TIFF 2015 Canadian Film Wish List

Sarah Gadon and Malin Buska star in The Girl King.
TIFF announcements are just a week away, so it’s time to send out some festival wish lists! The big names get the first wave of festival shout outs when the Toronto International Film Festival announces the first slate of Galas and Special Presentations next Wednesday. If any Canadian films appear there, expect to see titles such as Remember, Beeba Boys, Hyena Road, Brooklyn (probably a Gala), Room (probably not), and The Witch, while others like Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room might appear elsewhere, say, in the Masters slate, if at all. All these films receive mention elsewhere on the blog, so here’s a look at ten Canadian titles Cinemablographer hopes to see unveiled when TIFF names its Canadian titles on August 5th:

The TIFF Canadian Film Wish List:

The Girl King

Director: Mika Kaurismäki (Road North)
Synopsis: An enigmatic young woman in conflict - torn between reason and passion; between her woman's body and being raised as a prince; between the ancient and modern worlds and between the brilliance of her educated mind and the conservative forces around her. Crowned Queen at the age of six, Kristina of Sweden (Malin Buska) was thrust into a labyrinth of power and tradition, where a court of austere, Lutheran men pressures her to marry and produce an heir to fulfill her destiny. She finds sanctuary and love with her lady-in-waiting, the beautiful and elegant countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), although the Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist), pressures her to pair with his son, Johan (Lucas Bryant). Soon the forces around the Queen realize that Ebba is the key to controlling her, but they underestimate Kristina's brilliant mind and her drive to be free.

Why it’s on the wish list: This sweeping Canadian-ish film marks one of our biggest international co-productions of the year as Canada teams up with Finland, Germany, and Sweden for this provocative story about a powerful young woman caught between passion and tradition. The film also brings a topical chapter of history to a film scene that demands more and more films that headline women as fully formed characters. The Girl King also proves a point of interest simply for the level of talent it brings to the screen, especially a plum role for Sarah Gadon (Enemy) with Canuck co-stars François Arnaud (I Killed My Mother) and Lucas Bryant (Haven) with top international players like Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films) and Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others). Add a script by playwright/screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard (Tom at the Farm) and notable Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki, and it’s safe to say that The Girl King checks all the boxes for TIFF.

Status: The film has not yet screened and is looking at a world premiere unless it hits up Venice, but Kaurismäki’s Road North debuted at TIFF and The Girl King’s up the festival’s angle even more. The film has distribution in Canada (Equinoxe) and the US (Wolfe) and could presumably appear anywhere in the festival line-up from the Galas to the potpourri of the Contemporary World Cinema slate.

He Hated Pigeons

Director: Ingrid Veninger (The Animal Project)
Synopsis: He Hated Pigeons is the new feature film by DIY Queen Ingrid Veninger. Chilean actor Pedro Fontaine stars in a fictional story that travels from the Atacama Desert to the ice fields of Patagonia. It's about a young man pushed to the borders of sexuality and sanity, and to the edge of the earth, where he must step into his manhood before the extremes of an immense and varied landscape. 

Why it’s on the wish list:  A phantasmagorical film with a live score from Toronto’s Queen of DIY Indie Filmmaking Ingrid Veninger? Sign me up! If I made a live writing here, then I would have donated to the impressive campaign for this film, but since support isn’t simply synonymous with financial support, I will be among the first in line to see the film at Toronto and I’ll gladly dropkick a pigeon to earn my way. Pigeons aims to pair its live score with local musicians at screenings and I love how this project turns micro-budget filmmaking into an “event.” This film looks to be the most ambitious project yet from Veninger, who consistently brings of the most original and innovative lo-fi work on the Canadian film beat and He Hated Pigeons is the biggest test of her philosophy that “nothing is impossible.”

Status: The film is complete, but has not yet premiered. Veninger’s a TIFF regular, so this one seems like a no-brainer.

