Canucks in Contention: Could 2015 Be Canada's Biggest Year Yet at the Oscars?

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis and Emory Cohen as Tony in Brooklyn.
Photo by Kerry Brown. Courtesy of Mongrel Media
Canada has only ever had one film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but this year, we could have two nominees. That lone Canuck Best Picture nominee is the 1980 Canada-France co-production Atlantic City, which we dubbed the “forgotten" great Canadian film” during Canada Day celebrations. The feat has yet to be repeated despite ample peripheral contenders and nominees in other categories. The last big years Oscar-wise are 2007’s Best Actor nomination for Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Julie Christie and Sarah Polley’s double-whammy for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, respectively, for Away from Her, or the triple threat of Best Foreign Language Film for Incendies, Monsieur Lazhar, and War Witch from 2010-2012. This year looks to correct that gap. The power of the Canuck co-pro stands strong this year, too, as the Canadian-Irish co-production Room and the Canadian-Irish-British co-production Brooklyn are both shaping up to be formidable contenders to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar—if not to win.

Like Atlantic City, neither Room nor Brooklyn is set in Canada, although all three films were shot in Canada, either in part or in their entirety. Room, based on the excellent book by Irish-born Canadian author Emma Donoghue, is sometimes carless with its American setting since the shoot itself barely tries to hide the Toronto cityscape. The film stars Brie Larson alongside Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay as the eight-year-old Jack with Canuck character actors Wendy Crewson and Tom McCamus adding ample Can Con alongside the star-power provided by William H. Macy and a heartbreaking Joan Allen. The film is a majority Canada-Ireland co-production with Irish director Lenny Abramson at the helm. Regardless of credits or surface, Room is tangibly Canadian enough to give Canuck filmmakers and film goers a pull of pride as it rises in popularity since its win of the People’s Choice Award at TIFF earlier this year. Word of mouth remains strong and audiences continue to connect with the film, which is now in theatres.
Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room.
Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg, courtesy of A24

Brooklyn, on the other hand, uses old Montreal as a stand-in for 1950s Brooklyn. Canadian filmmakers have a long history of transforming their backyards as stand-ins for America in the derivative Hollywood garbage that shoots here to save thirty cents on the dollar (for which we are no doubt thankful!) and it’s nice to see the effort pay off with such a lovely film. The only familiar Canadian face is Mad Men star Jessica Paré in a minor role as the watchful manager of a department store, but the film features ample Canadian actors in bit parts and Canuck crewmembers in key creative roles. Brooklyn bears a Canadian contribution just shy of thirty percent, making it a minority co-pro, but the film gives a story that forms the backbone of history and heritage for countless Canadians. It’s a tale of migration, of finding a home elsewhere and taking pride in one’s heritage within the larger cultural mix. Star Saoirse Ronan, giving a mature performance in her first performance as an Irish character despite nearly a decade of work, thinks Brooklyn has as much in common with Canada and Quebec as anywhere.  Speaking to the National Post, Ronan related the Irish to the Québécois, saying, “They’re very proud of where they come from and they’re very much their own people, which I love. I really respect that.” Like Canada’s own Oscar nominee Incendies, Canuck co-productions like Brooklyn enjoy a global reach while remaining relevant at home.

Both Room and Brooklyn have ample chance at going head-to-head in a few races, like Best Picture, Best Actress (Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn),  Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen and Julie Walters), and Best Adapted Screenplay, which gives Canadian films more exposure than ever come Oscar night. Canada’s chance for Oscar gold at the 88th annual Academy Awards, however, doesn’t end with Room and Brooklyn. Canuck contenders are everywhere, which means 2015 could be the year of the Canadian film across the board come Oscar night.

Here’s a look at the Canucks in contention heading in to this year’s Oscar race.

Saoirse Ronan, Jim Broadbent and Jessica Paré in Brooklyn.
Photo by Kerry Brown. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.


Brooklyn has been in the Oscar conversation since Sundance, but only recently did pundits start taking it seriously as a major contender with writers openly underestimating it for its perceived simplicity. Top Oscar watchers now have it on the radar to win. Critics increasingly jump on board with an impressive 88score on aggregator Metacritic. Simply put: people love it. This wonderful film is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination for Saoirse Ronan and a Best Adapted Screenplay bid for Nick Hornby, while a Best Picture nomination is very likely, especially since US distributor Fox Searchlight is firmly behind the film and runs the best campaigns in town, as evidenced by back-to-back wins with 12 Years a Slave and Birdman. The powerful story of migration and of one immigrant’s experience, moreover, has universal resonance and gives the film added significance in the wake of outcries following the attacks in Paris and ensuing xenophobia. (Just search ‘Brooklyn immigrants’ on Twitter to see how strongly the film connects with audiences.)

On the Canadian front, ample nominations are likely to bolster Brooklyn tally. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who really should have been nominated last year for Wild, deserves a mention for his sunny lensing of the film that finds a bittersweet hue for the two places that Eilis struggles to call home. Composer Michael Brook offers understated compositions of the kind that the Academy often finds a slot to recognize, although he has ample competition from 12-time Oscar loser Thomas Newman for his work on Bridge of Spies. Perhaps best poised are the film’s production designers and art department for seamlessly transforming Montreal into the New York borough: production designer François Séguin (The Mortal Instruments, The Barbarian Invasions), art director Robert Parle (Babine), and set decorator Suzanne Clouthier (Gabrielle).

Brooklyn is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver from Mongrel Media and expands across Canada in December.

Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Brie Larson as Ma
Photo by George Kraychyk, courtesy of Elevation Pictures.


