July 1 is Canada Day, so while my compatriots are painting themselves red and perfecting their Maenadic howls, let me offer a list of ten worthy Canadian films that are mostly off the international radar (I throw my arms around you in delight if you’re a foreigner who’s actually seen any of these).
Many readers are familiar with Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire. And David Cronenberg’s body of work needs no introduction thanks to The Fly, Naked Lunch, Scanners, Crash (the other Crash!) and Videodrome. As unnatural as it is to omit Egoyan, Arcand and Cronenberg from a Canadian film overview, these directors have managed through partnerships and international funding to make their work visible abroad. They don’t need a shout-out. Nor do well-known films like Strange Brew, The Changeling and Black Christmas (the 1974 original), which have managed to find a wide audience over the years.
There’s some good weird along with the less weird below (a rare thing in our offbeat industry). Because it’s impossible to pick a mere ten films from a country’s entire output (I know each inclusion will suggest another ten omissions), the list was designed to appeal to a variety of tastes rather than make some monumental These are the best! pronouncement. I’ve tried to find something for everyone, allowing for only one film per director and noting nearest analogues to help situate the films by style or genre.
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner* (2001), directed by Zacharias Kunuk — Lovers of gorgeous, slow-moving cinema — think Malick or Tarkovsky — should appreciate Atanarjuat, Canada’s first feature produced in an aboriginal language (Inuktitut). If this strikes you as a dry description and your eye’s already edging down to the next entry, hold up — the film enraptured festival-goers around the globe, picked up countless awards, and proved that Arctic landscapes merit a cinematographer’s precision eye. Based on an Inuit legend, Atanarjuat tells the story of a skilled runner and hunter who overcomes a cruel rival for the hand of his bride — a union that leads to strife, murder and, ultimately, the need for speed on Atanarjuat’s part as he runs for his life over an ice-field in the film’s signature scene. It’s absolutely breathtaking and just one of many big pay-offs for viewers with the attention span the story demands, once it settles into its arc and begins to explain its enigmatic opening scene. This film puts me into a trance state — I’m not sure if it’s the Arctic vistas or the astonishing soundtrack (a mix of Inuit and Tuvan music), but I think it’s one of the best films born in Canada. While its subject matter, pacing and semiotic reliance on gestures and absences may not suit everyone, Atanarjuat feels as enormous as the epics of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, or the saga of Egil.
* Released as The Fast Runner in the US.
Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006), directed by Eric Canuel — It could be poor judgment to tout this movie, as some of its wit depends on viewer familiarity with the unique English vs. French tensions that incubate along the Quebec/Ontario border. Viewers who understand both languages will benefit — the film is half-French, half-English (so expect it to be half-subtitled), and its combination of humour and action/gore nods to Lethal Weapon and anticipates Hot Fuzz. But never mind influence and viewer context — it’s all about the premise: a corpse is found hanging off a highway sign marking the border between the two provinces, and authorities are left musing over jurisdiction. What else could emerge from this set-up but a buddy flick? It’s the perfect opportunity to force-team two cops at opposite ends of the region’s cultural spectrum. It also provides plenty of snark-fodder, and the casting doesn’t hurt: Colm Feore plays the coiffed, by-the-books Toronto detective, and Patrick Huard is the rough-around-the-edges Montrealer who looks like he could comfortably take on Chev Chelios (though my money’s on Chelios, in cage-match terms). Together they track down a psychokiller terrorizing the hockey community — and no snorting, you in the back. Bon Cop Bad Cop is no Die Hard, but it does show what happens to action movies when Canadian directors get their hands on budget and dynamite. It also offers well-rounded and attractive characters (including a Tricia Helfer doppelganger), good tension n’ twists, pretty car-go-booms, and flinty banter. The toppers: unrelenting satire, and dead-on yet sympathetic stereotyping of both (urban) English and French Canadians, which somehow liberates everyone in the process.
