Canada is best known for churning out hockey players, maple syrup, and sensitive rap stars, but Canucks also know how to produce world-class cinema.
To help you enjoy National Canadian Film Day (NCFD), I’ve put together a must-watch list featuring 30 movies from 18 talented Canadian filmmakers. And let me tell you, it was tough whittling the list down to 30.
I have a soft spot for genre movies and it definitely shows here. But I’ve included a bit of something for everyone. Whether you prefer zany comedies or period pieces, I’ve got you covered.
Powering through the films mentioned below would spark a few mind-blowing binge-sessions, but don’t think of this article as a movie check-list. Instead, think of it as a jumping-off point and conversation starter.
For instance, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum is a masterfully crafted creature feature and a razor-sharp social commentary. Treasure it for being the one-of-a-kind jewel it is. But if Blood Quantum speaks to you, go ahead and lose yourself in Barnaby’s filmography. Pull up his Wikipedia page or do a deep dive into his YouTube interviews.
Canadian cinema doesn’t have the same marketing power as Marvel movies. So, we need festivals, retrospectives, and national days of recognition to keep Canadian cinema alive and thriving.
If you come across a Canadian film that speaks to you, don’t be afraid to share your affection. Love it and support it with all your heart. Rent it on iTunes, buy the Blu-ray, or share the trailer on Facebook. Let’s keep showing our support for Canadian cinema all year long.
Celebrate NCFD with these 18 Essential Canadian Filmmakers
01 – Mina Shum – Meditation Park
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mina Shum a few years back, and the experience floored me. Rarely have I crossed paths with such a charming, thoughtful, and compassionate person. I could have sat and spoken with her all day long. All those wonderful traits come through in her work.
If you’ve never seen one of Shum’s films, Meditation Park is the perfect jumping-off point. It’s poignant, funny, and features a knockout cast (including some icons of Canadian Cinema).
02 – Albert Shin – Disappearance at Clifton Hill (read the review)
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is so unabashedly Canadian, I expected Bob and Doug McKenzie to walk through the frame at some point. This may not be the best all-around film on the list, but it is deliciously moody and atmospheric and takes place in Niagara Falls. Disappearance at Clifton Hill also features a surreal appearance by legendary Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Speaking of which….
03 & 04 – David Cronenberg – The Fly & The Dead Zone
Any list discussing the master of body horror must include The Fly. It’s one of the most gruesome and shocking horror flicks to come out of the ‘80s – a decade known for bloody and over-the-top horror flicks. But damn it if The Dead Zone isn’t the most all-around entertaining entry in his impressive filmography. The Dead Zone is a solid Stephen King adaptation featuring a creepy AF Christopher Walken who was only a few years removed from his Oscar win? Doesn’t that sound like a winning combination? I’m all in.
05 & 06 – Sarah Polley — Away from Her & Take This Waltz
When suggesting a Sarah Polley movie, the natural choice is Away from Her. It’s a critically-adored Alice Munroe adaptation that announced Polley as a filmmaker to watch. The film’s bona fides are unimpeachable. But I do have a soft spot for Take This Waltz. One look at the trailer and you’ll get why.
07 & 08 – Director X — Superfly and Hotline Bling
Director X is a superstar music video director. He’s directed worked with the best in the business, including Rihanna, Kanye West, and Beyonce. X is a living encyclopedia when it comes to trends in African American culture. And if you’ve ever crossed paths with the man or watched him in an interview, then you’ll know that he’s one of the coolest human beings on the planet. So, it’s only fitting that he made a movie about one of the coolest characters in black cinema: Superfly.
But look, X’s greatest contribution to cinema and hip-hop culture is this five-minute blast of audio-visual bliss. This video, with its 1.6 billion views, needs no introduction. Watch and enjoy.
09 – Jeff Barnaby — Blood Quantum (read and watch our reviews)
You would think people want to forget about viral outbreaks right now. But seeing how Contagion has dominated the streaming platforms, as of late, that’s debatable.
If you’re game for a modern zombie apocalypse pick, you have to start here. Blood Quantum has all the violent and creepy thrills you want from a zombie flick, but the plot and its themes run so much deeper.
The best zombie outbreak movies stand the test of time because they have something meaningful to say. And that’s where this movie shines like one of Howard Ratner’s most precious uncut gems. Years from now, we’ll be mentioning Blood Quantum in the same conversation as 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead.
10 & 11 – Denis Villeneuve – Arrival & Blade Runner 2049 (Arrival review)
Ask people who the best working Canadian filmmaker is right now, and Denis Villeneuve’s name will rank high on most lists. Villeneuve can do it all. Whether he’s working on a lower budget indie or a blockbuster film, he has a masterful command of cinematic language. The man crafts Kubrick-ian dread and Spielberg-like spectacle like nobody’s business.
