Canada’s Token 10?

The Toronto International Film Festival’s 2011 Canada’s Top 10 list is receiving some unexpected scrutiny. The 10 selections of TIFF’s annual list of the best Canadian feature films of the year, picked by a panel of 10 specially appointed film writers, filmmakers, programmers and ex-bureaucrats, are been questioned far more in the press than perhaps ever before, an interesting trend that seems to mirror the evolving approach critics and audiences are taking towards Canadian film.

If you only read one article about the Top 10, make it Norman Wilner’s recent piece for Toronto alt-weekly NOW, “Canuck Conundrum,” which takes issue with the TIFF panel’s reliance on established and celebrated Canadian directors–even when their latest work is not considered up to par. Noting his reservations about nine of the list’s 10 selections (including Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort TAKE THIS WALTZ), Wilner zeros in on Cronenberg’s new psychiatry melodrama, A DANGEROUS METHOD, as an example of a less-than-essential work from a minted Canadian icon that may have been recognized at the expense of a “hungry” up-and-coming director.

Looking back over TIFF’s lists for the last 11 years, it’s hard to argue with Wilner’s point–every single Cronenberg film made since TIFF started this initiative in 2001 has been listed (yes, even SPIDER), and the only Atom Egoyan film of the last decade not officially recognized is 2009’s CHLOE. Wilner argues that such selections amount to little more than pandering; that we should constantly reassess the quality of the films of our most visible filmmakers like Cronenberg (or Egoyan, or Polley, for that matter) instead of automatically including them on “best of” lists.

Also worth reading is a panel discussion on TIFF’s picks, as published on Cinema Scope magazine’s blog. The participants only briefly touch on the idea of “pandering” that Wilner notes, with AV Club Toronto editor John Semely again singling out A DANGEROUS METHOD as a curious selection, but the bulk of the conversation questions TIFF’s canonization of certain types of films over others, and even suggests that TIFF’s list is behind the curve of contemporary filmmaking trends. Noting a new wave of bold and bloody Canadian shorts that have been playing at international genre festivals like Fantastic Fest, Vancouver International Film Festival programming consultant Curtis Woloschuk notes that some Canadian festival programmers (and by extension, we assume, TIFF’s panelists) have been “slow on the uptake” to recognize certain types of filmmaking. 

That’s perhaps one reason why there was much surprise when a gleefully violent exploitation throwback like HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN made this year’s list. But, as pointed out by the panel, previous Top 10 lists have not necessarily shied away from genre fare–TRAILER PARK BOYS: THE MOVIE, SPLICE, GINGER SNAPS and PONTYPOOL have all gotten nods. Still, The Grid critic Jason Anderson notes several worthy but skipped-over 2011 films like ROLLER TOWN, THE CORRIDOR and Astron-6’s MANBORG, all cutting edge works from first-time directors that have connected with audiences at genre festivals.

Perhaps this is why TIFF’s list often appears more like a cultural promotional strategy rather than a bonafide ranking of quality. Each year the list appears to be carefully stocked with certain kinds of culturally polite Canadian films–a few established “name” directors, an Oscar hopeful, a French-Canadian blockbuster and a genre pick, with remaining slots going to a few emerging directors. Again, it comes down to the question that Wilner raises–is there a kind of CanFilm tokenism at work? Is it really possible that leaving an established Canadian director’s film off the list is interpreted as an intentional slight? It certainly doesn’t help that, as revealed today, TIFF is currently working to launch a multi-platform “augmented reality” game called “The Worlds of David Cronenberg.”

This issue is not a new one. Peter Morris’ essential 1994 article “In Our Own Eyes: The Canonizing of Canadian Film” asks some worthy questions about the way certain kinds of Canadian films have been canonized over the last few decades while others, many equally deserving, are brushed aside. Imagine, for example, an alternate Canadian film landscape where John Paizs’ superior CRIME WAVE scooped the 1985 Best Picture Genie from the actual winner, the far less essential MY AMERICAN COUSIN. While the Top Ten list-makers are unquestionably more astute than the Genie juries, it’s probably only a matter of time until the panel misses an unsung gem and is left wiping Tim Horton’s egg sandwich off their faces–they’ve already picked their share of virtually forgotten films (THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GUY TERRIFICO, THE UNCLES, A SIMPLE CURVE).