Three Canadians can anticipate nominations for Room with one of them being for the big prize. Producer David Gross (whose The F Word made this blog’s Top 10 and Canadian Top 10 last year) could make history as the first Canadian producer to win an Oscar for a Canadian film. Room has mixed elements that make it Best Picture material, since its feel good catharsis align it with recent winners The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire, while audience endorsements from TIFF, Telluride, and other festivals show that the film plays well with audiences both exclusive and wide. The crossover appeal is there. However, the Oscars haven’t gone for a film with a female lead since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, and the trend that films with a female lead don’t usually make the cut is noticeable.

Emma Donoghue, on the other hand, has a strong chance of landing a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination or win for adapting her own book to the screen. Gillian Flynn fell short of the same honour despite being a heavy favourite for Gone Girl last year, so this year’s nominations will show if writers really devalue the effort of an author adapting her own work. Room, the book, relies heavily on the power of language and Donoghue remarkably cuts away the presence of her own language to find a cinematic equivalent that intimately connects the viewer to Jack and his mother. If Oscar voters don’t go for Steve Jobs, Donoghue’s mantle could be extra golden.

Finally, Jacob Tremblay has both the benefit and the misfortune of being campaigned as a supporting player for Room despite being the obvious lead in terms of both screentime and narrative structure. His performance is simply being downgraded because he’s a kid. As a lead, though, the extra power could give him an advantage in the comparatively thin supporting category, like Hailee Steinfeld saw for True Grit, and his compelling performance shows a wisdom beyond his years. He could easily get in either category on merit. Brie Larson has the buzz, but Tremblay carries Room.

Room is now playing in theatres from Elevation Pictures.

Felix and Meira

Felix and Meira

Felix and Meira, Canada’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category, might be the dark horse of the race. It’s a smart choice for the submission, as much as I like In Her Place, since the film already has proof that it connects with audiences thanks to over $400 000 at the US box office, which is more than past submissions Mommy and Gabrielle made in the US even after they were released with the benefit of an Oscar submission’s exposure. The understated Felix and Meira actually offers a fine complement to Brooklyn with its bittersweet love story that transcends cultures as Meira, a woman in Montreal’s Jewish quarter (Hadas Yaron), falls in love with old stock Quebecer Felix (Martin Dubreuil) and is forced to choose between the life she knows and the force that pulls her away. The film currently sits in the top ten at Gold Derby and might have a realistic shot at the January shortlist given its accessibility. US distributor Oscilloscope shows a strong effort in getting the film out to critics and voters, but it’s worth noting that they’re making the same effort with Brazil’s The Second Mother, which has more heat. (They also have Colombia’s Embrace of the Serpent.) Gold Derby currently has Felix and Meira in the top ten frontrunners in the category, just one spot shy of a nomination.

The Wanted 18
Courtesy of the NFB

The Wanted 18

Canada’s other contender for Best Foreign Language Film, and the submission that I’m currently rooting for, it’s the flat-out brilliant NFB co-production The Wanted 18, which is Palestine’s submission. This ingenious and hilarious recreation of history mixes live action interviews with animated flights of fancy that give voice to eighteen cows that played a role in the First Intifada. Documentaries and films in general just don’t show the same originality of vision that The Wanted 18 does, so here’s hoping that the Foreign Language Film committee has no beef with it. The film also sits on the list of 124 documentary features submitted for consideration, but it is notably absent from the list of animated features in contention, presumably due to the percentage of live action footage.

How to Change the World

A Gay Girl in Demascus: The Amina Profile and How to Change the World

Two other documentary features on the list of contenders are The Amina Profile and the Canada/UK co-pro How to Change the World. Both films are NFB efforts and have been enjoying success on the festival circuit since Sundance. The Amina Profile impresses with its relevant catfish story and investigation that might appeal to fans of last year’s winner Citizenfour, while How to Change the World probably stands a better chance since voters more familiar with Greenpeace are likelier to see it out of curiosity. Both films are impressively assembled with The Amina Profile finding the pace of a thriller and Change taking a laudably objective stance on a controversial subject. The former film is a long shot, but one shouldn’t be surprised if Jerry Rothwell’s How to Change the World makes December’s fifteen-film shortlist since it’s popped up here and there in doc awards so far.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Doc Shorts

Canadian films hold a twenty-percent share of the shortlist for Best Documentary Short Subject with My Enemy, My Brother by Ann Shin (which you can watch in full here) and the Canada/UK co-pro Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah by Adam Benzine making the cut. Both films sit well in the race with strong festival runs with My Enemy, My Brother winning Best Short at Traverse City and most recently hitting up Toronto’s Regent Park Film Fest, while Lanzmann holds an honourable mention from Hot Docs. Lanzmann is the only of the shortlisted shorts to earn nominations at both the CinemaEye Honours and International Documentary Association awards, although fellow shortlistees Body Team 12 and Last Day of Freedom also made the cut at the latter.

Carface (Auto Portraits)
Courtesy of the NFB

Animated Shorts

Another shortlist with 20% Canadian content! Hurrah! Yesterday’s announcement of the shortlist for Best Animated Short includes two NFB films, If I Was God and Carface (Auto Portraits). Canadian films, especially NFB ones, tend to do well in this category. Me and My Moulton holds the most recent nomination while both Dimanche and Wild Life gave Canada a strong presence in the category in the 2011 race. We’ll keep you posted on these films as the race evolves!

These films are the main Canadian films in legitmate contention for Oscar nominations, but wouldn't it be fun if voters got creative? Why not The Forbidden Room for Best Director and a slew of technical awards? How about Bang Bang Baby for Best Original Song? There are also Canucks like Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Ellen Page (a long shot for Freeheld), Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), Howard Shore (Spotlight), and Mychael Danna (The Good Dinosaur) in the running for major recognition. Any takers?

What Canadian films do you think have the best Oscar odds?