Suddenly, in the summer of 2012, after a half-century at the top, Citizen Kane was no longer the greatest film of all time.
The canon-forming Sight & Sound poll, which has canvassed 800-plus international critics once a decade since 1952, declared that Orson Welles's 1941 American epic had been unseated by Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 necrophiliac detective drama. The news made international headlines and, presumably, plenty of headaches for the last remaining video-store clerks reshuffling their Greatest Movies Ever shelves. Where Kane, classic though it is, was the stuffy high masterpiece, Vertigo was the scrappy oddball gradually chipping away at the edges of the criterion. It would be like Captain Beefheart's avant-blues rock experiment Trout Mask Replica trumping Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 albums of all time.
Now, Canadian cinema sees a similar shift – not as seismic, but no less relevant to those who pay attention to national culture and, arguably, Canada writ large. Every decade since 1984, the Toronto International Film Festival has conducted their own poll to determine Canada's All-Time Top Ten films. The latest list – which surveyed critics, filmmakers, academics and programmers earlier this year – saw Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 Inuit epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner depose the long-standing list-topper, Claude Jutra's seminal social drama Mon oncle Antoine, which fell to the No. 2 spot.
The first film written, directed and acted entirely in Inuktitut, Atanarjuat was an immediate sensation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, with Kunuk taking home the Caméra d'Or prize for best first feature, the first Canadian to do so. A wide international release and an impressive box-office take back home (even beating out the star-studded-ish curling comedy Men with Brooms), established Atanarjuat out of the gate as a major work of Canadian cinema. "It lodged itself indelibly in people's minds," says TIFF senior programmer Steve Gravestock. "When people think of Canadian film, they think of this."
Among other noteworthy changes since TIFF's previous poll are the fourth-place showing for Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo (1992), a surrealist coming-of-age story about a Montreal boy who believes his mother was impregnated by a tomato, and the entry of several titles of recent vintage: Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) at No. 8, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007) at No. 9, and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012), which tied with Michel Brault's Les Ordres (1974) in the No. 10 spot. "The past 10 to 15 years in Canadian cinema have seen an explosion," Gravestock says. "The more good work there is, the more people up their game."
Even if the list seems a little heavy on recent movies for a catalogue of Canada's "All-Time" greatest films, what's most striking is its diversity. Tellingly, the University of Toronto's Innis College lists their survey class on homegrown films not as "Canadian Cinema," but "Canadian Cinemas," plural. Where Canadian cinema had long seemed split between the typical two solitudes of Canadianism – the more commercially oriented films of Quebec (with its own star system and embedded audience) and the auteurist bent of English-language filmmaking (Cronenberg, Egoyan, et al.) – the entry of filmmakers from the Inuit north and Manitoba (in the form of Winnipeg Film Group vet Maddin) and that of a female filmmaker challenging the strictures of documentary tradition (Polley) suggests a national cinema as defined by its cultural differences and fractures as the country itself.
Yet these fissures in geography, language and style seem sutured by the films themselves, which share a few of the same preoccupations. There's a handful of coming-of-age stories (C.R.A.Z.Y., Antoine, Léolo), and meditations on place, geography and history (My Winnipeg, Les Ordres, Stories We Tell, Denys Arcand's Jésus de Montréal, even David Cronenberg's stony Toronto-set psychological drama Dead Ringers). As Gravestock says, the bulk of these films see history refracted through personal journeys and dramas, not the mythic "triumphalism" that drives other national cinemas (see, for example, Citizen Kane). If Canada's filmmaking canon reflects anything of what it means to be Canadian, it's in stressing how our national identity is always in a process of thinking, rethinking, mediation and open mockery.
As for Atanarjuat, it may be one of those exceptions-that-prove-the-rule type cases. Kunuk's is a film that transmuted legend and history into a felt family drama, and vice versa. It's at once bracingly intimate (as in an unforgettable fight scene that sees two suitors battling for a woman by punching each other in the head in close quarters) as it is universal. The sequence where Kunuk's title hero (played by Natar Ungalaaq) runs full-speed, nude and barefoot, across the ice is as close as our diverse Canadian cinemas are as likely to get to anything like mythic triumphalism. It's the sort of unforgettable image that lodges itself in the viewer's mind – like Citizen Kane' s tumbling snow globe or Kim Novak falling to her death in Vertigo.
Editor's note: The first Sight & Sound poll was conducted in 1952. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.