Toronto might be one of the great North American cities, but it’s hardly celebrated the way New York, Los Angeles, or even Chicago is on film. It rarely plays itself, usually posing as New York City (Kick-Ass), Detroit (RoboCop), or some fictional metropolis like Midway City (Suicide Squad). As such, the Toronto that is presented on screen is unmemorable, a bland modern city of generic skyscrapers and universal hallmarks of any big city. Luckily, this isn’t always the case.
In the hundreds of films filmed in Toronto, there are a few films that highlight Toronto’s appeal and character. At best, they demonstrate Toronto’s canny ability as a performer and chameleon, able to mimic other cities, but also to display multiple facets of its character. The following 10 shots are some great examples of Toronto on film.
(Shoutout to David Fleischer’s Torontoist column, Reel Toronto, which is the Internet’s most exhaustive exploration of Toronto in TV and film. Also, Geoff Pevere’s Toronto on Film, which contextualizes the city’s portrayal over the decades. I would’ve never been able to compile this list without these resources.)
Although it’s standing in for New York, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Toronto will recognize locations throughout American Psycho. This particular shot of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) entering his office building late in the film comes after a flurry of violence taken out on police officers and random bystanders. Bateman flees to his office to phone his lawyer, clearly entering the city’s TD Centre. The film is skewering the misogyny of the Reagan era, but this shot meta-textually applies the film’s critique to Toronto’s banking culture.
Toronto is a winding mess of roadways and home to the worst highway system in North America. This makes it the perfect setting for Cronenberg’s perverse and brilliant exploration of car crash fetishism. There are plenty of shots of highways I could’ve taken, but this early dolly-in and tilt down on the highways leading to Toronto Pearson Airport while Ballard (James Spader) has sex with his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) on the condo balcony epitomizes the film’s combination of sexual explicitness and detachment. By ignoring the sexual act in favour of the movement of the highways, Cronenberg visualizes his film’s thesis: that sex is mechanical and distant.
This sinister shot of a spider walking over the Toronto skyline is perhaps my favourite shot of Toronto on film. The current discussion of rent control and Toronto’s abhorrent condo real estate market reminded me of Villeneuve’s film and how it showcases the claustrophobic nature of life in the GTA high rises. There’s no better visual metaphor for how alienating and oppressive Toronto’s condo culture is than this shot.
I contemplated choosing the haunting final shot, but I couldn’t confirm that it was actually shot in the GTA. Instead, this early shot of the parking lot captures the film’s urban mystery. Not only is it a unique vantage of Toronto’s skyline, but also combines the recognizable commercial centres with the idea that something more exciting and possibly dangerous lurks beneath the surface.
Michael Dowse’s film doubles as an advertisement for Toronto tourism. Aside from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (see later in this gallery), The F-Word is the film that most aggressively celebrates how beautiful Toronto can be. It probably has more shots of the skyline than the city’s tourism ads have, but this particular view of Daniel Radcliffe’s Wallace sitting on his roof in Leslieville and staring at the skyline is particularly lovely. Bonus points for displaying a complete reverse angle of my own nighttime view of the skyline.
Goin' Down the Road
It’s hard to find quality images that show off how good Don Shebib’s film is and how effectively it portrays Toronto. However, this moment early in the film, where Peter (Doug McGrath) and Joey (Paul Bradley) have wandered down Yonge Street to take in its vices captures the characters’ working class desperation and playfulness. It’s a window into a past when the Yonge strip was the city’s seedy underbelly. As well, the impressionistic play of colour in this shot of the neon street signs with Peter and Joey as silhouettes in the foreground makes the shot indicative of their psyches. It displays their minds bursting in ecstasy at the thought of Toronto’s promise and excitement.
I have to applaud any film that transforms the backside of Nathan Phillips Square into a Tokyo street in the midst of a Kaiju attack. Unlike the shots of Toronto playing itself, this still from Pacific Rim doesn’t celebrate the city as it is, but it’s a surprisingly effective transformation for a city that usually lacks such fantastical character.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Like The F-Word, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could double as an advertisement of Toronto. While there are plenty of great shots of the city to choose from, like views of Lee’s Palace’s original facade and Casa Loma, this shot of Scott (Michael Cera) and Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in the Pizza Pizza across from the late Honest Ed’s captures something quintessentially Torontonian. Anyone who’s ever gone for a night out on Bloor Street and then feasted on poor-quality pizza has embodied this identical frame.
This twisted Cronenberg film from the 1980s has plenty of great Toronto shots (as do most Cronenberg films), but this shot late in the film of Max Renn (James Woods) wandering what appears to be Toronto’s East Port Lands is particularly sinister. The composition alone is fascinating. Thematically, the frame reminds us of the city’s erstwhile role as a port city, while also demonstrating that human scum like Renn would have plenty of seedy holes to disappear into in Toronto.
The Virgin Suicides
This frame of the entryway to St. John’s Norway Cemetery showcases one of Toronto’s most photogenic (and most-filmed) cemeteries. It displays Toronto’s ability to portray old-fashioned wholesomeness that masks discontent, something that’s in line with a city once known as “Toronto the Good.”