2014 in Review: The Best Canadian Films of the Year

Mommy, Maps to the Stars, Wet Bum, and Tu Dors Nicole
are some of Canada's best films of 2014.
What’s really nice about the great Canadian films of this year is that they aren’t afraid to be “Canadian.” And by Canadian, I simply mean they tell stories that take place in Canada, use Canada as a setting, and engage with themes relevant to Canadians of diverse experiences. The past few years have seen a turn towards an internationalization of Canadian cinema with Canuck landmarks like Incendies and Rebelle taking Canadian films outside of distinctly Canadian stories and situating our stories and artists within a global spectrum.

This year, however, the films seem to be looking inside the borders of Canada. These films acknowledge that something specific can still be universal, and that a film is far more relatable when it has an identifiable sense of place. How many audiences, both Canada and international, find themselves enmeshed in Denis Villeneuve’s Torontonian spider web in Enemy or enjoy the Don McKellar’s sea-air spin on the Newfie remake of The Grand Seduction? How is Corbo (which seems doubly relevant in the wake of October’s attack in Ottawa) one of the few films to dramatize the FLQ? How many critics and moviegoers continue to remark on the regional vernacular of Die and Steve in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy or the weird suburban vibe of Tu Dors Nicole?

Mommy, like some of Canada’s biggest success of the past decade including Stories We Tell, The Barbarian Invasions, C.R.A.Z.Y., and more, simply feels rooted in the experience of the talent behind the camera and the tangible element of self-expression makes it so accessible and powerful. Dolan’s fifth and best films is easily the film that deserves to define Canadian film for the year. It’s the best work we have to offer, one of the freshest, most innovative, and revitalizing film experiences that any artist, Canadian or otherwise, has made this year.

Films in this list include theatrical releases and festival screenings alike. The prevailing Torontocentrism of Canadian film distribution virtually makes it impossible to see many of these films in theatres, and I’d rather include them now than not have a chance to include them at all! (And please note that I haven’t had a chance to see some of the biggest Canadian festival hits of the year including Felix and Meira and In Her Place.) However, without further ado, here are my picks for the best Canadian films—ten features and ten shorts—of 2014:

The Best Canadian Films of 2014

1. Mommy

(Dir. Xavier Dolan)

Mommy finally made a Xavier Dolan fan out of me. Dolan’s fifth film is arguably one of the most breathtakingly audacious dramatic films ever produced in this country. It’s hard to call a Canadian film a masterpiece without attributing it to someone in the established Canuck canon of Egoyan, Cronenberg, and Arcand, but Quebec’s upstart wunderkind blows every veteran out of the water this year. Mommy feels so fresh that there’s no adequate word to describe it. Dolan’s innovative film is indescribably “with-it” even though envisions Quebec with a speculative air in which parents may disown their kids in the not-too-distant future. From the social media friendly 1:1 aspect ratio of the vibrant cinematography by André Turpin to the swelling soundtrack that pulses at an ungodly-high decibel to Antoine Olivier-Pilon’s brash performance as a child so wild he seems like Bart Simpson incarnate, everything about Mommy brings a defiantly fresh perspective to the screen. Dolan masterfully uses every effect of the cinema, especially his two greatest assets—Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément—so astutely that the emotion tears right through the Instagrammy frame. Dolan’s novel perspective might best be seen in one of the year’s standout scenes in which Mommy makes Céline Dion cool again as she croons in French during some weirdly incestuous kitchen dance party. It’s about time that Quebec reclaimed Céline Dion in the years since Titanic. Mommy, in short, is exactly the shake-up that the Canadian film scene needs right now, for it isn’t afraid to show its regional colours yet it manages to connect with more audiences than many of our films have ever before.

(Dir. Michael Dowse)

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I love The F Word. The F Word, retitled What If in the US for bashful audiences, is another example of a budding visibility for Canadian cinema even though it stars two foreign actors. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan might be the top actors in their performances as star-crossed friends Wallace and Chantry, and they’re both an endearing hoot as they riff on the rapid-fire banter by Elan Mastai, but the true star of The F Word is arguably Toronto. The F Word is so winning and relatable because it has such a strong sense of itself as director Michael Dowse uses some of the city’s most iconic imagery to great effect, waltzing Wallace and Chantry through moviehouses, diners, and dives so familiar. There are too few Canadian comedies as sweet, charming, and funny as The F Word.

