One of the goals of Toronto Film Scene has always been to increase the exposure of locally produced films for a Canadian audience. To help achieve this goal, the Essential Canadian Cinema column was created. Each month, two TFS writers would discuss a Canadian film a decide whether it is essential viewing for audiences. While the specific definition of what makes a film Essential Canadian Cinema tends to vary from writer to writer, the general goal of the column is determine if the discussed film has a cultural or historical significance to Canadian cinema as a whole. This month in our Media Impact column, we looked inwards at the effect of examining Canadian cinema in this way.
Over the course of Toronto Film Scene’s 50 issues, we have discussed 38 Canadian films and measured them against the bar of “essential”. Beginning in our July 2012 issue (Pornography as Art) with Young People Fucking, we have looked at one film per issue (with seven exceptions). In that time we have found that 19 films were essential Canadian cinema, 12 were not essential, and 7 were split between our writers.
Here are the films we have deemed to be essential, not essential, and the ones for which we were on the fence.
One Big Happa Family
Jovana Jankovic and Trista DeVries discussed Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter for the TIFF 2012 issue. Jovana felt it was a distinct creative work of the country’s greats, while also featuring a remote, cold landscape. Trista added that the film is an extremely well made and well executed film about towns, as well as an excellent specimen of great Canadian talent displayed in a non-Canadian way.
For our issue on Canadian Horror, Will Brownridge and Liam Volke discussed Paul Fox’s The Dark Hours. Liam noted that while the film is not for everyone, it rewards multiple viewings, which is why he declared the film essential. Will agreed that the film was essential, with him saying that it is rare that audiences got a horror film that is intelligent and disturbing, with horror films in Canada being only a small piece of recent cinema history.
In our Documentary issue, Liam Volke and Harry Cepka discussed A Married Couple. They felt it was essential because it was a precursor to reality television, but an unsensational one. It was powerful in its simplicity, allowing viewers to know this couple as well as they know their own family. It was truly before its time.
Despite falling into the trap of traditional rom-com tropes near the end, Better Than Chocolate is unavoidably Canadian. Liam Volke and Will Brownridge felt the film was fun and sexy, but did have some pitfalls. As Liam puts it, “…for all its foibles and whatever else I might gripe about here it really does have a lot of charm that I hope all Canadians can enjoy.”
Steeped in a “cool ‘behind-the-music’ vibe” Trigger is a special film for more reasons than one. Not only was it a film that was originally written for two men, not only was it also Tracy Wright’s last film, but it was one of the very few films focused entirely on a female friendship that did not devolve into a rom-com or a buddy comedy. Directed by Bruce McDonald, Kristal Cooper and Danita Steinberg felt this film was unabashedly essential Canadian cinema.
For the Teen Movies issue, Liam Volke and Trista DeVries discussed that New Waterford Girl feels like home. Its depiction of a small-town girl fighting with big city dreams is something we can all relate to, but its regionality and sheer delight in being Canadian put it over the top into “essential” territory.
Café de Flore is a polarizing film, and audiences either loved it or hated it. Liam Volke and Trista DeVries loved it, and although they admitted it had some issues, they felt it was an example of some of the best filmmaking Canada has to offer.
Katarina Gligorjevic and Liam Volke felt the film was definitely essential Canadian cinema because it “…is commercially, critically, and historically significant,” but also because it simply feels Canadian. Liam also notes, “We live in a different Canada than Duddy Kravitz did, but status and power are just as sought after, if not more, so it still resonates to 21st century viewers.”
This lovable mockumentary was determined to be essential by Dayna Brubaker and Danita Steinberg. Danita said, “It takes Canada’s genre (the documentary) and flips it upside down in an affectionate way.” Dayna agreed, feeling the film was a great Canadian comedy, but didn’t sacrifice story for laughs.
Will Brownridge and Nadya Domingo discussed this iconic Canadian classic. Nadya was a long-time fan of the film, while Will was first-time viewer. Both agreed this film is a Canadian horror staple, but that it was also an essential film every Canadian should see.
Snow Cake was discussed as part of our issue on Disability on screen, and Danita Steinberg and Will Brownridge determined that it was definitely essential. Danita noted that it is one of her all-time favourite films (therefore making it essential in her mind for that alone), but Will noted unbelievable performances from Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and a very young Emily Hampshire.
