2011 in Review: The Best in Canadian Film

I think 2011 was good to Canadian films. While 2010 was a hard year to surpass with Incendies, Barney’s Version, and Trigger standing out as Canuck masterpieces, 2011 is still a step forward. The biggest winner, I think, was distribution. At least as far as Ottawa goes, local theatres yielded a bigger crop of homegrown films. Even if these films played for no more than one pitiful week, they still received more screen-time than in previous years. A big shout-out goes to The Bytowne, The Mayfair and, most surprisingly, the AMC Kanata for supporting #cdnfilm. Ottawa also had its second instalment of the Ottawa International Film Festival (OIFF), which featured five films by local talents. The best of them was Adrian Langley’s A Violent State. As far as movies go, 2011 had plenty of films worth celebrating, but not solely for their Canadian content. On that note, here are my picks for the ten best Canadian films of the year:

(Dir. Larysa Kondracki)
The best feature debut of the year in addition to being the best Canadian film, The Whistleblower is filmmaking at its bravest and best. Telling the true story of Nebraska cop Kathy Bolkovac, played by Rachel Weisz (expect her on another ‘Best’ list), who exposed a sex-trafficking operation involving UN peacekeepers, director Larysa Kondracki makes a startling entrance into the Canadian film scene. Part cop movie, part tell-all, The Whistleblower is a harrowing, suspenseful film in the vein of the taut political thrillers of the seventies. Kondracki’s handling of the material is potent, revealing, and compelling, yet this exposé is never didactic. The Whistleblower is, in fact, so persuasive that the United Nations officially responded to the film and screened it with hopes to correct past wrongs.

(Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)
A labyrinthine masterpiece, Café de Flore features some of the most striking arts and tech work of the year. From the excellent ensemble cast to the entrancing soundtrack, Café de Flore is a strong effort by all involved. The film also has a thrilling, gratifying love story, which is expertly told by writer/director Jean-Marc Vallée. Central to the dense story of the star-crossed lovers is the film’s use of music and Café de Flore manipulates the soundtrack, using music to allow the love story to transcend place and time. The music also makes the film instantly accessible, for Vallée emphasizes the subjectivity of music and shows how specific songs in the “playlist of our lives” offer moments that define us and shape our identity. Café de Flore should have been Canada’s submission to the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film.

(Dir. Sarah Polley)
No stranger to the “Best Debut” status herself, Sarah Polley wowed us with her 2007 feature debut Away from Her. Proving the film not to have been a case of beginners’ luck, Polley is in top form in her sophomore effort. I think the scene where Margot (Michelle Williams) rides the scrambler on Centre Island amidst a dazzling light show set to "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the single best scene I saw at TIFF this year. Being a vibrant dramedy, Take this Waltz is a departure from Away from Her; likewise, Waltz is of a different generation, offering a stripped down, raw probing on sexuality, in addition to an authentic romance. (Credit is due to Polley for offering a full on shot of a woman scrubbing her crotch with a loofah and actually making it work!) Both films, however, are frank, painful, and brutally honest love stories. Waltz also features a radiant turn by Williams, and impressive work from Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, and Sarah Silverman.

4. Modra
(Dir. Ingrid Veninger)
Modra debuted at TIFF 2010, but it was not until May 2011 that this bright little gem surfaced in Ottawa (on DVD no less). Eclectic and arty, Modra is a warm, sweet film. In this Canada-Slovak co-production (the first ever, I believe), Veninger directs her real-life daughter, Hallie Switzer, in a story of a young woman who travels to the small town of Modra, Slovakia to meet her extended family. Making Modra even more meta (and personal), the members of Hallie’s family are her/Veninger’s true relations. Modra is a candid, intimate story of self-discovery and family roots. The accessible, relatable nature of Veninger’s family affair invites broader readings on migration, globalisation, and communication in our ever-changing world.