(Dir. David Cronenberg)

Okay, so Maps to the Stars might be like the exception to my earlier comment that many Canadian films of 2014 tell tangibly Canadian stories since this Hollywood satire is set in, well, Hollywood, but there’s something so ridiculously Canadian about a film in which someone is bludgeoned to death with a Genie award. That’s how low Havana Segrand has fallen in this biting take on Hollywood: she clings to the accolades of that one movie she made in Canada that gave her the performance of a lifetime, won her an award, and probably played to a triple-digit audience during a one-week run on screen 7 at the Carlton. Julianne Moore’s Cannes-winning performance as the hack actress turned over-the-hill Lindsay Lohan wannabe is so ridiculous, so brave, and so deliciously Cronenbergian that every frame of the messed-up craziness of Maps to the Stars works because she sells it with such deadpan conviction. A film like this could never be made by an American and the subversive satire that Cronenberg crafts (with a deadly script by Bruce Wagner) is arguably his best Canadian film since Crash.

(Dir. Stéphane Lafleur)

Tu Dors Nicole, aka Française Ha, might be the best embodiment of this «Quebec New Wave » that people are always babbling about. Stéphane Lafleur’s idiosyncratic tale of arrested development has the unconventional artiness of that film with Greta Gerwig or one of those Truffaut ditties from the 1950s and 60s, but there’s something ineffably unique about its black-and-white weirdness. No filmmaker quite knows how to make shoot wood paneling in all of its glorious absurdity like Lafleur does, and Tu Dors Nicole has an uproarious air of banality to the sleepless nights that Nicole (a terrifically likable Julianne Côté) spends over one awkward and unfortunate summer. Nicole’s restlessness provides a fine Quebecois counterpoint to Frances Ha, but Lafleur’s running gag with the kid with the deep voice is easily the single best joke in any film this year. Tu Dors Nicole, like The F Word, has a funny bone that Canada doesn’t show often enough.

(Dir. Amer Shomali, Paul Cowan)

2014’s double-bill of bizarre black-and-white Canadian films includes this ingeniously original documentary from Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan. The Wanted 18 envisions a tale of the Israel/Palestine conflict through the eyes of some Claymation cows and the result is as weird, funny, strange, and brilliant as it sounds. These cows make for an unexpectedly compelling entry into the narrative of this indescribably complicated conflict, for Shomali and Cowan’s way of humanizing the cows—they make them alternatively smart, insightful, humorous, and touching—undercuts the authority of the military figures in the film since the cows are such obviously innocent adversaries. The films lets audiences laugh at the absurdity of the situation, yet feel the heartache as well.

6. Wet Bum

(Dir. Lindsay MacKay)

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival marks a breakout year for discovering new talents after a seemingly unprecedented volume of Canadian filmmakers debuted at the fest. Best among the new Canadian discoveries of 2014 sits Lindsay MacKay with her sweetly quirky Wet Bum. This uncontrived coming-of-age story is like coming up for air. MacKay creates refreshingly real characters and proves herself a natural behind the camera as she directs a winning performance from remarkable newcomer Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the frustrating, hopeless, lanky awkwardness of growing up. MacKay and Stone aren’t content to be fish-out-of-water, though, and Wet Bum feels most at home in the invigorating underwater swimming sequences that are beautifully shot by DP Guy Godfree, who also has several notable credits among the year’s best shorts. The quirky Wet Bum dives deep into the power of escapism, but it feels consistently and beautifully real.

(Dir. Julia Kwan)

I’ve never been to Vancouver’s Chinatown, or what remains of it, but Julia Kwan truly transports the viewer to the changing community in her lovely NFB documentary Everything Will Be. Kwan captures such a tangible sense of place in Everything Will Be that one smells the aromas and tastes the flavours of Chinatown’s life as Kwan’s camera documents the hustle-bustle of this rapidly changing neighbourhood. The film looks lovingly on traditions past as condos encroach on Chinatown like a dangerous flood, but Kwan’s interactions with residents both old and new simply shows the community in one of many transitions. It’s a nod to generations past, but also a powerful affirmation of the elements of cultural identity that endure through time.

