It's Only the End of the Summer: Taking Stock of Canada's Oscar Contenders Pre-TIFF

Xavier Dolan with Marion Cotillard and Nathalie Baye on the shoot for It's Only the End of the World.
eOne Films.
It’s already the end of the summer, so let’s do the annual Canada/TIFF/Oscars debate. Only five countries have submitted as of publication, the most high profile and surprising of which is Romania's pick of Sieranevada over Cannes Best Director winner Graduation.

Here’s the first question: Where are all the Canadian films this year? 2016 feels like a drought. There are far too many movies these days, but few of the films making to Canadian screens are Canadian.  

The numbers are so bad that Playback frequently adds editorial notes to their Canadian box office reports saying there weren’t enough Canadian releases to round out a top five, including one embarrassing week in July with only three releases reporting numbers, one of which was an IMAX re-release of a 2011 film.

There are still plenty of direct to VOD releases, Quebecois commercial films (Les 3 p’tits cochons 2 is doing gangbusters at the b.o.), and people four-walling The Kingsway, but these films don’t play a factor in the annual speculation of what film Canada might send to the Oscars in the race for Best Foreign Language Film.
The year, however, has a bit of a defeatist tone when looks at the field. It feels like a forgone conclusion heading into TIFF that the pan-Canadian committee chaired by Telefilm Canada is bound to select Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World. (Note: Telefilm itself doesn’t get a vote in the selection.) Having survived some utterly toxic reviews at Cannes only to emerge with two awards including the runner-up gong of the Grand Prix, Dolan’s coup ties Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter for Canada’s biggest win at Cannes. It’s the most esteemed prize that any Quebecois film has had going into the race. It’s hard to overlook that endorsement in the absence of contenders with similar profiles. (Admittedly, even I assumed it was out after its Cannes premiere.)
Critics generally hate the movie, though, and foreign films struggle in awards season unless they have passionate champions. Do two Cannes prizes carry any clout if nobody will go to bat for the film? The divisive Grand Prix win arguably sharpened animosity towards the film with Cannes juror Mads Mikkelsen's imperceptible jaw drop during the award ceremony becoming a meme of redemption for critics who felt better films went unacknowledged. 

However, a strong North American premiere for It’s Only the End of the World could help the film rebound. It needs it and we need it. A repeat of Cannes, or even a tepidly polite response, doesn’t make the film an easy choice despite the pedigree, but one must be optimistic given that it’s heading back to home turf and Canucks like Peter Howell were among the film’s defenders.

Don’t let the small number of Canadian films fool you, though. There are some really great under-the-radar gems from the past year that deserve consideration. The TIFF slate, meanwhile, looks incredibly promising so there’s always the chance for a late-crashing game-changer or, more likely, a strong candidate for next year.

Here’s a preview of Canadian films that could pop into the Oscar race if they play their cards right, starting with five TIFF premieres:

Nathalie Baye in It's Only the End of the World
eOne Films

It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde)

Director: Xavier Dolan
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Release: Sept. 21 (eOne Films/Les Films Séville)

Synopsis: After 12 years of absence, a writer goes back to his hometown, planning on announcing his upcoming death to his family. As resentment soon rewrites the course of the afternoon, fits and feuds unfold, fuelled by loneliness and doubt, while all attempts of empathy are sabotaged by people’s incapacity to listen, and love.

The word: The win of the Cannes Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Jury Prize, combined with a North American re-launch ahead of a theatrical release on the heels of the festival, Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World checks several boxes that have worked for Canuck contenders in the past. The whiff of Cannes pans nevertheless lingers over it, with one review out of the Sydney Film Festival noting, “It’s still worth checking out. But only on a day when you already kind of hate the world, a happy disposition is unlikely to survive the gruelling, spirit-breaking 90 minutes.”

More frequently, reviewers frame the film within the context of its Cannes controversy. “Even if it didn’t entirely come off,” writes another, “it’s great to see Dolan doing something out of his comfort zone. It’s far from the disaster that Cannes suggested, and no amount of ambivalence towards the film can hide the fact that he is a talented filmmaker.  Ditto this film fan who says, “It is easy to see why It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde) has been so divisive, just as it is almost impossible to watch Xavier Dolan’s film in a festival setting without acknowledging the media frenzy around the film’s 2016 Cannes screening… Dolan ensures that we feel the same disconnect from these people that Louis feels for a family that, for him at least, is effectively a collection of fragmented memories.”

