25 Years of Canadian Film
by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(February 21, 2023 – Toronto, ON) Northernstars.ca is twenty-five years old. You can’t tell by looking at us. Still as fresh as the day we were born, Northernstars™ continues a path to celebrate all that is Canadian Cinema. To honour this landmark achievement, we’re looking at the highlights in each of those 25 years.
Let us know what we got we right and what we might have missed.
The most underrated film is a black comedy directed by actor Saul Rubinek titled, Tom & Jerry while the most overtalked about film is director François Girard’s The Red Violin. But the film that stands out for me that first year Ralph Lucas founder and editor-in-chief began chronicling, categorizing, and championing Canadian film with the Northernstars.ca site is an understated little film from the late UofT film professor, Amnon Buchbinder called The Fishing Trip.
Thom Fitzgerald follows up the premiere success of The Hanging Garden with the highly anticipated Beefcake. Actor Nicholas Campbell gets into the feature film game with Boozecan and Canadian heavyweights Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg both have successful titles with Felicia’s Journey and eXistenZ respectively. This is also the year gonzo Canadian producer Robert Lantos releases his epic pet project Sunshine directed by István Szabó and starring Ralph Fiennes. There are arguably films that outshine Sunshine, but Sunshine wins the Genie that year..
Denys Arcand teases but ultimately disappoints with Stardom while director Gary Burns surprises us with the impressive waydowntown. Alan Zweig continues to provide solid examples of the power in documentaries, with Vinyl. And in the horror genre, despite opposition from a fringe group who balk at the idea of a horror film getting public funding, the best film of the year is Ginger Snaps by director John Fawcett.
Sean Garrity hops onto the scene with Inertia. Cult filmmaker (and now Ottawa theatre owner) Lee Demarbre catches our attention with Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Bertrand Bonello directs an erotic thriller called The Pornographer. But 2001 is directer Bruce Sweeney’s year—Or it should be as his film Last Wedding catches the attention of critics, but remains criminally under-seen.
Canadian television iconic handyman, Red Green makes his big screen debut with Duct Tape Forever, while actor-writer-director Paul Gross jumps in with a curling sports comedy, Men with Brooms. Peter Mettler draws positive attention for his documentary Gambling, Gods, and LSD. But it is Michael Dowse’s spectacular mockumentary, FUBAR: The Movie that tops my best-of list.
A remarkable year in Canadian cinema. Allan King makes his final documentary Dying at Grace. Denys Arcand releases The Barbarian Invasions, a long-awaited sequel to his 1986 success, The Decline of the American Empire, and Guy Maddin makes the art-house rounds with The Saddest Music in the World. But for me, it is Maury Chaykin’s performance that makes director Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny the year’s best feature.
Lots for Northernstars.ca to talk about in 2004. In animation, Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville earns Oscar’s attention. Mockumentaries enter the scene with Michael Dowse’s, It’s All Gone, Pete Tong and Peter O’Brian’s Hollywood North timed perfectly, I think, for Robert Lantos teaming up with director István Szabó (again) for the full-scale blockbusting effort, Being Julia. In the non-faux documentary world, Peter Raymont’s Shake Hands with the Devil is a Sundance favourite and director Alan Zweig entertains us (again) with I, Curmudgeon. And while Michael McGowan charms big with the coming-of-age story, Saint Ralph I’m bitten by Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, which brings the zombie movies back to life.
Late director Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y wins Best Canadian Feature. Monty Python alumni Terry Gilliam makes Tideland encouraging actor/director Sarah Polley to speak out about onset safety issues when around children. Deepa Mehta releases Water, the third in her element’s trilogy.
Actor Sarah Polley makes a phenomenal entrance onto the scene with Away From Her. Bon Cop, Bad Cop is the top-grossing domestic film at the box office. Director Glen Morgan remakes a Canadian horror classic, Black Christmas, and Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufacturing Landscapes wins Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Tragic events eventually take director Rob Stewart from us, but his dedication to filming sharks and then educating people on just how beautiful and misunderstood these creatures are live on, and it begins in 2007 with his documentary Sharkwater. Director Jeremy Podeswa returns with Fugitive Pieces based on Anne Michaels’ novel and Richie Mehta takes his cameras and actor Rupinder Nagra to New Dehli to film Amal. Director Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg wins Best Canadian feature at both TIFF and the Toronto Film Critics Association.
