2016 in Review: The Best Canadian Films of the Year

It’s time to tap the trees and pour the maple syrup. The year for Canadian film ends on a much-needed high note as Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World makes the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film and puts Canada back in the Oscar race. This vindication for Dolan’s film highlights that there are more great Canadian films this year than most people say there are. While the overall output of Canadian film might have be lower and, comparatively, weaker than previous years, there are easily two dozen Canuck films from 2016 that go beyond. More would be better, but let’s celebrate the good.

This year also formed two narratives that need to be noted, but also challenged. One is that veterans are failing and guzzling film funds. This conversation keeps coming up and while it’s true that funding bodies need to adapt to meet the needs of emerging filmmakers, some of talents who built this industry are back in top form. It just isn’t fair to rake some of Canada’s veterans through the mud when the likes of Deepa Mehta, Bruce McDonald, and Patricia Rozema have some of their best films ever within the year’s body of great Canadian films.

Another narrative says that Canadian films are just trying to be American. This is true of films like Mean Dreams and other forgettable genre works, but there are also more distinctly “Canadian” films than ever as filmmakers from coast to coast to coast situate their films within regional settings and local character. Take Maliglutit, Two Lovers and a Bear, and Into the Forest as examples of great Canadian films that harness the power of the landscape to work against Hollywood formulas.

It’s an especially good year for documentaries, too, as non-fiction puts new voices into the mix. The NFB’s commitment to gender parity, for example, shows ample promise for the industry when some of the strongest films this year, like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk and Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology, are great because they articulate voices long absent from the conversation. The films that stand out this year are the ones that are distinct and unique. Without further ado, let’s salute the best films bearing the maple leaf in 2016. (Note: this list considers films released theatrically in 2016 and films that premiered at 2016 festivals and are set to be released in early 2017.)

The Top Ten Canadian Films of 2016:

10. Nelly

(Dir. Anne Émond)

Anne Émond might have bookended this list if I played fast and loose with release dates, but her excellent film Les êtres chers, while reviewed by this blog in January, was released theatrically in 2015. However, her new film Nelly proves that she is firmly within the new generation of great Canadian filmmakers. This hypnotic character study of author Nelly Arcan and her many characters is an intricate portrait of a complicated artist. The film blurs Nelly’s various personas in a dark kaleidoscope of the artist’s fractured psyche. As actions spill into parallel narratives and become refracted with violence and poetry, Nelly conveys how an artist draws upon her life experiences to create inspiring art, but the film also dives into the danger of living within one’s own head as Émond spins an intricate web of beauty and obsession.

Nelly screens as part of Canada’s Top Ten and opens in January.

(Dir. Pete McCormack)

Spirit Unforgettable is a music doc for the books. Pete McCormack follows Spirit of the West frontman John Mann as he experiences early onset Alzheimer’s and fights to retain his grasp of the band’s treasured songs. McCormack’s doc follows Mann as contemporary technology assists Mann’s innate musicality to preserve Spirit of the West’s songs for one final performance. The film culminates with an extraordinary performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall and when Mann forgets the words of his song and the crowd joins in for a chorus of “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not at my best,” the doc provides an unforgettable moment. This call and response between Mann and the crowd conveys the difficulty of living with such a disease, as well as the power of music that endures. The film is both moving and courageous as it shows language slip away from an artist whose way with words defined his career.

Spirit Unforgettable is now playing in Vancouver.

8. It’s Only the End of the World
(Juste la fin du monde)

(Dir. Xavier Dolan)

It’s hard to breathe during the utter hell of It’s Only the End of the World, but the unbearable sense of suffocation shows how tightly Xavier Dolan refines his direction in this claustrophobic chamber piece. It’s Only the End of the World, in the vein of August: Osage County, offers a tense family reunion as Louis (Gaspar Ulliel) returns home and his family reminds him why he left. The excellent ensemble, which includes many of France’s top stars such as Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux, are uniformly strong as the members of the family exchange un-pleasantries in an all-you-can-beat-buffet of explosive acting. The talky script uses dialogue to mask and voice the unsaid tensions that underline the family’s difficult history, and Dolan eschews his signature visual flair to zoom in up close to invade this intimate space. All this pain serves a purpose, though, as the film bridges the family saga with a powerful escape and catharsis.

It’s Only the End of the World is now in limited release.

(Dir. Deepa Mehta)

Deepa Mehta reinvents herself as a filmmaker with the bold and unconventional Anatomy of Violence. This fascinating work of art explores the social conditions that breed criminals and Mehta uses an experimental approach to drama to understand the circumstances that create and enable rape culture. By taking a real world event in which six men gang raped a woman on a bus in New Delhi, Mehta workshops with actors to interpret the backstories of the men who committed this heinous deed. Rather than create a work of fiction, though, Mehta presents the workshop footage, which sees the actors imagine elements such as childhood trauma and lateral violence to put audiences inside the minds of aggressors. Anatomy of Violence isn’t an easy film to endure, but this provocative study of the psyche blows male entitlement wide open. There are no easy explanations—or solutions—for actions this complex.

