Canada’s Top Ten celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The brainchild of former TIFF director Piers Handling, who was seeking ways to expand awareness of Canadian cinema, the series has gone through numerous metamorphoses since its inception in 2001. The separate Canada’s Top Ten Short Films list was added in 2006. Over the years, Top Ten has mounted cross-country tours and hosted onstage conversations, musical performances, and art installations. But one thing has remained consistent: each year’s lists have showcased the incredible wealth of talent in the Canadian film industry, spanning the entire country, spotlighting work in every genre, and honouring a diverse group of filmmakers.
Canada’s Top Ten 2021 includes its share of veterans, but also looks towards the future. There are eight first appearances among the feature-film selections, and six debuts. (That said, these first-timers are hardly unknown: Igor Drljaca, Thyrone Tommy, and Rich Williamson have all had short films in Top Ten before.) The shorts lineup includes two of Canada’s most revered directors — Zacharias Kunuk and Alanis Obomsawin — as well as returning filmmaker Terril Calder and established talent Albert Shin, but the other six titles are by newcomers to the list. (The short films will screen in two programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox January 22.)
The features list this year comprises one of the most varied lineups yet, and a very timely one at that. There are three stellar literary adaptations (Michael McGowan’s All My Puny Sorrows, Sébastien Pilote’s Maria Chapdelaine, and Shasha Nakhai and Williamson’s celebrated Scarborough); a beautiful animated biography of a young Jewish artist whose life is cut short in the Holocaust (Tahir Rana and Eric Warin’s Charlotte); a powerful and visually striking analysis of globalization (Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds, Canada’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature); a stylish exploration of the contemporary jazz scene (Tommy’s Learn to Swim); a powerful allegory for the forced removal of Indigenous children (Danis Goulet’s dystopian thriller Night Raiders); an insightful and much-needed documentary about the stereotypes projected onto Black women (Jennifer Holness’s Subjects of Desire); a poignant drama about the plight of teens facing a bleak future in contemporary Sarajevo (Drljaca’s The White Fortress); and Rhayne Vermette’s deeply personal debut feature, Ste. Anne, a moving drama about family and winner of the Best Canadian Feature Film prize at TIFF. (Incidentally, one of Vermette’s shorts will screen February 24 in a series of short films studying the avant-garde in Canada.)
And while the future of Canadian cinema looks extraordinarily bright, it’s worth noting that many of the films on the very first Top Ten list, from 2001, are still widely celebrated. Two have recently been restored: The Heart of the World by Guy Maddin (the all-time leader in Top Ten appearances, with 10 selections) and Catherine Martin’s luminous Mariages, which is now being transferred to 4K under the auspices of a new Telefilm archival programme. Here’s to the films on this year’s lists. May they enjoy the same legacy.
Senior Programmer, TIFF
dir. Michael McGowan
Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ beloved novel is propelled by nuanced direction, an affecting script, and a fearless, stellar cast. The story revolves around the women of the Von Riesen clan: writer Yoli (Alison Pill), who’s tormented by self-doubt; her sister Elf (Sarah Gadon), a concert pianist whose bouts with depression threaten to consume her; their steadfast mother, Lottie (Mare Winningham); their no-nonsense aunt Tina (Mimi Kuzyk); and Yoli’s precocious daughter Nora (Amybeth McNulty).
The family are no strangers to sorrow: they left their Mennonite community after the suicide of Von Riesen patriarch Jake (Donal Logue). How the family confront — or fail to confront — trauma is the central focus of the film. The sisters are close, but as Yoli struggles to understand Elf and protect her from her demons, the women’s fundamental differences come to the fore.
Oscillating between extremes of joy and sadness, All My Puny Sorrows is deeply literary. Yoli and Elf connect through their intellectual curiosity and capacity for life — which makes the film all the more heartbreaking, and its ultimate embrace of life so touching.
Content advisory: suicide
dirs. Eric Warin, Tahir Rana
This stunning animated drama brings to life the remarkable true story of Charlotte Salomon, an enigmatic young German Jewish painter who created a sprawling masterpiece in the face of both private turmoil and sweeping global cataclysm.
