This list of the best Canadian films of 2019 could have been twice as long, were I to break my own self-imposed eligibility rules. That’s because this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival delivered so many top-tier homegrown movies – Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’s White Lie, Heather Young’s Murmur, Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill – which all, for various reasons, decided to hold off on theatrical or streaming release until 2020. Oh well.
The past 12 months still delivered an avalanche of excellent work from fresh voices that those outside the festival bubble were able to see. What’s more, all the films showcased voices valiantly working against and around the limitations of a domestic industry that is eternally resource-strapped and attention-starved (a situation that may or may not improve with the forthcoming gobbling up of Cineplex by U.K.'s Cineworld).
These are the Top 10 (or so) Canadian films of 2019 and where you can watch them right now.
Firecrackers starts off with a burst of violence, and although there’s little blood in this micro-budget Canadian drama, the film is fuelled by delirious fury and often blinding rage. Its story is simple, following increasingly desperate young friends Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans) as they try to escape the confines of their small, unnamed Ontario town. Their rural dot of a hometown is populated mostly by indifferent authority figures and men who want everything but offer nothing, or worse. As Lou takes a more forceful approach to independence and Chantal eases into a state of complacency, writer-director Jasmin Mozaffari paints a devastating portrait of young women stuck at a crossroads, where neither direction is particularly hopeful. Inspired by filmmakers as disparate as Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and fellow Canadian Ashley McKenzie – but never stooping to imitating them – Mozaffari delivers a supernaturally confident feature debut. Firecrackers is not nearly as casually joyful as its title suggests, but it is absolutely as incendiary. (Available on AppleTV and VOD)
2. The Twentieth Century
And now for something completely different: Matthew Rankin’s gonzo historical epic The Twentieth Century goes where few modern Canadian filmmakers dare to tread: out-and-out comedy. A fever dream of a biopic tracing the life and loves and regrets of Mackenzie King (Daniel Beirne), Rankin’s beautiful and bizarre film has as much to say about the peculiarities of our former prime minister as it does about sexuality, shame, art, family and the porous nature of national identity. Destined to become every Canadian high school student’s favourite last-minute alternative to cracking their history textbooks (warning to teachers: absolutely do not let this film replace your history textbooks ... or maybe, actually, do just that!). (Now playing in Toronto; opening Dec. 20 in Montreal, Jan. 11 in Winnipeg, and Jan. 24 in Edmonton)
3. The Hottest August
There might be room to quibble over putting Brett Story’s documentary on this list, given that it only played a handful of Canadian festivals and it’s a Canada/U.S. co-production. But Story is a Canadian filmmaker and she has also made one of the finest films of the year, documentary or not. So there. Shot over the course of 31 sweltering days in New York in 2017, Story’s verité doc has much more on its mind than climate change – it is a meticulous, absorbing and unnerving portrait of modern-day urban dread, unafraid of confronting all the messy class and social tensions of our modern life. It is unclear when, where or how the film might be next available to view, but should the opportunity come up, do not let it pass you by. (Upcoming U.S. screenings available at thehottestaugust.com, with Canadian festival and rep-cinema dates to be announced in early 2020)
4. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Audacious and tender, poetic and heartfelt, co-directors Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s drama is an extremely impressive feat of filmmaking and marks a sharp showcase for the triple-threat Tailfeathers, who also co-wrote and stars. Borrowing the details from a real incident in Tailfeathers’s life – as well as using the title of an essay by Indigenous poet Billy-Ray Belcourt – The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open follows a chance encounter between two women from the same city but different worlds after they meet on the wet streets of East Vancouver. Aila (Tailfeathers) is upwardly mobile, while Rosie (Violet Nelson) is on the very fringe of society. Together, over the course of what’s stylized as one very long “real time” take shot on 16mm, the two navigate a history of trauma. This is delicate and resilient filmmaking, as difficult to shake off as it is impressive to witness. (Now playing in Toronto, with various screenings across the country listed at arraynow.com; VOD premiere set for March 2020)
5. MS Slavic 7