8. Enemy

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve overturns the unnamed everyland of late author José Saramago in this devilish adaptation of The Double and, for better or for worse, Enemy gives one of the most distinctly Torontonian films of the year. Arguably the most unflattering image of Toronto since Rob Ford, Denis Villeneuve’s enigmatic mind-bender Enemy brilliantly uses the ugliness of the city’s labyrinthine metal, concrete, and unrelenting coldness for one spectacularly dense mind-maze. I honestly can’t say whether I love or hate Enemy: I hated it when I first saw it roughly eighteen months ago, but I was spellbound when I revisited it earlier this March. It’s a true doppelgänger and a film that needs to be seen twice in order to be both appreciated and reviled for all of its infuriating elusiveness.

(Dir. Kevin Nikkel)

This beautiful documentary is one of the hidden gems of the year. Discussions abound over whether documentary is (or should be) Canada’s national art form and one couldn’t find a better film with which to make the case than Kevin Nikkel’s On the Trail of the Far Fur Country. The film dips into the archive of Canadiana and unearths a treasure trove of old footage from the fur trading days of the Hudson’s Bay Company as Nikkel retraces the steps of the original documentarian Harold Wyckoff and shows the footage to descendants in the First Nations communities depicted in the film. Trail lets the descendants reframe the stories of their elders as Nikkel invites the communities to share their history and correct the recorded history in turn. The exquisite trip through the archive is a must-see for doc fans.

10. Dys-

(Dir. Maude Michaud)

My only complaint about programming films for a festival is that I can’t review them. Dys- is probably a lot of fun to review and tackle, and this film would probably be higher on the list if I saw it at Cellar Door Film Festival instead of being on the modest programming team that brought it to the festival. Maude Michaud proves herself a bold risk-taker with the unflinching gut-punch of Dys- and she shows a daring hand at genre, atmosphere, offscreen violence, and body horror. The provocative Dys- is confrontationally feminist—and refreshingly so—as Michaud and her actors put the audience through some gruelling scenes that are bound to divide audiences and provoke engaged reactions. I love when films inspire the level of audience engagement that Dys- does!

The Top Ten Canadian Shorts of 2014

(Dir. Randall Okita)

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer. This gritty collage is an ambitious exploration of the malleability of memory as it envisions trauma through shards of a storybook fable that cut right through you. It’s easily the most authentic short this year.

2. Jutra

(Dir. Marie-Josée St-Pierre)
This doc dives deep into the mind of one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers and it explores his soul with a cineaste’s touch that would do him proud.

(Dir. James Brylowski)

I’d try to write a great line to summarize how clever this mockumentary is, but I’d totally make an ass of myself.

(Dir. Torill Kove)

Aren’t parents awkward? Torill Kove spins a vibrantly offbeat yarn about the love/hate relationships with our parents—and their bushy mustaches—that are the best relationships of all.

(Dir. Ben Lewis)

A hilarious spoof on the thankless job of being a Canadian actor, this funny short probably makes for a great double-bill with Maps to the Stars.

6. Day 40

(Dir. Sol Freidman)

This scathingly dark twist on Noah’s Ark Biblically one-ups Darren Aronofsky with a zombie zinger.

(Dir. Steven Woloshen)

I’ll admit that I don’t usually “get” experimental cinema, but I love every second of this jazzy ride. I still can’t believe that Steven Woloshen made this film in the front seat of his car with materials on hand—1000 Plateaus is riffing in its finest form!

(Dir. Arlen Konopaki)

This deadpan hilarious comedy is so, so, awkward. Hats off to everyone who had the balls to make this film work!

(Dir. Michelle Latimer)

This fascinating take on Rawi Hage’s Cockroach envisions life in the underbelly from a visceral first-person perspective. Latimer gets right down in the dirt and her ability to create the world of Hage’s book displays extraordinary vision.

(Dir. Richard Fung)

Inspiring community-based docs like The Journey give me hope for the future of Canadian arts. Films like The Journey are what documentary filmmaking is all about.

What are your favourite Canadian films of 2014???

Previously in the ‘2014 in Review’ series: The Worst Films of the Year

Up next: The Best Performances of 2014!