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30 Essential Films For An Introduction To Canadian Cinema

19 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Sanda Kazazic

best canadian films

Geographic proximity of USA and Canada, as well as Hollywood’s dominance in the world of cinema constantly blur the lines between the cinematographies of these two countries. As American film industry is considerably stronger and richer than the Canadian one, Canadian actors, directors, producers and other film workers often end up being involved in projects South of the border and American films are frequently filmed in Canada.

When looking at significant Canadian films, spanning decades and covering a wide variety of genres, themes and styles, a more coherent picture begins to emerge. Certain not-always-so-obvious elements reveal themselves continuously – Canadian self-deprecating humor, emotionally charged drama, tight connections to various ethnicities of immigrant populations, beautiful vistas and homages to nature.

 

30. Léolo (1992)

Léolo (1992)

Directed by one of Canada’s most promising young filmmakers Jean-Claude Lauzon, Léolo is a story of a 12-year old Montreal boy called Léo Lauzon (Maxime Collin), who uses his vivid imagination and impressive ability to fantasize in order to find refuge from the craziness of his family. His brother is obsessed with bulking up because he got beaten up. His father is convinced that the secret to a healthy life lies in regular bowel movements.

His grandfather is busy playing the part of the family tyrant and that is one of his more appealing habits. His neighbour Bianca becomes the subject of a different kind of fantasy for him. Feeling lost among this assembly of bizarre characters, Léolo combines the forces of his imagination and a book he stumbles upon titled L’avalée des avalés. As a result he dreams up a new identity for himself.

Aided by the film score written by Tom Waits, Jean-Claude Lauzon beautifully conveys the surrealism of Léolo’s fractured reality in a manner that is at once dark and mesmerizing. Tragically, Lauzon died in a plane crash a few years later, leaving behind only two feature films.

 

29. Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)

Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)

David Secter’s low budget debut feature Winter Kept Us Warm became the first English Canadian film to be invited to Cannes festival. Its title borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, on the surface this film is about a friendship between two University students, Peter and Doug.

Underneath the layers of cinematic and storytelling subtleties, Winter Kept Us Warm is a ahead-of-its time gay love story. Though both protagonists seem to be leading ordinary college lives with girlfriends and parties, Secter skillfully weaves in gentle and understated moments of closeness between them.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film has Doug and Peter engage in an impromptu/spontaneous snow ball fight in the school’s yard. Accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack and “starring” a playful squirrel, this scene is just one of the examples of what makes this obscure film worth watching.

 

28. My Life Without Me (2003)

My Life Without Me (2003)

23-year-old Ann (Sarah Polley) is busy juggling her night job as a janitor with the obligations of being a mother to two girls, a wife to a good-natured but frequently unemployed Dan (Scott Speedman) and a daughter to a demanding mother (Deborah Harry), whose backyard she is living in. Her unremarkable life changes in a heartbeat as a seemingly harmless fainting spell leads to a terminal diagnosis and realization that she has only a few months to live.

Ann decides to hide this fact from her loved ones and instead makes a list of things she wants to do and experience in the time she has left. The list covers a wide range of aspects of her life – creating birthday messages for her daughters, making someone (new) fall in love with her and finding a new woman for her husband.

Despite the subject matter and in large part due to Sarah Polley’s great performance, as well as the touching chemistry between her and Mark Ruffalo, director Isabel Coixet made a tender, contemplative drama that successfully avoids being depressive.

Besides its sweet, romantic undertones, the film also features a number of unexpected moments of respite such as a fantasy scene in which the employees and customers do a little dance number in a convenience store.

 

27. Water (2005)

Water (2005)

Water is the last film in the Elements Trilogy directed by Deepa Mehta, an Indian-Canadian director. Set in 1938 India, the film focuses on the lives of widows at that time. Chuyia is 8 years old and already a widow, which means her hair gets shaved off, she is dressed in white (symbolizing her status as a widow) and sent off to live in an ashram, a place run by the widows who live there.

