My Top Ten Canadian Movies

By J.S. Porter

1.  “Jesus of Montreal” (Jésus de Montréal)

I’m going to tell you as little as possible so as not to spoil what awaits you.

A troupe of Montreal actors gathers each year on Basilica property to enact the passion and crucifixion of Jesus for tourists and interested persons. In enacting the drama, they somehow become what they perform. Directed by Denys Arcand and starring Lothaire Bluteau as Jesus, the film won the Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. I never tire of watching it. Still get the shivers and shakes from its power, and rank it up there with “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” by Pasolini as one of the finest depictions of the Christian message ever filmed.

2.  “Naked Lunch”

I once had the privilege of having a conversation about Canadian film with a young man from Cannes who never missed a festival. He spoke passionately about two Canadian film giants – David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan—and I did my best with broken French to understand him and reply to him.

“Naked Lunch” is Cronenberg’s version of the William Burroughs novel. Wild, wacky— beguiling.

3.  “Ararat”

Atom Egoyan’s depiction of the Armenian genocide. Sometimes war and politics can be turned into art. Christopher Plummer makes an appearance, and so does a brilliant lecturer on the American-Armenian painter Gorky played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian.

“The Sweet Hereafter,” showcasing a young Sarah Polley, is also very good.

4.  “Stories We Tell”

I’m drawn to Sarah Polley’s work, especially to her love letter to Toronto, “Take This Waltz,” with rickshaws darting in and out of Toronto streets, but the brilliant documentary, “Stories We Tell” is my choice for number four.

In this deep probe into familial bonds, Polley discovers that her father is not her biological father. Instead, the biological father is a complex Jewish man whom she tries valiantly to get to know.

5.  “My Winnipeg”

The film is directed by Guy Maddin, some kind of mad cinematic genius. Post-modern? Maddin raids historical archives, black-and-white silent film techniques, realism, surrealism. I once asked a Winnipegger if “My Winnipeg” was the real Winnipeg, and she responded, “Yes, if you have a brilliant imagination and can see little things as hyper-significant.”

6.  “Antigone”

I want to select the whole of Quebec cinema–one of the world’s powerhouses of cinema—from “Léolo” to “Incendies” to “Maelström” to “I Killed My Mother” (J’ai tué ma mère) a 2009 film written, directed, produced and starring Xavier Dolan, in his directorial debut—but I’ll pick one of the most recent gems, “Antigone” directed by Sophie Deraspe.

The film is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play by Sophocles. The film transposes the story to a modern-day refugee family in Montreal where the female lead is as fearless as her ancient counterpart.

“Antigone” won five Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Picture in 2020.

7.  “My American Cousin”

A coming-of-age film. Sweet, tender. It plays with the stereotype that Canadians are dull and boring, and Americans are exciting and risk-taking. Faced with a boring summer of cherry-picking, a young girl’s life changes when her American cousin, a James Dean lookalike, arrives unexpectedly from California in a red Cadillac convertible. The restlessness of youth, its innocence, and how memory holds what is precious for as long as it can.

The film is shot in one of Canada’s beauty spots, the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia.

It’s a 1996 mockumentary adapted by Noel Baker from the novel by Michael Turner. Featuring a self-destructive punk rock band, the film is directed by Bruce McDonald.

9.  “Cube”

This sci-fi mystery thriller from Vincenzo Natali has reached near-cult status in Japan and France.

Six strangers awake inside a mysterious maze-like structure. A cop, a doctor, a math student, an escaped convict, an architect, and an autistic savant. No one knows how he or she got there. All want to escape. The rooms present challenges, problems, and lethal booby traps. The only way out is to co-operate, a quality some are better demonstrating than others.

10.  “Sleeping Giant”

A charming coming-of-age film, beautifully photographed around the shores of Lake Superior in the summertime. Directed by Andrew Cividino who also has directed episodes of the Emmy-winning TV comedy “Schitt’s Creek,” this quiet and gentle delight portrays the friendship of three teenage boys with a girl thrown in to make things really interesting.

That’s my ten. Now compare my list to Canada’s All-Time Top Ten List of Canadian Films from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF):

1. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Zacharias Kunuk (2001)
2. Mon oncle Antoine, Claude Jutra (1971)
3. The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan (1997)
4. Jésus de Montréal, Denys Arcand (1989)
5. Léolo, Jean-Claude Lauzon (1992)
6. Goin’ Down the Road, Don Shebib (1970)
7. Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg (1988)
8. C.R.A.Z.Y., Jean-Marc Vallée (2005)
9. My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin (2007)
10. Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley (2012)/Les Ordres, Michel Brault (1974)

Our lists share a few directors in common: Egoyan, Arcand, Cronenberg, Polley and Maddin. I really like Jean-Claude Lauzon’s “Léolo,” too, the film that Roger Ebert put on the world cinematic map with his positive review from TIFF.

Now, that’s TIFF and me, how about your list?

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