April 29 marked Canada’s first National Canadian Film Day, which has sent me into a sea of Mountie-centric distraction – not for the flocks of Canadians who headed south (more than you’d ever believe), but for the rich cinematic history nestled north, and one of the big reasons I ultimately settled in the land of Scott Pilgrim.
There’s something really special about Canadian talent, which has given us the humour* of SCTV and Kids in the Hall, the crazy, shivering brilliance of David Cronenberg, the classics of Norman Jewison, the quiet impact of Atom Egoyan, or the massive, modern talent of Sarah Polley – the names that toe the border between nations, creatives that are only part of a greater whole.
I’m often found griping at my friends up here in Toronto who haven’t indulged in the insanity that is Guy Maddin, the humour of Don McKellar, the range of Bruce McDonald, or Jean Marc Vallee’s cinematic life before Matthew McConaughey and The Dallas Buyer’s Club.
Working without the massive Hollywood dollars, it’s not always polished as American output. Canadian action hits might contain French (Bon Cop, Bad Cop), or delve into the beautiful ice battles in hockey (Goon). They might actually show Toronto for the city it is, and not the unnamed backdrop of Orphan Black, or numerous American cities like Manhattan (American Psycho) and Chicago (Chicago). They’re idiosyncratic, fun, dark, troubling, often funny, and quite frankly, a must for anyone who loves film.
Let the following be a test of your Canadiana, from the more obvious to the quite rare, while you can see what Canadian movies best refelect your personality, eh?
*When talking about Canadian cinema, one should use the proper Canadian spelling.
The Saddest Music in the World
There’s something utterly wonderful about a man whose “mainstream” film with IFC detailed a Depression Era music contest where people journey to wintry Winnepeg to share their saddest songs and slide into vats of beer while Isabella Rossellini looks on with glass legs full of brew. It’s the peppily absurd distant cousin of Lynch’s surrealism, one whose artistry is matched by its comedy.
It also boasts the best supplemental material ever made. When Guy Maddin was exhausted after filming, IFC wanted him to make a bunch of shorts that made the filmmaker angrily submit: “I’ll make you Sissy Boy Slap Party! It’ll just be a bunch of boys slapping themselves silly, until someone finally parks a bicycle in the up-turned buttocks of one of them and see how you like that!” And he did:
Poetry in Motion
Before Grass and Comic Book Confidential, Toronto Documentarian Ron Mann immortalized North American poetry of the early ‘80s with Poetry in Motion. Each plays with words and theme in deliciously diverse ways, and Mann hops from setting to setting, revealing the performance, and casual communication of the art form, from Helen Adam’s recitation in a book-stuffed room, to the Four Horseman’s sound poetry on a wood-paneled set also shared by late poet Jim Carroll, before Charles Bukowski talks in his weathered living room.
This is the feature that made me really fall in love with Canadian film. As writer/director Don McKellar tells it, Last Night was meant to be part of a larger collective of films detailing the coming Y2K, only he misunderstood the assignment, picturing instead a Melancholia-esque end of the world where interpersonal communication trumps meteor-destroying heroics. The film’s cast is full of Canadian talent, from Sandra Oh to Cronenberg and McKellar himself, but it really thrives on the mix of despair and humour as he shoots a manic (but still politely Canadian) look at The End.
It started as a male-centric riff between scribe Daniel MacIvor and Pontypool filmmaker Bruce McDonald, until it got a shot of estrogen and became the painfully beautiful swan song for late actress Tracy Wright. She was diagnosed with cancer, and the production was sped up, creating an intimate but no less powerful look at two rock’n’roll musicians (with Molly Parker) who reunite for one night and see all of their angst boil to the surface with each passing moment.
Year of the Carnivore
Before she was “The Mother,” Christin Milioti was Sammy Smalls, a grocery store detective who tracks down shoplifters. She falls for a cute musician, who ultimately rejects her because of her sexual inexperience. Naturally, she wants to rectify the situation, so she sets out gain the sexual experience that will “unleash her inner femme,” and get her back into his pants. Its subject matter might not be so surprising if you know that it came from Sook Yin Lee, who unhinged herself sexually for John Cameron Mitchell’s sexual explosion known as Shortbus.
A Girl is a Girl
The super-rare pick of the bunch, A Girl is a Girl is the 1999 debut feature of longtime editor and filmmaker Reginald Harkema (he’s been involved in everything from his recent film Leslie, My Name is Evil to his editorial work on films like Last Night and Goon). It follows Trevor, a ‘90s slacker type who flits from relationship to relationship, finally finding the right girl, until his ex and obsession returns and sets his romantic life into upheaval. It’s a sweet encapsulation of the era, one whose indie DIY feel almost makes it feel like a documentary into the past.
One thing this list makes abundantly clear about much of Canadian film (and my taste) is how much merges strange juxtapositions into beautiful results. Before Vallee headed to the Oscars, he filmed the French-Canadian film C.R.A.Z.Y., detailing the world of Zachary, whose name along with his brothers spells out Patsy Cline’s big hit (hence the periods). Born on Christmas Day 1960, his mother thinks he is a miracle healer, and the boy is caught between his mother’s coddling and his fight to please his father while coming to terms with his homosexuality as he ages from child to adult.
Jay Baruchel doesn’t always hang out with Seth Rogen and his crew. Sometimes he heads back up north for a little Canadiana, like his strange 2009 flick, The Trotsky. Baruchel plays Leon Bronstein, a high school kid who claims to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. When his dad gets tired of his shit and sends him to public school, he heads into battle against the Principal (Colm Feore) by trying to unionize the students against him … while obsessing over a law student he’s sure he is destined to marry because of how she fits into his Trotsky-esque life. Down south, it’s weeds and dragons, up north it’s Marxist obsession.
Breakfast with Scot
Before Goon explored sexuality and hockey enforcement, director Laurie Lynd offered up an exploration of identity and masculinity with Breakfast with Scot. Ed/The Following actor Tom Cavanagh plays Eric, a closeted gay hockey player-turned-sportscaster whose private relationship with sports lawyer Sam (Royal Pains) is threatened with the arrival of the latter’s surprise nephew, Scot. He’s a flambouyant and lovable kid who forces the pair to reexamine their lives the importance of having a macho exterior. (And yes, that’s Anne of Green Gables in the trailer.)
The F Word
Finally, there’s the Daniel Radcliffe film that’s making its way to screens soon.
Note: The Powers That Be stateside decided to change the name to the sadly generic What If, but it will remain The F Word in Canada, so we’re sticking with that title. Anyway…
Radcliffe plays a med school dropout who is super angsty about romance and life until he meets and falls in love with his new friend, Chantry (the ever awesome Zoe Kazan). It’s a sweet rom-com, but also a great comedy full of quotable dialogue, which is no surprise considering the fact that upcoming Star Wars star Adam Driver plays Radcliffe’s sounding board, and Goon’s (yes, again) Michael Dowse directed it.
The film hits theaters on August 1, and if you hate the new title, be sure to the PTB know.