Born into a wealthy but troubled family in Berlin, Charlotte (voiced by Keira Knightley) is preternaturally gifted, with a wild imagination and grand ambitions. At age 16, her dreams are dashed as the Nazis seize power. Her family eventually leaves for the South of France, but life for Charlotte becomes increasingly difficult there. Struggling to comprehend a traumatic past and present, she paints her autobiography: nearly a thousand gouaches depicting the lives of everyone near and dear to her. By the time of her death at Auschwitz in 1943, she’d left behind her extraordinary expressionist “Song-play”: Life? or Theatre?
Featuring the voices of a top-notch international and Canadian cast, Charlotte is a powerful tale told with stunning artistry by directors Eric Warin and Tahir Rana — who do great justice to their subject’s unique work and tragically brief life.
dir. Ivan Grbovic
A riveting, visually striking drama about globalization, Drunken Birds — Ivan Grbovic’s feature follow-up to his impressive TIFF ’11 debut, Roméo Onze — follows a Mexican drug-cartel driver, Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who falls in love with his boss’s wife. Fearing exposure, they flee — in separate directions. Willy eventually arrives in Quebec, where he believes his lost love took refuge with relatives. While searching for her, he signs on with a crew of migrant workers on a family farm. Despite a benevolent front put up by his new employers, Willy realizes life there isn’t so different from his experience with the cartel.
Grbovic and co-writer and cinematographer Sara Mishara tell a powerful tale exposing the exploitation and disparity inherent in class relations. Power and money create privilege — the privilege to create truth and value — while the workers have few means to push back. The filmmakers craft a universe that’s equal parts magic realist, naturalistic, romantic — and full of indelible images, from a car chase involving a burning vehicle to a surreal sequence in which mystified labourers explore the lurid excess of the cartel kingpin’s abandoned estate.
Content advisory: racialized violence, sexual violence, emotional abuse, references to domestic abuse
dir. Thyrone Tommy
A musical meditation on love and loss, Thyrone Tommy’s Learn To Swim follows Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide), a doggedly private, highly proficient sax player, and Selma (Emma Ferreira), a vivacious, less experienced singer. Sparks fly when the two meet, but their emotional baggage and different temperaments make the road to romance bumpy at best. Shuttling poetically between two different time frames, Tommy and his collaborators create a complicated and intricate narrative, reflecting the ways both memory and grief can take control of one’s life.
The sexual and romantic tension between Dezi and Selma is explored primarily through the music they play and what it means when they can’t express themselves creatively. A fascinating portrait of the contemporary jazz scene — which can include cool jazz, hard bop, hip-hop, and Latin American music — the film also captures the workaday world of musicians, whose excitement about their art can be muted by their often hardscrabble profession.
Boasting a fine cast and a sharp script by Marni Van Dyk and Tommy, and buoyed by Nick Haight’s smart cinematography — which evokes classic Blue Note album covers — Learn To Swim is a remarkable, assured debut that, like the music it champions, is sophisticated and evocative, equal parts melancholy and exultation.
dir. Sébastien Pilote
Sébastien Pilote (The Fireflies Are Gone, a Top Ten selection in 2018) adapts Louis Hémon’s beloved 1913 novel Maria Chapdelaine handsomely for the screen. The Chapdelaines are homesteaders in northern Quebec in the early 1900s. Father Samuel (Sébastien Ricard) has little patience for society, leading to a strangely peripatetic, often lonely existence for his long-suffering wife, Laura (Hélène Florent). But important decisions loom involving their daughter Maria (Sara Montpetit), who has reached marrying age.
Three very different suitors come forward: factory worker Lorenzo (Robert Naylor) offers an escape from rural hardship; awkward neighbour Eutrope (Antoine Olivier Pilon) has loved Maria since childhood and will let her remain close to her family; and dashing logger François (Émile Schneider) may offer new frontiers. Whom Maria chooses will have profound implications for her entire family. Pilote and cinematographer Michel La Veaux create a film that is both an elegy and a paean, as reflected in their treatment of the landscape. The rural Quebec depicted here is simultaneously beautiful and unforgiving, especially if one lets down their guard.
