We knew this was going to be a slow year for films. Our initial analogy of comparing them to NDP MPs from 2011 proved to be frighteningly true. Some intriguing films but few that will make a splash.
Even within the 5 films with crossover potential, 2 of them rank well above average, and those 2 films are likely overrated in crossover potential.
There are some jewels in the list but they will be harder to find, even for Canadians.
Strong crossover potential
My Internship in Canada was our top pick from the festival. We reviewed this film separately. As for crossover appeal, the film is smart and clever. True, some of the subtleties will be lost in a non-Quebecois audience. U.S. audiences sit through films such as "The Kings's Speech" and "The Queen" about British politics, so foreign politics isn't that foreign. Patrick Huard and Suzanne Clement are known entities for those who have seen recent major Quebecois films: in fact, both were in "Mommy." The film has a limited release in Canada and no known U.S. outlets at the moment.
Elephant Song features Xavier Dolan in his acting world playing a mental patient who might have information about a missing doctor. Bruce Greenwood is a fellow doctor who is trying to get information from Dolan's character. The vast majority of the film is Dolan and Greenwood in a meeting of the minds. Beautiful acting in a chilling story. Catherine Keener plays the nurse with a link to the past with Greenwood's character. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Greenwood's wife. The film actually played at TIFF in 2014 so "Elephant Song" has been out for awhile. It has played in Canada, but outside a few festivals, the film hasn't played in the U.S.
The Anima Profile is a documentary about the real story about the "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blog, though the blog itself turns out to be less than real. The film offers a hybrid documentary with fiction elements to set the mood. The film needed a bit more of the fiction to make things interesting. The real story of the blog is convoluted, and the film suffers as a result. The Canadian connection is a French woman who now lives in Montréal, and while we can sympathize with her story, the film makes this more about her than the suffering in Syria.
Every Thing Will Be Fine gives us James Franco as a writer who accidentally kills a young child with his car. The legendary film director Win Wenders gives us Montréal from an anglophone standpoint. We see the city's skyline, including Olympic Stadium, from the South Shore. French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg spends the entire film in English, including reading The Gazette. The closest we get to Quebecois is Canadian actress Rachel McAdams in an unconvincing Quebecois accent. Look carefully for a brief appearance by Julia Sarah Stone, star of "Wet Bum." Wenders takes us down a path in the way his films tend to go, so you may not understand it all but the ride is worthwhile. The film should be out in the States next month.
Born to Be Blue is a Canadian look at the life of American jazz legend Chet Baker, who is known for his heroin use as much as his trumpeting. The filmmakers set the film in the 1960s after Baker launched his career but after his fall from the limelight. We see Baker trying to play himself on film and how his girlfriend is also the actress who played his girlfriend in the film about Baker's life. The filmmaker made some good and bad choices in how to portray the story, kind of like the highs and lows of a drug high. Ethan Hawke does a good job at taking us into Baker's head and his need to get high. Look for Callum Keith Rennie as Baker's long-time manager and Kevin Harchand as Dizzy Gillespie. Other than the surf and beach scenes that were filmed in Los Angeles, "Born to Be Blue" was shot in Sudbury, Ontario.
Good but harder to find
Guidance is a twisted comedy that actually is funny. Pat Mills is the writer, director, and lead character, an over-the-top alcoholic who is a recovering child star who decides to help people by pretending to be a school guidance counselor. The character is a bit of Stuart Smalley with mannerisms remnant of Bruce McCulloch from "Kids in the Hall." Mills' character turns out to be helpful but not in the ways the school intended. Toronto is the setting though the film smartly stays away from downtown where we get a different vibe of Canada's largest city. Look for Kevin Harchand as the principal: U.S. audiences know him from playing Detective Art Bell on "Orphan Black." This film is likely headed to video-on-demand in both countries after playing in theatres on both side of the border.
La Passion d'Augustine is the latest film from Lea Pool. The film takes us to a convent school in rural Quebec in the 1960s post Vatican II that specializes in music. The actresses sing and play the piano themselves. The primary plot is the niece of the mother nun comes to the school with amazing talent and an attitude. Pressure also comes from forces higher up (but not too high) who don't understand the need for a school devoted to music. The changes are also coming within Quebec in terms of the loosening of the dominance of the Catholic Church in La Belle Province. Change in a world that may not be ready for change is a theme throughout the film. Pool does a marvelous job in telling a story that is female-dominant in a church that doesn't think all that much about the fairer gender.
Sandwich Nazi brings us the story of a Vancouver deli owner who grew up in Lebanon. Salam Kahil loves his customers so he isn't rude like the Soup Nazi, but he is definitely very un-PC. If you are more sensitive or are housing young children, this may not be the film for you. For mature adults, this film is seriously hilarious. You learn that the sandwich guy has an elaborate background that brought him to Canada.
Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World showcases the series of islands off the coast of western British Columbia. Mining and logging have done their damage to the island but the documentary shows us that the native people have successfully fought back. The islands have more natives than non-natives. The scenery is amazing and well worth the price of watching, but you get a cool story about a place that is Canadian and aboriginal with majestic beauty.
Al Purdy Was Here is a hearty look at one of Canada's best poets. The film shows us the poetic impact Purdy made as well as celebrating the A-frame house where Purdy created a lot of his poems. Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent, Sarah Harmer, and Bruce Cockburn are some of the Canadian icons who make appearances in the documentary; look for now disgraced Sen. Pamela Wallin in her previous life as a TV journalist interviewing Purdy. A documentary about poetry could put some people to sleep, but the film tells the story of a guy with a Grade 10 education who produces some amazing takes on Canadian life and culture. "Al Purdy Was Here" is the debut film from Bruce D. Johnson, long-time MacLean's film critic.
Good but difficult to find
Le Mirage is about a mid-life crisis from director Ricardo Trogdi, who brought us "1987" in last year's festival. The film starts as comedic with exaggerated expectations for what the manager of a sporting goods store considers to be a fantasy world. We saw poignant scenes of trying to keep up with the neighbors, including a scene where we see price tags of what items cost, something that feel straight out of a Denys Arcand film. "An Eye for Beauty" hits on some of the same targets as "Le Mirage." Both films take us to Quebec City as a forum for romance. "Le Mirage" takes a serious turn toward the end of the film. While the film starts out as a light comedy, the ending is true in its sadness, definitely not a focus-group tested American ending.
Our Loved Ones is a family drama about depression set in rural Quebec. The family patriarch has died of a "heart attack" but the real reason is kept from one of the sons. The film moves through the years and is mostly about the relationship between him and his daughter Laurence. The film is well-made and gives us rich, real characters. Our Loved Ones does drag toward the end but is true to the story. One side note: the children are named Laurence and Fred, the same names as the primary characters in Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways." A very clever shout-out to lovers of Quebec film.
Us is set up as a film with a young person returning from Los Angeles to the fictional city of Davenport, Ontario after failure. However, the film turns out to be a Breakfast Club setting with 25-year-olds and a nice mix of animation and reality to show how our peers don't always have the ideal life they pretend to have. This film is surprisingly well-made given the premise.
Ville-Marie is a film that has levels above the script even if we aren't quite sure what they are. European actress Monica Bellucci plays an European actress doing a film in Montreal. Pascale Bussières, whom you should remember from "When Night Is Falling," plays Marie, a nurse in Hopital Ville-Marie. The two end up with a bond of sorts even though their backgrounds are quite different. The film felt incomplete as if you weren't getting the whole story. Though the focus is more on the European actress, the story of the nurse would have made for an amazing film that would have been better than this film.
Short, local, or bad
Liminality is a quarter-life crisis film centered around a number of characters set in London, Ontario. If you are paying enough attention, you see signs of Ontario throughout the film from milk bags to the Beer Store. The film feels more of an indulgence to the filmmaker as opposed to the audience.
Stillwater is a short film from director Min Bae, who works at WIFF. The actors and story are local set in the prohibition times about a teenage boy trying to get medicine for his ailing baby sister. The film is only 23 minutes. The potential for a full-length film is there so we will hold off a full conclusion until we see the finished product. But Canadian prohibition is a great topic and Windsor's history and geographic proximity to the United States is a story that should be told on film.
Whatever It Was is a surprisingly complex story about relationships and trying to find what you want. The local Windsor film is legendary in those circles and is based off of a play. The characters make you want to care, even if they are headed toward poor relationship choices. Windsor native Dylan Pearce directed this film and "40 Below and Falling" but clearly had a better writer for this film.
40 Below and Falling was very close to being a parody of a rom-com. The couple is decent with not much chemistry. The family members are oddly cast and are given scenes that are poorly written and act pretty wooden in them. Again, this is close to being a parody but those scenes aren't funny or interesting. You almost wonder if the intended bride and groom even met, much less be in love. The winter scenery is gorgeous, set in Alberta north of Edmonton. If you rent this for the scenery, you'll be spending a lot of time fast forwarding the film.
The Mask (Eyes of Hell) is a landmark in that this is the first (of many) Canadian horror films, dating back to 1961. The film and plot are pretty simple: a mask is found in an archaeological dig and anyone who wears the mask sees unspeakable horror that leads to unfortunate consequences. You can see the cult elements and the 3-D effects are rather cool, especially for 1961. This version is remastered and has a limited run.
I didn't get to see "The Trick with the Gun." There was a conflict with another Canadian film. I didn't hear any buzz; found a single person who liked the film. "Chameleon" was probably a very fine film about Ghanaian journalism, but I didn't get a chance to see it. I can't speak to the Canadian content, if any, of "Miss Julie," "Suite Francaise," and "The Wanted 18."