Canadian Screen Awards Preview: Films at #CdnScreen14

Gabrielle: Canada's Oscar pick and my pick for 2013.
There’s an awkward semantic pickle that often irks folks who cover the Oscars: does one call the awards by the year of the films’ release or by the year in which the ceremony takes place? Proper form says that one should call the awards by the year of the films, for, say, 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar as the Best Picture of 2013. The Canadian Screen Awards, on the other hand, go by the year of the ceremony, hence hashtag #CdnScreen14 to get folks a-twitter about the awards. The Screenies, however, might fall under Oscars’ fashion of naming the prize by year, since there’s a dearth of 2013 films in contention for Sunday night’s awards. Whereas the Oscars (or even last year’s Screenies) had Canadians tuning in to see which of their favourite films might win, this year’s Canadian Screen Awards could easily be dominated by films that Canadians are hearing about for the first time. Even a film buff like myself who actively seeks out Canadian films and basically lives for the award season can’t help but approach this week’s ceremony with a disappointing sense of ambivalence.

Brendan Gleeson plays Murray French and Taylor Kitsch plays Dr. Paul Lewis in < br/> The Grand Seduction, an eOne Films release

The Best Films of 2013... or 2014?

Only three Best Picture nominees—Empire of Dirt, Gabrielle, and Le démantèlemt—actually screened in theatres before Canada rang in the New Year. (The latter of which only played in Quebec.) The rule that allows a film to submit to the Canadian Screen Awards in either the year of its theatrical release or during the year of its initial festival run opens the field greatly, if somewhat unfairly. Top contenders like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm hit theatres just in time to capitalize on the awards if they win, opening March 14 and 28, respectively. Other Best Picture nominees like Don McKellar’s remake The Grand Seduction or Michael Dowse’s The F Word won’t hit theatres for months. Both films screened at enough CSA-qualifying festivals in Canada to merit their inclusion, but it just doesn’t seem right for the awards to be dominated by films whose theatrical releases occur after the awards are handed out.

Maïna, a film of highly dubious eligibility, is up for Best Motion Picture.

How are Maïna and People of a Feather Eligible?

Especially questionable among the Best Picture nominees is the inclusion of Michel Poulette’s Maïna, which seems like the Alone Yet Not Alone of the Screenie nominees. Maïna sounds like a notable offering for First Nations cinema in Canada and it certainly looks great from the trailer, but its eligibility is somewhat fishy. Maïna is set to open in limited release March 21; however, unlike fellow nominees Enemy, Tom at the Farm, The Grand Seduction, and The F Word, Maïna did not play at a single Canadian festival included on the list of CSA qualifying festivals in 2013. (The CSA rules state that a film needs to be accepted by “at least two (2) Academy approved Canadian film festivals.” (See the list of CSA eligible festivals here.) Even if concessions were made to grant Maïna eligibility, the Academy overlooked its own list of approved international film festivals. The film did screen to much acclaim at international festivals, for it debuted at Shanghaiin June 2013. (Playback doesn’t cite Maïna’s Shanghai screening as a World Premiere, but the film’s own Facebook page does.) Shanghai, however, is not a CSA eligible festival. Maïna also screened at BlackNights Film Festival in Estonia, which also is not CSA eligible. Maïna took a handful of prizes including Best Film at the American Indian Film Festival (not eligible), earned at standing ovation at the Traverse City Film Festival (not eligible), and it screened in screened in France (still not eligible). The only CSA eligible festival at which Maïna did screen was Berlin in 2013, but the film screened only within the European Film Market Screenings and not within the public programme, which hardly seems fair. An exhaustive research effort verified these facts and if Maïna did screen either theatrically or within a qualifying festival, it did so unannounced, unadvertised, and without garnering a single review or notice related to said screenings. Anyone who follows Canadian film closely knows that a little film like this doesn’t open without so much as a Tweet. The film’s Facebook page, on the other hand, did provide a hint on Maïna’s release:

Even more dubious than the inclusion of Maïna is the nomination for the documentary feature People of a Feather. People of a Feather gained much acclaim when it screened at festivals like Hot Docs and it even scooped the Vancouver Film Critics prize for Best British Columbia film, but that was in 2011. The film did open in theatrical release, too, in… 2012 (!) as noted by this Georgia Straight review that cites a theatrical debut in Vancouver of March 2, 2012. It hardly seems fair for the Canadian Screen Awards to nominate a film that was playing in theatres back when the awards were still called the Genies.

