In a statement that will surprise no one: 2020 was a terrible time to be a Canadian filmmaker. Releases got delayed, productions shut down, and good luck getting anyone’s attention for your virtual-cinema release when the big streaming players doubled down on Hollywood glitz at a fraction of the cost.
But this was also a year of breaking the Canadian film industry down to build it back up. Institutions were challenged, conventional wisdom upended, and the films that did make their way into the world were as exciting and invigorating as any year. Here, in alphabetical order because we’re all very polite, are the Top 10 Canadian films of 2020, and where you can find (most of) them right now.
Anne at 13,000 ft.
Maybe it is unfair to start off a “2020 Canadian films” roundup by including a film that wasn’t released in 2020. But this is my list and it’s been a crazy year and to heck with any rules. And after all, Kazik Radwanski’s magnificent look at a Toronto daycare worker (Deragh Campbell) with a shaky grasp on adult responsibilities was, technically, a 2020 release. Set for a small but important Canadian art-house run in March, the film was just a few days away from making its mark when everything changed. And while Anne has since knocked audiences out at several (digital) international film fests this year, there is understandably no firm date when the public might be able to see it. We should all have our fingers crossed for 2021, though, as Radwanski’s feature is one of the most remarkable and consuming character studies in recent memory.
Jeff Barnaby’s stab at the zombie genre is as much a gutsy look at colonialism as it is a gut-busting splatter-thon. After flesh-eating hordes spring up across Quebec, humanity’s best hope rests not with some motley crew of white survivors who have miraculously escaped the walking dead’s bite. Instead, it is the land’s Indigenous people – a group long forced to prove their First Nations ancestry by submitting to governmental “blood quantum” measurements – who find themselves immune to the zombie plague. Just as Barnaby’s first feature, 2013′s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, used the mechanics of a thriller to break down the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, Blood Quantum employs genre to rethink and even reboot the past. (Available to stream on Crave)
Disappearance at Clifton Hill
If ever there was a Canadian setting crying out for cinematic exploitation, it’s our side of Niagara Falls. A tacky tourist wonderland that barely masks the grit of a company town gone to seed, the current state of the area is an ideal staging ground for a nasty little neo-noir. Fortunately, director Albert Shin took up the challenge, setting his delightfully twisty new mystery in the heart of the splashy-yet-trashy neighbourhood. Featuring a rabbit-hole conspiracy involving a missing boy, greedy developers, French-Canadian magicians and a local podcaster played by David Cronenberg (!), Disappearance at Clifton Hill is as thrilling and disturbing as its titular strip of haunted houses and fading-fast motels. (Available to stream on CBC Gem)
Chronicling one very bad day in the lives of a troubled Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., family, Chrsitian Sparkes’s Hammer traces a vivid, teeth-grinding path of destruction. The tightly edited, frequently dark film benefits greatly from its two lead performers: Mark O’Brien as a ne’er-do-well criminal son and Will Patton as his exasperated father. Both radiate nervy energy like it was the most natural thing in the world, which in Hammer’s anxiety-inducing case, I guess it is. (Available on-demand and on Super Channel)
Jusqu’au declin (The Decline)
Director Patrice Laliberté’s lean and mean survivalist thriller has one backer that most Canadian filmmakers could only dream of securing: it is Netflix’s first original Canadian feature film. And, so far, the only. I guess the streaming giant is simply taking its sweet time in announcing a follow-up, as Laliberte’s feature-film debut, an unintentionally prescient look at a community of Quebecois doomsday preppers, is supremely confident and frequently chilling. More than just a collection of algorithmic key-words, The Decline is Canadian genre filmmaking done right. (Available to stream on Netflix)
The Kid Detective
Writer-director Evan Morgan’s defiantly un-family-friendly feature debut recalls a frenzied mash-up of Rian Johnson’s 2005 sleeper Brick, the cult 2009 comedy Mystery Team, and Scooby Doo on ‘shrooms. As Morgan’s hero, a past-his-prime sleuth played by a down and dirty Adam Brody, dives deeper into the case of his career – and as the filmmaker quickens the pace of his film’s comedic rhythm – The Kid Detective stands out as one of the more compelling and perverse creations of the year. (Available on-demand)
The feature debut of Nova Scotia writer-director-editor Heather Young, Murmur is dead-simple in plot: In Halifax, the sixtysomething alcoholic Donna (Shan MacDonald) gets a job at an animal shelter after being convicted of drunk driving. Estranged from her daughter and otherwise socially isolated (before such a thing was government mandated), Donna begins to bring the shelter’s many residents home, until the situation becomes untenable for human and animal alike. That’s it – that’s the story. But by fusing the language of a documentary with the technique of a deeply felt narrative, Young creates a world rich in vulnerability and empathy. (Available to stream on CBC Gem)
Although Brandon Cronenberg may continue to live in the shadow of his famous father David for years to come, the director’s second feature showcases a commitment to craft and yeahghghgghghghghg-level violence that establishes a singular, terrifying vision. Every shot in this tale of mind-swapping assassins is purposeful and intricate, every actor’s performance (including Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough) pitched just right. Long live the new flesh. (Available on-demand, including via digital.tiff.net)
Québécois director Sophie Dupuis made a splash in 2018 when her compelling, itchy crime-saga thriller Family First (Chien de garde) became Canada’s official submission for the Best International Film category at the Academy Awards, and helped introduce leading man Théodore Pellerin to the masses (or the few Canadian masses who caught the film). Now Dupuis and Pellerin are back with Souterrain (Underground), an intense thriller focusing on a mining disaster in rural Quebec. Aesthetically slick and dramatically taut, the film should, all things considered, put Dupuis on a first-name basis with fellow Quebecois breakouts Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée. (Now playing via the Whistler Film Festival; 2021 availability TBD)
A character study that doubles as a nail-biting tick-tock thriller, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’s White Lie is a huge step up from the pair’s micro-budget days. Focusing on a university student (the fantastic Kacey Rohl) who has been faking a cancer diagnosis for financial gain, the film is a neat, if unintentional, knock at our current lockdown era, where self-interest and self-sacrifice blur into a heady stew of toxicity that can tear apart lovers, friends and families. But despite that massively depressing log-line, White Lie is also a wildly entertaining ride, too. (Available on-demand and streaming on Crave)
Point and Line to Plane
My final “cheat’ of this list is including director Sofia Bohdanowicz’s latest – which in more rigid critics’ roundups might not qualify given that it’s a) not available to view anywhere and b) 17 minutes long. But the short film, which I caught at TIFF, stands as one of the best Canadian works I’ve seen all year, and provides days’ worth of analysis and introspection. Inspired by the passing of her close friend and producer Giacomo Grisanzio, Bohdanowicz’s work flits between narrative and documentary, with regular collaborator Deragh Campbell again taking on the role of the director’s onscreen avatar, Audrey Benac. The result is a powerful take on grief, memory and the power of art. If you hear whispers of it screening at any upcoming festival, seize the opportunity. (Availability TBD)
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.