But it appears that Morris’ notion is taking on extra importance this year, perhaps due to an increasing disconnect between “officially” canonized CanCon and the varied Canadian films that audiences (and, obviously, more vocal critics) now want to see. It may also be a symptom of frustration with the way Canadian film industry is portrayed so reductively by lists and award shows–they seem to infer that the only game in town is a handful of the same old established icons. Perhaps our national insecurity plays a part in this too–what better way to reassure ourselves that Canadian filmmakers are global leaders than to keep awarding them the same homegrown prizes every few years?

This recent wave of criticism only makes sense–the Canadian film landscape has cracked wide open in the past few years. We’ve seen an influx of new independent talent recently creating surprisingly professional work, films with cutting edge sensibilities, humour and effects work that are appealing to audiences beyond our borders and–especially–many new delivery methods and distribution models for films. Between NetFlix, Amazon and online streaming sites (even the NFB is doing it), viewers are only a few clicks away from watching something like HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN or MON ONCLE ANTOINE. It’s probably easier to see a Canadian film today than ever before (assuming you want to watch it from the comfort of your own home, that is).

It all boils down to one thing–the purpose of the Canada’s Top 10 intiative is to promote Canadian films and filmmakers to audiences. It’s about getting names of films in front of potential viewers (well, and to get them to come to the screening series that is currently unspooling at the Bell Lightbox). So opening the process up to discussion and highlighting the wide variety of Canadian film made each year, as these articles seem to argue, can only benefit everyone. Of the ideas floated in the articles, Woloschuk’s call for publication of each panelist’s individual list might be the most easily implemented and effective way to fend off these new criticisms–it would make the selection process more transparent, it would give panelists a chance to get passionate about their choices, and it just might reveal a much wider slice of the CanCon pie than just the “Top 10.”

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  1. […] ponders the implications of the process used to select the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual top ten […]

  2. swankola says:

    You didn’t like Spider? I thought it was deliciously creepy.

    I also seem to be the only person who didn’t hate Chloe (admittedly I came to it with low expectations after reading several reviews).

    • Canuxploitation! says:

      My point was more that it’s almost certainly his weakest film of the last decade and yet still was selected (but to answer your question, not particularly). To compare, FUBAR was also released in 2002 but was not on the list. Is FUBAR a better film than SPIDER? Maybe not in terms of pure craftsmanship, but a decade later it’s clear that FUBAR has resonated with an audience in a way that SPIDER has not. Its ommission seems curious.

      But I’m not really trying to make an argument here; I don’t want to go that route with my site. I’m just noting the general trend and asking some questions that I think should be addressed. Here’s another one: why does the TIFF website not archive their yearly Top 10 lists?

  3. […] article, “Canuck Conundrum,” and Paul Corupe’s Canuxploitation blog post, “Canada’s Token 10?”:  “Celebration please, not castigation. Cineplex Entertainment is already doing a very good […]

  4. George White says:

    The best Canadian films are the weird stuff, the NFB stuff, the Shmenges – the Last Polka (infinitely better than Strange Brew) Crime Wave, The Silent Partner (best heist movie ever? Plummer’s best performance?) – even Egoyan’s stuff though I find it weird, I find it kind of boring – The Sweet Hereafter (1999) – like an arty episode of the Beachcombers. Atom Egoyan’s films have never really done it for me, not even Felicia’s Journey which makes the idea of Bob Hoskins as a Brummie serial killer obsessed with a Culchie girl and his Fanny Cradock-esque mum quite boring, even though the soundtrack’s nice. Most of his stuff is well-made Skinemax fluff done ponderously.