“If you go to film festivals long enough… it becomes clear that for political reasons, programmers are often pressured to support filmmakers from the country where the fests take place,” Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, wrote in a review of Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers earlier this year. “Venice is the wrong place to see Italian films. And when it comes to Toronto, don’t waste your time on Canadian fare.”
Many took offence to Debruge’s dismissive attitude to local programming, finding it an insult to the integrity of the programmers and the calibre of the films we make in this country. But as recently as three years ago, Debruge’s truism had merit—as any critic who had actually sat through some of those Canadian films at TIFF could tell you. The industry was truly beleaguered by expensive mediocrities and a lot of big, splashy movies that premiered in Toronto, almost as a courtesy, and went on to play nowhere else.
Things have changed. Radical new policies at Telefilm and other funding bodies have completely redefined how money is awarded to filmmakers across the country; instead of bankrolling two- or three-million-dollar epics by washed-up directors who have been phoning it in since middle age, they are now giving a few hundred thousands of dollars to dozens of different projects each, a shake-up that is already transforming the landscape of Canadian film in a fundamental way.
We have entered an era of Canadian cinema, where it’s finally possible for new and exciting voices to emerge with strange, dynamic, interesting, or otherwise compelling independent features. As a result, for the first year that I can remember, the Canadian films at TIFF are not only not to be avoided, but they are some of the best films at the festival, period.
Here six of the best Canadian films at TIFF.
A robust drama that shifts slowly into tense, throat-tightening thriller, White Lie, by Toronto-based directing duo Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, plays like The Talented Mr. Ripley for present-day Southern Ontario. This rousing film concerns Katie (Katie Rohl), a college undergraduate in Hamilton who has become the star of a lucrative crowd-funding campaign to raise money to help her fight malignant melanoma, a disease we quickly learn she doesn’t actually have. When we first meet Katie, the sympathetic cancer-faker is in way too deep already with her scam, and is justly terrified of being exposed as a liar and a fraud. Compelled to buy black-market meds from a local drug dealer (Connor Jessup) to help maintain the pretence, she soon resorts to having ersatz medical documents mocked-up and side effect-inducing injections procured, a process Lewis and Thomas relish with morbid interest, which we watched with clenched teeth and through laced fingers. As the desperation mounts, and as the cunning young woman’s efforts to prolong the charade become increasingly outrageous, the movie cleverly challenges our desire to identify with and root for its complex anti-hero. The directors calibrate the tension perfectly, and without moralizing indict an age in which, thanks to the internet and social media, the line between public and private lives has blurred, and we are all trying our best to keep up appearances.
The deserving winner of this year’s prestigious FIPRESCI Prize for the festival’s Discovery programme, Heather Young’s Murmur is a delicate and assured debut about loneliness, addiction, and our sometimes stubborn need to cling to things when we ought to let them go. Donna, a 60-year-old woman obliged to perform community service after a DUI, potters around her bleak Halifax home in a terrible void of serious human connection, trying in vain to text message her estranged daughter as she polishes off her second bottle of cheap red wine of the night; carrying out her conviction at an animal shelter, she finds herself drawn to a grizzled senior dog, Charlie, which she adopts for herself against the advice of her disapproving superiors. Donna’s plight—an awful, mundane isolation—is certainly upsetting, and I confess I spent much of the running time with a single fat tear rolling slowly down my cheek. But as a filmmaker, Young is warm and deeply empathetic, and she is adept at finding wit and humour, at locating the spark of life, in everything she’s so patiently observing. Despite the pain it bears, Murmur is often delightful, and even funny—a complicated film about a too-simple life, emotional and humanistic.
An unblinking chronicle of hook-up culture circa 2019—or better still, the definitive portrait of the modern “fuck-boy” in Toronto and beyond—Sofia Banzhaf’s frank, funny, and subtly despairing short I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain is practically the opposite of a conventional Hollywood romantic comedy, which is probably why it feels like such an honest, accurate depiction of modern romance. Traversing a minefield of loud parties and bad modernist apartments, the film follows a young woman and her rarely satisfying exploits through the bedrooms of negging bros and men with tickling fetishes, captured by Banzhaf with a fresh eye and shrewd, savvy perception.
Daniel Cockburn is one of Canada’s preeminent film essayists, and his odd, often beguiling experiments with sound and image display an extraordinarily rich familiarity with cinema history and, more than anything else, a profound love of motion pictures. God’s Nightmares, his latest short, follows up on the sly metacommentary of 2017’s The Argument (with Annotations), again using found footage from a huge range of movies to think about how movies work. This time his subject is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and over the course of its brief running time, Cockburn draws surprising connections, finds intriguing parallels, and makes observations that qualify as bona fide film criticism, all tied together with a meditative narration that playfully muses about the thoughts and fixations of the Almighty.
Kazik Radwanski has a strong claim on being Canada’s best young filmmaker, and with the bold, electrifying Anne at 13,000 ft, his third feature, he has delivered his most sophisticated work yet. Starring the Canadian actress Deragh Campbell in a fierce, ultra-dedicated performance, Anne feels at once suffocatingly intimate and realized on an enormous scale, introducing us to a struggling woman and immersing us in her pinched, pained existence as vividly as if it were the world of a blockbuster fantasy. Like Radwanski’s previous films, Anne feels both spontaneous and utterly precise, tender and totally unsparing; his unique method, which finds him shooting hundreds of hours of footage over several years, gives the film the impression of being the briefest glimpse of a life that will continue after the credits, of images that bristle outside the frame. Campbell is transformative as Anne, a woman, so to speak, under the influence. And Radwanski finds an emotional pitch, intense and unrelenting, that hovers between manic episode and nervous breakdown.
The directorial debut from successful Canadian screenwriter Karen Moore (Workin’ Moms, Mary Kills People), TIFF Short Cuts selection Volcano is a deceptively simple comedy of manners that starts blithe and soon turns into something more. When two friends committed to ignoring their own fraught relationship—both played wonderfully by actors Hannah Cheesman and Jess Salgueiro—meet for cocktails and catch-ups at Parkdale’s novelty bar the Shameful Tiki (home of the extravagant Volcano Bowl, from which the film gets its title), a tete-a-tete about a recent resort vacation soon occasions the laying-bare of resentments and the firing off of broadsides and blame. Its banter feels lived-in and relatable, and the darker drama lurking beneath the surface bubbles up at exactly the right magma’s pace.
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