Careful (1992), directed by Guy Maddin — Maddin is our Robert Wiene, our Georges Méliès, our Leni Riefenstahl — our expressionist, surrealist, –ist director whose work sadly won’t appeal to everyone, especially people averse to 1920s and 30s cinema, which he obsessively reproduces. The man is in love with diffusion filters, monochromatic washes, intertitles and overwrought dialogue — techniques that never obliterate the contemporary layer Maddin refuses to peel off entirely. The result is imaginative and utterly unique. No one else shoots stock like Guy Maddin, and in my books that makes him noteworthy. Careful is set in an alpine village where the threat of avalanche is so extreme the locals sever the vocal chords of livestock and speak in a perpetual hush. Out of this life of restraint is born a value for prudence and conformity, to the point where all the young Tolzbad men dream of butlering in the local Gothic pile. And Gothic is nothing without incestuous lust; while Johann starts to have, you know, feelings for his mother, his betrothed finds herself involved in a love triangle with her father and her younger, prettier sister. Out of all this restraint, in other words, erupt some pretty outrageous yens and acts, but the film presents the modest face of an old silent or an early talkie, despite the Oedipal angst that drives the story. It’s also, somehow, much sweeter and lighter than I’m letting on. This is my formal request to the cinematically adventurous: please give Careful or Maddin’s better-known The Saddest Music in the World a go, and see how amazing the art of film can be.
The Confessional (1995), directed by Robert Lepage — Several things recommend this Quebecois film, the main one being lead actor Lothaire Bluteau, who helped put Canadian film on the map as the Christ figure in Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal. (For serious — I’m not discussing Canadian film ad nauseam without mentioning Bluteau. Say it with me now: Blue-Toe.) Other reasons to watch are 1) the exquisite framing of interior scenes, and 2) the way-fun references to Hitchcock’s 1953 thriller I Confess. The Confessional shifts back and forth between two time periods — 1952, when Hitchcock excited the hell out of Quebec City by setting and shooting his latest work there, and 1989, when Bluteau’s character Pierre returns home to bury his father. He also, very quickly, gets involved in a family mystery that has something in common with Hitchcock’s film. In both cases, priests go down for someone else’s crime thanks to the stranglehold of the confessional’s seal. There’s a heavy emphasis on the inescapability of the past (Pierre literally tries to paint over his family history, and fails), a critique of the Quebec Catholic Church, and a serious examination of origins. But it’s also fun just to watch Kristin Scott Thomas totter around in kitten heels as Hitchcock’s production assistant, and Lothaire Bluteau … well, just be. I could gush out another 500 words about the brilliance of Bluteau, who’s recently been settling for guest spots on Oz and 24. But he’s only one of the great players in The Confessional; the others are Quebec City itself and the Château Frontenac, the world’s most photographed hotel, whose interiors are very well used here indeed.
Cube (1997), directed by Vincenzo Natali — Cube has found an international audience among hardcore fans of SF/dystopian thrillers, but according to my informal polling, it doesn’t seem to be well-known among the general population abroad. And that’s a shame — it’s a tight little package. Viewing Cube for the first time a decade after its release may not be giving the film its full due, however, considering how popular its premise has recently become. The Lost series and the Saw franchise are especially fond of the structure: seemingly random strangers awaking in a madman’s (?) constructed environment are forced to pool talents in order to survive. But please note: Cube doesn’t share Saw’s carnographic extremes. The gore is minimal (even somewhat imaginative) and the thrills build on atmosphere and characterization rather than the protracted anguish of the victims. Not that the victims are cavalier about their circumstances; a cop, an engineer, a doctor, an escape artist and a math whiz aren’t a little stressed about finding themselves encased in a Platonic solid with booby-trapped rooms. The cube is a metaphor for god and government — not just the dicing (I kill me) hand of Chance — and, in the tradition of Kafka, who? and why me? and how come? questions give shape to the dialogue. The fickle nature of authority is explored from start to finish (the codes that guide the characters through the maze look like Canadian social insurance numbers), but Cube can just as easily be enjoyed with your brain turned off.
