2012 in Review: The Best in Canadian Film

Go Canada! 2012 was a great year for movies and Canada’s output was no exception. I think I saw more homegrown films in one year than ever before. Part of the growth should be attributed to alternative outlets of distribution (digital downloads and such), co-production, and the strength of our festivals. Additionally, the effort by First Weekend Clubs and other committed parties have helped fill the seats, with films like Goon and Monsieur Lazhar showing that Canadian films can indeed perform at the box office. I think that much of the success must also be credited to the innovation of our filmmakers. Canucks have outdone themselves this year with new ideas and creative approaches to film form.

Local talent has become increasingly noteworthy in the Ottawa area, with the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the Ottawa International Film Festival both expanding and attracting more filmmakers and audiences. Likewise, 2012 saw a good rise in production with strong local films like Undercurrent and The Maiden Danced to Death ranking as some of the year’s notable Canuck films, among others. Ottawa also enjoyed starring in House at the End of the Street, which best showcased the benefits of shooting in the National Capital Region with economical use of locations and with good post-production work by local talents.

2012 was a great year for Canadian films, but a few titles stood out above the rest. Without further ado, here are my picks for the top ten Canadian films of 2012:

(Dir. Sarah Polley)
By far the best Canadian film this year, Stories We Tell ranks among the greatest Canadian films in recent memory. Sarah Polley outdoes her fresh and frankly personal take on the messiness of love by turning the camera back on her own life and using her knack for storytelling to spill a captivating yarn about her own family. It’s an excellent experiment in home movies thanks to Polley’s innovative approach to documentary form. She takes snippets of her own life, and those of her family members, and intuitively weaves pieces of history in a riveting and deeply moving story. Polley’s previous films, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, have been notable examples for the case to go local in Canadian cinema, but Stories We Tell shows that the reach of a film is infinite when it speaks from the heart and when it uses the medium to touch the heart of every viewer.

(Dir. Deepa Mehta)
On the other side of the spectrum of the local/global debate of Canadian films is Deepa Mehta’s ambitious adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed novel. Midnight’s Children is a landmark Canadian film for its transnational scope and resonance. Working with a screenplay scripted by Rushdie himself, Mehta captures the scale, tone, and essence of Midnight’s Children thanks to her playful flair for magical realism that complements Rushdie’s prose. Aided by top-notch production value and a strong ensemble cast, Midnight’s Children is one of Mehta’s best films yet.

(Dir. David Cronenberg)
Canada’s “Blood Baron” is back at what he does best: making mind-blowingly cerebral films in his home and native land. Cosmopolis marks Cronenberg’s best made-in-Canada (by a Canadian production co.) film since 1996’s Crash. Like Crash, Cosmopolis is an intelligent adaptation of a provocative book, featuring a roster of Hollywood stars and Canadian talent, which Cronenberg then directs in a chillingly monotone uniformity. Best of all, though, Cosmopolis sees Cronenberg playfully mask Toronto as New York, yet all the while filling the cold Canuck city with flagrant nods to Canadian content and local flavour. The city in which Eric Packer’s limo travels resembles, to quote Manohla Dargis’s review of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, “a copy of the world that looks – wouldn’t you know it – a lot like a movie.”

(Dir. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette)
My personal choice of film to send to the Oscars this year would have been Inch’Allah. I can’t complain about the choice of Rebelle (look below), but I think that Inch’Allah slightly edged out the French Canadian competition this year by boldly confronting a western perspective on an extremely delicate situation in the Middle East. The influence of Incendies is all over Inch’Allah, but to its benefit. Writer/director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette made a behind-the-scenes documentary about Villeneuve’s film, so it’s easy to see how she mastered the art of interconnecting the personal and the political. Anchored by a flawless performance by Evelyne Brochu, Inch’Allah is a compelling film. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Another winner from producers Kim McCraw and Luc Déry!

5. Rebelle (War Witch)
(Dir. Kim Nguyen)
As you can see, it’s only by a hair that I put Inch’Allah above Canada’s Oscar submission, Rebelle. Kim Nguyen, like Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette and Deepa Mehta, ventures beyond the Canadian border and looks elsewhere to tell stories for Canadian films. By treading to the war torn lands of the Congo, Nguyen turns the lens on an important tale of a child soldier ripped from her home and forced to become a warrior. With a mythical, almost fable-like atmosphere, Rebelle enwraps viewers in an unbreakable emotional spell. Canadian cinema also finds its answer to Quvenzhané Wallis in young actress Rachel Mwanza, who conveys Komona’s heartbreaking tale of courage and survival by barely uttering a word.

