Canada, TIFF, and the Oscar Race: Can Anything Top 'Mommy'?

Mommy. Photo courtesy of TIFF.
The annual question arises now that the Toronto International Film Festival has announced its Canadian line-up: What film will be Canada’s Oscar pick? That question, however, seems awfully redundant as we approach the best launching pad for Canadian films and Oscar hopefuls alike on the fall festival circuit. The real question for Canadian film fans and Oscar junkies circa TIFF 2014 is really, “Can anything top Mommy?”

The answer, in short, is "probably not." Xavier Dolan’s Cannes sensation seems like a shoo-in for the Canuck bid in this year’s Oscar race. There’s admirable competition, for sure, but Dolan’s fifth feature all but needs the go-ahead from Telefilm Canada and the pan-Canadian committee to make a run for the Oscars. There are no sure things this early in the Oscar race, especially if one hasn’t yet seen the film, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Carolle Brabant and company announced Mommy as Canada’s official selection in the Best Foreign Language Film race when the film makes its Toronto premiere next month. They usually wait until after the fest, though, so it’s always possible that some sleeper hit could shake things up. At this point, however, Dolan’s biggest competition looks to be his own Tom at the Farm, which opened theatrically in Canada this March following its festival debut last fall. Dolan hasn’t been Canada’s contender since 2009’s I Killed My Mother, although he came close for 2012’s Laurence Anyways, and it’s virtually a consensus that he’s due for another shot.
Evelyne Brochu in Tom at the Farm. Photo credit: Claire Palady / Les Films Séville.
Speaking of Laurence Anyways, Dolan film regular Monia Chokri is surprisingly absent from the TIFF Canadian selections as her latest project, David Lambert’s All Yours (Je suis à toi), isn’t on the list. No TIFF boost probably means that All Yours, which scored a Best Actor prize at Karlovy Vary for Nahuel Pérez Biscayar earlier this summer, isn’t in the running. All Yours has neither Canadian nor American distribution though, and those two factors, especially the Canadian distributor, are essential since the film needs to run in Canada for at least a week before September 30th.

Canada’s non-Mommy potentials actually seem stronger if one looks to last year’s festival holdovers rather than to the potentials within the 2014 TIFF line-up. Sébastien Pilot’s Le démantèlement is a lovely film with a poignant (and award-winning) central performance by Gabriel Arcand. Robert Lepage and Pedro Pires’ Triptych is a beautifully brainy opus. Maïna is a well-intentioned facepalm with little claim to quality, but Canadians got behind it during the Canadian Screen Awards when it hadn’t even screened in Canada or at any of the qualifying festivals. (The awkward English voiceover also makes it a tricky choice.) Daniel Grou’s Miraculum, on the other hand, boasts an outstanding ensemble, but the film barely received notice outside Quebec and it will probably have to content itself with trickle-down interest for the performances of Mommy’s director-actor combo of Dolan and Dorval. Dolan’s Tom at the Farm, finally, is a frequently effective psychological thriller that might sit more easily with audiences than Mommy might thanks to the unusual restraint of Dolan’s signature style.

All these films have probably maximized their theatrical potential in Canada at this point, though, so their respective strengths have considerable hurdles to pass if they want to be viable choices. Canada has only sent one film that was old news to the Oscars in recent memory, which indicates that the films listed above, as good as some of them are, probably aren’t contenders. That one film with staying power, though, was Deepa Mehta’s Water and it earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 after opening in Canada in November 2005.

If those films are the long-shot contenders outside the TIFF 2014 selections, then here are four possible Canuck contenders that could make a run for Oscar gold.


Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Dir. Xavier Dolan, Special Presentations, Toronto Premiere         
Release: Sept. 19 (Les Films Séville/eOne)

Synopsis: In a fictional Canada, where a new law allows distressed parents to abandon troubled children to the hospital system, Die Despres, a feisty widow, tries to cope with Steve, her wild yet charming ADHD son. While they both try to make ends meet and live under the same roof, Kyla, their mysterious neighbour, offers her help. As Kyla’s heartwarming presence becomes increasingly intense, questions emerge about her own mysterious life, and the way her destiny may ultimately be linked to that of Steve and Die. Starring Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément and Antoine Olivier Pilon.

