Using the Genie Awards criteria, I’ve confined the list to Canadian productions or co-productions. Not eligible are movies merely directed by Canadians, such as A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Juno, Up in the Air and Avatar.
10. Manufactured Landscapes (2007)
Travelling to China, director Jennifer Baichwal looked over the shoulder of photographer Edward Burtynsky as he found haunting beauty in epic landscapes of industrial ruin and mass production. The film is a portrait of the artist, a magnification of his already larger-than-life art, and an exercise in perspective that shows us the moving picture outside his frame. Cinematographer Peter Mettler, whose Gambling, Gods and LSD almost made this list, holds his own with Burtynsky in composing visual poetry. Another film about manufactured landscapes that’s equally deserving is Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2008), a documentary on China’s Three Gorges Dam.
9. Polytechnique (2009)
Dramatizing the 1989 Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique might appear to be impossible and unadvisable. But Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve—whose Maelström and La turbulence des fluides narrowly missed ending up on this list—pulled it off with a stark, contemplative film that explores the horror without exploiting it. Filming in black-and-white, but mostly shades of wintry grey, largely ignoring the killer, Villeneuve focuses on two composite students. My colleague Mark Steyn suggested the film was an apology for the passivity of the men, concluding “you can’t make art out of such a world.” But like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Villeneuve’s art succeeds precisely because, unlike Steyn, he doesn’t mine the tragedy to draw a moral lesson.
8. Water (2005)
Following Fire and Earth, Deepa Mehta’s gorgeous period romance finessed a complex trilogy about women’s oppression in India, and it’s her finest film. Although it’s an unabashed romantic melodrama, it’s composed with an elegant eye and subtle, well-grounded performances. Water also performed a rare feat—a subtitled Hindi-language film became a box-office success in this country, then went on to get an Oscar nod, reminding us that popular Canadian cinema doesn’t have to be in English or French, or even shot in this country.
7. Spider (2002)
It’s the last film David Cronenberg shot before making a more mainstream breakthrough with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. It’s relentlessly bleak, and it’s no surprise that virtually no one saw it. But Spider, starring a gnarly Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic who arrives at a halfway house after 20 years in institutions, is a brilliant psychological drama. With its chilling tableaus of industrial landscape, it’s also a fine-tuned portrait of the repressed desire and quiet desperation that are embedded like mildewed wallpaper into the English psyche.
6. Dying At Grace (2003)
Allan King, who died last year, was one of the world’s great vérité documentary filmmakers, making his name with excoriating portraits of raw psychology, such as Warrendale and Scenes of a Marriage. With Dying at Grace, like an explorer plumbing the outer limits of human experience, he takes the camera to a place it’s never been, as he films patients breathing their last breath in a palliative care ward. The film is not easy to watch, but there’s not a whiff of voyeurism. King, a director who makes a virtue of his own invisibility, gives us a work of pure cinema and captures the dying of the light.
5. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée achieved a rare combination of wild artistic ambition and box-office success with this ’60s story about a young man growing up in working-class Montreal, infatuated with David Bowie, and struggling with his sexual identity. In the tradition of Léolo, it’s a poetic coming-of-age story set in the cultural vortex of Quebec’s not-so-Quiet Revolution, where Catholicism and psychedelia combine like nitroglycerin. Vallée took a huge gamble by building a major scene set in a church on Sympathy for Devil, then paid the Stones a small fortune for the rights—which still did not include America, thus thwarting U.S. distribution. Pity. Showing remarkable versatility, Vallée went on to direct a very different period film about a troubled adolescent, The Young Victoria.
4. My Winnipeg (2008)
Unfolding as an Oedipal fever dream, Guy Maddin’s love-hate portrait of his hometown mixes surreal memoir, faux documentary and actual documentary. With such seamless trompe l’oeil, it’s downright impossible to know, or care, which is which. That “archival” shot of horses frozen in the ice of the Red River looks so convincing. All of Maddin’s work is witty, virtuosic, and teeming with ideas, but this is his one masterpiece that is also utterly accessible, deeply moving, and laugh-out-loud funny.
3. Barbarian Invasions (2003)
Reuniting actors from The Decline of The American Empire, it’s Denys Arcand’s finest work. Sometimes, Arcand lets intellectual ambition upstage emotion, but this symphonic ensemble piece moves gracefully from sweeping social satire to tender tragedy. The terminally-ill woman who seeks to end her life in the company of her friends, Marie Josée Croze, is a revelation.
2. Away From Her (2007)
Such an unlikely feat. While still in her 20s, Sarah Polley made her feature directing debut with an intimate tale of elder romance that drew pitch-perfect, career-capping performances from Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. Adapting and expanding on Alice Munro’s story, it’s one of those rare CanLit adaptations that works. Unlike most of the other titles on this list, it’s a conventional, unadorned narrative. But with its oddly uplifting story of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s who forgets she has a husband, it is more exotic than it sounds. Polley locates a core of indelible romance in the heart of a vanishing marriage.
1. Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) (2002)
If we go to movies to take us somewhere we’ve never been before, this was one from a place movies have never been before. With his feature debut, Zacharias Kunuk gave us the world’s first Inuit feature, an epic of Shakespearean breadth framed by an Arctic landscape tailor-made for the wide screen. Fusing dramatic and documentary techniques, Kunuk wove his story from legends related by elders, and drew on professionals and non-actors to bring an ancient legend vividly to life. Both a gripping action movie and a sublime meditation, Atanarjuat unfolds with a sense of real time and boundless space.