He Hated Pigeons is finished! Huge gratitude to an unbelievable cast and crew & our indiegogo champions (can't wait for you to see your names on this one). #HHPMovie
Posted by He Hated Pigeons on Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The People Garden

Director: Nadia Litz (How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You!)
Synopsis: Sweetpea's world is full of artifice. She is a B list actress with an A list rock star boyfriend. When Sweetpea flies to Japan with the intention to break off the relationship she finds a mystery awaits her. Her boyfriend Jamie is missing. He was last seen shooting a music video in a Japanese forest with a dark secret.

Sweetpea sets out to solve the mystery of Jamie's disappearance with the help of Mak, a laconic Japanese forest ranger with secrets of his own. Sweetpea does not know that the forest with its breathtaking vistas is most famous as a destination for suicide. As Sweetpea comes closer to the truth, she must reconcile what this means to the mystery surrounding Jamie and what lies beneath the surface of her own world in The People Garden.

Why It’s on the List: Nadia Litz’s 2010 short How to Rid Your Lover… is a spectacular feat of strangeness and one of the films that most got me interested in covering Canadian films, especially shorts and emerging filmmakers, so I’m very excited to see her latest feature. (Unfortunately, her 2014 film Hotel Congress never screened here.) The People Garden sounds like a delightful mix of peculiarity and novelty with the casting of Dree Hemingway (While We’re Young) as Sweetpea alongside Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson. Litz also shows a great sense of genre and atmosphere with her unconventional turn as a maternal femme fatale in current release Big Muddy and her work demonstrates as strong of an artistic sense behind the camera as she has in front of it. Add her to the list of original voices for up-and-coming directors.
Status: The People Garden has yet to screen and Cannes Market blurbs note its completion. Litz's script for won the audience prize at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival's inaugural Screenwriting Lab, which pretty much guarantees it a slot if it’s ready.

Closet Monster

Director: Stephen Dunn (We Wanted More)
Synopsis: Closest Monster follows the life of Oscar Madly, played by Connor Jessup (Falling Skies, Blackbird), a teenager who has spent years destabilized by his dysfunctional parents, unsure of his sexuality and haunted by horrific images of a childhood trauma. Closet Monster is a coming of age film about an imaginative young man's struggle to break away from his toxic family and come to terms with his burgeoning sexuality.

Why it’s on the wish list: Stephen Dunn’s dramatic short We Wanted More was the best Canadian short to screen at TIFF 2013, and his shorts Pop up Porno (m4m screened at Hot Docs) and Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (featuring Instagram sensation Igor Pugdog and Gordon Pinsent) show that he really has a handle on style and substance alike. Closet Monster looks to be one of the more promising Canadian titles in a great year for queer filmmaking and offers to bring more diversity to the table as the local film scene discovers new voices in feature film. Additionally, star Connor Jessup gave a powerhouse performance in TIFF ’12 winner Blackbird and has a legion of fans from Falling Skies, and Closest Monster offers a bold test for this up-and-coming actor. The film also features Isabella Rossellini as a talking hamster. That’s right: Isabella Rossellini as a talking hamster!

Status: Not yet premiered, but sales agent Fortissimo earned the film a respectable amount of coverage for a Canadian flick at the Cannes market.

Guibord Goes to War (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre)

Director: Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar)
Synopsis: Guibord is the independent MP for Prescott-Makadewà-Rapides-aux-Outardes, a huge county in northern Quebec. Under the eyes of the whole country, Guibord finds himself in Parliament to hold the decisive vote that will determine whether Canada will go to war. Accompanied by his wife, daughter and a Haitian idealistic intern named Souverain, Guibord visits his riding to consult his constituents. While interest groups are invited in a debate that goes horribly wrong, the MP will face the weight of his conscience. Guibord Goes to War is a biting comedy in which politicians, citizens and lobbiests clash without restraint, breaking democracy into pieces.