Chuyia befriends an attractive young widow Kalyani, the only one whose beautiful hair has been left untouched but for quite an ominous reason. Rejected by society these women are also exposed to the troubling hierarchy within the ashram and are frequently tormented by the mean spirited and feared widow in charge.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon when Kalyani meets a young student with a progressive way of thinking but is there really a possibility of a happy ending for those society has deemed unwanted and invisible? Mehta’s deeply emotional and thought-provoking film stirred quite a bit of controversy among the religious fundamentalists in India, forcing her to complete the filming in Sri Lanka instead.

 

26. Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1970)

Glenn Gould is a Canadian icon and one of the most important classical pianists of the 20th century. Written by Don McKellar and Francois Girard, who also directed it, the film blurred lines between a documentary and fictionalized biography.

Faced with a challenge of depicting someone’s lifetime and significance in under 2 hours Girard opted for the “fragmented” approach.  He offered up 32 glimpses into the life of a highly complex man merged with the soundtrack consisting of Gould’s piano recordings. Colm Feore shines in the role of the famed pianist.

Even without a single narrative uniting all its parts, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould feels like a comprehensive cinematic portrait of an eccentric artist and his love of music.

 

25. Cube (1997)

cube 1997

Director Vincenzo Natali’s debut feature Cube is a psychological horror about seven strangers who find themselves inexplicably trapped inside a deadly cubical maze. A policeman, a career criminal, an architect, a math genius, a doctor and an autistic man of unexpected talents, are forced to combine their individual skills in order to figure out how to potentially beat their surroundings.

Relying more on the elements of suspense akin to The Twilight Zone rather than just gore, this low budget film achieved worldwide success, as well as the prize for Best Canadian Debut Feature at Toronto International Film Festival.

 

24. Gabrielle (2013)

Gabrielle (2013)

Gabrielle is a French Canadian drama about the life of a young woman with Williams Syndrome, a fairly rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder marked by delayed cognitive development, extreme friendliness and frequently, musical talent. The heroine lives in a group home and nurtures her gift for music by singing in a local choir.

Writer-director Louise Archambault chose parts of her cast, including the lead actress, from Les Muses: centre des arts de la scène, an arts school for people with disabilities. With its gentle pace, documentary feel and wonderful soundtrack, the film unveils the story of Gabrielle’s attempts to gain all those things most people strive for – independence, love and sex.

 

23. Les bons débarras/Good riddance (1980)

Les bons débarras

Considered one of the classics of Canadian cinema and based on an original screenplay written by Quebecois novelist Réjean Ducharme, Les bons débarras/Good riddance is a dark, gothic tale of passion and obsession. Michelle is a single mother of 13-year-old Marion, who is willful and obsessed with having her mother’s love all to herself.  Together they live in a small Québécois village with Michelle’s “special needs” brother, Guy.

Michelle is constantly pulled in numerous directions as those around her relentlessly compete for her attention and affection. One of the people in her life is ready to take things as far as necessary in order to achieve their goal.

Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Michel Brault, the film features stunning, often sinister imagery of the Quebecois countryside. Combined with the poetic quality of the dialogue and a moving performance by Charlotte Laurier, Les Bons Debarras is one of the must see films of Canadian/Quebecois cinema.

 

22. Enemy (2013)

Enemy

Loosely based on Jose Saramago’s book The Double, Denis Villenueve’s Enemy is a haunting, existentialist erotic thriller that takes a viewer on a contemplative psychological roller coaster ride. Jake Gyllenhaal is Adam Bell, a dull history professor with an unremarkable existence.

His gloomy demeanor is evenly distributed between his teaching at a local University and his passionless relationship with girlfriend, Mary (Melanie Laurent). One night watching a film, recommended by a colleague, Adam spots a small part actor who could very well pass for his twin.