Northernstars has been online for 10 years at this point. Director Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze chronicles those affected by the building of a dam crossing China’s Yangtze River. The film gets international praise from critics and wins the Genie for Best documentary. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, actor/director Paul Gross directs Passchendaele, a movie that declares war to be hell for Canadian soldiers too. Charles Officer, after a run of short films and one made-for-television movie, makes an unforgettable theatrical debut with Nurse.Fighter.Boy. But it’s Pontypool, director Bruce McDonald’s reimagining of the zombie movie that stands out; only McDonald can get away with making a creepy, unsettling zombie feature with barely a zombie in it. Northernstars launches its video interview productions interviewing McDonald on the set of Pontypool. Also in 2008, Northernstars interviews Kari Skogland about her film Fifty Dead Men Walking.
Patricia Clarkson in a starring role brings director Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time to exquisite light while a young and unknown Xavier Dolan makes his directorial debut with I Killed My Mother. Director Denis Villeneuve films the unfilmable, taking one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history, the murder of 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique, and turning it into a gripping, yet respectful and ultimately moving experience.
First time director Ryan Redford brings to the screen his film, Oliver Sherman, a sensitive and moving tale of heroism, gratefulness, and the lasting effects of PTS. Denis Villeneuve has another hit and gains a larger audience with Incendies. Michael McGowan releases Score: A Hockey Musical and Richard J. Lewis directs heavyweights Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, and Scott Speedman in an adaption of Mordecai Richler’s final book, Barney’s Version. With respect to Villeneve’s spectacular success with Incendies, the film that sticks out for me is the much smaller production of director Sean Garrity’s Zooey and Adam shot on a digital camcorder.
What a year for Canadian Cinema. Documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja lands big with The World Before Her, a look at the diverse paths of a woman entering an Indian beauty pageant against the life of another woman following a chosen path of political activism. Xavier Dolan has a third hit in as many years with Laurence Anyways and director Michael Dowse punches up with the hockey comedy, Goon. This year saw two Cronenberg films with David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and junior, Brandon Cronenberg’s, Antiviral. Director Deepa Mehta films her friend Salman Rushdie’s epic magic realism novel, Midnight’s Children. But the film that rocks me and most Canadian filmgoers is Sarah Polley’s autobiographical account of discovering the truth about her family history with Stories We Tell.
Director Ingrid Veninger proves that D.I.Y. (Do it yourself) filmmaking can bring about some captivating results. The Animal Project is one of Venniger’s best—which is saying a lot. Director Bruce Sweeney comes out with an understated comedy about television talk shows with The Dick Knost Show, and Michael Dowse crashes the international market with the romance comedy The F Word (retitled What If for the American market) starring Daniel Radcliff. Radcliff is good but it’s Meagan Parks in a minor role who steals the show. Director Louise Archambault finds a charming subject in the film Gabrielle, and an equally charming star in Gabrielle Marion-Rivard. Prominent documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin adds to an already long and productive career with Hi-Ho Mistahey! Director Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor’s documentary Our Man in Tehran corrects the errors made in the entertaining but factually inaccurate Oscar-winning film, Argo, about the release of hostages from Iran. Filmmaker Alan Zweig scores another win with the appropriately hilarious documentary When Jews Were Funny. The late Jeff Barnaby enters the scene with Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a film I initially diss but now recognize the film’s essential narrative. But in 2012, the film that resonates strongest for me is director Matt Johnson’s The Dirties an independent movie about a high-school outsider plotting violent revenge on his classmates.
Daniel Perlmutter directs Big News from Grand Rock a wickedly good comedy in the spirit of Preston Sturges with a brilliant comedy turn from Ennis Esmer. Big Muddy by director Jefferson Moneo described as a Neo-Western crime drama delivers so much more as a film noir highlighted by a solid performance from Nadia Litz plus James Le Gros with a monstrously good turn as the film’s villain.
This year sees the release of director Maxime Giroux’s Felix and Meira, one of the best relationship films to come around in a long-time. Rock and Roll documentarians Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen team up with director Reginald Harkema to chronicle the crazy career of Alice Cooper in Super Duper Alice Cooper. David Cronenberg’s Hollywood scandal film, Map to the Stars is a delight, even if I’m one of few critics who think so. But it’s Xavier Dolan’s Mommy that hits all the right buttons. A triumphant story of love, devotion, and mental health.
Director Robert Eggars gives the horror genre an artistic twist with The Witch, while directors Grant Harvey, Steve Hoban, and Brett Sullivan stick with traditional schlock and kills all to great results (especially the final scene) in the horror anthology, A Christmas Horror Story. After the Last River is Victoria Lean’s documentary that reveals an uncomfortable truth about the neglect of an Indigenous community following the empty promises from a diamond corporation. Film critic Brian D. Johnson brings his passion for the poetry of Al Purdy with Al Purdy Was Here. Director Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster wins Best Canadian Feature at TIFF. The Oscars took notice of director Lenny Abrahamson’s thriller, Room while director Andrew Cividino won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and a Canadian Screen Award for best actor for the devastatingly real and engaging coming-of-age story, Sleeping Giant.