This latest film version of Maria Chapdelaine is the closest to its inspiration — and, perhaps not coincidentally, may become the versions others are measured against.
dir. Danis Goulet
This film contains scenes that may distress some viewers, especially those who have experienced harm, abuse, violence, and/or intergenerational trauma due to colonial practices.
Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and for those who may be triggered by content dealing with residential schools, child abuse, emotional trauma, and racism. The national Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
Danis Goulet’s debut feature is one of the most important Canadian films in recent memory. A searing thriller set in the near future, Night Raiders digs deep into Canada’s painful past to craft a compelling, propulsive piece of genre cinema.
In the wake of a destructive war, the military has seized power. One of their tactics: taking children from their families and putting them into State Academies, or forced-education camps. Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a Cree mother desperate to protect her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart). But events force mother and daughter to separate, leading Niska to join a group of Cree vigilantes to get her daughter back.
If this story echoes the forced assimilation of Indigenous children that colonizing powers undertook in Canada, the US, Australia, and beyond, that’s no coincidence. Goulet is Cree-Métis from northern Saskatchewan. With Night Raiders, she transforms the ugly reality of residential schools into remarkable, cinematic world building. The production design, cinematography, and visual effects all contribute to a full immersion in a powerful, fictional world. But Goulet’s vision, combined with powerful performances from Tailfeathers, Letexier-Hart, and Gail Maurice, bring this speculative future into dialogue with our past. Night Raiders is not just a singular Canadian film, but a new view of Canada for the whole world.
Content advisory: child abuse, emotional trauma, racism, violence, coarse language
dirs. Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson
Adapted from Catherine Hernandez’s critically acclaimed novel, Scarborough is an unflinching portrait of three low-income families struggling to endure within a system that’s set them up for failure — and the ways in which community can help lift people up to overcome obstacles placed in their way.
Taking place over the span of a school year, Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s debut narrative is a triptych that centres on three characters: Bing, a Filipino boy living under the shadow of his father’s abuse and mental illness; Sylvie, an Indigenous girl whose family struggles to find permanent housing; and Laura, afflicted by her parents’ neglect. They’re connected through their neighbourhood and their school’s morning program, run by a caring teacher and a figure of inspiration in their lives.
Scarborough offers a raw yet empathetic glimpse into a diverse community that finds its dignity in unexpected places: a collective refusal to be fractured by individual challenges and instead be brought together through kindness and solidarity. Nakhai and Williamson portray the specific truths of their characters’ daily lives with a big-hearted honesty and accuracy that makes the work deeply affecting and powerful.
dir. Rhayne Vermette
Set and shot in Treaty 1 territory, which today includes Winnipeg and the nearby town that lends the film its title, Manitoban filmmaker and artist Rhayne Vermette’s debut feature Ste. Anne — winner of the Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF 2021 — is a deeply mysterious and alluring examination of home by way of places and people.
The first image in Ste. Anne, one that recurs throughout, is of a sombre, expansive prairie sky at dusk. Eerie and painterly, as is the rest of the film’s exceptionally striking use of 16mm, the skies are only one of several ghostly elements at play in Vermette’s oblique, impressionistic narrative. The central revenant is Renée (Vermette), who returns to her young daughter Athene — now living with Renée’s brother Modeste and his wife — after an unexplained absence of several years. The reunion is fraught, not in the least due to Renée’s closely held secrets and obvious unease with the prospect of settling into a traditional role of mother or homesteader.
With its profound sense of place and a dreamlike, collagist intensity (and echoes of Paris, Texas not too far off), Ste. Anne confronts ideas of belonging, reclamation, and family with both intimacy and a near-hallucinatory pull toward visual abstraction.
dir. Jennifer Holness
With sensitivity, intelligence, and courage, Jennifer Holness’s new documentary explores the cultural shift in North American concepts of beauty, and the recent focus on Black women and Black feminine aesthetics. The film is constructed around the 50th anniversary edition of the Miss Black America beauty pageant, which was launched in 1968 to address the racism of the Miss America Pageant. (The latter institution officially barred candidates deemed not “of the white race” until 1950, and had no Black contestants until 1970.)
