The late ’90s/early ’00s was when the Canadian film industry was at its pinnacle, in my opinion. This view could be because 1995 was when I moved to the Great White North, previously having no idea that a country called Canada even existed. However, it’s more likely due to the fact that the decade, starting from ’96, featured a special group of films that allowed Canadian talent to gain notoriety south of the border.
Obviously there’s David Cronenberg, who was already a household name for years and had even made ripples in the States with his now-infamous mix of unconventional and unsettling storytelling. Crash (1996) helped him garner a larger share of the spotlight, with its bizarre narrative concerning a group of people sexually aroused from vehicular accidents and A-list cast, including Rosanna Arquette, Holly Hunter and James Spader. The film was highly controversial, but still managed to garner a handful of award nominations, including the Grand Prix at the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics and eight Genies, winning six.
Love it or hate it, Crash marked a turning point not only in Cronenberg’s career but also in Canadian film
Cronenberg also had a handful of other indie hits, including Jude Law-led sci-fi thriller eXistenZ (1999), creepy psychological drama Spider (2002), starring Ralph Fiennes, and a collaboration with frequent Cronenberg star Viggo Mortensen, with A History of Violence (2005). Meanwhile, Atom Egoyan was doing his thing, with films like The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which featured a healthy amount of home-grown talent, including Canadian sweetheart Sarah Polley, and Ararat (2002). Despite being a major talent, Egoyan has made a surprisingly low number of feature-length movies in his career, yet you can still tell an Egoyan work from a mile away.
The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a small Canadian town and the impact a fatal school bus accident has on its residents. Based on the novel by Russell Banks, the film events unfold alongside the revealing of small-town secrets, which vary from adultery to incest to unhappy revelations. The stuffy atmosphere of the small-town in the middle of winter and the uncomfortably close quarters in which the audience meets the residents gives the feeling of tense discomfort that sticks with the viewer. Egoyan’s first adapted screenplay, The Sweet Hereafter, earned him Oscar nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, making this work his most notable to date.
Despite being a major talent, Egoyan has made a surprisingly low number of feature-length movies in his career, yet you can still tell an Egoyan work from a mile away.
Reaching out to his Armenian roots, Ararat was a passion project of sorts for Egoyan. Having rejected his Armenian heritage as a child, Egoyan embraced it as a young adult and took an interest in Armenian history while attending the University of Toronto. Ararat deals with the Armenian Genocide and tells the fictional tale of a film director attempting to make a blockbuster film about the event, a dark point in Turkish history that its government continues to deny. It earned Egoyan a Genie for Best Picture and is his best-known work since The Sweet Hereafter, despite not making ripples at the box office.
The Sweet Hereafter star Sarah Polley continued to mature as an actress, dipping her toes into the writing and directing pools. She continued to act fervently though, with more than a dozen credits to her name from 1996 to 2006. These roles varied from the usual indie flicks, such as Joe’s So Mean to Josephine (1996) and My Life Without Me (2003), to more mainstream fare, like star-studded 20-something comedy Go (1999), sci-fi thriller eXistenZ (1999), alongside Jude Law, the unnecessary Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake and historical literature adventure Beowulf & Grendel (2005). Polley stretched her acting skills throughout this period and is that actress everyone remembers seeing in that one movie, but can rarely name.
Sarah Polly has had a long and prolific career, but she is perhaps best known for her directorial work with films such as Away From Her and Stories We Tell
All that all changed in 2006, when Polley’s directorial debut, Away from Her, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An adaptation of a short story by Alice Munroe, Away from Her was Polley’s natural progression to assuming control behind the scenes, which she decided to do with the help of one of Canada’s most beloved and acclaimed novelists. It’s the story of a couple struggling with the progression of Alzheimer’s on the female half (Julie Christie, who snatched up a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars) and the impending jealousy and potential ruination of their long-lasting marriage.
The film proved Polley’s talents weren’t limited to acting and that, like many actors who turned to directing, she could have even more talent as a director. Away from Her received rave reviews nationally and internationally, earning Polley an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and won her a Genie for Best Achievement in Directing. She continued both acting and directing in the years following and it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t aware of her talent nowadays.
Like I said, it could just be my opinion, but this decade in Canadian film was the most prominent. Canada stepped up its game and although the three talents who helped put Canada on the map, so to speak, are still about the only ones making headlines today, it was a much-needed stepping-stone for the Canadian film industry.