The Landscape of Canadian Cinema

in 36th Toronto International Film Festival

by John Semley

As Canada’s premiere annual film fete, TIFF (formerly, the Toronto International Film Festival) plays an integral role in terraforming the landscape of Canadian national cinema. Beyond the festival proper, TIFF’s year-round programming of Canadian films at it’s new headquarters/theatre, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and its annual “Best Of” program, Canada’s Top Ten, has defined the organization’s function as cultural gatekeeper. Though there are exceptions, Canadians films (and especially English-language Canadian films) pass through the festival first, en route to establishing a foothold in the culture and dialogue of our national cinema. And sometimes, these films are even secure sales.

Given all this, TIFF’s assembling of Canadian films can be scattershot. Though this is oftentimes more a reflection on the Canadian film industry, and its talent pool, than the festival’s programming, which tends to just serve up a buffet-style platter of anything that’s available (well, most of it anyways). Despite a spate of prominently-positioned duds, TIFF 2011 saw a handful of terrific films from newcomers and veterans alike. In this latter camp, the undisputed high-watermark (and easily one of the most talked-about films of TIFF 2011) was Michael Dowse’s bloody, bad-mannered hockey comedy Goon.

Starring the scruffy, doe-eyed Seann William Scott—who, while still most identified (and, often, referred to) as Stiffler from the American Pie series of teen gross-out comedies, boarded the his comic horizons as Wheeler in 2008’s Role Models—Dowse gives ragged, hard-fought life to the story of a professional ice hockey enforcer (commonly, “a goon”) whose dearth of skating and stick-handling skills are countenanced by his canny ability to dish out flurries of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts. Co-written by Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel (who co-stars as Scott’s foul-mouthed buddy, a character who profanity seems in place simply to secure a hard R-rating), Goon’s script grasps, and truly appreciates, the appeal of hockey violence. (Much more than Alex Gibney’s limp doc on the same subject, The Last Gladiators, also at TIFF 2011.) Through three features (Fubar, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, and Fubar II), Dowse has proven himself one of Canada’s brassiest comic voices. Goon further verifies this status. It may even poise Dowse for an international breakthrough, despite the acutely, unapologetically Canadian subject matter.

A comedy as sharp and gallant as Goon is a rare thing at TIFF. But Guy Maddin’s latest, Keyhole, was suffused with that wry, self-deprecating, Maddinesque humour that has come to define (and, sometimes, delimit) his work. Maddin’s first film short digitally, Keyhole’s probing of family and memory (familiar tropes for Maddin) proved familiar, but just as familiarly pleasant. And on the subject of the familiar, Canadian cinema’s old guard was fronted by David Cronenberg, whose international co-production, A Dangerous Method, landed in Toronto after premiering at Venice. Glossy and surprisingly mannered—both for a Cronenberg film and a film that is, in some respect, about sado-masochism — the talky Freud/Jung drama wanted for the typically rich subtext that bubbles under even Cronenberg’s weaker films: because the film is explicitly about psychoanalysis, it wears its psycho-sexual preoccupations very much on its sleeve.

Similarly disappointing — though, granted, the expectations were not as high — was Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, an inoffensive but unremarkable Toronto-set drama of strained infidelity casting Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams, and Luke Kirby as points in a fraught love triangle. And though Jean-Marc Vallée’s return to the Quebecois cinema, Café de flore beguiled some critics with its narrative shuffling and distressed emotional heartstring-tugging, I found its dovetailing of two separate plotlines (one set in contemporary Montreal, the other in 1960s Paris) largely overwrought. Winding himself to meet the expectations of critics and fans who adored his 2005 coming-of-age dramedy C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée’s aesthetic and thematic ambitions reveals itself as desperate, exasperated, overexertion. Great soundtrack, though.

In respect to the newer Canadian talents whose films found their way into TIFF 2011’s lineup, the Vancouver duo of Kris Elgstrand and Dylan Akio Smith (in their first collaboration as co-directors) served up a funny, cynical, and cerebral comedy with Doppelganger Paul (A Film About How Much I Hate Myself), which chanelled the authorial headgames of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation as much as the on-the-road buddy picture dynamics of Hope and Crosby. First-timer Nathan Morlando also impressed with Edwin Boyd, a strikingly contemporary period piece about the titular mid-century Toronto bank robber. Scott Speedman (as Boyd) headed a marvelous cast, adroitly directed by Morlando, with gorgeous cinematography by Steve Cousens. Most remarkable of the newbies, though, was Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s The Patron Saints. An unsettling, warts-and-all look inside a nursing home, Saints can be situated in Canada’s grand documentary tradition somewhere between the actuality dramas of Alan King and the sweepingly minimalist aesthetic of Denis Côté’s fuzzy docu-fictions.

Finally, I should note that I very much enjoyed Bruce MacDonald’s unlikely sequel Hard Core Logo II (which landed its writer/director/star in the prestigious Masters section), though I seem to be about the only one charmed by MacDonald’s candid, productive sentimentality. The critical consensus seemed more unified for Phillippe Flardeau’s Quebecois schoolroom drama Monsieur Lazhar, though I’ll confess to having missed it.