Blade Runner 2049’s mind-blowing effects and immersive production design displays Villeneuve’s world-class technical skills, while Arrival reveals his soft and sentimental side. These two picks show you how Villeneuve can blow your mind and melt your heart.
12 – Philippe Falardeau — Monsieur Lazhar
Monsieur Lazhar is about an Algerian substitute teacher who is hired to replace a teacher who committed suicide in her own classroom. That’s a pretty dark premise that doesn’t sound like an ideal quarantine watch. But trust me, this film is also tender and hopeful. Mohamed Fellag turns in what may be the most charming performance on this list.
If you’re looking for a movie to take you on a cathartic emotional journey, look no further.
13 – Kathleen Hepburn & Elle-Maija Tailfeathers – The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (read the review)
Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s award-winning feature, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, is must-see cinema. I’m not going to fool you, this title is probably the most emotional harrowing entry on the list. So, when you sit down to take part in this cinematic journey, prepare to have your world rocked.
14 & 15 – Atom Egoyan — Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter
I have a special spot in my heart for Exotica is the film that put the prolific Canadian filmmaker on my movie radar (I was 15 at the time, which is all that needs to be said). But it was The Sweet Hereafter that made me a life-long fan (The film somehow still has %100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – don’t tell Armond White). Solemn, touching, and achingly beautiful, Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is not to be missed.
16, 17 & 18 – Deepa Mehta – Fire, Earth & Water
If your looking for some titles to binge, then Deepa Mehta’s elements trilogy is up for the challenge. I was late to the party and watched the trilogy’s last entry, Water, first, so I have the fondest memories of that movie. But if you only have time for one of these pictures, you can’t go wrong with any title on the list.
19 & 20 – Xavier Dolan — Mommy and Matthias & Maxime
Here’s something to make you question your life choices. Go and read Xavier Dolan’s IMDb page. Check out his prolific filmography, his many accolades, and… his… age.
This young man can feasibly remain in our lives, churning out classic movies for the next 50 years. His 2014 film Mommy may be his signature work, but I have a hunch about his latest picture, Matthias & Maxime also deserves your screen time. I haven’t seen the film yet, but after Pat’s glowing review, I have it near the top of my must-see list. (What I’m trying to say is, if the movie disappoints you, blame Pat :P).
21 & 22 – Jean-Marc Vallée — Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies
We’re talking about films, so I have to mention Jean-Marc Vallée’s award-winning drama, Dallas Buyers Club. But let’s be honest. The man’s masterwork is Big Little Lies. It’s TV, true. But the series looks and feels cinematic. Also working in the show’s favour? Its movie star cast (which features Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman) is second to none.
So, yeah, Big Little Lies makes my list.
23 & 24 – James Cameron — Terminator 2: Judgment Day & Aliens
Okay, you could put almost any film in James Cameron’s body of work here and it would be the right choice. In fact, Canadians could dedicate a national day of celebration solely to Cameron’s contributions to cinema.
Although Titanic and Avatar are his most successful films, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens are his best films. I can’t choose one over the other, so they both earn spots on my list.
25, 26 & 27 – Norman Jewison — In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck & Fiddler on the Roof
When talking about all-time greats, Norman Jewison’s name does not come up often enough. So, to balance out the scales, he gets three entries on my list. These 3 titles cover all your bases. There is a musical (Fiddler on the Roof), an ensemble comedy (Moonstruck), and a gripping drama (In the Heat of the Night). My top pick is In the Heat of the Night, a film that features a scorching Sidney Poitier performance.
28, 29 & 30 –Ivan and Jason Reitman – Stripes & Ghostbusters / Juno
Ivan Reitman and his son Jason have a tonne of great films under their belts. Ivan’s 1981 comedy Stripes stands out for its peak-Bill Murray performance. Stripes is also worth highlighting because it’s one of those classic titles that gets left off too many best-of lists. But I got to be real, there’s only one choice here: Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters isn’t just a movie; it’s a cultural phenomenon that has lived-on in pop culture for nearly 4 decades. It’s too fitting that after all these years, Ivan’s son Jason will take the franchise reigns and put his own spin on the series.
But please don’t call it nepotism. Jason is an outstanding filmmaker in his own right. I love his collaborations with screenwriter Diablo Cody, and their films Young Adult and Tully are criminally underseen. So, I’m giving this final slot to their first collaboration together, Juno. Not only is Juno witty, heartfelt and hilarious, but the film features a career-defining performance from Canadian actress Ellen Page.