It's Out There: TIFF Picks Canada's Top Ten of 2013

Rhymes for Young Ghouls
It’s that time of year when groups and critics are compiling their year-end lists. The Toronto International Film Festival revealed Canada’s Top Ten features and shorts today, and they’re a worthy batch of films to represent the year in Canadian film. There are some expected titles, like Canada’s Oscar pick (and my pick for the best Canadian film this year) Gabrielle, and some pleasant surprises (including a film I was rooting for) with Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Rhymes for Young Ghouls is an especially commendable choice in the Top Ten: not only is it one of the best first features of the year, but it dramatizes a dark chapter of Canadian history in a distinct and audacious voice that this country has never seen. Rhymes also stand as the one film in the line-up to represent what a significant year 2013 was for films both by and about Indigenous Canadians. All in all, it’s a strong and diverse line-up.

The list is very festival-centric, as all but one film on the list appeared at TIFF this year. (That’s not a bad thing.) All three Canadian winners from TIFF 2013 are on Canada’s Top Ten: Best Canadian Feature winner When Jews Were Funny by director Alan Zweig, Best Canadian First Feature winner Asphalt Watchers, and Best Canadian Short Film winner Noah. The only non-TIFF film to appear in the top ten features is the Berlin winner Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which brings Denis Côté back to the festival circuit fête after Curling made Canada’s Top Ten in 2010.

The trio of When Jews Were Funny, Asphalt Watchers, and Noah in Canada’s Top Ten shows that the festival really is a launching pad for Canadian films just as much as it is for Oscar contenders like 12 Years a Slave or Dallas Buyers Club. Moreover, Canada’s Top Ten helps bring these films to audiences outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which gives these films the direct exposure and access they need to show Canadian moviegoers that homegrown fare is just as worthy of their cash at the box office as the latest Hollywood flick is. There’s a good sampling, too, so that Canada’s Top Ten offers Canuck films from those of the Weird Sex & Snowshoes variety (re: Vic + Flo) to Canadian films with Hollywood stars and mainstream potential (The F-Word) to documentaries (Watermark and When Jews Were Funny) to weird animated films (Asphalt Watchers) to avant-garde mindbenders featuring Oscar nominees and crazy spiders (Enemy).
Tom at the Farm (Tom a la ferme)
This year’s Canada’s Top Ten is especially worth looking at since the pool of films includes work by directors who are largely outside the Canadian canon of Cronenberg, Egoyan, Arcand, Mehta, and Polley, etc. With many of Canada’s top filmmakers delivering foreign productions this year, Canada’s Top Ten fulfills the festival’s mission of celebration and discovery: these are films by previously undiscovered talents or unsung filmmakers who haven’t always gotten the recognition their body of work merits. Sarah Prefers to Run, for one, gives Chloé Robichaud some invaluable attention to give her film some extra legs. The list admittedly includes regulars like Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm), who perhaps best embodies the cutting edge work for which young Canadian filmmakers Canada are gaining attention on the national and international scene. Ditto Denis Villeneuve, whose Enemy is an experimental production of international scope and adapts a novel by acclaimed author José Saramago. (I have only seen a test version of the Villeneuve film so I can’t comment on its inclusion in the programme otherwise.)
A Grand Canal
Equally notable is the diversity of the shorts programme. Canada’s Top Ten includes both Anglophone and Francophone short films (one of which is directed by Xavier Dolan’s frequent collaborator Monia Chokri), animated noirs like The End of Pinky, and docudrama hybrids like A Grand Canal. The Oscar shortlisted animated short Subconscious Password made the list, but, unfortunately, it's fellow Oscar hopeful Gloria Victoria did not. Other disappointing shorts snubs include We Wanted More and the Hot Docs film Mary and Myself.

There are few surprises to be found in the list. Empire of Dirt might be the most surprising omission given its popularity at TIFF. (I personally had mixed feelings about it, but I hope to give it a second chance.) Siddharth could have popped up on the list, too, given its festival buzz and the fact that it received a shout-out when Gabrielle was announced as Canada’s Oscar selection. I’d also swap Alan Zweig’s “Football in the Groin” equivalent When Jews Were Funny for his superior and deeply moving 2013 film 15 Reasons to Live. When Jews Were Funny is nevertheless a film that connected with audiences just as well as it did with critics, as did the line-up’s other doc Watermark, which boasts some of the best cinematography you’ll see this year.

It’s a good list overall. There’s something for everyone here, whether it’s the discovery of a new style, voice, or story. Now get out there and see these films!

Canada’s Top Ten Features:

(Links to reviews where available)

Asphalt Watchers
Dir. Shayne Ehman, Seth Scriver

Dir. Denis Villeneuve
The F-Word
Dir. Michael Dowse

Dir. Louise Archambault

Dir. Jeff Barnaby

Dir. Chloé Robichaud
Dir. Xavier Dolan

Dir. Denis Côté
Dir. Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky

Dir. Alan Zweig

Canada's Top Ten Shorts:

The Chaperone
Dir. Fraser Munden, Neil Rathbone

Dir. Claire Blanchet

An Extraordinary Person
Dir. Monia Chokri

Dir. Johnny Ma

In Guns We Trust
Dir. Nicolas Lévesque

Dir. Walter Woodman, Patrick Cederberg

Nous Avions
Dir. Stéphane Moukarzel

Paradise Falls
Dir. Fantavious Fritz

Dir. Chris Landreth

Dir. Kevan Funk

Canada’s Top Ten screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox January 3-12.

I’ll check in with my own Top Ten of Canada’s best when the “Year in Review” begins later this month, but what are your favourite Canadian films of 2013?