Five Canadian Films That Were Worth Watching at TIFF (Seriously)

"Made in Canada" shouldn't be a dirty phrase.

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Sep 18 2015, 5:29pm

Still from "Sleeping Giant" courtesy TIFF

Remember that episode of the Ryan Gosling-starring Breaker High in which the school's hockey team, the Sea Monkeys, takes on the Prince Edward Island Spuds and is losing 15-6 when a penalty is called against them in the last few seconds of the game? No? Of course not—practically no one outside of Canada watched that show in the first place, let alone liked it enough to remember a specific episode years later. Well, here's how it plays out: Cassidy, the sporty girl on the ship, is in net and the Sea Monkeys' coach calls a timeout to tell his team that, if Cassidy can make the save, this will be the closest game they've ever played. Excited by the news, the team starts chanting, "We don't completely suck! We don't completely suck!" Cassidy then makes the save and the Breaker High crew heads back to the ship, ecstatic about the loss.

Canadian films are like the Sea Monkeys. Stay with me here.

Our films try to compete against much bigger, better supported, and better funded films and, just like that ragtag high school hockey team, they inevitably lose badly. In 2013, US films captured 88.6 percent of the Canadian box office, while Canadian films accounted for just 2.3 percent (international films accounted for the remaining 9.1 percent). Canadians spent only $24 million on Canadian films in 2013, and $923 million on US films. Telefilm Canada, the government agency that helps fund the development, production, and marketing of Canadian films, says that we shouldn't look at these box office numbers to gauge the success of our films. After all, the highest-grossing film in Canada in 2013 was Iron Man 3, which had a $200 million production budget, while Telefilm Canada only has a budget of about $95 million per year to spend on all of the films it helps fund.

Since Canadian films can't begin to compete with The Avengers & Co., Telefilm believes we should concentrate on our success in the independent film market. By Telefilm's calculations, independent films made $227 million in Canada in 2013, 11 percent of which (that $24 million) was earned by Canadian films.

Even with Telefilm's more positive outlook on the numbers, it's clear that Canadians aren't watching many Canadian movies at the theatre. But rather than continue trying to coddle our films (or perhaps to prevent audiences from avoiding them altogether), the Toronto International Film Festival no longer has any specifically "Canadian" programs. Instead, its slotted all of our homegrown films alongside international films. Canadian director Patricia Rozema, whose Into the Forest premiered at TIFF, told the CBC, "The idea is that Canadian cinema is strong enough to swim in international waters, and I'm fine with that."

In total, TIFF selected 39 Canadian features for audiences to discover this year (up from 31 at last year's fest). In addition to Rozema's film, there's also Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard's doc Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadr; Beeba Boys, by acclaimed auteur Deepa Mehta; and film critic Brian Johnson's debut feature documentary, Al Purdy was Here, to name a few.

VICE put together a list of five Canadian films that stood out at TIFF.

Room

Dir: Lenny Abrahamson

London, Ont.-based novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for this Ireland/Canada co-production, which is based on her best-selling novel of the same name. Room, which was shot in Toronto, is narrated by five-year-old Jack (Vancouver-native Jacob Tremblay, who is only eight IRL), a boy who has spent his whole life inside "Room." Jack's mom, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), was kidnapped by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) when she was just 17 and she's spent seven years trapped in his soundproof shed. After Joy comes up with a desperate plan to escape Room, Jack finds himself out in the real world for the first time. The film follows Jack as he learns about the world around him, and Joy, as she tries to cope with everything she's survived. Many are saying that Tremblay deserves an Oscar for his role in the film—The Hollywood Reporter said that Tremblay "gives one of the all-time great performances by a child actor"—and if that happens, he could be one of the youngest actors to ever be nominated.

Sleeping Giant

Dir: Andrew Cividino

This is exactly the kind of movie you want to seek out and support at TIFF. The first feature film by writer-director Andrew Cividino screened at Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival and is getting great reviews here at home. The film follows three teenage boys as they while away a languid summer vacation in Thunder Bay, Ont. egging cars, wrestling and playing Settlers of Catan. In Sleeping Giant, Canada plays Canada—not some unnamed American small town. The Northern Ontario landscape is beautifully shot by Toronto-based cinematographer James Klopko, the music was written and performed by Chris Thornborrow and Bruce Peninsula, and the leads are young Canadian kids, two of whom are actual cousins from T-Bay. Does it get more Canadian than that?

Hurt

Dir: Alan Zweig

Veteran documentary filmmaker, and Torontonian, Alan Zweig is back with what many are calling his best film yet. And that's saying something. Zweig won a Genie (now re-branded as a Canadian Screen Award, or a "Screenie") in 2010 for A Hard Name, his doc about ex-cons trying to live normal lives, and his 2013 film, When Jews Were Funny, won Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF that year. Hurt profiles Steve Fonyo, a name that might be vaguely familiar to some Canadians. When Fonyo was 12 he lost his leg to cancer. At age 18, he ran across the country raising millions for cancer research. He was a national hero. He received the Order of Canada. Today, his life is self-described "chaos" and his legacy is destroyed.

The Forbidden Room

Dir: Guy Maddin

The latest from celebrated Canadian auteur Guy Maddin has been described as similar to an LSD trip or a "fever dream." Not much can be said of the plot as it doesn't really have one. It begins with a man in a bathrobe instructing the audience on how to bathe, segues to a submarine stuck at the bottom of the ocean, then to a woodsman on a mission, and so on and so forth. This might not be for everyone, but a list of great Canadian films wouldn't be complete if there wasn't something totally weird and wonderful included.

The Witch

Dir: Robert Eggers

If twins, religion, and witches freak you out, this is the film for you. The Witch is a US/Canada co-pro set in 17th-century New England (but filmed in Kiosk, Ont.). Aside from its shooting location, its score by Toronto-based Mark Korven, and the fact that it was co-produced by Toronto's Scythia Films and Daniel Bekerman, not much else about this film screams "I AM CANADIAN"! But it's so good, we'll happily take it as one of our own. The film follows a family of super religious settlers who are kicked out of their village and forced to survive on the outskirts of a forest that may or may not be home to a child-stealing witch. Under that kind of pressure, who wouldn't go a little nuts?


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