Why it’s on the wish list: This comedy from Oscar nominee Philippe Falardeau was shot in and around the Ottawa area to make the most of Parliamentary settings, so I’m rooting for the home team on this one. Guibord offers a crowd-pleasing comedy with a timely election-year appeal as Starbuck’s Patrick Huard gets another comedic showcase in a strong cast that includes Suzanne Clément and Micheline Lanctôt. The film marks a return to comedy for writer/director Philippe Falardeau after his sweetly sentimental Oscar-nominee Monsieur Lazhar and his Hollywood fable The Good Lie (which got a surprisingly small release despite the presence of Reese Witherspoon).

Status: The film premieres at Locarno in August with fellow Canadian films The Waiting Room and Les êtres chers (both of which get honourable wish list mentions!) and bodes a smart choice for a North American Premiere. Don’t expect Falardeau to rep Canada at the Oscars again, though, as Guibord opens in theatres October 2nd, after the Academy deadline of Sept. 30. Qualifiers are possible, although Guibord mostly more fun and commercial.

Waiting for Ishtar

Directors:  John Mitchell (Portrait of a Serial Monogamist), Jonathan Crombie (Anne of Green Gables)
Synopsis: An examination of the merits, media treatment, and cinematic legacy of the notorious and controversial 1987 comedy Ishtar. Ultimately, one man's love letter to one of the most misunderstood films of all time the most misunderstood films of all time.

Why it’s on the wish list: I haven’t seen Elaine May’s notorious Razzie-winning film Ishtar that inspires this search for meaning behind the canon of guilty pleasures and box office bombs, but Waiting for Ishtar sounds like a fun documentary that probes cult phenomena and film history alike. The film features interviews with Ishtar die-hards, as well as Elaine May, actors Carol Kane and Charles Grodin, and a gaggle of film critics. The film marks a sentimental release for Canadian film fans as well, since Waiting for Ishtar marks the final work of co-director Jonathan Crombie (best known for playing Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables), who died suddenly while the film was in post-production. There’s enough of a fan base for Ishtar to find a home in the doc club.
Status: No word on the film has been updated since Crombie’s passing, but it seems to have been far along the post-production work, although it might be better suited for something like Sundance, Hot Docs that has more room for lo-fi DIY docs.

Rock the Box

Director: Katherine Monk (debut)
Synopsis: The film profiles DJ Rhiannon Rozier, a 29-year-old Victoria native and UBC grad with a degree in political science and Latin American history, whose battle to break into the male-dominated fortress of the DJ booth has forced her to the front lines of an old feminist battle: use your sexuality and get noticed, or linger in the shadows. Rozier agreed to a nude Playboy shoot and has capitalized on that visibility, creating a sex-kitten alter ego that she's turned into her own cottage industry.

Why it’s on the wish list: It still disappoints me that Vancouver-based film critic Katherine Monk, now working with Ottawa’s Jay Stone at The Ex-Press after Post Media annihilated its film coverage in favour of a handful of Toronto-based critics that pan everything, isn’t making her directorial debut with a Joni Mitchell movie. I’m nevertheless intrigued to see the ever-readable arts journo tackle the music scene in this intimate short doc from the NFB. It’s always interesting to see how well film critics perform when they’re making films rather than writing about them, and this sexy pic from the author of Weird Sex and Snowshoes is just the right test.

Status: Monk’s website states that the film’s a wrap and that it will “hit some form of screen this fall.” The NFB always has a few TIFF shorts, and familiar names and selling points often elude short films, so Rock the Box is a smart get if it’s ready, otherwise Monk might be partying with the bloggers in the cheap seats.


