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A scene from the film Scarborough. The critically acclaimed drama will be part of the 20th anniversary of Canada’s Top Ten.Courtesy of TIFF

This past weekend, The Batman’s historic box-office haul provided more high-calibre ammunition to the argument that movie theatres are dead to anything but superhero cinema. But moviegoing’s future is in fact entirely in our hands – it will only die if we want it to. If, that is, we fail to make the effort to expand our horizons, to take chances on lesser-known or totally unknown titles, and capitulate to the so-called market forces.

Which is as good a reason as any to cheer the latest program running this week at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto: the 20th anniversary of Canada’s Top Ten.

The annual series, which this time runs March 9 through 31, has a complicated, overwhelming mission: distilling the essence of the always-tumultuous Canadian film industry into just 10 features (and 10 shorts). Some of the full-length titles premiered at the Toronto festival this past September, some played other international fests, some already opened in limited (often very limited) release, some may vanish for who knows how long after this Top Ten series ends. But all the films are, in TIFF’s estimation, worthy of whatever sized spotlight a brief theatrical exhibition can bring – and that is an opportunity that Canadian filmmakers, and adventurous audiences, cannot afford to miss. Especially this year.

The brainchild of former TIFF chief Piers Handling, the program is always tricky to decode, or deploy as a handy illustration of just where the industry is right now. This year is no different, populated by titles from first-timers and veterans, crowd-pleasers and singular voices.

To crassly break the list down, there are critically acclaimed dramas that highlight diverse voices (the recently released drama Scarborough, last year’s Indigenous sci-fi thriller Night Raiders), bigger-budget features with recognizable names (the Miriam Toews adaptation All My Puny Sorrows, starring Sarah Gadon and Alison Pill), well-regarded microbudget works that have yet to be released (Learn to Swim, The White Fortress), an under-seen documentary (Subjects of Desire), Québécois titles that might as well be foreign films to the rest of Canada (Drunken Birds, Maria Chapdelaine) and movies that played TIFF but have yet to break through the film-fest environs (the animated biopic Charlotte, the avant-garde Indigenous drama Ste. Anne).

This year's Canada’s Top Ten series has titles from first-timers and veterans, crowd-pleasers and singular voices.Courtesy of TIFF

“It’s not abnormal to have a pretty wide-ranging list – it’s actually a statement as to just how diverse the Canadian filmmaking community is,” says Steve Gravestock, senior programmer for TIFF, in an interview. “It speaks to how adventurous not just our filmmakers are, but everyone: producers, the funding agencies, distributors. They take risks.”

Risk-taking, though, seems to be more and more of an outlier in the theatrical landscape these days – this month, there are only eight major-ish, big-screen releases in North America, while at the same time there are at least 10 big films headed straight-to-streaming – which is what makes a program like Canada’s Top Ten not only refreshing, but essential.

“The health of the industry is always about how much diversity you have: culturally, socially, financially, genre-wise,” says Gravestock. “These films are a strong reminder of all that.”

As for the suggestion that the ascendancy of streaming will kill independent Canadian films (which is really all Canadian films), the series has an answer for that, too: Many of the titles programmed will also be available to rent on the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox after they screen at the cinema.

“It’s not just Netflix providing more opportunities for these filmmakers today. There are other streamers, more festivals, the access to technology has advanced, funding officers across the country have become more adventurous,” adds Gravestock. “I remember back in the nineties when arts funding got slashed because of Conservative governments coming in, people were worried that was the end of film production. But Canadian filmmakers are dedicated, and have a way of getting their stories told.”

Here’s to another 20 years of TIFF Top Ten lists, then.

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