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Top 10 Canadian movies of the decade

Brian D. Johnson reveals his favourites from the past 10 years


 

Using the Genie Awards criteria, I’ve confined the list to Canadian productions or co-productions. Not eligible are movies merely directed by Canadians, such as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Juno, Up in the Air and Avatar.

10. Manufactured Landscapes (2007)
Travelling to China, director Jennifer Baichwal looked over the shoulder of photographer Edward Burtynsky as he found haunting beauty in epic landscapes of industrial ruin and mass production. The film is a portrait of the artist, a magnification of his already larger-than-life art, and an exercise in perspective that shows us the moving picture outside his frame. Cinematographer Peter Mettler, whose Gambling, Gods and LSD almost made this list, holds his own with Burtynsky in composing visual poetry. Another film about manufactured landscapes that’s equally deserving is Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2008), a documentary on China’s Three Gorges Dam.

9. Polytechnique (2009)
Dramatizing the 1989 Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique might appear to be impossible and unadvisable. But Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve—whose Maelström and La turbulence des fluides narrowly missed ending up on this list—pulled it off with a stark, contemplative film that explores the horror without exploiting it. Filming in black-and-white, but mostly shades of wintry grey, largely ignoring the killer, Villeneuve focuses on two composite students. My colleague Mark Steyn suggested the film was an apology for the passivity of the men, concluding “you can’t make art out of such a world.” But like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Villeneuve’s art succeeds precisely because, unlike Steyn, he doesn’t mine the tragedy to draw a moral lesson.

8. Water (2005)
Following Fire and Earth, Deepa Mehta’s gorgeous period romance finessed a complex trilogy about women’s oppression in India, and it’s her finest film. Although it’s an unabashed romantic melodrama, it’s composed with an elegant eye and subtle, well-grounded performances. Water also performed a rare feat—a subtitled Hindi-language film became a box-office success in this country, then went on to get an Oscar nod, reminding us that popular Canadian cinema doesn’t have to be in English or French, or even shot in this country.

7. Spider (2002)
It’s the last film David Cronenberg shot before making a more mainstream breakthrough with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. It’s relentlessly bleak, and it’s no surprise that virtually no one saw it. But Spider, starring a gnarly Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic who arrives at a halfway house after 20 years in institutions, is a brilliant psychological drama. With its chilling tableaus of industrial landscape, it’s also a fine-tuned portrait of the repressed desire and quiet desperation that are embedded like mildewed wallpaper into the English psyche.

6. Dying At Grace (2003)
Allan King, who died last year, was one of the world’s great vérité documentary filmmakers, making his name with excoriating portraits of raw psychology, such as Warrendale and Scenes of a Marriage. With Dying at Grace, like an explorer plumbing the outer limits of human experience, he takes the camera to a place it’s never been, as he films patients breathing their last breath in a palliative care ward. The film is not easy to watch, but there’s not a whiff of voyeurism. King, a director who makes a virtue of his own invisibility, gives us a work of pure cinema and captures the dying of the light.

5. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée achieved a rare combination of wild artistic ambition and box-office success with this ’60s story about a young man growing up in working-class Montreal, infatuated with David Bowie, and struggling with his sexual identity. In the tradition of Léolo, it’s a poetic coming-of-age story set in the cultural vortex of Quebec’s not-so-Quiet Revolution, where Catholicism and psychedelia combine like nitroglycerin. Vallée took a huge gamble by building a major scene set in a church on Sympathy for Devil, then paid the Stones a small fortune for the rights—which still did not include America, thus thwarting U.S. distribution. Pity. Showing remarkable versatility, Vallée went on to direct a very different period film about a troubled adolescent, The Young Victoria.

4. My Winnipeg (2008)
Unfolding as an Oedipal fever dream, Guy Maddin’s love-hate portrait of his hometown mixes surreal memoir, faux documentary and actual documentary. With such seamless trompe l’oeil, it’s downright impossible to know, or care, which is which. That “archival” shot of horses frozen in the ice of the Red River looks so convincing. All of Maddin’s work is witty, virtuosic, and teeming with ideas, but this is his one masterpiece that is also utterly accessible, deeply moving, and laugh-out-loud funny.

3.  Barbarian Invasions (2003)
Reuniting actors from The Decline of The American Empire, it’s Denys Arcand’s finest work. Sometimes, Arcand lets intellectual ambition upstage emotion, but this symphonic ensemble piece moves gracefully from sweeping social satire to tender tragedy. The terminally-ill woman who seeks to end her life in the company of her friends, Marie Josée Croze, is a revelation.