Finally, one critic offers a more encouraging reading that situates the film within the Dolan oeuvre and draws comparison to Hitchcock. Says Graffiti with Punctuation: “There’s an element of Hitchcock’s lesson of suspense here, showing that the usually striking Ulliel with a pallid complexion may be on the precipice of death, and that this visit is goodbye. You don’t realise that it’s a far more passive experience than films like Mommy or Tom at the Farm until you feel the defibrillator to your chest during two incredible flashbacks.”

Chances: The safest bet. TIFF critics and audiences can be just as brutal and unpredictable as Cannes press, but unless the North American premiere is an unmitigated disaster, it’s probably in.

Mylène MacKay in Nelly.
Les Films Séville


Dir. Anne Émond
Programme: Vanguard (World Premiere)
Release: TBA (eOne/Les Films Séville)

Synopsis: A film loosely based on the life and work of Nelly Arcan. The portrait of a woman, lost between her irreconcilable identities as writer of love stories and an infamous whore. Several women in one, navigating between great exaltation and deep disenchantment. The film offers a portrait of the violent life and work of a radical; a tribute to a dense writer, chilling and vital.

The word: Anne Émond is one of the most promising new filmmakers in Canada. She comes to the festival just one year after her exceptional drama Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones) had its North American premiere there. Early images highlight an impressive performance by Mylène MacKay, who is one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars and a lush, sexy, and avant-garde style from Émond.

TIFF Canadian programmer Magali Simard is also really going to bat for this one and singing its praises in interviews with media and TIFF podcasters. She says that the film delivers on the promise of Émond’s first two features and confirms a new talent.

Chances: This one probably isn’t happening if its distributor is already putting the Dolan out in time, but there’s always a chance to squeeze it in before Oct. 1. More likely, the film could help bring attention back to Émond, whose Les êtres chers is the best release heading into the festival that deserves to be our pick.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Boundaries (Pays)

Dir. Chloé Robichaud
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Release: Sept. 16 (eOne/Séville)

Synopsis: The path of three women cross in Besco, a small isolated island facing an important economic crisis. Félixe, an idealistic Canadian, elected as a federal deputy at only 25 years old, Danielle, a strong and confident woman in her mid 40s, President of Besco, and Emily, a talented American mediator in her 30s leading negotiations between both countries. Dealing with the political conflict about the exploitation of Besco’s natural resources will bring these women to question how they wish to balance work with their personal lives. Under pressure, will they remain faithful to themselves and their values?

The word: Robichaud, like Émond, is a talent to watch. Her previous feature Sarah Prefers to Run was an eclectic and intimate character study. Even if didn’t really connect at the box office or see much awards traction, it delivered on the promise of her short films. Her new feature Boundaries boasts an impressive crop of Quebecois talent with stars like Macha Grenon and Rémy Girard and it has been selected as the opening night feature to kick off the Festival de Cinéma de la Ville de Québec just two days before its theatrical release.

Chances: Who knows, but as the one other TIFF contender with a confirmed release to make the qualifier, it’s a dark horse to rep our pays.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Anatomy of Violence

Dir. Deepa Mehta
Programme: Masters (World Premiere)
Release: TBA (no distributor)

Synopsis: Celebrated filmmaker Deepa Mehta investigates one of India’s most notorious crimes — the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus — in her angry, impassioned and essential new film.

The word: The project sounds fascinating. A work shot by Mehta off the grid, Anatomy of Violence is said to strip away all the style of her recent features for a fearless and unconventional study of violence against women. The Hindi film is reportedly a dramatic hybrid in which actors underwent workshops to understand the trauma of sexual assault and put themselves in the mindset of men who abuse women. The film offers an improvised exploration of a real crime using found props, location shoots, and chance encounters with passersby on the street. If it works, it really seems like the kind of film that can generate a lot of productive discussion and gain major attention in a field hungry for diversity and risk takers. As with Nelly, Anatomy of Violence is one of the films that Simard is highlighting to fans. Her description of it on the festival’s “Nobody’s Perfect” podcast is bound to put it on the TIFFr planner of anyone who listens. Hints at a different, deeper Mehta sound very exciting.

