Glimpsing Cinema’s Northern Lights at Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival

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The only mainstay on the new list is the Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who at 27 is already a lauded veteran at home and abroad, where he has become an award-winning darling of the Cannes Film Festival. His latest, “It’s Only the End of the World,” is a French coproduction with a star cast led by Marion Cotillard.

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Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil portray struggling methadone users in Nova Scotia in Ashley McKenzie’s “Werewolf.”

Credit
via Tiff

You’ll find few other A-listers in the other nine films. Among them, two are Inuit-directed: “Angry Inuk,” a vital documentary by the activist Alethea Arnaquq-Baril that advocates for traditional seal-hunting practices, and an ambitious take on the classic western “The Searchers” called “Maliglutit (Searchers)” directed by Zacharias Kunuk. “Window Horses,” about a Canadian poet of Chinese and Iranian heritage, is a work of simple beauty from the animator Ann Marie Fleming, featuring the voice of the Nova Scotian Ellen Page. “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves,” directed by Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, is an unapologetically abrasive and politically charged drama about leftist subversives amid “the Maple Spring,” the 2012 student riots in Montreal. Anne Émond’s “Nelly” is a risk-taking biopic about the Quebec writer Nelly Arcan that moves between fantasy and reality. Nathan Morlando’s more middling coming-of-age film “Mean Dreams” is bolstered by a career-best supporting turn from Bill Paxton as an alcoholic father.

Johnny Ma’s “Old Stone,” a compelling drama about a cabdriver who hits a motorcyclist and ends up caught in a bureaucratic nightmare as he tries to save the man’s life, is one of three debut features that compose the most exciting part of this year’s list. It picked up the Best Canadian First Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and it was shot entirely in China. “That’s part of the story of Canadian film right now,” said Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director. “Not only is there a new generation, but there’s a generation that is plugged into the world beyond Canada’s borders.”

OLD STONE official US trailer Video by ZeitgeistFilms

The other debuts may be the best on the list, and both take place in Canadian locations that rarely if ever grace the big screen. Ashley McKenzie’s deeply empathetic “Werewolf,” about a methadone-addicted couple trying to scrape together a living, is set on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. And Kevan Funk’s “Hello Destroyer” follows a minor-league hockey player in Prince George, British Columbia, who is discarded by his team after an on-ice act of violence. Boldly working against Canadiana, Mr. Funk has made a seeming hockey movie that pivots into a skewering of the masculinity at the core of the country’s favorite pastime — and any institution that breeds single-minded competition.

“Werewolf” and “Hello Destroyer” were both bankrolled by Telefilm Canada, which was criticized by directors and others in 2016 for a tendency to devote most of its budget to established talents rather than taking chances. Ms. McKenzie and Mr. Funk are trying to change that, and they’re not the only ones. “There’s a sense of a movement, a common approach to the means of production,” Mr. Bailey said. “These are original new voices, and I’m glad we have a culture here that is looking for that.”

There’s a bustling scene here in Toronto perhaps behind only New York and Los Angeles when it comes to inventive, lower-budgeted productions, a scene growing so fast it can’t be contained by Top Ten. A new generation of independently minded directors has come of age, liberated by access to affordable digital cameras and equipment as well as crews of friends, and unbound by pre-established notions of their national cinema’s identity. So-called Toronto D.I.Y. filmmakers include Kazik Radwanski, Matt Johnson, Isiah Medina and Sofia Bohdanowicz, whose virtually no-budget debut, the award-winning “Never Eat Alone,” is a formally brilliant docu-fiction that movingly interprets her grandmother’s real-life search for a lost love.

She’s not on this year’s list. Neither is Mr. Johnson, whose sophomore feature, “Operation Avalanche,” a convincing and thrilling mockumentary about faking the moon landing, turned heads at Sundance in 2016.

Operation Avalanche (2016 Movie) – Official Trailer Video by Lionsgate Movies

But the annual list serves as an essential spotlight, best used as a gateway. Right now, it’s a view to a particularly inspired moment with what may be a full-fledged new wave on the horizon. Canada’s Top Ten is far from the whole story — and that’s a good thing.

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