2. Away From Her (2007)
Such an unlikely feat. While still in her 20s, Sarah Polley made her feature directing debut with an intimate tale of elder romance that drew pitch-perfect, career-capping performances from Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. Adapting and expanding on Alice Munro’s story, it’s one of those rare CanLit adaptations that works. Unlike most of the other titles on this list, it’s a conventional, unadorned narrative. But with its oddly uplifting story of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who forgets she has a husband, it is more exotic than it sounds. Polley locates a core of indelible romance in the heart of a vanishing marriage.

1. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2002)
If we go to movies to take us somewhere we’ve never been before, this was one from a place movies have never been before. With his feature debut, Zacharias Kunuk gave us the world’s first Inuit feature, an epic of Shakespearean breadth framed by an Arctic landscape tailor-made for the wide screen. Fusing dramatic and documentary techniques, Kunuk wove his story from legends related by elders, and drew on professionals and non-actors to bring an ancient legend vividly to life. Both a gripping action movie and a sublime meditation, Atanarjuat unfolds with a sense of real time and boundless space.


 

Top 10 Canadian movies of the decade

  1. Honourable mention goes to Bon Cop Bad Cop. I thought that film was hilarious!

    • I would also add Way Downtown to the honourable mention category.

      Great example of guerilla filmmaking.

  2. Brian, did you even watch Les Invasions Barbares? Marie-Josee plays a junkie hired by Remy's son to score heroin and help Remy take the drugs when the hospital system is unable to provide appropriate palliative care.

    Remy is the one dying of cancer, and is most assuredly a man. The whole point of the movie is to reunite the characters from Decline of the American Empire, Remy's lovers, friends, and their respective families.

    • Hey, you're right. I haven't even seen the movie (the DVD sits on my shelf — I am such a sucker for discs under eight bucks in the bin…) and I've heard enough about the story to know that much.

      And by Hey, I mean you, Hey (not as in Hey you, or– oh never mind…)

      • You'd really like it, MYL. As Anon Liberal says, it's a true masterpiece. Also very Canadian.

        • Thanks, Jack. Guess I'll attack the "Security Device Enclosed" sticker and the cellophane.

          I am assuming I need not see Déclin before Invasions. But I am not certain. If you've seen both, do you have any thoughts on that?

          • I hadn't seen Déclin and thoroughly enjoyed Invasions.

          • It's not necessary to see Déclin first (although, by all means, do see it. It's also very good). The two stand on their own.

          • Decline is a great movie but Invasions is a masterpiece. It certainly wouldn't hurt to see Decline first, as it will just give a deeper connection to the characters.

          • I saw Invasions and loved it (and scanned the comments to this article because I too was incredulous over the inaccurate description of the film in this article).

            I am very curious why no one has acknowledged that it presents leftists and their institutions unflatteringly. Public hospitals, government unions, intellectuals indifferent to Third World slaughter and government corruption as they drink themselves to death, aging radicals with zero parenting skills.

            Doesn't a film like this make leftists make a momentary pause at Bush, Harper and Black bashing and admit that they ought to look in the mirror for a change?

  3. While walking down the aisle of yet another AC flight – everyone was watching "Away From Her." Most were wiping their eyes and all were glued to it. I found that astonishing.

    Second best airplane movie story? On a flight full of business men the double bill was "Mamma Mia!" and "Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. 2." Bizarre.

  4. A good list but I'd reverse #1 and #2. "Away From Her" is very powerful, but "Les Invasions Barbares" is a masterpiece.

  5. "my winnipeg" was crap.

    • You clearly never saw my Sarnia.

    • I can see how Guy Maddin is not everybody's cup of tea, but I loved My Winnipeg (as did my American girlfriend). As somebody who has moved out of my own hometown, I think the film spoke to a question I often ponder – what does my hometown mean to me? What is the essence of Toronto? The other, often amusing theme I enjoyed was the degree to which our memories are like film.

  6. Hatley High is not only the best Canadian movie of the decade, but the best Terran movie in history, and anyone who says otherwise is objectively wrong.

  7. What about Juno? It was Canadian-American. The director and lead actors were all Canadian. Plus it was a great film.

      • But then what's the criteria for a Canadian movie? Juno was filmed in Canada.

        • Obvious Cancon, apparently. Anything that might be tolerated and successful with an mass-market American audience is right out.

          • Wow, who is being obnoxious? The criteria was clearly set out at the top as "Canadian produced" not just Canadian directed or filmed in Canada. No one here has been insulting toward other popular movies (picking "Canadian" films is just always going to require lines to be drawn somehwere), there doesn't seem to be any need for your obnoxious attitude to the ones on this list other than a knee jerk reaction to anything you percieve to be "elitist" whether you've seen it or not.

  8. I wonder what it says about me that I have absolutely no interest in seeing 8 out of the 10 movies on this list.

    • That the nationality of a movie doesn't warp your judgment.