One contender clearly leads the pack. Mommy feels like a coronation of sorts for Xavier Dolan after his Cannes Jury Prize earlier this year. The fact that Dolan got the third place prize still feels a bit backhanded given the rapturous reception for Mommy over some of the other films in the competition, but the film easily has some of the best buzz a Québécois film has seen since Incendies. Critics love the visual audacity of Mommy’s 1:1 aspect ratio and the reportedly powerhouse performances. The raves for Mommy keep on coming as it hits festivals outside North American post-Cannes. Movie Mezzanine’s Tom Clift, for example, calls it “A stunningly affecting piece of filmmaking” in his round up of the Sydney Film Festival. (Links to rave Cannes reviews may be found here.)

Mommy’s Oscar potential, which includes Best Actress dark horse Anne Dorval, looks even better now that it has American distributor Roadside Attractions behind it. Roadside previously repped Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and they made a very strong bid for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination (despite snubbing Canadian critics in the awards campaign) despite missing a nomination slot in a competitive year. Distribution, especially in American, generally seems to be the obstacle that keeps Dolan’s films from enjoying greater success—Tom at the Farm hasn’t even hit the US yet and I Killed My Mother took years to open in the States—so Roadside’s commitment to the film (they’re bringing it to Telluride before TIFF) is enough to hint that Mommy will get the green light.

Tu dors Nicole

Photo credit: Sara Mishara / Les Films Séville
Dir. Stéphane Lafleur, Contemporary World Cinema, Toronto Premiere
Release: August 22 (Les Films Séville; no US distrib)

Synopsis: Making the most of the family home while her parents are away, 22-year-old Nicole is enjoying a peaceful summer with her best friend, Véronique. When Nicole’s older brother shows up with his band to record an album, their vacation takes an unexpected turn and the girls’ friendship is put to the test. Amidst a rising heat wave, Nicole’s insomnia — and romantic misadventures — mount each day. Tu dors Nicole takes a humorous look at the beginning of adulthood and all its possibilities. Starring Julianne Côté, Juliette Gosselin, and Marc-Andre Grondin.

An under-the-radar alternative to Mommy lies in Stéphane Lafleur’s well-received Cannes’ hit Tu dors Nicole, which bowed on the Croisette in the Directors’ Fortnight. Nicole is Lafleur’s third feature after Familiar Grounds and Continental: A Film without Guns, although he’s probably best known as the editor of 2011’s Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar. Nicole has her own share of reviews to match Mommy with The Playlist giving it a full-on A, calling it the hidden gem of Cannes, and saying, “it's a comedy that comes across as a sort of French-Canadian take on Frances Ha, but also stands as its own unique, and equally brilliant, beast.” The Hollywood Reporter also makes a Frances Ha reference, raving that Lafleur “delivers an affecting, funny and eccentric -- in the best sense of the word -- meditation on that in-between state that people in their early twenties find themselves…”

Tu dors Nicole sounds young and hip, but young and hip hardly characterizes the Academy’s tricky relationship with films, especially foreign ones. Nicole’s charm therefore has some trouble when Mommy appeals to the same demographic, but also carries a Cannes endorsement and a more recognizable name, although the film's producers are Kim McCraw and Luc Déry, who previously took Canada to the Oscar with Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar (and made a worthy bid last year with Gabrielle). (It's also curious that McCraw and Déry's latest appears in the comparatively less glamorous Contemporary World Cinema programme whereas their last four TIFF appearances have been in the Special Presentations bar.) These factors probably explain why Nicole’s producers are opening the film in Quebec on August 22. This date might help generate positive word of mouth both to compete with Mommy and to ensure that Nicole enjoys a healthy theatrical run. The producers usually release their films following a TIFF launch, so Nicole’s debut a month before the usual Oscar announcement date gives additional distance to Mommy’s lead.

