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Elwy Yost had a remarkable quarter-century run as host of TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

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  • Magic Shadows, Elwy Yost: A Life in Movies
  • Directed by Karen Shopsowitz
  • Classification N/A; 59 minutes
  • Premieres Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on TVO; available to stream afterward on

Critic’s pick

Confession: I grew up just before the heights of the Elwy Yost era of public Ontario television. By the time that I was genuinely getting into film – as only a white suburban Toronto teenager can, with repeated viewings of Scorsese, Tarantino, De Palma, Lynch, etc. – Yost was already nearing the end of his remarkable quarter-century run as host of TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies.

I do retain fragments of memories, though. Sneaking downstairs as a young kid in late 1980-something to listen to whatever movie my parents might have been watching Yost expound upon, in his excitable, oh-gee-whiz tenor. Or I was a bit older, early ‘90s, bemoaning that the TV was stuck on some black-and-white movie (perhaps it was Yost’s all-time favourite, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or maybe it was one of his thousands of other beloved titles) when all I wanted to watch was something undoubtedly stupider.

All of this is to say that I both understand the influence that Yost had on a generation of Ontarians, and bemoan my bad luck timing in just barely missing his 1974-’99 run. Which is where director Karen Shopsowitz’s new documentary, Magic Shadows, Elwy Yost: A Life in Movies, comes in handy.

Although it boasts an unwieldy title, Shopsowitz’s work is essential viewing to understand not only Yost’s life and career, but the Canadian film landscape of the past 50 years or so.

There aren’t a lot of documentarian tricks on offer here: this is a standard-issue chronicle of Yost’s life, from youthful movie fanatic to potential engineer to scrappy independent filmmaker to actor to high-school teacher to, finally, television producer and host. The doc is packed with archival footage – including Yost’s enthusiastic interviews with everyone from Otto Preminger to David Cronenberg to, of course, John Huston – and talking-head recollections from friends, collaborators, admirers and family members (including son Graham Yost, who would go on to write the Keanu Reeves thriller Speed and become a television megastar). If you worked in Toronto entertainment journalism in the ‘90s, there’s a good chance you’re here.

But in documenting Yost’s rise and his influence on a generation (or two, or three) of audiences, Shopsowitz also offers a fascinating time-capsule in which we’re able to trace the peaks and valleys of Canadian culture.

Saturday Night at the Movies showcased films in an uncut, commercial-free environment long before Showcase did the same with racier fare (I suppose I’m more of the Showcase Revue generation). From Toronto’s ‘70s rep theatre scene to the forever-struggling sector that is Canadian filmmaking to even the advent of the first “shhhh, stop talking!” public-service-announcement in Ontario cinemas, Yost was there, right up until his death in 2011 at age 86.

The history of Saturday Night at the Movies is also the history of movie-going. And that’s worth sneaking down your parents’ staircase to catch a glimpse.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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