Canada’s biggest festival brought oodles of Canadian content this year. The Canuck crop gave us lots to be proud of with new voices introduces themselves alongside old favourites, and Canadian films shedding light on unique stories both at home and abroad. The best of the festival highlighted a range of talent from coast to coast working in a wide variety of genres and styles, proving that Canadian film is anything but boring.
Here’s a quick rundown of the best Canadian films we saw at TIFF this year. Keep an eye out for them at other festivals or in release! (Note: I didn’t have the chance to see Antigone or The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and will keep them on the radar in the months to come.)
And the Birds Rained Down is my pick for the best Canadian film at the festival. It’s an emotional portrait of hermits enjoying their golden years, embracing life, and savouring every moment. Louise Archambault goes straight for the heart in adapting Jocelyne Saucier’s novel of the same name and opens up the book while retaining its essence. The result is poignant, touching, and profoundly moving. Featuring strong performances from veterans Rémy Girard, Gilbert Sicotte, and Andrée Lachapelle, And the Birds Rained unfolds with life-affirming grace. Read an interview with Louise Archambault here!
Anne at 13000 Ft
Kazik Radwanski’s third feature, and the lone Canadian title in this year’s Platform competition, is the best film of the new Toronto New Wave. It’s an absorbing character study fuelled by a go-for-broke performance by Deragh Campbell. Shot in a disorienting and invigorating verité style, Anne is a fearless portrait of mental illness. Radwanski and Campbell make an exciting director-actor pairing as each one strips their art down to its elements. They create a film that is raw and boldly powerful. And nobody plays a dick quite like Matt Johnson does as Anne’s lousy boyfriend!
Seeing this movie at a 9:00am press and industry screening was the wildest jolt of #TIFF19. Jeff Barnaby’s badass zombie flick is a blood-soaked riot. Beyond its gory entertainment and handsome production, Blood Quantum packs more brains than the average monster mash. The film uses zombie lore and genre trappings brilliantly to create a parable about the resilience of Indigenous communities in the face of cultural erasure by the settler powers. It also has a wicked sense of humour that delivers the allegory with extra bite.
This third feature from Albert Shin (In Her Place) evokes peak-career Egoyan with its surreal tale of violence and videotape. The film masquerades as a thriller while unravelling a story of dirty secrets in Niagara Falls as Abby (Tuppence Middleton) revisits a traumatic moment from her childhood. The film boasts a strong cast including a deadpan hilarious turn by David Cronenberg as a podcast plugging history junkie. He injects the film with a sense of the strange and familiar, much like Shin’s play on genre itself.
Alan Zweig is one hell of an interviewer. The taxi driver turned filmmaker puts his gift for gab to use with this portrait of police officers. It’s fine companion to his 2009 film A Hard Name, which told the stories of convicts. Zweig’s “coppers” reveal the pains of the job through revealing interviews that speak to traumatic experiences they’ve encountered while protecting society. The confessions are frank and the coppers’ vulnerability is surprising. The film should make audiences look at officers a little differently the next time they see coppers in the field. This portrait of duty and sacrifice is one of Zweig’s best. Read an interview with Alan Zweig here!
Perhaps the strongest debut feature on the Canadian front this year, Kuessipan is one of TIFF’s hidden gems. The film marks the dramatic debut of Myriam Verreault and her background in documentary ensures that this portrait of Innu youth is an authentic and unsentimental representation of daily life. Key to Kuessipan’s power is a knockout down-to-earth performance by Sharon Fontaine-Ishpatao as Mikuan. The newcomer excels as young woman who realizes that she needs to leave the reservation in order to pursue her dreams and escape the cycle of poverty and heartache that has defined generations. There isn’t a false note to the film.
Oscar nominee Theodore Ushev (Blind Vaysha) offers his best film yet with The Physics of Sorrow. The film is a time capsule for a generation as Ushev adapts Georgi Gospodinov’s novel and infuses it with personal tales and memories. The film proves Ushev the best animator of his generation as he employs an ultra-rare technique of encaustic wax painting—a kind of portraiture used to adorn sarcophagi in antiquity. It’s a beautifully haunting essay on memory and the burden of carrying the past. Read an interview with Ushev here!
The Rest of Us
Fuelled by a never-better Heather Graham, who hasn’t been given a role this strong in years and relishes the opportunity at hand, the film rests on a strong quartet of women rounded out by Sophie Nélisse, Jodi Balfour, and Abigail Pniowsky. The film is a story of mothers and daughters who form unlikely allies in the aftermath of tragedy, and one of the most striking women-centric projects at the fest. The film marks an impressive feature directorial debut by Aisling Chin-Yee and writer Alanna Francis who inject every scene with heartfelt honesty.
This Is Not a Movie
Yung Chang offers a timely reminder of the power of independent journalism. This Is Not a Movie profiles veteran reporter Robert Fisk as he goes to the front lines of war stories, ferreting out facts and interviewing contacts as a foreign correspondent. The film makes audiences active observers to Fisk’s old-school journalistic rigour as Chang gets intimately close to the action. Even more intimate is the head-to-head interview with Fisk interspersed throughout the film. The reporter opens up, lets his guard down, and reveals himself as truthfully as he would any front page story.
The Twentieth Century
Without a doubt the wildest and most flat-out ridiculous Canadian film in years, Matthew Rankin won a well-deserved honour for Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF. The Twentieth Century delivers on the promise of Rankin’s shorts and offers a playfully daring caper reminiscent of Guy Maddin. It farcically re-interprets the story of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s quest to become Prime Minister. Rankin offers a madcap head-spinning adventure filled with patriotism, ejaculating cacti, creepy mothers, kinky sex, and good old-fashioned Canadian passive aggressiveness. What a riotous slice of Canadiana from the lunatic fringe.
Co-production bonus: It Must Be Heaven
Canada plays a supporting role as a co-producer in this international affair. The film is a globetrotting hybrid drama from Elia Suleiman. The director pulls double duty and stars as himself observing humorous scenes he witnessed in reality. Life unfolds humorously in Suleiman’s meticulously crafted long takes as he people watches with wide-eyed wonder. These vignettes capture a world in transition and observe nuances of the human condition that inspire and provide hope in a rapidly changing world. It Must Be Heaven is Palestine’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature and provides Canada an extra chance to take home a slice of gold.