearing their ugly heads when a lawyer comes to town hoping to group the folks together for a class action lawsuit. He is a decent man well played by Ian Holm, with troubles of his own, namely his drug addicted daughter who has contracted AIDS. Much of the film including the bus accident is shot from above to give the impression of God staring down on to the earth. The performances – Bruce Greenwood, Arsinee Khanjian and Polley – are absolute perfection. I have never forgotten the movie and have seen it at least a dozen times since that first screening in 1997. There are still scenes where I forget to take a breath.
LAST NIGHT (1998)
No Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall ride to the rescue in spaceships to save the earth, oh no, this is Canada, this is honesty, the world does indeed end in Don McKellar’s profound Last Night, not with a bang but a whimper. And incredibly with hope. No kidding, a film about the end of the world ends with a deep, passionate kiss between two strangers who are holding guns to one another’s head in hopes of fulfilling a vow made to her husband. But at the last moment, love takes a hold of them, not necessarily for one another but for life, any life, and they kiss deeply, with meaning. The film is a countdown to the end of life on earth with a group of Toronto people going about their business in familiar surroundings until the end. There is no more nighttime, it is always light, and indeed the final end comes not in a black out but an intensely bright white out. Well written by McKellar, the film has an array of great performances from the likes of McKellar, and Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie and David Cronenberg as the gas man, playing Canadian bands until he can go home. Quirky and fine, delicate and moving. The memories of Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) were out for good.
THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003)
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film went to this Denys Arcand directed and written sequel to The Decline of the American Empire which sees Remy (Remy Girard) terminally ill with cancer and in the hospital to await his inevitable death. His friends and family gather around him, not to save him, but to comfort him and help send him off with grand memories of a life well lived. His estranged son Sebastian (Stephane Rosseau) returns home and has the means to make his father’s decline easier, and he at once begins spending a great deal of cash to make that happen. He sets his father up in private room on a deserted floor paying the maintenance workers to fix up the wing so his father will not know it is deserted. The nurses are paid as well, everyone makes money off Sebastian including his students from the university paid to visit. Sebastian even manages to find a heroin addict, Nathalie (Marie Josee Croze), who he will keep in heroin if she injects his father for the staggering pain he is enduring. Eventually Remy is moved to a cottage he loved as a younger man, his friends and family go with him, and the nurse he has come to love as a friend comes along to provide enough heroin to kill him. After heartbreaking goodbyes, Nathalie injects him and Remy gently drifts off to forever peace. This is enough to cause Nathalie to come clean, and to admit she has fallen for Sebastian though she knows it can never be. Truly an extraordinary, deeply moving film. A most deserving Oscar winner.
EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
Is David Cronenberg our greatest filmmaker? He might be, though certainly consideration must be given to Denys Arcand and Sarah Polley. Best known for his gory horror films earlier in his career, Cronenberg teamed for three films with actor Viggo Mortensen and each is superb, offering the actors some of the best roles of his career. He was nominated for Best Actor for his work here as a Russian driver who is so much more to a family of Russian mobsters, a most dangerous group of people. When a young midwife brings a diary to the family’s restaurant (a front for crime) the oldest member of the family is greatly distressed because he knows the secrets within that book could bring him down. (SPOILER) What he does not know is that his driver is an undercover cop, deep under cover hoping to break this family. The midwife, portrayed nicely by Naomi Watts, is in peril for her life as is the baby born to the dead prostitute. Mortensen is brilliant in the film, a richly deserving nomination to a great actor working in tandem with a gifted filmmaker.
AWAY FROM HER (2007)
Alzheimer’s is a cruel and merciless disease who chooses randomly who it attacks. I am not sure who has the more difficult conditions of the disease, the person afflicted, or those that love them, forced to watch and be rendered forgettable. Julie Christie is Fiona, afflicted with Alzheimer’s and getting worse each day, while Grant (Gordon Pinsent) is her loving husband, prepared to take care of his wife. They have had a long, imperfect marriage in which he had affairs with many of his students, but now in the twilight of their lives they are prepared to remain together. But Fiona, not wishing to be a burden, insists on being put into a long-term care facility. At the beginning she and Grant will not see one another for 30 days to help her get used to the place. When he returns, she has no memory of who he is, their lives together, he is gone from her memory and her attentions are on another man, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Beside himself with pain, Grant strikes up an affair with the wife of Aubrey, portrayed by Olympia Dukakis, and though it comes to mean a great deal to her, it really means nothing to him. Beautifully directed and written by the great Sarah Polley, the film is a gentle love story with heartache at its core. How far will you go if you really love the person you are with? How much of yourself will you give?
STORIES WE TELL (2012)
Another knockout for young Polley, this time a documentary that strokes our soul in telling its story of how the actress found her biological father after learning her mother had had an affair during a play in Montreal. What struck me hardest was the obvious love Polley’s father has for her, the man who raised her, and her siblings understanding why she needed to do this. There are recreations of her mother’s life, and very blunt interviews with those who knew her, intimately, along with scenes of Polley’s biological father who readily admits she is his daughter. Her relationship with the man that raised her remains as strong as ever, he steadfastly says, “she is mine” and you believe it. A very brave, invasive film that left my nerves frayed, I cannot imagine how Polley felt. The entire clan for that matter? Astounding in its blinding honesty.
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.