Chances: Don’t expect it for this year. The film is bound to be controversial and, potentially, divisive given the style and subject matter, so a prospective distributor would have to approach it cautiously and smartly to do it justice, rather than just snap it up and throw it into the award season behemoth.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Maliglutit (Searchers)

Dir. Zacharius Kunuk
Programme: Platform (World Premiere)
Release: Isuma Distribution International Ltd.

Synopsis: Nunavut, circa 1913. Kuanana returns from a caribou hunt to discover his wife and daughter kidnapped, and the rest of his family slaughtered. His father's spirit helper, the loon Kallulik, sets him on course to overturn fate and reunite his family.

The word: Zacharius Kunuk has Citizen Kane-like expectations to uphold with his new film. After his 2001 drama Atanarjuat ousted Mon Oncle Antoine in TIFF’s 2015 pre-Jutra scandal poll to claim the title of the best Canadian film of all time, he has a lot to live up to. Atanarjuat also repped Canada at the 2001 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film race and while it fell short of making even the semi-finals, it drew ample acclaim and attention to Inuit cinema. Kunuk comes to the world stage with this Inuktitut take on John Ford’s The Searchers and gets to unveil a unique take on the western in the festival’s glitzy new Platform competition, which itself brings expectations to add to the weight of making the film deemed Canada’s best. Maliglutit certainly looks and sounds fantastic, though, and it’s exactly the kind of film that a panel would conceivably choose to reflect its national cinema.

Chances: CBC reports that Kunuk plans to screen the film in his native Igloolik come October, too, so, like Mehta’s film, Maliglutit might be one to watch next year if it’s a TIFF hit.

Old Stone.

Other films that are playing at TIFF, but are more likely to be considered next year:

Vincent Biron’s Jackass-y debut feature Prank (out Oct. 28), Johnny Ma’s acclaimed feature debut Old Stone (out in November), and Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Platform-bound Maple Spring docu-drama Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves (out Spring 2017).

Les êtres chers
Yannick Grandmont / Les Films Séville

If we don’t do the Dolan, here are some of the goodies hiding in the wings from the past year:

-My Internship in Canada: Philippe Falardeau’s rapid-fire satire is the best Canadian comedy in recent memory, but its Harper-era politics aren’t likely to connect with international audiences as well as they did with Canadian viewers. Awards include a special citation at TIFF 2015, a slot in Canada’s Top Ten, 4 Canadian Screen Award nominations including Best Picture, 3 Gala Cinéma awards. Chances: a dark horse. It's a great comedy, but one that Canadians will appreciate more than others will.

-The Demons: Philippe Lesage’s film got rave reviews and tanked at the Quebec box office, but rebounded with a Canada’s Top Ten placement, and nominations for both Best Picture and Best Director at the Canadian Screen Awards and Gala Cinéma. Chances: it's a decent film, but a major twist that comes about two-thirds of the way through is bound to prove divisive. Why not just go for the polarising film with a Cannes prize?

-King David: The new film by Podz (Miraculum) is currently in Quebec theatres after a bow at Fantasia. Chances: Nil. Not making any noise outside Quebec.

-Endorphine: André Turpin repped Canada before with Un crabe dans la tête, but this film is just too weird. Chances: Low. Too strange. (And not very good.)

-Snowtime / La guerre des tuques 3D: the Canuck box office champ isn’t the kind of fodder one submits in this category, but wouldn’t it be fun to see Céline Dion back at the Oscars? Chances: Low. More of a commercial affair.

-The Waiting Room: Great film, but there’s probably too much English dialogue for it to qualify. Low: Not the flashiest choice and the team had a much strong offering with In Her Place last year.

-The Apology: Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary is the best Canadian film of the year so far and while it has yet to play outside the festival circuit, it’s certainly worth noting.  Chances: Canada has never submitted a doc in this category and the NFB has a better shot on concentrating on the feature documentary race.

-Our Loved Ones: Anne Émond’s stirringly beautiful film recalls Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours with its sweeping yet intimate glimpse into the course of a family’s life. Awards include a Canada’s Top Ten spot and seven nominations including Best Picture and Best Director at the Canadian Screen Awards and the Gala Cinéma. Chances: This film would be a strong and worthy choice.

Verdict: It’s already the end of the race, eh? Dolan deserves another shot after 2014's Mommy was robbed of a nomination, but if Mommy can't make it, can World?

What film do you think Canada will/could/should send to the race?