What could be Canada’s Oscar submission in the race for Best International Feature? The question looms as the Pan-Canadian committee aims to name the selection any day. This year’s Best International Feature race should be hotter than ever after Parasite’s historic Best Picture win. Moreover, everything is on the table this year with flexible rules that accommodate theatrical shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Add the absence of the Cannes Film Festival, and one could say that we’ve never seen a year like 2020. Most Palme d’Or winners and hotly buzzed Cannes selections advance in the race as submissions. Moreover, the final Oscar nominations usually have several Cannes titles. Cannes sets the pace on the international front, but without any film playing the Croisette, the Best International Feature race is without a frontrunner for the first time in years.
The Next Parasite?
In the absence of Cannes, many countries have submitted TIFF premieres. Ivory Coast’s Night of the Kings (a Canadian co-pro) and Georgia’s FIPRESCI winner Beginning, for example. Bosnia and Herzegovina sent Quo Vadis, Aida? while Palestine submitted fellow TIFF selection Gaza mon amour. Denmark will likely submit TIFF premiere Another Round, and could win the race if it does. However, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival notably shut out Quebecois films. Most years see the Canadian contender make a splash at TIFF. But we’re without our most reliable testing ground.
At the same time, we have the rare opportunity to launch a film into the race as the contender. But with only Whistler left on the Canadian front, and the inevitable gong show of Sundance in 2021, this push may prove tricky. The nature of these online festivals is that the quick pivot lets films fall through the cracks, even if they have the opening night slot. People simply can’t review or talk about a film that isn’t available.
The race could be invaluable to the Canadian industry as it recovers from the losses of COVID. Designating a film as Canada’s Oscar submission—and maybe the next Parasite—could inspire Canucks to do their patriot duty by supporting the movies. This year’s eligible films need to have screened in Canada between October 1, 2019 and December 31, 2020. (Films that submitted for consideration to be Canada’s Oscar submission last year are ineligible, which accounts for some omissions.) However, due to COVID, commercial online releases in lieu of conventional theatrical runs are permissible.
Let’s have a look at some of the potential contenders as Canada’s Oscar submission.
Matthias & Maxime
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Major Festivals: Cannes; London; Busan
Awards: Canada’s Top Ten; 3 Prix Iris – Best Supporting Actress, Micheline Bernard; Best Music; Most successful film outside Quebec
Release: Oct. 9, 2019 (theatrical) in Canada; available on home video.
Xavier Dolan had a return to form with 2019’s Matthias and Maxime. However, few Canadians got the memo. The reception for this tender love story was weirdly muted. The film opened with a respectful reception at Cannes, and then did virtually nothing on the Canadian front. It almost felt as if Dolan was just tired of the grind. Despite some positive notices and featuring, in my books, the best performance Dolan has ever given, Matthias and Maxime was shut out at the Canadian Screen Awards and underperformed at Quebec’s Prix Iris. However, it’s notable that one of Maxime’s Iris wins was for the (strange) prize of “Most successful film outside Quebec,” which, in these circumstances, could bode well for its appeal.
Chances: Low. Although it’s one of the better films among the eligible titles, it would have been smarter for Dolan to submit last year. A bit too “been there, done that” at this point. The collective indifference to the film doesn’t help.
14 jours, 12 nuits
Dir. Jean-Philippe Duval
Major Festivals: Palm Springs
Awards: Canadian Screen Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Leanna Chea); Prix Iris winner for Best Cinematography and nominee for Best Actress (Anne Dorval)
Release: March 6, 2020 (theatrical) in Canada; available on home video.
Anne Dorval and Leanna Chea deliver strong performances in this poignant story of motherhood. Dorval plays a bereaved mother who returns to Vietnam after losing her daughter with hopes of finding the child’s birth mother. This strikingly shot character study could enjoy some attention thanks to Dorval’s popularity with international audiences following her work with Xavier Dolan.
Chances: Low. 14 jours would likely be the most low-key candidate among the realistic contenders to be Canada’s Oscar submission. Although its profile is respectable, it’s awfully small. However, it’s one of few eligible films that available to audiences across Canada.
