What are your top 10 films of 2016?
If you travel in film-critic circles (God help you), that question is an impossible one to dodge this time of the year, when it seems that anyone with even the tiniest stake in the cultural conversation is preoccupied with delineating their year in movie-going. (And, more often than not, using that list as an opportunity to minimize others' no-doubt-inferior choices.)
But the Canada's Top Ten Film Festival is a different, more welcome sort of ranking. The initiative was created by the Toronto International Film Festival, with its programmers selecting the best Canadian features of the year to screen both at the organization's Lightbox headquarters in Toronto and at various venues across the country.
Designed to raise "public awareness of Canadian achievements in film," the program is a much-needed counterpoint to the more traditional, perhaps predictable year-end picks that end up dominating the dialogue – even if most of TIFF's Top Ten seem like they're appearing out of thin air.
Last year's lineup, for instance, included only two films that enjoyed proper theatrical releases in more than one province: Philippe Falardeau's My Internship in Canada and Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room – and even those weren't exactly household titles.
This year's slate tells a similar story, with just three out of 10 films having enjoyed wide-ish theatrical exhibition: Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's Angry Inuk, and Nathan Morlando's Mean Dreams. (The other seven films have been seen only by the lucky few who could fit them into their various Canadian film festival schedules: Hello Destroyer, Maliglutit, Old Stone, Werewolf, Window Horses, and the French-language dramas Nelly and Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, both of which only opened in Quebec in September.)
The under-the-radar nature of the selection is partly a byproduct of the Canadian film landscape – which can be comically indifferent to the offerings of its countrymen – and partly by design. Here, TIFF aims to highlight the most worthy Canadian films of the year, not necessarily the ones you've actually heard about (which is why it has previously skipped such homegrown names as Paul Gross, Deepa Mehta and Atom Egoyan – though this year that task was easier, as none of the regular figureheads of Cancon released new films).
"It's a real mix of the old and the new, which is a good sign for the general health of the industry," says Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF. "We often have years when we have the biggest names in Canadian cinema in the Top Ten, but here, we have a lot of new-ish names – directors who might be fairly unknown to audiences, but have been seeing success on the festival circuit over the months."
Thus, you have regular Top Ten honorees such as Dolan (who's made the list every time he's released a film) mixing with fresh faces, including Old Stone's Johnny Ma and Hello Destroyer's Kevan Funk. Still, Bailey admits the programming acts as something of a wish list.
"This is an ongoing, giant question mark hanging over the industry: What is it going to take for Canadian movies to reach Canadian audiences?" he says. "We know many parts to that answer, and some of it has to do with how distribution and exhibition is set up in Canada, and the dominance of Hollywood product. But I think we also have to look at how Canadian audiences are watching films generally, and where."
Some of TIFF's titles, for instance, will likely bypass theatres altogether, even art houses like the Lightbox – at which point it will be up to savvy Canadian viewers to search them out in the video-on-demand and streaming markets, if they even know what to look for.
"It's not such a bad thing – that's more or less the future of how Canadians are going to watch films," Bailey adds. "But I do wish that theatres and distributors were able to find more space for Canadian feature films."
In the meantime, the Top Ten festival provides a peek at what the country's most talented filmmakers have to offer – especially Quebecois artists, who so rarely get a chance to break the language barrier.
Aside from Dolan's film, which carries with it the benefit of notoriety thanks to its polarizing reception at Cannes, Anne Emond's biopic Nelly and Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie's fiery drama Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves represent bold new visions coming from the insulated Quebecois system.
"It should be clear to anyone who has been watching Canadian films since, well, we started making films that artists in Quebec are among the most important to national film culture," Bailey says. "Look at Denis Villeneuve, who is now making one of the most anticipated studio blockbusters of all time [Blade Runner 2049]. It's a testament to the talent in this country."
Now all the country has to do is pay attention the rest of the year.
Canada's Top Ten Film Festival runs Jan. 13 to 26 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and throughout the winter and spring at select venues across the country (tiff.net).