2018 in Review: The Best Canadian Films of the Year

Meditation Park, Anthropocene, Mary Goes Round, Kingsway, The Fall of the American Empire and Cardinals are some of 2018's best Canadian films
It is harder and harder to see a Canadian film in a Canadian theatre these days. And I hate to say it, but many of the Canadian movies that actually find space on big screens are not good. However, there are some real gems in between the schlocky horror flicks, lo-fi comedies about thirtysomething males, and cheap Canadian movies four-walling a theatre simply to meet their funding requirements.

The best Canadians films of 2018 didn’t rarely opened theatrically in Toronto, which says a lot about the state of affairs given the huge culture of cinephilia in the country’s most populous city. As the Canadian film scene moves towards more micro-budget releases, which often only inspire micro-level fandom, I have concerns about the future of quality Canadian moviegoing. Of the year’s ten best Canadian films, only Anthropocene had a theatrical release that exceeded blind-and-you’ll-miss-it brevity. Perhaps we just have to accept that theatrical releases only serve as wedges to gain coverage in advance of home viewing.

We also failed to ignite any interest in our national cinema with an Oscar submission that completely missed the mark (Chien de garde). Oscar-wise, we had a vastly superior offering (The Fall of the American Empire) that was passed over despite having a) an Oscar winning director in top form b) production values worthy of a wide audience and c) an eager distributor in the USA that was ready to fight for it. To an extent, I think ageism is a factor in the Canadian scene with many of the top directors being passed over for weaker options. When the new Denys Arcand film doesn’t open in Canada’s biggest city, that’s a problem.
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This list of the ten best Canadian films of 2018 highlights a range of voices and stories from coast to coast with talents from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. While it doesn’t feature some of the more popular festival films, I have to admit that as much as I liked the Andrea Arnold-ishness of Firecracks and the cultural significance of Edge of the Knife, I just wish they were strong enough to merit the buzz. For me, the better films this year emphasized the significance of strong writing, engaging characters, and great performances, which can carry a film regardless of its scope or budget. (But without which, a film, especially a small one, is bound to suffer.) This list includes a mix of veterans and newcomers, dramas and documentaries, festival films and theatrical releases. Due to the aforementioned problems with moviegoing in Canada, this list openly plays fast and loose with eligibility to include films released either theatrically or at festivals in 2018. (Please note that Lesaffamés isn’t here because it was a 2017 film.)

Without further ado, here are the ten films that give the most optimistic outlook for Canadian film:

(Dir. Renée Beaulieu

Ooh, la la! Les Salopes has more sex than a boxed set of Bleu Nuit, but it packs even more brains than boobs. This unreservedly feminist take on women’s sexuality features a tour de force performance from Brigitte Poupart as Marie-Claire, a dermatological researcher who specializes in the science of human desire—and prefers “hands on” research. Poupart gives a voracious turn that emphasizes the normalcy and naturalism of middle-aged sexuality in a film peppered with curves and cellulite. Director Renée Beaulieu doesn’t take the subject lightly and offers challenging perspectives on sex that reject comfort and implication. Les Salopes is raw, brave, and carnal—and fearless in its frank depiction of sexuality.

(Dir. Ron Mann)

While most rockumentaries crank up the volume to 11, Ron Mann dials it down to a mellow simmer with Carmine Street Guitars. This swell music doc is “acoustic” in cinematic terms as Mann profiles the legendary Greenwich Village music shop and its proprietor Ricky Kelly. The aging music lover makes signature artisan guitars played and celebrated by everyone from café strummers to A-list stars. Mann’s doc steps back and slows things down as Kelly, a man of few words, gabs about music with his apprentice Cindy and the cavalcade of rock stars who pop in to the shop. The film evokes an era when proprietors had friendly, personal interactions with customers that were about more than just the upsell and when relationships between merchants and guests were built on more than loyalty points and franchise recognition. Carmine Street Guitars fondly observes the last of a rare breed.

(Dir. Molly McGlynn)

Molly McGlynn makes a rewarding feature directorial debut with Mary Goes Round. McGlynn shows with this portrait of a wayward young woman named Mary (a terrific Aya Cash) who is a hot mess while transitioning to the adulting phase. There’s a lot to Molly Goes Round that marks McGlynn as a natural talent beginning with her confidence with her actors to carry a story and explore their characters’ vulnerability. The film has these extra beats that let the performances breathe and everyone from the star to the smaller supporting players tap into McGlynn’s sobering portrait millennial directionlessness both humorously and authentically. Good comedy is too rare in the Canadian film scene and McGlynn has a knack for creating films that are funny with characters who actually feel real.

7. 1999

(Dir. Samara Chadwick)

This haunting and lyrical study of memory and trauma poetically conveys the elusiveness of language we face while confronting grief. Director Samara Chadwick—who, full disclosure, is a POV board member (but was not when we first covered it)—returns to her high school in Moncton, New Brunswick, which was rocked by a wave of suicides in 1999. Chadwick and her former classmates and teachers reflect on their inability to articulate the pain they experienced at the time and the film’s wonderful interplay of English, French, and Chiac languages further conveys this struggle. Chadwick finds in visual language what her peers cannot put into words as prisms and video games refract memories and bring the spirits of the dead into the film. This extraordinary doc is a valuable tool for any teen or adult to know that someone else feels the pain they can’t put into words.