FUBAR (2002), directed by Michael Dowse — FUBAR has a following in Canada and came up roses at Sundance, but the dearth of entries on RottenTomatoes.com suggests it wasn’t widely reviewed in the US/UK majors. Which in turn suggests it may have eluded a lot of international viewers. I hope I’m wrong. I would in fact love to be told I’ve just wasted a spot on the list trumpeting an already-famous movie, because FUBAR is one of the tightest mockumentaries I’ve seen and does right by its primary influence, This Is Spinal Tap. It also takes Wayne’s World to the next level and out-Ronnies Ronnie Dobbs. What at first glance appears to be a roasting of head-banger culture morphs into an exploration of friendship and a meta-analysis of the filmmaker/subject relationship. FUBAR works off the Nick Broomfield palette, gradually drawing the filmmaker into his subjects’ world and exposing the tricky ethics of documentary-making and the harrowing ways the identities of the watcher and the watched slip about. More importantly, it feels real — these bangers are eerily similar to folks I’ve encountered in life. Paul Spence and David Lawrence honed their characters on the stand-up stage for some time before allowing Dowse to commit them to film, so they exist very comfortably in the skins of their alter egos. I’d go so far as to say that their spontaneity trumps the better moments of most Christopher Guest ad-libbers. The camera follows Dean and Terry and sometimes Troy as they idle around Calgary, givin’ ‘er and gettin’ fubarred and kicking at things and falling over a lot. Spence’s every twitch and motion, in particular, is precision-perfect as he improvs off his environment and revels in his raging mullet. He’s most certainly that guy, and when we learn early in the movie that he’s been diagnosed with a serious disease (“nut cancer”), the pointing-and-laughing takes a backseat to human interest, which never ceases for a moment to be funny. A movie that features a poem called “Woman is a Danger Cat” and a kind-hearted banger in a “Fuckin’ Eh!” t-shirt can’t be anything but.
Goin’ Down the Road (1970), directed by Donald Shebib — Ignore the lame-ass title. This absorbing little neorealist film has left a mark: it spawned an SCTV skit with John Candy, and it’s required viewing on Canadian film-school curricula. As part of our historical cinematic lexicon, Goin’ Down the Road was recently restored by the National Archives, but you wouldn’t know it — the latest transfer retains a washed-out aspect that reflects the story of Peter and Joey, two Maritimers who move to Toronto in search of better opportunities. Part Midnight Cowboy, part Bicycle Thief, the film is a study of the precarious lives of men without high school diplomas or five-, twenty-five- and seventy-five year plans. The camera is voyeuristic, the actors often non-professional (there are drunks onscreen who I’m convinced aren’t acting), and the final result is a time-capsule of Toronto in 1970, beehives and stubby bottles intact. Oh, and some light misogyny; Peter and Joey don’t exactly possess winning personalities, but there’s no denying their socio-political relevance as they move through a series of hardscrabble manual jobs and a lot of beer. These men are imperfect, but they earn our fondness and remind us of the complex network of factors that lead some to crime and homelessness. Shebib, who’s equally recognized for his 1965 documentary about the Satan’s Choice motorcycle gang, captures riveting moments of pure, functional cinema as the men try to articulate their existential trauma. They may not have the vocabulary, but they manage to express what many of us feel. A just-starting-out Bruce Cockburn provided part of the soundtrack.