5. St-Henri, the 26th of August (À St-Henri, le 26 août)
(Dir. Shannon Walsh)
Inspired by the 1962 documentary A St-Henri, le 5 septembre, Shannon Walsh returns to the Montreal borough of St-Henri, using a team of filmmakers and cinematographers to follow the lives of the townspeople for a single day. St. Henri offers a microcosmic snapshot of Canadiana, using the quotidian habits of the subjects to reveal prevalent attitudes and clashes within the community. St. Henri rightfully evokes and aligns itself within the legacy of community-based documentary filmmaking that pioneered the Canadian film industry. A must-see for any serious Canuck moviegoer.

6.  A Wake
(Dir. Penelope Buitenhuis)
Of all the films I saw in 2011, A Wake stood out as one of the films I discussed, recommended, and reflected upon most frequently. There is a unique energy to the film I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a talky, stagy, tale of a theatre troupe gathering to perform Hamlet, yet the improvised dialogue and digital camera give it a spontaneous feel. It’s like watching two opposite forces collide. The terrific cast is particularly valuable in selling the unscripted drama: standout Martha Burns deserves her third Genie for her work, in my opinion. A Wake doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s brilliant.

(Dir. Ken Scott)
The rare case of a mainstream Canadian comedy that is both successful and good, Starbuck is quality entertainment. Light-hearted, but not lightweight, Starbuck is the fun tale of an old buck whose days of sowing his wild oats comes to an end when he discovers that he is the father of 533 children. Patrick Huard is a comic delight as the Quebecois baby daddy (he was also quite good in this year’s Funkytown) and his dynamic, spirited performance is central to making this one of the most enjoyable films of 2011.

(Dir. David York)
An incendiary documentary, Wiebo’s War documents the efforts of Alberta farmer Wiebo Ludwig as he fights to protect his family from the harmful effects of a sour gas well that is contaminating their land and damaging their health. Moreover, Wiebo is an alleged eco-terrorist who is suspected of bombing wells of Big Oil in retaliation. Despite the volatile subject, director David York handles it fairly: he grants Wiebo’s story justice, but he also acknowledges the other perspectives on the situation. The film ultimately turns the story of Trickle Creek back on the viewer, asking whether one would act the same if put in Wiebo’s position.

(Dir. Don Shebib)
It would feel wrong to exclude Down the Road Again from a list of noteworthy Canadian films of 2011. A friendly return to the classic Canadian film Goin’ Down the Road, Down the Road Again faced the difficult task of being the follow-up to the most important English-language Canadian film ever made. While not quite on par with its predecessor, Down the Road Again is still a worthy film in its own right. The story of Pete McGrath (played by Doug McGrath) still rings true. As Joey’s daughter (Kathleen Robertson) joins Pete in returning to his Nova Scotia home in order to spread Joey’s ashes, the film is a genuinely moving farewell to an essential Canadian narrative.

10. En terrains connus (Familiar Grounds
(Dir. Stéphane Lafleur)
A delightfully strange film, there is something about this bizarro tale that I couldn’t resist. Siblings Benoit (Francois Le Haye) and Maryse (Fanny Mallette) lead a dull, dreary existence in the dull, dreary (and snowy) suburbs of Québec. Wood-panelling and snowmobiles collide for an endlessly original romp through banality.  A realist film that feels like a dreamlike/nightmarish odyssey into the frigid dearth of suburbia, En terrain connus is the film Curling wanted to be.

*Sadly, though, I have not yet been able to see David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. (It opens here mid-January.)

And the Top Ten Canadian shorts of 2011:

1. Choke (Michelle Latimer)
2. Rhonda’s Party (Ashley McKenzie)
3. Nowhere/Elsewhere (Annick Blanc)
4. Dimanche (Patrick Doyon)
5. Ce n’est rien (Nicolas Roy)
6. Anirniq (RJ Sauer)

7. Muybridge’s Strings (Koji Yamamura)
8. Wild Life (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby)
9. Rumbleseat (Michael Roberts)
 10. Cookie (Enuka Okuma)

Any homegrown films that you'd like to give a shout-out to? 

Up next for 2011 in Review: The Best Performances