Sarah Gadon in Enemy

What to Make of It?

The Canadian Screen Awards are only in their second year, so one must concede that they are a work in progress, but there is still work that needs to be done. The wonky eligibility leaves a complete disconnect between the acclaim heaped on Canadian films by critics and fans alike, and it omits a handful of strong contenders including Rhymes for Young Ghouls and The Dirties, which both earned lone nominations for Lead Actress and Film Editing, respectively, despite being dominant Canadian films last year. These awards can benefit Canadian films greatly, but tighter rules and a firmer hand on eligibility will preserve the integrity of the awards. Take, for example, Quebec’s Jutra Awards, which restrict eligibility to films released in theatres during the calendar year. These rules kept Tom at the Farm out from Quebec’s film honours for this year, but will allow it to compete next year and will let other favourites from 2013 have their turn. If one province can do it right, then all of Canada should be able to as well.
Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm is up at the CSAs yet ineligible at Quebec's < br /> Jutras due to its 2013 release date

It’s on that note, then, that I’ll forgo the route of predicting the winners for the awards like I did last year. One shouldn’t have to shake down a publicist to see 50% of the nominees. (I was lucky and received one as a screener, but I hardly have the nerve or time to write back and say, “Thanks for that, but can I have three more?”) Any attempt to predict the winners, moreover, would be pure conjecture, since the few Canadian prize winners aren’t represented aside from a lone nomination scattered here and there. There is nothing to go on besides pointless generalizations. The majority of the nominated films haven’t screened widely, nor have they been part of popular culture outside the festival circuit and Toronto cliques. There are some great films and performances represented here nevertheless, so, in fairness to them, here’s a preview of Sunday’s nominees:


Best Motion Picture:

The Nominees: Enemy, Le dématèlement, Empire of Dirt, The F-Word, Gabrielle, The Grand Seduction, Maïna, Tom at the Farm.

I’ve managed to see four of these nominees: Le démantèlement, Empire of Dirt, Gabrielle, and Tom at the Farm. Gabrielle has been my favourite Canadian film of 2013 since I caught it at TIFF and I’ll be rooting for it again on Sunday night. As Canada’s Oscar pick, it has an obvious edge in terms of publicity, exposure, and viewership. (One should also note that the contenders were available for Academy voters to screen online.) Canadian Oscar nominees Incendies, Monsieur Lazhar, and Rebelle swept the awards three years in a row, and I assumed Gabrielle would do the same. Oscar backlash could potentially explain the bizarre (if not ludicrous) omission of Louise Archambault from both the directing and writing categories, which are two snubs that don’t bode well for Gabrielle’s chances.

Le démantèlement, deeply moving and classically structured, could take home a prize for Francophone cinema if Gabrielle does not. (Le démantèlement screens in Ottawa Tuesday at the DiverCiné festival of Francophone World Cinema.) Empire of Dirt, on the other hand, might be the dark horse of the Best Picture group. Empire of Dirt is the only film amongst the nominees besides Gabrielle to screen any reach. The presence of Empire of Dirt in the Best Picture category also represents what a strong year 2013 was for films by and about First Nations Canadians, and the powerful multigenerational story could strike the right chord with voters. The exceptional performances almost guarantee that it’s not walking home empty handed, but, like Le dématèlement, the acting prizes might cap off the film’s wins on Sunday.

The other nominee, Tom at the Farm, could bring Xavier Dolan his first major win at the Screenies. (He took home the award for Achievement in Costume Design last year for Laurence Anyways.) Tom has gone over well with Dolan fans and non-Dolan fans alike, as critics and audiences on the festival circuit largely praised the change of course for Dolan’s work. They might finally come together on this one and give him the recognition he’s been building to since 2009.

Tom’s main competition is probably the night’s nomination leader Enemy. I caught Enemy at a test screening last March and I’ll admit that it wasn’t for me despite being my most anticipated film of 2013, so I skipped seeing it at TIFF and was pleasantly surprised by the response. (I haven’t reviewed it, though, since I haven’t seen the final cut and the Canada’s Top Ten series skipped Ottawa again.) Enemy might be too weird and too challenging to garner enough support to win, especially with that crazy spider, but it will be an impressive move on the Academy if voters laud such an avant-garde film.

Other yet-to-be-seen contenders might have the benefit of mainstream appeal when it comes to besting the 10-times nominated Enemy. The F Word hasn’t earned a bad word to its name during its enthusiastic festival screenings, while The Grand Seduction was politely received as a lesser version of the 2003 Québécois original. Whether members decide to cast a vote for films that open too far away to benefit from the awards, however, remains to be seen.