To Live to Sing
Dir. Johnny Ma
Festivals: Cannes (Director’s Fortnight); VIFF; Reel Asian (opening night); Shanghai; Chicago; Thessaloniki
Awards: Shanghai Film Fest New Talent Award for Best Film and Best Actress (Xiaoli Zhao)
Release: March 14, 2020 in Canada (affected by COVID)
Johnny Ma’s second feature To Live to Sing would be a great wild card option. Ma is a genuine talent (his debut Old Stone won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF) and the film deserves a spotlight. To Live to Sing, however, was among the first Canadian releases impacted by COVID. It’s too bad that few audiences got to see it, since it’s an ambitious and beautifully realized film about an opera troupe rallying to save its theatre. The film is a gorgeous wonder visually. It features a terrific cast in a story about a community rallying to save its remaining platform for self-representation. Moreover, Ma’s work, like the films of Kim Nguyen or Deepa Mehta, really adds to the canon of Canadian cinema by creating space for international stories and perspectives that intersect with lived experiences here at home.
Chances: Unlikely, but I would never have guessed we’d send Chien du garde in 2018. This film at least has some international profile thanks to its run on the festival circuit in 2019. It’s strong enough to hold its own among other contenders as Canada’s Oscar submission.
Dir. Sophie Dupuis
Festivals: Montréal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (opening night)
Release announced for Oct. 9 theatrical (affected by COVID). Rescheduled for Nov. 6.
Speaking of Chien du garde, the director of 2018’s Oscar bid is back with a contender. Sophie Dupuis’s sophomore feature Souterrain seemed poised to be a potential spoiler in the race. An opening night slot at Montreal FNC before its theatrical release signalled that Dupuis was ready to race again. Then COVID’s second wave meant that this drama about a rescue mission in a mine received a relatively low-key non-premiere. Inclement weather forced the festival to cancel its opening night drive-in premiere that tried to give the film a splash after the province closed theatres. Souterrain’s distributor also indicates its intent to defer release to a better time. However, those factors would be taken into consideration given the Academy’s pragmatic approach to COVID’s impact. It’s still eligible, since intent to distribute was clear. Dupuis and company would just have to pound the pavement to make it work.
Chances: Toss-up. The ingredients are there and Dupuis would put in the work, but the film will need a new festival or event to help launch it. Souterrain has a limited profile. However, it looks to be an assured sophomore film from a rising talent.
Goddess of the Fireflies (La déesse des mouches à feu)
Dir. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
Festivals: Berlin, Quebec City Film Festival (FCVQ)
Awards: FCVQ – Grand Jury Prize
Release: Sept. 25 (impacted by COVID); Re-opening Nov. 20.
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s racy adaptation of the novel by Geneviève Pettersen is a sexually explicit coming of age tale in rural Quebec in the mid-1990s. The film has a modest profile, generating respectable coverage in Quebec press all year following its premiere in Berlin. It may be a difficult choice to handle due to the subject matter and explicit content involving teens, but could also benefit from attention paid to stories by and about women.
Some critics praise the film’s “punch in the gut” portrait of youth sexual awakening. Ditto its “unmistakable female gaze and sense of place.” Other viewers, however, say that the film is borderline parodic and displays poor judgment by showing graphic sex and drug use with teenage actors. Even positive reviews call the film “shamelessly tragic” with “shock value galore.” Reviewing the film for That Shelf, CJ Prince noted the film’s frank depiction of sexuality, but admitted that it adds little to a familiar subsection of Quebecois coming of age films.
Chances: Mixed. There is potential for success, but such risqué material can backfire in the time it takes to publish a tweet. Moreover, despite premiering at a top-tier international festival with controversial subject matter, Fireflies has virtually no professional press coverage outside Quebec. Interest just doesn’t seem to be there.