Director: Pedro Morelli (Entre Nos)
Synopsis: A multi-dimensional interface between a comic book artist, a novelist, and a film director. Each lives in a separate reality but authors a story about one of the others. Emma (Alison Pill) smuggles drugs inside artificial love dolls to fund a secret cosmetic procedure. Emma is also creating a comic book about Edward (Gael García Bernal), a cocky film director with a debilitating secret about his own anatomy. Edward’s film features Michelle (Mariana Ximenes), a beautiful novelist living in Brazil, escaping her former life as a model. Michelle’s novel tells the story of Emma, who smuggles drugs in artificial love dolls to fund…
And so around it goes...

Why it’s on the wish list: Zoom, a majority Canadian co-pro with Brazil, reads like in belongs in 2006-2008 when globe-trotting multi-narrative films were trendy. The film seems like a by-product of the negotiations for international co-production with Blindness (which was pitched internally as “ideal” for international partnerships) but Zoom doesn’t have to live up to the standards of bringing to the screen the best novel ever written, so expectations are more fair this time around.  The film features two Blindness stars, Don McKellar and Gael García Bernal, alongside an impressive roster of Canadian talent that includes Jason Priestley, Alison Pill, Clé Bennett, Rick Roberts, and Tyler Labine. The story of the film more aptly recalls Blindness director Fernando Meirelles’s 360 or Paul Haggis’s dense multi-narrative drama Third Person, and while stories of interconnectedness, chance, and universality can go either way, it sounds as if Brazilian director Pedro Morelli uses a mix of live action and animation to create different layers of reality among the narratives, so Zoom shouldn’t be something that audiences have seen before.
Status: Film is complete, but has not yet screened.

Sleeping Giant

Director: Andrew Cividino (feature debut)
Synopsis: Teenager Adam is spending his summer vacation with his parents on rugged Lake Superior. His dull routine shatters when he befriends Riley and Nate, smart aleck cousins who pass their ample free time with debauchery and reckless cliff jumping. The revelation of a hurtful secret triggers Adam to set in motion irreversible events that test the bonds of friendship and change the boys forever.

Why it’s on the wish list: Is Sleeping Giant Canada’s Whiplash? The short film Sleeping Giant is simply terrific. It was a highlight of last year’s Short Cuts Canada series and the feature undoubtedly looks to be one of the bigger Canadian discoveries after it premiered to strong reviews at in the Critics’ Week sidebar at Cannes earlier this year and played well at festivals like Karlovy Vary.

Status: Seems like a plum choice to make its North American Premiere at TIFF, just like the short did.

The Sound of Trees (Le bruit des arbres)

Director: François Péloquin (debut)
Synopsis: The Sound of Trees chronicles the summer of a teenager caught between the river and the forest. Seventeen year-old Jérémie (Antoine L’Écuyer) dreams of a better life, away from the family sawmill and his native village of Gaspésie, Québec. Instead of the forestry work, Jérémie prefers pimping his car, hip hop and slacking off with his friends. The situation drives his father Régis (Roy Dupuis) to despair as he blames his son’s attitude on a local drug dealer. When Jérémie’s elder brother leaves town, tensions rise quickly in the summer heat.

Why it’s on the wish list: Subtle, slice of life films are a must on every festival schedule, and the best of the Canadian ones usually come from Quebec or debut filmmakers. Trees sounds like it succeeds as an accomplished debut with an impressionistic sense of place and character, and its positive response from its World Premiere at Karlovy Vary and from its theatrical release in Quebec is very encouraging. For example, Variety critic/thesaurus Guy Lodge gives an especially promising review of the film’s understated character while Marc-André Lussier of La Presse praises the film’s authenticity and situates the film within a larger circle of Québécois cinéma. Critics also agree that the performances by Antoine L’Écuyer (best known for Philippe Falardeau’s C’est pas moi, je le jure!) and Roy Dupuis are highlights.

Status: The Sound of Trees opened in Quebec theatres on July 3rd, but don’t be quick to say that TIFF is too concerned about premiere statuses for films from Quebec: so long as they don’t screen anywhere but Quebec and don’t screen with English subtitles, they’re fair game for the festival.

What Canadian films do you hope to see at TIFF this year?