Holness also investigates stereotypes about Black womanhood that pervade North American culture, tracing, with impressive and sometimes harrowing thoroughness, the genesis of these myths back to slavery, the Old South, and subsequent revisionist fantasies rooted in racist power structures. The best-known of these, such as the image of happy, maternal servants devoted to white households, existed to obscure dynamics of abuse against young Black women — and to absolve the enslavers of responsibility.
As Holness and her subjects point out, the most recent phase of cultural appropriation is also troubling and problematic. As contrived, misleading debates about critical race theory are being deployed to obscure racism in the present day, Subjects of Desire comes at just the right time and is truly essential viewing.
Content advisory: references to racism and sexual violence
dir. Igor Drljaca
One of Canada’s most skilled young filmmakers, Igor Drljaca returns to Canada’s Top Ten for a second consecutive year. (His brilliant short The Archivists was part of the 2020 Top Ten.) The White Fortress finds the Bosnian Canadian director returning to the country of his birth, a subject previously explored in his features Krivina, The Waiting Room, and The Stone Speakers.
Faruk (Pavle Čemerikić) is an orphaned teen living with his grandmother in contemporary Sarajevo. During the day he works hauling scrap for his uncle, who only hangs around to ingratiate himself with Faruk’s grandmother (he wants her apartment). At night Faruk does odd jobs for local gangsters, though he’s so low in the pecking order that he isn’t even fully aware they’re up to anything criminal — at first.
As the film proceeds, the scope of corruption in the city is expanded via Mona (Sumeja Dardagan), a girl Faruk connects with. Her father is a prominent, deeply corrupt politician who may be more dangerous than the gangsters Faruk works for. Drljaca juxtaposes this exposé of political rot with the poignancy of first love, directing the film with extraordinary nuance and restraint that, perhaps paradoxically, imbues the film with intense emotional power.
dir. Sarra El Abed
Filmed in a hair salon on the eve of Tunisia’s presidential election, Sarra El Abed’s perceptive documentary portrays the country’s wider shifts and changes as reflected in the lively exchanges between a group of very memorable women.
dir. Zacharias Kunuk
Zacharias Kunuk boldly brings his unparalleled storytelling skills and cinematic prowess into a new medium with his first animated work, an astonishingly intricate and mesmerizing stop-motion marvel about a young shaman facing her most daunting test.
dir. Marie Valade
As playful in its form and technique as it is thoughtful in its take on womanhood, this animated wonder by Quebec’s Marie Valade uses a woman’s surrealist journey to explore her love–hate relationship with her breasts, body, and femininity.
dir. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Araya Mengesha
Starring in and directing their own razor-sharp script, the Toronto team of Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Araya Mengesha play twins trying to navigate their own, and each other’s, complex responses to both the lockdown and the fight for racial justice during the long hot summer of 2020.
dir. Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers, Carmine Pierre-Dufour
A woman reeling from a breakup faces further disruptions when her mother makes an unexpected visit. Captured with great sensitivity and warmth by Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers and Carmine Pierre-Dufour, these characters’ time together is a precious opportunity to truly connect.
dir. Alanis Obomsawin
Alanis Obomsawin shares a powerful 2016 speech by the Ojibway senator and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair, interspersing it with heartbreaking testimonies from residential school survivors.
dir. Annie St-Pierre
Tensions and awkwardness between their newly divorced parents at a family gathering makes for a less than joyful Christmas Eve for the kids in Annie St-Pierre’s wry yet warm-hearted holiday tale.
dir. Terril Calder
Filmmaker, artist, and animator Terril Calder’s latest short film may be her most powerful and intricately designed work to date: a stop-motion animation that charts a challenging journey for Baby Girl, a precocious Métis girl contemplating her path to Hell.
dir. Fawzia Mirza
A queer Muslim woman adds another wild card to a gathering that’s already plenty unpredictable when she brings her new partner to her family’s holiday festivities, in director Fawzia Mirza’s buoyant and big-hearted comedy.
dir. Albert Shin
Albert Shin demonstrates all his directorial prowess and knack for creating stark yet vivid characters with this remarkable drama about two strangers who convene at a seaside motel in South Korea with very particular intentions in mind.