I’d vote for: Gabrielle

Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal discuss Enemy

Achievement in Direction:

The nominees: Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm; Michael Dowse, The F-Word; Robert Lepage and Pedro Pires, Triptych; Sébastien Pilote, Le démantèlement; Denis Villeneuve, Enemy.

The absence of both Louise Archambault (Gabrielle) and Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) is absurd. Ditto The Dirties’ Matt Johnson, who, like Barnaby, might have fallen victim to the Academy’s reticence to acknowledge newcomers. (See: the Xavier Dolan snub for I Killed My Mother.) All five of the nominees presented in the category, admittedly, were widely acclaimed for their work, but Archambault and Barnaby’s films arguably offered work in a league of their own. Archambault was hosed and the Academy missed the chance to recognize how strong 2013 was for female Canadian directors. Barnaby, similarly, offered with Rhymes for Young Ghouls a voice unlike any Canadian film has seen. Pilote’s subtle work is on Le démantèlement is excellent, and I’ve greatly admired the previous work of the other directors, but the snubs of Archambault and Barnaby in this category are perhaps the greatest tells of disconnect between Screenie voters and other voices in the Canadian film scene.

I’d vote for: abstain.

Gabriel Arcand in Le démantèlement

Performance by a Leading Actor:

The nominees: Gabriel Arcand, Le démantèlement; Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy; Daniel Radcliffe, The F Word; Brendan Gleeson, The Grand Seduction; Rajesh Tailang, Siddharth.

It’s surprising that Xavier Dolan didn’t make the cut for Tom at the Farm. The film relies heavily on the strength of his performance—much of the film is a close-up of his face—so the omission is curious. It’s a bit like saying, “We liked everything about your film, Xavier, expect for you specifically.” Weird, since he’s quite good. Equally surprising in the snub department is Antoine Bertrand for his commanding performing in the popular hit Louis Cyr. He might be a victim of the double dipping that allowed some high-profile contenders to enter the race.

Regardless of who is nominated, though, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Gabriel Arcand taking this award. His quietly devastating performance in Le démantèlement would be a worthy winner to ensure the film doesn’t leave the Screenies empty handed. He deserves it and could have the edge as the lone veteran Canuck among the nominees. A trio of big name stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Daniel Radcliffe, and Brendan Gleeson, on the other hand, could just as easily steal the show and potentially put a Canadian film in the spotlight with a win. Gyllenhaal might have the edge of the three since his dual role in Enemy is demanding and complex. Equally complex as Gyllenhaal’s turn and just as subtly powerful as Arcand’s performance, however, is Rajesh Tailang’s debut in the festival crowd-pleaser Siddharth. Tailang could be the dark horse, although being the lone nominee outside a field of Best Picture contender could put him at a disadvantage if voters were scrambling to see the top films.

I’d vote for: Gabriel Arcand, Le démantèlement

Cara Gee in Empire of Dirt

Performance by a Leading Actress:

The nominees: Cara Gee, Empire of Dirt; Isabelle Guerard, Rouge Sang; Devery Jacobs, Rhymes for Young Ghouls; Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Gabrielle; Tatiana Maslany, Cas & Dylan

This line-up is strong! I’m sad I wasn’t able to catch Tatiana Maslany’s performance in Cas & Dylan, since plans to attend the Kingston Film Festival didn’t pan out, but the trio of performances I have seen are all worthy of the prize. Gabrielle Marion-Rivard gives a touching performance in the title role of Gabrielle and she could be a sentimental favourite, although the omission of any recognition for Archambault’s direction, which probably played a strong hand in the result of Gabrielle’s terrific turn, leaves the joie de vivre of her performance a question mark for taking home the prize. Devery Jacobs’ resolute performance in Rhymes for Young Ghouls is an outstanding breakthrough and it would be a worthy candidate to bring her film the recognition it deserves. However, as much as I prefer Gabrielle and Rhymes as films, there is no denying that the single best performance by any actor in a Canadian film in 2013 came from Cara Gee. She’s a powder keg as the volatile and troubled Lena in Empire of Dirt. Her last scene alone blows the competition out of the water. Nevertheless, I said the same thing about Suzanne Clément and the brunch scene in Laurence Anyways and she was pushed aside in the Rebelle sweep. Great performances like these deserve recognition. Cara Gee for the win!