(Dir. Corey Lee)
Another strong Canadian doc of 2012 (there were many), Legend of a Warrior is a poignant exploration of one’s heritage within Canada’s multicultural mosaic. Like Sarah Polley does in Stories We Tell, director Corey Lee puts himself at the centre of his film and examines his relationship with his father. Unlike Polley’s retrospection, though, Lee’s quest is more about reparation. By studying the art of Kung Fu with his martial-arts-master father, Lee reconnects with his estranged parent and learns his heritage from a new perspective so that he can pass it on to his own son.

7. All That You Possess (Tout ce que tu possèdes)
(Dir. Bernard Émond)
All That You Possess might be the Canadian hidden gem of the year. A quiet, contemplative film, All That You Possess takes one academic’s struggle with faith and familial devotion to offer a moving coming of age story. Émond’s film is filled with rich and subtle symbolism that could easily go undetected in his sparse slice-of-life style. The beautiful realism gives perhaps the best portrait of Quebec culture that you will see onscreen this year.

(Dir. Nisha Pahuja)
A prizewinner at Hot Docs and the Tribeca film festivals, The World Before Her is an astutely observational study of the lives of girls and women in contemporary India. The film makes careful and intricate use of juxtaposition as it follows two young Indian women—one a beauty queen and the other a religious fundamentalist—who represent polar life paths in the ever changing world. Pahuja, however, smartly unites the two women in a collective struggle and shows that Indian culture needs a radical change bring about gender equality regardless of whether in comes through eastern tradition or western influence.

(Dir. Nathan Morlando)
Edwin Boyd is an exciting genre film that finally made its way to theatres thanks to help of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten list. It’s an exciting rarity of a film that infuses cultural character within a tried and tested mode of filmmaking. Moreover, it has a fresh and modern feel thanks to the funky playlist of songs by The Black Keys. Best about Boyd, though, is the onscreen energy by leading man Scott Speedman in the title role and the electrifying Charlotte Sullivan in the supporting role of gangster’s moll. Like Sarah Gadon and Emily Hampshire in Cosmopolis, the cast of Edwin Boyd shows that we can make Canadian stars using Canadian films.

10. The Maiden Danced to Death
(Dir. Endre Hules)
It’s so exciting to have an Ottawa production find a spot on this list. The Maiden Danced to Death, a Hungarian co-production, shows that emerging film markets can take a big step forward when they pool resources and unite talented teams. (How many Toronto productions were shot by Vilmos Zsigmond?) I was disappointed that Maiden wasn’t selected to represent Hungary at the Oscars this year (it made their shortlist), since it would have been a great showcase for our local film community, especially the post-production crews who helped make Maiden such a beautiful, evocative dance.

Honourable mentions, in alphabetical order, go to Best Day Ever, Burlesque Assassins, The Final Member, Payback, Roller Town, Undercurrent, and Wetlands. (Note: I had Take This Waltz on my list for 2011.)

The Best Canadian Short Films of 2012:

1. Frost
 (Dir. Jeremy Ball)
A short that has more scale and scope than most feature films!

(Dir. Dane Clark, Linsey Stewart)
This moving little film broke my heart – even the third time I watched it.

 (Dir. Regina Pessoa)
Gothic animation meets playful narration (by Christopher Plummer) in this vampire pic.

(Dir. Jeffrey St. Jules)
Without giving away too much, Swamp is a must-see for fans of Stories We Tell.

 (Dir. Martine Chartrand)
Stunning paint on glass animation provides a beautiful elegy to a musical legend.

(Dir. Calum MacLeod, Lewis Bennett)
A spot-on doc that smartly makes its point through humour.

(Dir. Franck Dion)
A strange, surreal odyssey through an animated wonderland.

8. Bydlo 
(Dir. Patrick Bouchard)
Impressive clay sculptures provide a powerful take on labour and the land.

(Dir. Nicholaus Hillier)
Hilarious and totally un-PC, Callbacks shows that Ottawa has quite the funny bone!

10. Big Mouth 
 (Dir. Andrea Dorfman)
Playful and hilarious, Big Mouth is an endearing little fable.

What are your favourite Canadian films of 2012?

Up next: The Best Performances of 2012!