The Best Canadian Films of the Decade so Far

Stories We Tell, Incendies, Mommy, and Barney's Version are some of Canada's best films.
Now that the Oscars and the Canadian Screen Awards have passed, it’s time to survey the field of films that this decade has offered so far. I think that the current decade offers a promising trajectory for Canadian films. Canadian films seem to have enjoyed a significant growth in terms of quality, reach, and exposure in the past five years. It’s easier to find a good Canadian film than ever whether it’s on Netflix, iTunes, the token screen at the movie theatre, or at a red carpet event at TIFF.

The changes in Canadian film aren’t just practical in terms of greater reach and clout thanks to TIFF’s rising status and our growing success at the Oscars. (Three out of five years this decade is impressive!) Canadian films are showing a better grasp of the perceived borders between local and global character, and a better balance of artistic and commercial appeal. From the grand scope of Incendies to the powerful intimacy of Stories We Tell, the Canadian films that define this decade for the better offer a range of inspiration for the filmmakers to come. Recent Canadian films also seem to be ahead of the field with more female directors getting credits, for three of the films on this list credit a female director. Half the films here are headlined by a female lead, while the others share a much better balance of gender roles than one sees in Hollywood. We’re also making decent headway in terms of diversity onscreen, although there's still a ways to go. Recent projects like Clement Virgo’s hit miniseries The Book of Negroes, however, should hopefully change that.

The only way to see where we’re going is to reflect on where we’ve been, so let’s look back at the best films Canada’s had to offer in the decade so far. Here are my picks for the best Canadian films of the decade so far.

1. Stories We Tell

(Dir. Sarah Polley, 2012)

Sarah Polley proves herself one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers with Stories We Tell as she delivers her third and best feature about the awkward messiness of love. Her sophomore effort Take This Waltz is just a notch or two away from this list, but her play on truth and meta-fiction in Stories We Tell is easily the best Canadian film in years. Stories We Tell is a remarkably frank and intimate film, yet the almost unbearably personal character of the film makes it so accessible. Fragments of home movies and family interviews rewrite fiction into truth and vice versa as Polley explores one of her family’s own narratives and finds a universal human truth—or the “vagaries of truth,” as she says—in the story that exists between the pieces of Stories' memory game. At the heart of Polley’s examination of the truths and fictions of her family, she playfully delves into the relationships created through the mere act of storytelling. The formal element of Stories We Tell puts it in a league of great documentaries like Orson Welles’s F for Fake as Polley plays with perception and notions of truth and fiction—and the presumed authentic truth of documentary—to better understand the family she thought she knew. What I love most about the film, however, is the tangible thread of familial love that rings throughout the film: this story could have easily torn the Polley family apart, yet the act of storytelling brings them together. If only more people could be so brave in sharing their personal histories. Is there a better film about the power of telling our own stories?

2. Incendies

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

I probably wouldn’t cover Canadian films at all if not for Incendies. The film sits as the springboard for my own passion for writing about Canadian films, mostly because I think it embodies the future of our national cinema. This powerful film marks a landmark for situating tangibly Canadian stories within a larger global story of displacement and migration as twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxime Gaudette) retrace the journey that brought their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), to Canada. The accentuation of the elements of Greek tragedy from the great play by Wajdi Mouawad, such as the addition of the tri-spotted Oedipal tattoo that connects the fates of Nawal’s children, offers access points that place Nawal’s own tragedy within a greater cultural mythology. Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Mouawad’s play demonstrates a greater opening up of Canadian film as Incendies itself opens up the stage play into the larger, more open, and more dynamic world of film. Incendies shows that a Canadian film can be relevant to Canada by transporting the action around the globe and bringing it home. (While challenging that idea of home, I should add.) I don’t think it’s an accident that such a powerful film anticipated major Canadian films such as Monsieur Lazhar, War Witch, and Midnight’s Children through its nuanced fusion of local and global perspectives.

3. Mommy

(Dir. Xavier Dolan, 2014)

It’s another top ten list for Mommy! Xavier Dolan’s fifth and best film might be the freshest Canadian film of the decade so far. The energy and originality of vision brings a new audience to the films of Canada and Quebec, and Dolan shows a breathtaking maturity with Mommy. It’s his loudest, biggest, and most flamboyant film to date, but it’s also the most assuredly controlled of his works, too, with its ambitious 1:1 scope that bursts with rich visuals and intense emotions. Mommy feels especially important as a counterpoint to Incendies for showing the value in appreciating the distinct regional flavour of a film as Die (Anne Dorval) and Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) yell and scream in Quebecois vernacular. The bright, vibrant Mommy is like a flamboyantly Franglais cousin of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher with its bold and confident assertion of a great new voice behind the camera.

4. Trigger

(Dir. Bruce McDonald, 2010)

Trigger deserves a top spot on this list for how warmly and richly it carries the sense of community in Canadian film. Trigger, shot in just a mere eight days over a few weekends, offers a swan song for the late Tracy Wright as she gives her best and final performance as Vic, one half of the female rock duo Trigger. That other half, Molly Parker, matches her every step of the way as the two great actresses make every shot. Their raw performances are extraordinarily full of life and passion. Trigger features a who’s who of the Canadian film scene as Bruce McDonald assembles the likes of Don McKellar, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Atom Egoyan and more for this passion project. The film stands on its own within McDonald’s great filmography indebted to the Canadian indie music scene (it began as a follow-up to Hard Core Logo before evolving into its own unique tale) as it brings Trigger within a larger cast of up-and-comers and veterans alike from Toronto’s alternative rock scene. The film fittingly launched the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox back when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, and I can’t think of a better film to hold the roots of the Canadian film community together.