(Dir. Grayson Moore, Aidan Shipley)

Wow, Sheila McCarthy is good in Cardinals. The veteran star of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing delivers her best performance with a masterfully restrained portrayal of Valerie, a woman who returns home after spending several years in prison for killing her neighbour. Without malice or remorse, Valerie resumes her life in the same house in the same neighbourhood with (mostly) the same neighbours. McCarthy creates an enigmatic character as Cardinals reveals little about Valerie while deftly unfolding more of the story about the woman’s family and neighbours in the events leading up to the incident that put her in jail. Smartly plotted by newcomers Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley and brilliantly acted by McCarthy and her co-stars, including Noah Reid, Katie Boland, Grace Glowicki, and Peter MacNeill, Cardinals is an intricate puzzle that simmers. As each piece falls into place, it comes together to convey a greater portrait of suburban malaise and one woman’s refusal to be complacent.

(Dir. Pascale Plante)

One of the smartest and most intimately crafted debut dramatic features of the year, Fake Tattoos puts Pascale Plante atop the list of new Canuck talent to watch. Plante’s confidence with the script and the actors ignites the natural chemistry between the two leads in this story of young love. Actors Anthony Therrien and Rose-Marie Perrault essentially deliver a two-hander of a film as outsiders in the indie music scene. Handheld shots afford documentary-like realism that jibes with the natural grove and language of the film. The soundtrack is especially effective with sparse music filling the silence through powerful song choices like Amélie Nault’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” giving Fake Tattoos a fresh, alternative voice to go against the grain of romantic movies.  The film pulses with the vitality of a new generation asserting its place in the scene.

(Dir. Jennifer Baichwal, Ed Burtynsky, Nick de Pencier)

I hate to call Anthropocene “beautiful,” but it is. The end of the world hasn’t looked this good since Melancholia and one can only sit in dumbstruck awe as Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky conclude their epic environmental trilogy with a forceful call to action. After Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, the trio expands their essayistic mediation on the devastating effects of human activity on the environment and the sheer scale of the images of environmental destruction eclipse many of the sights within their previous works. Anthropocene’s canvas of horrifying images gives audiences firsthand evidence of their complicity in the world’s decline. It’s also a visually compelling reminder—almost overwhelmingly so—that it’s our responsibility and our responsibility alone to enact rapid change.

(Dir. Denys Arcand)

The great Denys Arcand stages a terrific comeback by revisiting the American Empire series. The veteran director returns with the incendiary conclusion the series deserves following The Decline of the American Empire, the Oscar winner The Barbarian Invasions, and the original final film in the series, Days of Darkness. The dark days of the Trump era are great inspiration for filmmakers, particularly voices like Arcand who thrive by engaging in critical analysis of power, class, and capital. His latest film is a darkly funny moral fable that features Alexandre Landry as a PhD student who turns to crime when his pursuit of higher learning simply can’t provide in a culture that doesn’t value intelligence. Filled with unabashedly intellectual musing and philosophical banter, the film sees a master in his element. Fall proves that the even the worst of times can inspire greatness in the best artists.

2. Meditation Park

(Dir. Mina Shum)

A hidden gem that got lost with a poorly timed release amidst award season heavyweights, Mina Shum’s Meditation Park is a treasure of a film worth seeking out. The film boasts a trio of great performances with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Chang Pei-Pei giving a heartbreaking turn as a woman who reflects upon the life she built for her children in Vancouver when she discovers her husband (Tzi Ma) is having an affair. Sandra Oh compassionately plays their daughter, Ava, and steals every scene she’s in as she reunites with Shum to revisit the themes of family, culture, representation, agency, and heritage with which they broke out in 1994’s Double Happiness. Shum once again provides a rich slice of life portrait of Vancouver’s Chinatown community and her respectfully humane representation of Canada’s immigrant population reminds a viewer that she is among the country’s most vital filmmakers.

(Dir. Bruce Sweeney)

It seemed like every other Canadian film this year was some cheap introspective dramedy about a middle-aged white guy who found himself with the aid of a second-rate Manic Pixie Dream Girl. When the first few minutes of Kingsway seemed to suggest another entry to the canon, the film completely took me by surprise and turned that familiar trope on its head. Instead of watching a film I’d seen too many times before this year, Kingsway had its thirtysomething sad sack, Matt (Jeff Gladstone), take a seat while his sister Jess (Camille Sullivan) proved to be by far the most interesting and well-rounded character in a Canadian film this year. Sullivan is extraordinary as Jess explores her the anxieties of approaching middle age while looking for love that are often only afforded to male characters in the movies.

Vancouver-based director Bruce Sweeney came out of hiding this fall and returned vigorously with this dysfunctional family dramedy. Kingsway is a fine companion piece to Sweeney’s 2001 award winner Last Wedding with its zany family domestic woes anchored by realistic scenarios and raw performances. Sullivan’s top-notch turn is deftly aided by co-stars Colleen Rennison and Gabrielle Rose who join forces to create a hilariously heartbreaking trifecta of strong and complicated women. The unsung star of Kingsway is the city of Vancouver itself and the zany strip of road that, like the characters, moves sideways in a landscape that demands order, but generates chaos. Kingsway made me laugh and it made me cry with its down to earth sense of humour, moving soundtrack, and roster of relatable characters brought vividly to life by actors who looked deep within themselves and shared their vulnerability with the audience. This is what great independent filmmaking is all about!

Honourable mentions: The Drawer Boy, The Fireflies Are Gone, Freaks, The Go-Getters, Maison du Bonheur, Prodigals, Sharkwater Extinction, The Stone Speakers, Take LightWhat Walaa Wants, You Are Here: A Come From Away Story

Next up: The best performances of 2018.