I’d vote for: Cara Gee, Empire of Dirt

Alexandre Landry in Gabrielle

Actor in a Supporting Role:

The nominees: Jay Baruchel, The Art of the Steal; Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Tom at the Farm; Marc Labreche, Whitewash; Alexandre Landry, Gabrielle; Gordon Pinsent, The Grand Seduction

Best supporting actor could be a real race! It’s probably between funny man Jay Baruchel and newcomer Alexandre Landry, although Gordon Pinsent is a potential spoiler. Baruchel steals the show in The Art of the Steal by doing the awkward, goofy, and consistently likable kind of humour he’s delivered in the past. He’s also one of the few stars making a name for himself while making Canadian films and he is making Canadian films steadily along with Hollywood projects. (He knows how to boost his stock, but he hasn’t lost his roots and that counts for something.) Baruchel is due for an award soon, but if the kid from Rebelle even beat him last year, he could easily become the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Screenies if he loses again Sunday. Landry, on the other hand, is arguably the revelation of Gabrielle. He is so convincing, so sensitive, and so focused in his performance that viewers could easily assume that, like his co-star Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, he actually has Williams’ syndrome in real life. It’s arguably a lead performance, but it’s a great one.

I’d vote for: Alexandre Landry, Gabrielle

Jennifer Podemski in Empire of Dirt

Actress in a Supporting Role

The nominees: Florence Blain, L'autre maison; Evelyne Brochu, Tom at the Farm; Mackenzie Davis, The F-Word; Sarah Gadon, Enemy; Jennifer Podemski, Empire of Dirt

Supporting actress, like supporting actor, might be a two-way race. I think it’s between Sarah Gadon and Jennifer Podemski. Sarah Gadon’s performance might be the best thing about Enemy, and since the rising star basically serves as the access point for the audience to make sense of a very difficult film, she could help lead Enemy to a win. The spider thing should also earn a novelty vote or two! (Random note: did you catch her passionate defense of Annabel during Canada Reads? We need more voices like this!) Gadon’s competitor, Jennifer Podemski, has proved herself a valuable voice on the Canadian film scene, too, for her work as co-star and producer of Empire of Dirt is one of the more notable efforts of the year. Podemski holds her own with Gee amidst the fierce family drama of Dirt and the onscreen pair delivers the best blow/counter-blow acting in a Canadian film this year. A vote for Gee and a vote for Podemski go hand in hand. She deserves the award on merit, but her additional efforts as producer of Empire of Dirt could garner her enough votes to edge out Gadon for the win.

I’d vote for: Jennifer Podemski, Empire of Dirt (although Gadon is terrific)
--Also, where’s Gabrielle’s Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin in all of this?


Ted Rogers Best Feature Length Documentary Award

The nominees: Hi-ho Mistahey!; My Prairie Home; People of Feather; Vanishing Point; Watermark.

Watermark is the obvious favourite here. The Jennifer Baichwal/Edward Burtynsky film has largely dominated doc talk in a strong year for non-fiction film. The other much-hyped Canuck docs of the year, When Jews Were Funny, The Manor, The Ghosts in Our Machine, and Our Man in Tehran could have doubled the competition in this category, but Watermark might have easily beaten them all. It’s a sweeping and visually stunning feat, and it’s provocative and powerful in the scope of its images and ideas. Watermark is a worthy doc to take the prize. Add its Canada’s Top Ten citation and its prize for Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics’ Association, and you have a winner.

Watermark’s aesthetic prowess could also squeeze out its main competition. The suspicious contender People of a Feather might have an advantage since it’s had a few extra years to circulate and accumulate fans, but both films are lyrical eco docs and the visual power and overall intelligence of Watermark eclipses Feather. Feather and fellow First Nations pic Vanishing Point could also divide votes amongst themselves since they’re fairly interchangeable flicks. Little differentiates the two films aside from some great duck shots, so they might blur in voters’ minds. The third First Nations story—and arguably the best of the bunch—might be Watermark’s top competitor: Alanis Obomsawin’s Hi-ho Mistahey! has the most palpable hint of activism of all the nominees. It’s a relevant and compelling look at youth in Canada, as well as an inspiring tale of radical spirit. Equally worthy is the eclectic My Prairie Home, which could find a home with voters who enjoy good tunes and stories of transformative road trips. Almost any of these docs could rightly take the prize… except that one from 2011/2012.

I’d vote for: Hi-ho Mistahey!

See the full list of nominees here.

What Canadian films will you root for Sunday night?