The rest of Hollywood can have all the Marvel Cinematic Universes it wants – all I desire is the Sofia Bohdanowicz Cinematic Universe. The Canadian director, who specializes in slender and affecting narratives that blend documentary and fiction, is steadily building her own meta-canon and Canadian cinema is all the richer for it. Her new film, MS Slavic 7, returns to the character of Audrey Benac, an amateur family historian who appeared in Bohdanowicz’s earlier work and is a sort of stand-in for the director herself. Played once again by Deragh Campbell (who co-directs here), Audrey is now researching her great-grandmother’s letters in the 1950s and ’60s to the famed Polish poet Jozef Wittlin, with “MS Slavic 7” being the reference code to the real-life correspondence housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. Campbell is tasked with carrying much of the film’s action and dialogue – including two seemingly rambling but actually profound monologues delivered to unseen audiences in a non-descript bar – and easily commands the screen. Long live the SBCU. (Streaming TBD)
6. nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up
Painful, necessary and laced with time-capsule-ready images of what it means to live in Canada today, Tasha Hubbard’s nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up will sear itself into your consciousness. What starts off as a detailed look into the 2016 Saskatchewan farmland killing of Colten Boushie – and the outcry that resulted after Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder in the 22-year-old Cree man’s death – turns into an intimate portrait of generations-long grief. As a work depicting both a specific moment in time and a wide-ranging history of trauma suffered by Canada’s Indigenous people, We Will Stand Up is necessary, essential, riveting viewing. (Television premiere set for Feb. 23 at 9 p.m. on CBC)
“You gotta find something to laugh at or you’ll go crazy.” So says a retired police officer early on in Alan Zweig’s Coppers, a documentary containing precious little humour but much sadness. At a moment where police tactics are (rightfully) being scrutinized from every angle, Coppers may first appear to be a cultural miscalculation – an attempt to whitewash the thin blue line. But Zweig is too smart for that and instead offers a no-frills portrait of all the good – and bad – that those on the front lines are capable of. Zweig’s stark and confrontational interviews with about a dozen retired officers cut immediately through any keeping-the-peace superficiality, allowing the men and women to speak matter-of-factly about the horror they faced and the wrongs they committed. The anecdotes become unbearable in their brutality – you will never want to ride a motorcycle again – but that’s the point: to protect is to serve, and to serve is to suffer. (Dec. 20 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto; television premiere set for March 30 at 9 p.m. on TVO, as well as April 1 at 9 p.m. and April 4 at 9 p.m.)
8. The Fireflies Are Gone
The word “meh” comes up more than a few times in The Fireflies Are Gone (La disparition des lucioles), the first film from Quebec’s Sébastien Pilote in five years. Mostly, “meh” – well, “bof,” en français – escapes from the lips of Steven (Pierre-Luc Brillant), a fortysomething guitar teacher who lives in his mother’s Chicoutimi, Que., basement. His exasperated despair is understandable, as is that of his decades-younger student/love interest Léo (Karelle Tremblay). Both characters are stuck in their industrial town with few paths of escape, and both seem to revel in their mutual despair. But while “meh” might accurately describe Steven and Leo’s plight, there is anything but “bof” about Pilote’s tender and affecting work. (Available on AppleTV)
9. Family First / Genesis (tie)
After an initial enthrallment with Philippe Lesage’s Genesis (Genèse) this past spring, I’ve cooled considerably on the film, which seems appropriate, given the coming-of-age drama’s pivot on the highs and lows of infatuation. But what hasn’t changed is my admiration for Genesis star Théodore Pellerin, who gives thrilling life to a Montreal high-school student warily navigating a same-sex crush. The performance is strong enough to carry the more problematic aspects of Lesage’s work, just as Pellerin’s turn in Sophie Dupuis’s Family First (Chien de garde) is strong enough to elevate that crime-drama’s less glaring but still obligatory genre beats. If we want to get technical about it – because sure, why not? – Family First is a 2018 film; yet it had almost zero exposure outside Quebec, so its 2019 VOD presence is the most English-Canadian audiences have ever heard of it. So long as Pellerin gets his due, I’ll be satisfied. (Both titles available on AppleTV)
10. Spice It Up / My Thesis Film: A Thesis Film By Erik Anderson (tie)
Here’s one last 2019 cheat, as Spice It Up appeared on the festival circuit last year (which is why I included it on my 2018 Top 10 list), before enjoying a quick theatrical run at the TIFF Lightbox this past summer. But how could I let 2019 pass without noting how the year featured not one but two Canadian films about Toronto film students struggling to complete their thesis films? That was the case with the surreal and frequently funny Spice It Up, and it was also the main focus of the bluntly titled My Thesis Film: A Thesis Film by Erik Anderson, which opened in Montreal the other week. Both films are meta exercises in Cancon inside-baseball, but both are also frequently funny and consistently challenging rebukes to a system that doesn’t make anything easy on anyone. (Naturally, both titles are as-yet-unavailable for theatrical or home viewing)
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