    • That you're pretty normal, as the broader movie-watching audience goes.

    • Well, don't leave us hanigin'. What are the two you would want to see? Inquiring Macleans commenters want to know.

  9. Not eligible are movies merely directed by Canadians.

    Seems like an arbitrary exclusion to me. American directors make movies full of non-American actors with non-American money that are still considered "American"–David Lynch, for example.

  10. I couldn't agree more with your #1 choice. "The Fast Runner" is one of the best movies I've seen, period.

  11. Actually, I'm surprised La Grande Seduction wasn't listed. Incredibly charming film and points the way to a more populist Canadian cinema.

    • Saw that one on an AC flight. I agree. I loved that one.

    • Excellent point! I loved that movie. Charming, funny, and a very down-to-earth feel to it.

  12. "I wonder what it says about me that I have absolutely no interest in seeing 8 out of the 10 movies on this list. "

    That's two more than me then…

  13. An excellent list, for the most part, Brian. The only pick I would quibble over would be "Spider". A reasonably strong film but not as good as Cronenberg's other 00's efforts: "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises". I would have replaced "Spider" with "La Grande Seduction" (as commenter mhind points out). It's a charming, heartwarming Quebecois film which really deserved more exposure and plaudits in English-speaking Canada than it received.

  14. Can somebody maybe unsticky this post so that it doesn't just sit atop all the newer stuff?

  15. Not to get all "Didn't we already go over all of this in 1999" on people but shouldn't we be waiting to make our "Greatest X of the decade" lists until this time NEXT year? You know, the end of the decade? I mean, feel free to make your judgments now, but you're basically eliminating every item from the last 365 days of the decade from the running.

  16. 'he doesn't mine the tragedy to draw a moral lesson."

    That's why it doesn't work as art, you moron. He doesn't draw a moral lesson, which is the whole point of art.

  17. I'm not sure I like Spider on the list. I found it insufferably slow, and fairly predictable.

    I think A History of Violence is probably Cronenberg's biggest feat of the decade. I like his early work – Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly, the Dead Zone and Dead Ringers all have a lot to offer. Since Crimes of the Future (a film he made as a student), I think the common element of his earlier work has been the horror of transformation. Sometimes it is physical (The Fly), sometimes psychological (Existenz, Naked Lunch); sometimes it is individual (Dead Ringers) other times it is about collective changes (Videodrome) or a bit of both (Crash). Yet in many respects I am not sure those films will stand up over time. They rely on special effects, and muddle their power with Cronenberg's overt love of weirdness. They are often weird for the sake of being weird in a way that distracts.

    With A History of Violence, Cronenberg applied restraint for perhaps the first time in his career. The movie is still very much about the theme of transformation and the idea of somebody becoming a different person. However, it is made more effective without cheesy prosthetic effects that either distract from the point, or give a film's meaning about as much nuance as an Oliver Stone/Spike Lee coproduction where Richard Nixon and George W. Bush assassinate Kennedy in a plot that has something to do with Cuba and oppressing black people.

  18. FUBAR! i cannot believe that not only did Johnson not mention it but none of you commenters did either. All English-speaking white Canadians have guys like that in their extended family. I've watched it 10 times and inflict it on foreign friends out here in the U.K. The accents, the Western Canadian happy redneck .. the mullets. I watch it whenever I feel homesick.
    There is a cultural-studies PhD thesis to be written on the persistence of the white-trash meme in Canadian culture – it unites Fubar, Wayne's World, Bob & Doug and also penetrates into Quebec with Les Boys etc.

  19. What about The Rocket? Best Canadian film IMO.

  20. and of course lord of the rings does not make the list. people have no respect for fantasy.

    • Please explain to me how a film by a New Zealand director, filmed in New Zealand with a cast of British, Scottish, New Zealand and American actors and produced by an American company with the music composed by a Canadian constitutes a 'Canadian' film??

  21. ""I wonder what it says about me that I have absolutely no interest in seeing 8 out of the 10 movies on this list. "

    That's two more than me then… "

    why not give some of them a friggin' shot before judging?

  22. You can call me pedestrian if you like, but I liked Passchendaele.

  23. I agree with Keith C, Fubar should be up there. Not to mention Porky's. This list reminds me why I haven't seen a Canadian in the past eight years. Nothing but pretentious art films and documentaries.

  24. Meatballs as well.

  25. Mr. Johson, in Barbarian Invasions, there is no terminally-ill woman, and the film doesn't show any of Marie-Josee Croze's friends… Did you see the film ?

    And Denis Villeneuve didn't do "La turbulence des fluides"… The film is by Manon Briand…

    !!?!???

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