An Eye for Beauty (Le règne de la beauté)

Photo: Les Films Séville.
Dir. Denys Arcand, Special Presentations, Toronto Premiere
Release: May 16 in Quebec (Les Films Séville/eOne)

Synopsis: Luc, a talented young architect, lives a peaceful life with his wife Stephanie in the stunning area of Charlevoix. He has a beautiful house, a pretty wife, dines often with friends, plays golf and tennis, and goes hunting — leading a perfect life, one might say. One day, he accepts to be a member of an architectural jury in Toronto. There, he meets Lindsay, a mysterious woman who will turn his life upside down. Starring Éric Bruneau, Mélanie Thierry, Melanie Merkosky and Marie-Josée Croze.

It doesn’t say much when a Denys Arcand film opens quietly in Quebec while everyone’s attention is trained on Cannes. Arcand, whose Barbarian Invasions won two prizes at the fest and the 2003 Foreign Film Oscar for Canada, didn’t get the best reviews of his career when his latest film debuted earlier this year. The infidelity drama An Eye for Beauty has nowhere near the chorus of boos akin to, say, Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, but most of the reviews are mildly negative to coolly indifferent. Take The Montreal Gazette, which says, “We don’t feel the heat of the moment, but rather the awkwardness of Arcand’s contrivance.” Ditto La Presse, which says that Arcand misfires by focusing on imagery, rather than the wordplay that often serves as the highlight of his films. Voir agrees and says in its tepid review that Arcand’s visual fascination with Toronto is as lovely as it is annoying. A trend is clear.

Canada loves to send Arcand to the Oscars, though, so maybe a better reception in Toronto will boost his chances. We even sent the abysmal Days of Darkness into the ring for 2007 and it (somehow) made the January short list. Arcand might therefore be the safest bet among a relatively green field of contenders. Half of Canada’s Foreign Film nominations bear his name and he still has our only win, and that trump card never loses its appeal.

Probably not happening, but worth mentioning:


Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Dir. Mathieu Denis, Discovery, World Premiere
Release: TBA (Equinoxe Films)

Synopsis: Montréal, 1966. Jean Corbo, an idealistic 16-year-old of Québécois and Italian descent, befriends two far-left political activists and joins the FLQ (Liberation Front of Québec), an underground movement determined to spark a socialist revolution. Jean thus begins an inextricable march toward his destiny. Starring Anthony Therrien, Antoine L'Écuyer, Karelle Tremblay and Tony Nardi.

Corbo sounds and looks the most promising of the Francophone World Premieres happening at the fest this year. Few films dramatize the FLQ movement and the October Crisis, so Corbo is a notable Canadian production for its subject matter alone. It might therefore seem too local given the specificity of its subject matter, especially since Canadian films tend to be going global when using the Oscars to increase our profile. (And the support from Mommy on the international front is already significant, even if Dolan’s film contains Quebec vernacular.) If newcomer Mathieu Denis stands out amongst a promising field of new Canadian directors, then Corbo could potentially be in the running, but probably not this year. Equinoxe Films also has Maïna in contention, so given the relatively blind support for that film, I’d assume it’s the more likely bid of the two unless it’s a big hit and they make some magic happen very quickly.

Add to this quartet of contenders three more non-Anglo TIFF films: In Her Place, Felix and Maria, and Love in the Time of Civil War, the latter of which might gain the most attention of the three since star Alexandre Landry (Gabrielle) is one of TIFF’s Rising Stars this year.  All three films sound promising and all of them have Canadian distribution, but none for America. They seem like great discoveries for the festival, but they could be too small for the awards front when a hefty and long-awaited front-runner is finally hitting its home turf.

What do you think, Canada? 

Is Mommy our pick?