This discovery sets him on a path of trying to uncover the mystery of his doppelgänger, Anthony St. Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal). As the two characters face each other, their lives collide in a number of unexpected ways, weaving a web of sinister connections and Kafkaesque metamorphosis.

 

21. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

The role of Duddy Kravitz was the first lead role for Richard Dreyfuss, marking the beginning of a long and successful career for this now famous actor. In Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Dreyfuss plays one of his most significant roles – the role of a young Jewish man, growing up poor in Montreal and willing to do just about anything to change his situation.

Duddy’s father, a taxi driver and part time pimp, is completely invested in Duddy’s older “doctor-to-be” brother. Duddy is driven to achieve material success in order to buy a piece of land he set his sights on, believing that “a man without land is nobody.” He is full of money making ideas, some ethical, some less so. Dreyfuss’s magic lies in his ability to make an otherwise unlikable character highly sympathetic.

Based on a book written by Ted Kotcheff’s friend and novelist Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz won a number of awards, including the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival. Digitally restored version of the film was scheduled for release  on March 2 by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

 

 

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  • Jay Dobis

    Where’s HIGHWAY 61or SKIP TRACER?

  • Karine

    here is another list of 10 really badass movies from Québec that do not appear on this list

    Pour la suite du monde (1963) – Pierre Perreault
    Le chat dans le sac (1964) – Gilles Groulx
    Les Ordres (1974) – Michel Brault
    Un zoo la nuit (1988) – Jean-Claude Lauzon
    Le temps des bouffons (1993) – Pierre Falardeau
    Yes sir! Madame… (1994) – Robert Morin
    Quiconque meurt, meurt à douleur (1998) – Robert Morin
    20h17 rue Darling (2003) – Bernard Émond
    Nuit #1 (2011) – Anne Emond
    Le météore (2013) – François Delisle

    • Stan Moyer

      Thank you for this list. I hope to find at least some of these on or through Netflix.

      • Patrice Drapeau-Bisson

        Le Chat dans le Sac is on the NFB website

        • Stan Moyer

          A late “Thank You” for this info!

    • Brian Lussier

      Le Chat Dans Le Sac and Les Ordres. The rest are pretty average.

      • Xavier Arpin-Delorme

        You definetly dont know your cinema if you think Pour la suite du monde, un zoo la nuit or Yes sir! Madame are “average” Those three had a HUGE influence in North America and Europe film makers

    • Xavier Arpin-Delorme

      I add
      A tout prendre (1964) – Claude Jutra (so overlooked)
      15 février 1839 (2001) – Pierre Falardeau
      J.A. Martin, Photographe (1977) – Jean Beaudin
      La face caché de la Lune (2003) – Robert Lepage

      😉

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    My American Cosin, Speaking Parts, Cruling, History of Violence. Leolo should be #1.

  • Ivan Milke

    without

    Waydowntown (2000)
    waydowntown is a film directed by Gary Burns, released in 2000 which explores office driven culture. The film takes place in Calgary, Alberta, where many downtown buildings are connected by a network of skywalks called Plus 15.

  • Mélanie Morrissette

    Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was made in 1993, not 1970!

  • Brian Lussier

    I think it’s important to distinguish between actual Canadian films, and films made by Canadian filmmakers. As an example, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises is mainly a British-financed film that was also shot in England, and therefore a mistake to call it an actual Canadian film. Would Dallas Buyers Club be considered a Canadian film because its director is Canadian? No, it’s an American production. Same for others here. Glad to see The Sweet Hereafter at #3, it’s my favorite Canadian film. Such a loss to cinema, and especially Canadian cinema, that Atom Egoyan has fallen to mediocrity recently. Hopefully he’ll get back on track and revive his career.

  • Christian Whittall

    uh … Going Down the Road, doncha think?
    https://youtu.be/FPFAAGC0Jxo

  • Andy Schmarten

    Last Night