Dir. Pascal Plante
Festivals: Cannes; Quebec City Film Festival (FCVQ) – Opening night; VIFF; Warsaw Film Festival
Awards: VIFF – Special Mention for Best Canadian Feature
Release: Sept. 17, 2020 (theatrical in Canada) and online cinemas
Nadia, Butterfly has the logical ingredients to be Canada’s Oscar submission. It was selected for Cannes and drew mostly positive notices from critics both nationally and internationally including a hearty endorsement from The Hollywood Reporter. It displays a confident director finding his voice behind the camera. This film about a young Olympic swimmer (Katerine Savard) navigating her post-retirement prospects has a quiet power that lingers. Strikingly shot and featuring an immersive sound design, Plante smartly creates an atmosphere of introspection and interiority. This characteristic admittedly proves alienating for some viewers, but it also compensates for Savard’s inexperience. A former swimmer navigating a coup of art imitating life, Savard makes a splash with a performance that looks inward. For others, though, the performance might be too muted for its own good.
Chances: Strong. I think Nadia, Butterfly is the default contender. It has a respectable profile and is good enough to make the shortlist. It’s technically accomplished and a female-driven story, while the action set against the (now cancelled) 2020 Olympic Games provides a novel hook. The innovative sound design and cinematography will also find fans hungry for auteur cinema. However, the film’s understated character could struggle to make it a standout against showier fare. People support the film, but will they champion it?
Dir. Sébastien Pilote
Release: December 18, 2020 in Quebec (anticipating theatrical)
Every year has one major box office smash in Quebec (ex: Louis Cyr, The Passion of Augustine) that the rest of Canada fails to notice. Maria Chapdelaine looks to be that film for 2020. The film adapts Louis Hémon’s canonical novel about a young woman in the early 1900s choosing between three different suitors representing variations on provincial life. Any Canadian who studied French in high school has read Maria Chapdelaine.
Sébastien Pilote’s $7 million historical epic miraculously completed a shoot amid the pandemic and aims to meet its Christmas release. The story of the young dutiful woman coming of age and struggling with the hardships of provincial life could therefore be the perfect rallying point for Quebeckers to rejuvenate the film scene. If there’s any film to make Quebec audiences do their patriotic duty and support the cinemas, Maria Chapdelaine is it. The film stars newcomer Sarah Montpetit in the title role, but has an impressive roster of supporting players familiar to arthouse audiences, including Antoine Olivier Pilon, Hélène Florent, Martin Dubreuil, and Gilbert Sicotte. Pilote also has established himself after festival hits like The Fireflies Are Gone and Le démantèlement.
Chances: Good, but not great. Canada never sends a Quebecois hit that is a non-starter outside the province. Maria will do gangbusters in Quebec with or without an Oscar push. Chances for a life outside Quebec will be tricky without it, though. However, this kind of stately production could do well in the race even if it’s very provincial. Last year’s Estonian period drama Truth or Justice had total Maria Chapdelaine vibes and made the shortlist over showier films. Past winners like Pelle the Conqueror and Belle Époque are super Chapdelaine-ish.
Dir. Deepa Mehta
Release: December theatrical (Canada); Netflix on Dec. 10 (USA)
Deepa Mehta scored an Oscar nomination when she represented Canada with Water in 2006. Her latest film Funny Boy adapts Shyam Selvadurai’s novel about a young gay man’s awakening against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. Like Water, Funny Boy is the result of a tumultuous production that could fuel a strong campaign. Moreover, Mehta consistently delivers as one of Canada’s top directors. Whether expanding her scale with an epic like Midnight’s Children or reinventing herself with 2016’s masterful Anatomy of Violence, Mehta has the talent and experience to bring Canada its next Oscar.
Funny Boy already has a respectable profile despite having yet to premiere publicly. (Preview screenings with Sri Lankan audiences have been reported.) Recent news about the film’s acquisition by Ava Du Vernay’s ARRAY Films and a Netflix release delivered more coverage than many of the above films combined. Moreover, a deal with Netflix checks one major box to make it a logical submission. The film also has a range of Canadian and international talent involved to make people feel that this film is more than just Canada’s horse in the race.
Chances: Strong. Submitting a gay-themed film by a woman of colour would help Telefilm’s relationship with diverse communities after a year mired in controversies. Significantly, early word on the film is strong. Funny Boy would be the best bet if Canada were to use the submission to launch a film successfully. However, a recent interview with Mehta indicates that only half the film is not in English. The minimum requirement for eligibility is 50 percent. Careful due diligence may be required.