Katarina Gligorijevic and Liam Volke felt Incendies was essential Canadian cinema, even though Kat felt the film was “…more clinical than emotional.” Liam felt this was an excellent example of a Canadian second-generation immigrant story.
For our issue on Love, Will Brownridge and Russell Farnham looked at My Bloody Valentine. Will felt the film was essential because it truly embraces where it was created, while Russell felt it was the “most Canadian” film he’s ever seen. Hearty praise for one of our country’s campiest horror films.
Local director Morgan White’s chronicle of the Toronto Underground Theatre’s rise and demise was enthusiastically determined to be essential by Will Brownridge and Trista DeVries. A wonderful example from the documentary genre (something Canadians unabashedly call their own), this film is about real people going through real things, all the while trying to actually run a Canadian film business. It’s a spectacular film, and no real surprise it was considered “essential”.
Given its directorial pedigree, and its open attitude about sexuality, Will Brownridge and Sean Kelly found The Decline of the American Empire to be a truly Canadian film.
In our issue on Family, Sean Kelly and Birithivy Yogaratnam decided One Big Happa Family was essential Canadian cinema because it looked directly at Canada’s multicultural identity in detail. Birithivy felt that the history lessons alone were enough to make this a mut-see.
Despite Maps to the Stars not making the cut for ECC, Videodrome is one Cronenberg film we would be remiss not to include. It’s a sexy romp through the meaning and message of media mixed with body horror and a hunky James Woods. Add Debbie Harry and its Toronto setting, and, seriously, who wouldn’t want to watch this movie?
Trista DeVries and Will Brownridge watched Reel Injun for our issue on Indigenous Cinema. Incredibly well made, and a truly native voice on representation in cinema, Trista felt it wasn’t only essential Canadian cinema, but essential human cinema as well. Will said, “It’s an outstanding film that should open people’s eyes… If that isn’t an essential Canadian film, I don’t know what is. ”
Will Brownridge and Andrew Parker discussed the holiday drama One Magic Christmas for the December 2015 issue. Will explained that even though he preferred his holiday films to be much happier, he still considers the film essential, because it feels Canadian. Andrew liked how Canada has produced probably the most depressing holiday film of all time, yet it has aged well and is better received today than it was in the 1980s.
Son of the Sunshine
As part of TFS’ Pornography as Art issue, Trista DeVries and Kristal Cooper discussed the provocatively titled sex comedy Young People Fucking. Trista made the point that even though the film received attention for including a curse word in the title, the film didn’t really have that much substance other than its risque title. Kristal added that the film needed more depth for her to care about the characters, as well as a lack of male nudity.
For the December 2012 issue, Trista DeVries and Will Brownridge discussed Bob Clark’s holiday classic A Christmas Story. It was generally agreed by both that even though the film can be considered a Christmas classic that people should see, the film is not essential viewing.
For the Women on Film issue, Danita Steinberg and Nick Watson discussed Patricia Rozema’s debut film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Despite its Toronto setting and a cameo by Anne-Marie MacDonald, this film was found not to be essential. As Danita put it, “A shot of the CN Tower does not make for something every Canadian needs to see.”
Sean Kelly and Mike Giardino watched Genie nominated film Son of the Sunshine for the Independent Film issue. It was written and directed by local talent Ryan Ward, and Mike felt it dealt with issues many Canadians deal with, but ultimately this was not enough to push it into essential territory.
Screamers was determined to be a great sci-fi film you should definitely go see at a rep theatre any time it screens, but not determined to be essential Canadian cinema. Trista DeVries and Will Brownridge heaped on the affection for this fun flick, but couldn’t say it’s a film every Canadian should see.
Despite Goon’s excellent box office performance, Ada Wong and Danita Steinberg felt that it was not essential Canadian cinema. Ada felt its “…glorification of violence doesn’t correspond with Canadian identity…”, while Danita felt that it didn’t really speak to the Canadian experience.
While The Changeling is an atmospheric and occasionally creepy ghost story/mystery, there’s very little about it that is actually Canadian. You should absolutely add this film to your list of films to watch, but there just wasn’t enough for Sean Kelly and Will Brownridge to call it essential.