Highway 61 (1991), directed by Bruce McDonald — Before Bruce McDonald found a niche directing episodes of Queer as Folk (US) and ReGenesis, he made three films that have reached cult status in Canada: Roadkill (1989), Hard Core Logo (1996) and Highway 61, a dark comedy about a small-town barber who agrees to drive a strange woman and a corpse from Pickerel Falls, Ontario to New Orleans — with Satan himself in pursuit. As with many low-budget indies, the acting’s a little rough and the oddness pervasive, but the scenes grow progressively stronger and funnier, by and large, as the film gets going; I’m thinking especially of the border crossing, the first encounter with the singing Watson family, and a highly quotable bingo parlour episode. Don McKellar inhabits Pokey the naïve barber with his signature twitchiness, and Earl Pastko is fulsome and unforgettable as the sinister Mr. Skin who acquires souls (?) along the route for twenty bucks, a mickey of bourbon or a bus ticket apiece. This is a road movie tinted with the Coen brothers’ fancy, and one that illuminates some of the more carnivalesque aspects of the American landscape from a Canadian point of view. It’s also a nod to the history of American music, from Delta blues to Dylan to the Ramones. Watch for a brief appearance by Jello Biafra as a sententious US customs officer.
Léolo (1992), directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon — Jean-Claude Lauzon was shaping up to be Canada’s contribution to the Jeunet-Del Toro school of directing when he died in a plane crash in 1997. His only other feature, Night Zoo, was the first “real” cinematic experience handed to me by a Canadian director — it was Lauzon who informed me that my country has an industry beyond CBC TV and National Film Board shorts. While it doesn’t reach for Eraserhead levels, Léolo is the most disturbing movie on the list. It’s notorious for not one but three infamous scenes (including one that is ten times the pie scene in American Pie). In other words, the film falls squarely into not-for-the-squeamish territory, but if you thirst for the beautiful absurd, it’s required viewing. The story is set in a bizarro Montreal where twelve-year-old Léo is convinced he’s the secret offspring of a Sicilian farmer, conceived by an imported sperm-covered pomodoro that gets lodged accidentally in his mother. You can’t blame him for dreaming, given the way mental illness runs through his family tree and overwhelms his sisters and grandfather; Léo would rather be Léolo and escape his genetic destiny altogether. His parents are obsessed, in fact, with mental and physical health, ensuring there are daily bowel movements all around. Lauzon writes lines like Baudelaire and generates an unforgettable visual canvas: insects gathered in bottles, a cowardly body-builder, a boy snorkel-hunting old fishing lures in a filthy-hazy pond, and the redoubtable Ginette Reno who, as the maternal Mrs. Lozeau, fills the screen with helpless, hectoring devotion. A beauty worth chronicling somehow emerges from the debris-strewn landscape in which Léo is forced to come of age.
Maelström (2000), directed by Denis Villeneuve — Movies about strangers connected by invisible threads or fateful moments may be wearing out their welcome, but these elements are faint enough in Maelström to overlook, should you need to. The film actually came out the same year as Amores Perros (which seems to have ignited the current fad), and I think Maelström is its only legitimate competitor so far. Besides, you’re more apt to be distracted by the film’s cycle-of-life doubling and mirroring, which is pronounced and expertly staged. Set in Montreal, Maelström presents the downward spiral of a daughter of privilege struggling through a very bad week that involves abortion, a fatal hit-and-run accident, and possible embezzlement. As bleak as it seems, Maelström is warmed by the periodic intrusion of its narrator, a (series of) talking fish on a chopping-block; there’s a heavy Czech influence on these frame-story scenes, which recall the surreal, puppet-dense films of Jan Svankmajer or Jiri Trnka. The heroine isn’t terribly likeable on paper, but the unsung Marie-Josée Croze infuses her with enough charisma and confusion to persuade us to attach ourselves to her. And the film warms several more degrees at the halfway point, when the son of the Norwegian fishmonger she killed shows up, complicating her predicament. Though viewers may quibble about probability, I’m not sure it harms the film in any way. Norway, in fact, and water and seafood (and maelstroms) are the motifs on which everything else rests, making for a beautiful movie that floats on affect while it rivets itself to its structure. It doesn’t hurt that Charles Aznavour’s Les deux guitars and Tom Waits’ The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me curl through the soundtrack periodically. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Guide to What’s Good for You series, on July 1, 2007.)