(Dir. John Bolton)

Aim for the Roses is the funnest, most flat-out ridiculous film you’ll see this year. Director John Bolton tells the bizarre tale of Vancouver composer Mark Haney who devised an ambitious conceptual album inspired by the daredevil act of Ken Carter, who tried to jump the St. Lawrence River in a rocket car. Aim for the Roses parallels flights of these two wild ones with a daredevil act of its own as Bolton creates a quasi-documentary performance piece that tells Carter’s tale using new renditions of Haney’s songs. The music is strange and completely unconventional, but the abnormalities of Aim for the Roses make it so refreshing. This authentic hybrid film is fun, strange, and brilliant.

(Dir. Patricia Rozema)

The woodlands of British Columbia offer the perfect atmosphere for dystopian despair in Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest. Rozema wanders into Margaret Atwood territory with this deep and dark tale of sisterhood set within a world on the precipice of humankind’s last stand. Into the Forest withholds the backstory from this parable, as all good stories about the fall should, and focuses squarely on the bond between two sisters, played fearlessly by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, as the re-learn basic survival skills without the conveniences of modern technology. With taut atmosphere and enthralling uses of the natural landscape and all the predators that lurk within the lush woods, Into the Forest is Rozema’s best film since Mansfield Park.

Into the Forest is available on home video.

4. Weirdos

(Dir. Bruce McDonald)

Bruce McDonald returns in top form with Weirdos. The film puts McDonald back in the terrain of the road movie and it’s just as good, if not better, than his breakthrough works of Roadkill and Highway 61. Featuring some of his strongest characters and an unabashed spirit of offbeat Canadiana, Weirdos reminds us why McDonald is one of Canada’s best filmmakers. This eclectic coming of age film stars Dylan Authors and Julia Sara Stone as young lovers Kit and Alice who, with the help of Andy Warhol, traverse the Halifax highways to escape their Podunk town. The film really comes to life, however, in its second half when they arrive at the home of Kit’s bohemian momma Alice (Molly Parker), who gives the kids the wakeup call they need. Parker owns Weirdos as Laura’s mental illness overtakes the allure of her bohemian lifestyle and Kit and Alice realise that her stories of hanging out in dumpy hotels with Andy Warhol aren’t as romantic as they seem.

Weirods is currently playing the festival circuit and opens March 17, 2017.

3. Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
(Ceux qui font la révolution à moitié ce font creuser un tombeau)

(Dir. Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie)

Graves is the wild, radical voice that the Canadian film scene desperately needs. This shock of cinema breaks every rule of the art form with its disobedient approach to culture. I love the countercultural tone of defiance and the spirit of rebellion that rings throughout the film. Directors Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie put drama in dialogue with documentary as they create a parable about four Montreal radicals making sense of their world in the aftermath of the student protests of 2012. The students become radicals and resort to unruly action, and the contrasts between archival images and dramatic episodes asks the audience what sort of route to revolution is best. When it comes to cinema, this wild, truly original approach is tops.

Those Who Make Revolution screens as part of Canada’s Top Ten and opens in February.

(Dir. Ann Marie Fleming)

Director Ann Marie Fleming gives Canada its first true animated masterpiece to call its own with Window Horses. This magical delight of a film is a spirited adventure as AMF puts her alter ego Rosie (née Stick Girl) on a trip from Vancouver to Tehran for a poetry slam and a personal journey. Sandra Oh voices Rosie and she embraces the character’s spunk and awkwardness. An impressive cast that includes Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ellen Page, Nancy Kwan, and a very funny Don McKellar joins Oh as Rosie Ming reconnects with her roots and tastes the flavours within the international cornucopia of poetry. The greatest stroke of Window Horses is Fleming’s choice to invite different artists to create unique visual interpretations for the different poems that appear throughout the film. What results is a celebration of diverse voices as the different tiles create an animated mosaic.

Window Horses screens as part of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten and opens in winter 2017.

And the best Canadian film of 2016 is...

(Dir. Tiffany Hsiung)

Is there anything more Canadian than saying sorry? We apologise for everything up to opening the door for someone else. If apologising comes so easily to Canadians, why is it so hard for others? Newcomer Tiffany Hisung tackles this question in her NFB doc The Apology, which follows three women, known affectionately as “grandmothers,” as they join other survivors in seeking an official apology from the Japanese government for the sexual assault committed against them during the Asian-Pacific War. Their stories speak of decades of pain and trauma as the grandmothers tell their families about their experiences as sex slaves, but the film is palpably cathartic as Hsiung offers an ear. Having its world premiere at Hot Docs this year on the heels of the devastating verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi case, The Apology resonates with the discussion of rape culture and women’s rights that’s exploded within the cultural consciousness. The film, above all, asks us to listen to survivors and let their voices be heard. The future of Canadian film as looks promising as Hsiung offers exactly the kind of voice of compassionate, positive, and inclusive voice that this film, and the film community, needs.

Previously in ‘2016 in Review’: The Worst Films of the Year.
Up next: The best performances of 2016!

What are your favourite Canadian films of 2016?