Johnny Mnemonic may be an entertaining film to watch, mainly because of what it does wrong and not what it does right. Will Brownridge and Birithivy Yogaratnam felt the film wasn’t essential because it wasn’t particularly proud to be Canadian, nor even really particularly Canadian.
Will Brownridge and Sean Kelly watched Maps to the Stars and found that even though director David Cronenberg’s body of work holds much essential Canadian cinema, that doesn’t mean every one of his films belongs in that category. This is certainly a film that does not.
Despite the fact that The Kids in the Hall was a fantastic television show, it’s hard to find the humour in their cinematic adventure, Brain Candy. The themes tend to feel more American than Canadian, and it doesn’t quite play up the Canadian aspect enough for our writers Russell Farnham and Birithivy Yogaratnam to deem it Essential Canadian Cinema.
Sean Kelly and Birithivy Yogaratnam watched Porky’s for our issue on Blockbusters. Sean felt the film wasn’t essential Canadian cinema because it is only a Canadian film by proxy, and he feels “…it is films like this that really blur the definition of what is a Canadian film.” Birithivy agreed, but also found it difficult to believe the film was the highest grossing Canadian film for a long time, even if it did go on to influence other films in its genre.
We looked at Outragoues! for our annual TIFF issue in 2015. Aren Bergstrom and Sean Kelly felt the film was not essential Canadian cinema simply because the film isn’t good enough to be called essential cinema of any kind. Aren cited terrible filmmaking choices and poor handling of mental illness (even for the time), and Sean thought it was interesting to see Toronto from so long ago, but felt the film was more obscure than essential.
The Boys of St. Vincent
For the issue on Asian Cinema, Pam Fossen and Jovana Jankovic discussed Mina Shum’s 1994 comedy Double Happiness. Pam believed that the film should is essential because it tells a story not heard before and lets us into a world we hadn’t seen from the inside. However Jovana disagreed, stating that the film is only essential for those interested in the heavy-handed issues that the film deals with.
William Brownridge and Harry Cepka discussed the very unusual 1985 film The Peanut Butter Solution for the issue on Kid’s Cinema. Harry believed that the film should be considered essential because the film is a Canadian wannabe ’80s absurd kids’ comedy that is also a moment in time in the Canadian film industry and maybe even the Canadian imagination. However, Will didn’t agree, stating that an essential film would have to be something that people need to watch and that this film is one he would personally avoid.
For the issue on French Canadian Cinema, Brandy Dean and Daniel Janvier discussed the highly successful Quebec/Ontario buddy cop film Bon Cop, Bad Cop. Daniel has a harsh disdain for the unchanging form of Canadian comedy, which prevented him from calling the film essential. Brandy credited the immense box office success of the film as reason enough for why Bon Cop, Bad Cop should be considered Essential Canadian Cinema. (It should be noted that this is one of our most rousing and hilarious ECCs and we cannot strongly recommend it enough.)
In discussing the ECC status of Defendor, Will Brownridge felt that the film wasn’t Canadian at all (unless you live in Hamilton and get the veiled references), while Sean Kelly disagreed and felt the film discussed essential Canadian viewpoints on the issues it brought to light.
For The Boys of St. Vincent, Will Brownridge and Jordan Adler were split not between the themselves, but between whether it should be considered Essential Canadian Cinema or not. Will felt that the film was definitely essential, but the back half of the film doesn’t live up to the power and impact of the first half. Jordan, on the other hand, could only recommend the first half as essential, with viewers not wasting their time on the second half.
Sean Kelly and Katie O’Connor discussed the silent film Back to God’s Country for the Classic Film issue. Katie believed that the film had little to offer beyond some minor historical value, such as how the film had the first cinematic nude scene. However, Sean argued that it was essential, if only from a purely historical and scholarly standpoint, since it is one of the few Canadian films from the silent era that is still able to be watched.
William Brownridge and Sean Kelly discussed the cult classic film Strange Brew for the February 2016 issue. Will’s verdict was that the film was absolutely Essential Canadian Cinema, particularly since comedy is something that Canada does best. Sean didn’t agree with him and felt that the characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie were better experienced in small doses on their original SCTV sketches.
As always, we look forward to hearing your comments on our findings. We hope you’ll join in the discussion of what is our national cinema.
This column was written with contributions and notes from Sean Kelly and Trista DeVries.