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Saul Williams as Akilla Brown in Akilla’s Escape.levelFILM

Playing the optimist, I’d say 2021 was a banner year for Canadian filmmakers. The industry kept its Short Term Compensation Fund (a.k.a. COVID insurance) going, Telefilm got a long-awaited budget bump and cinemas finally reopened. But on the flip side, our country’s filmmakers are facing an intimidatingly uncertain future. Will our indie theatres, so essential to the exposure of Canadian film, survive yet another round of capacity restrictions or, in the case of Quebec this week, complete shutdowns? What of Bill C-10? And can anyone not born into privilege possibly make a decent living at this game?

Yet on the screen, you wouldn’t know that Canadian filmmakers are having an existential meltdown (to be fair, that’s the case most years, too). The past 12 months delivered a wealth of exciting, beautiful, life-sustaining productions – enough great films to wipe away the many bad memories of 2021, while providing hope for the coming days of 2022.

Here, in alphabetical order because we’re all very polite, are my Top 10 Canadian films of 2021, and where you can find (most of) them right now.

Akilla’s Escape

A mesmerizing tale of crime, responsibility and what happens when the sins of one generation get passed down to another, Charles Officer’s thriller is a slick and outstanding work. Marking Officer’s return to feature-narrative filmmaking after more than a decade in television and documentary, Akilla’s Escape focuses on a Toronto drug deal gone bad, but told from an unfamiliar perspective, and with intense beauty. (Streaming on Hoopla; available on-demand, including the digital TIFF Lightbox)

Anne at 13,000 ft.

Here’s a cheat, as I already included Kazik Radwanski’s remarkable drama in my Top 10 Canadian Films of 2020 roundup last year after it played the festival circuit and was this close to getting a theatrical release before the pandemic struck. But because Anne at 13,000 ft. only got a proper release this year – and because it is one of the best Canadian films of any year – I’m including it here, too. An intimate look at the life of a Toronto daycare worker (Deragh Campbell) who has a shaky grasp on adult responsibilities, the film is a wonderfully intense work of art. (Available on-demand through the digital TIFF Lightbox)

Black Conflux

Like most good things in the Canadian film industry, it took a while for Nicole Dorsey’s feature debut to make it to audiences. After premiering at TIFF back in the fall of 2019, the thriller finally received a digital release this past July. But Dorsey’s unsettling, nervy film was worth the wait, with the director riffing on Canadian film’s era of tax-shelter cheapies to tell a story about rebellious teens, missing women and a loner who may or may not be a serial killer. It also features one of the best needle-drops of the year – to Gowan’s Moonlight Desires of all things! – which is a special achievement all its own. (Available on-demand)

Drifting Snow

Ontario’s Prince Edward County can be something of an in-joke these days: an area quickly becoming a hipster-chic rural escape for weary well-to-do Torontonians. But director Ryan Noth captures the County in an altogether different, haunting light in this small-scale drama about grief, forgiveness and healing. Sonja Smits delivers her best performance ever as a widow trying to move on from the death of her husband (Colin Mochrie, also afforded more character depth than typical), while Jonas Bonnetta does skilled double duty as both the shiftless young stranger Smits’s character befriends, and the film’s composer. (Streaming on Super Channel; available on-demand)

Drunken Birds

A group of Mexican day labourers wander into a drug kingpin’s abandoned mansion, furnished with a merry-go-round and free-roaming tiger. A Formula 1 driver races through the early morning streets of Montreal. Police officers have a standoff with a horse. There are at least a dozen other such moments of surreal, blunt beauty flitting around Ivan Grbovic’s fantastical drama Drunken Birds, and by its finale, you the get the sense that the Quebecois filmmaker is capable of magically conjuring just about any image that might come to his mind. (Theatrical run concluded; digital release TBD, but TIFF Lightbox will screen film as part of its Canada’s Top Ten program in March)

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

If 2021 solely belonged to any Canadian filmmaker, it might have been the year of Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. In addition to starring in Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders (see below), the filmmaker/writer/performer premiered her new feature-length documentary, which is timely and towering. Focusing on the Kainai First Nation as it fights the opioid crisis sweeping Alberta, Kímmapiiyipitssini offers audiences something rare: an entirely new understanding and perspective. (Currently playing in select Canadian cities; digital release set for June via NFB.ca)

Night Raiders

Set in the year 2043, Danis Goulet’s feature-narrative directorial debut offers a depressing if entirely believable portrait of Canada 2.0. The land has been annexed by the U.S. government, children are the property of the state and a raging pandemic restricts freedom of movement. Goulet’s grey-grit landscape may echo the many dystopia artists who came before her, but Night Raiders is more interested in mining the history books that were/should have been/will never be written about Canada’s residential-school system. (Available on-demand, including the digital TIFF Lightbox)

Psycho Goreman

If you have never flipped through an old issue of Fangoria or eagerly scanned the back covers of seedy-looking VHS boxes at your local rental house, Psycho Goreman might be shocking or even unforgivably vulgar. But if you happen to be operating on director Steven Kostanski’s very particular and peculiar wavelength, then the splatter comedy is an absolute riot from beginning to bloody end. (Streaming on Shudder; available on-demand via iTunes/Apple TV)

Scarborough

It is easy to see why Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s novel won runner-up for TIFF’s People’s Choice Award this past September: This is a big-hearted, deeply empathetic portrait of people – children, mostly – just trying to survive the economic and societal circumstances forced upon them. Like 2016′s under-seen Wexford Plaza, Scarborough offers a portrait of a city oft-ignored by Canadian filmmakers and moviegoers, resulting in a film that feels both fresh and essential. (Opens in theatres, including the TIFF Lightbox, Jan. 28)

The White Fortress

The latest feature from Toronto-based director Igor Drljaca is a patient, poetic romance that pivots on the societal divides of a postwar Sarajevo. Featuring lovely lead performances from Pavle Cemerikic and Sumeja Dardagan as young lovers from two wildly different backgrounds, The White Fortress (or Tabija, in Bosnian) was one of the best surprises of the 2021 virtual Berlinale. It was a true shame that the production somehow bypassed this past fall’s Toronto International Film Festival – though TIFF is making up for the oversight by programming it as one of their Canada’s Top 10 selections, with a screening at the Lightbox planned for March.

Bonus Entry: Islands

So, this is another cheat, as Martin Edralin’s Islands is not technically a 2021 film – it played a few Canadian film festivals in the fall, but is aiming for a general release in the spring of 2022. Still, the film is one of the most impressive homegrown dramas I watched this past year: a spare but supremely effective character study focusing on a Filipino janitor and lifelong bachelor who cares for his aging parents in Toronto. Shot almost entirely in Tagalog, Edralin’s film is a small wonder, alternately hilarious, heartbreaking and buoyant.

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