An all-female crew and several frank sex scenes highlight director April Mullen’s erotic drama, Below Her Mouth, written by Stephanie Fabrizi. Not a critical darling, but guaranteed; once seen, not forgotten. Visual artist turned filmmaker Randall Okita releases the crime drama, The Lockpicker while director Daniel Grou shoots Alexandre Goyette’s stage play King David in one continuous shot. A highlight of the year is director Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, an understated biopic on the famed Canadian painter, Maud Lewis.
In Adventures in Public School, actor Daniel Doheny’s perfect blend of naivety and charm makes for one of the year’s best comedic performance as Liam, a home-schooled teen venturing to public school for the first time. Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman direct a very personal documentary about abuse and reconciliation with A Better Man. Canada meets Michelle McLeod playing the lead in director Pat Mills’ Don’t Talk to Irene and director Mina Shum wows us with Meditation Park starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar. But it’s director Cory Bowles’ powerful pitch-black comedy/drama Black Cop that turns expectations to give viewers a clear (and disturbing) understanding of the nature of police brutality. Nothing like it before nor since.
Northernstars.ca has been online for 20 years. Twenty-two years after the success of director Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the Empire comes his kind-of-but-not-really sequel, The Fall of the American Empire. Filmmaker Jasmin Mozaffari turns her short film Firecrackers into one of the year’s best Canadian features. Keith Behrman directs Giant Little Ones, an LGBTQ coming-of-age drama complete with a twist. Director Danishka Esterhazy thrills viewers with Level 16, a mysterious horror/drama worthy of an episode of Black Mirror. The highlight for many critics (me included) is director Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece.
There are almost too many films worthy of mention coming out of 2019. There is something for everyone from director Carol Nguyen’s short film No Crying at the Dinner Table to the dark open-ended tale of violence in director Nicole Dorsey’s Black Conflux and onto Blood Quantum, the late Jeff Barnaby’s Indigenous take on the zombie horror film. Directors Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn score big with The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and director Louise Archambault does Jocelyne Saucier’s novel justice with And the Birds Rained Down. Director Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft. is unforgettable as is Rob Grant’s Harpoon—a violent film-noirish black comedy set on a yacht. But the film that moves me most is the documentary Prey by director Matt Gallagher chronicling a man’s journey for justice against the Catholic clergy who abused him.
The most talked about Canadian films of 2020 are director Tracey Deer’s Beans and (for reasons both good and then bad) Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian. Fewer people are talking about director Chad Faust’s underrated revenge thriller Girl featuring Bella Thorne in the title role with an underused Mickey Rourke as a Sheriff. Bone Cage by director Taylor Olson is the first review I write for Northernstars.ca and upon rereading the review, my opinion stands—Bone Cage remains a perfect example of the kind of human drama Canada does well. In the horror sector, nothing beats the sheer audacious spectacle that is Psycho Gorman, a low-budget monster flick that is as hilarious as it is outrageous. But by far my favourite film of the year is director Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective.
First-time director Bretten Hannam delivers Wildhood, a beautiful coming-of-age story between two young Indigenous men. Danis Goulet wins praise for her Indigenous-themed science-fiction thriller, Night Raiders, and Kids in the Hall alumni, Scott Thompson and Paul Bellini entertain with a documented account of their two-man Rivoli show in Mouth Congress. Sébastien Pilote’s Maria Chapdelaine is a masterclass in how to direct epic period pieces. Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds becomes a critical favourite. Scarborough directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson adapted from the book by Catherine Hernandez is a personal favourite from 2021.
Two notable films from 2022 come from film critics Brian D. Johnson and Chandler Levack. Johnson’s The Colour of Ink takes a fascinating look at—yes—ink; a surprisingly rich and rewarding documentary. Levack comes out of the directing gates with the remarkably charming comedy I Like Movies starring a dynamic Isaiah Lehtinen. Another comedy to shine this year is Stay the Night, a romantic comedy in the vein of Before Sunrise (only funnier) from director Renuka Jeyapalan. Director Stéphane Lafleur also dives into comedy with Viking. Valerie Buhagiar writes and directs Carmen, a winning story of a woman suddenly faced with the task of discovering who she is and where she fits in the world. Sarah Polley astounds yet again with Women Talking. But it’s Nisha Pahuja’s searing documentary To Kill a Tiger that takes the lead in an edge-of-the-seat real-life drama.
Northernstars.ca completes its 25th year online on January 31. We’re only two months into 2023, but since you asked; the best in Canadian cinema so far goes to Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, and I suspect that it will still be on the list at the end of 2023.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward. He is the author of The Wild Boy of Waubamik, published in early 2023 by Dundurn Press.