5. The F Word

(Dir. Michael Dowse, 2014)

I’m sorry to say it, but good Canadian comedies are hard to find. They just don’t seem to be our specialty. We do very well with dramedies (Denys Arcand films and dark indie character studies), but lighter, broader comedy just doesn't have the same level of success here. Every now and then, however, a Porky’s or a Bruce McDonald film or a "Corner Gas" breaks through and brings something new to the table. Michael Dowse The F Word does just that as the screenplay by Elan Mastai takes a reliable formula and turns into something warm and witty. The F Word, re-titled What If for American audiences who blush at the word “friend,” is a sweet, refreshing, and completely charming two-hander featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two-friends in the age-old will-they-or-won’t-they dilemma between best buds of the opposite sex. Not only does The F Word have a perfect ear for the way that twentysomethings seem to have relationships premised on the compatibility to blab about nothing, but the film feels most authentic for the ripe Toronto character that appears in virtually every frame of the film. Dowse might be the current Canuck comedy champ with films like Goon providing success stories for Canadian film, but his most recent effort, The F Word, ranks as one of the best romantic comedies this country has ever seen.

6. The Whistleblower

(Dir. Larysa Kondracki, 2011)

The Whistleblower nabs the title of the best feature debut for Canadian film this decade, so I can’t wait to see what director Larysa Kondracki comes up with next. She’s currently readying the action/thriller Dissent for production along with Whistleblower co-writer Eilis Kirwan and there’s a high bar to meet. The Whistleblower stands as one of the better Canadian films in recent years, as well as one of the most notable films with a female director, thanks to the urgency and sensitivity with which Kondracki frames this real-life story of UN worker Kathy Bolkovac (an excellent Rachel Weisz). The director’s hand at off-screen violence conveys the brutality of the sex trafficking ring that Bolkovac discovers, but without sensationalizing the violence as The Whistleblower respects the rights of the victims by putting a human face on the story. It’s no small feat that this modest film moved audiences all the way from the festival circuit to the United Nations where it inspired tangible change.

7. Café de flore

(Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, 2011)

If you love Wild or Dallas Buyers Club and you haven’t seen Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore, then you are doing yourself a disservice. Café de flore features the same signature hallmark of a Vallée film, what I like to call his kaleidoscopic editing, as it cuts between stories and time, shifting fragments of different narratives into a larger puzzle. Café de flore, like Vallée’s recent critically and commercially successful American films, has a rich passion for music, too, as the songs play with love and memory as the fates of the characters played by Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Helene Florent, Evelyne Brochu and the young actors are powerfully intertwined through the variations of a single song. It’s a beautiful poem about the nature of true love. Cafe is the last film that Vallée made in Canada before his back-to-back successes of Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, and it’s great to see his originality of vision carry across the border and into the world of American independent film.

8. Barney’s Version

(Dir. Richard J. Lewis, 2010)

Mortdecai Richler’s Barney’s Version could rightly claim the title of the great Canadian novel, and the adaptation by writer Michael Konyves, director Richard J. Lewis, and producer Robert Lantos is a worthy big screen companion. Barney’s Version is just as worthy an entry into the canon of Canadian cinema as the novel is to CanLit because it mixes Richler’s cocktail of self-deprecating humour and rich cultural insight just right. The novel might be the definitive text to show that Canada does indeed have a rich cultural history as the pages of Barney’s memoir are filled with political, social, and cultural references, but the film is equally self-referential with inside jokes aimed at the Canadian film scene. Cameos by top directors like Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan, and David Cronenberg double down on CanCon while a range of foreign talents including Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike (pre-Gone Girl), Minnie Driver, and Dustin Hoffman give some of the best performances of their careers. Like The F Word, Barney’s Version is a rare Canadian comedy done right.

9. Gabrielle

(Dir. Louise Archambault, 2013)

Gabrielle easily earns the moniker of a crowd-pleaser. While the film is sweet, funny, warm, and tender, don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s slight and fluffy like crowd-pleasers often are. Louise Archambault delivers a touching and sensitive love story between two young adults with Williams’ Syndrome—Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who has Williams’ Syndrome in real life) and Antoine (Alexandre Landry, who plays his character with such nuance and sensitivity that you’ll think he does too)—find a love like any other. Archambault finds a different course for films that explore relationships of disabled persons by matter-of-factly conveying the ordinariness of the love between Gabrielle and Antoine. She contrasts the romantic lovely nicely with the familial love between Gabrielle and her sister (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) as Gabrielle comes into her own and finds her independence. There isn’t a false note to this winning and refreshing film.

10. Rhymes for Young Ghouls

(Dir. Jeff Barnaby, 2013)

We need more films like Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Jeff Barnaby’s feature debut is the best and most significant First Nations film since 2001’s Atanarjuat and it’s incredible to think that this is the toughest and boldest look at Canada’s history with the Residential Schools outside of documentary films. We’ve had references and stories of healing, yes, nobody’s quite taken audiences to the Rez quite like this. Rhymes is a gut-punch as it follows the resilient heroine Alia (a terrific Devery Jacobs) as she survives supporting her family as the local pot queen whilst evading the abuse of a local cop. Barnaby plays with genre and history to make a haunting parable as elements of horror and comedy (it’s quite funny) blend with folklore and fantasy, making Alia a strong warrior to guide the audience through a dark, difficult, but ultimately rewarding plight. There really hasn’t been anything like Rhymes in Canadian film before. More, please!

Honourable mentions: 15 Reasons to Live, The Animal Project, Barrymore (for Christopher Plummer’s performance) Cosmopolis, In Her Place, Inch’Allah, Maps to the Stars, Midnight’s Children, Take This Waltz, Tu dors Nicole, War Witch.

What Canadian films define the decade for you?