Based on this list of the best 50 Canadian films of all time, lovingly chosen by our experts at the Straight, it seems that Canadian cinema is a riot of diversity and a home to all voices.
Here we have Maritime classics side-by-side with prairie gothics; Québécois sophistication sharing space with West Coast noir; aboriginal stories and immigrant tales stacked up against the wild side of Canuxploitation; and at least one road movie that seems to span all the above.
It isn’t a definitive list, because there’s no such thing. But if everyone gets to have their own Canada, then this is ours. And it's delivered just in time for National Canadian Film Day 150, which takes place across Canada on Wednesday (April 19).
The Bitter Ash (1963) Twenty-six-year-old UBC student Larry Kent kickstarted Canadian independent cinema with this racy, Cassavetes-inspired tale of working stiffs clashing with Bohemia in Vancouver’s West End. Toronto’s influential Nobody Waved Goodbye would come a year later.
A Married Couple (1969) Long predating reality television, Allan King's seminal documentary plays fly on the wall to a slow-and-painfully disintegrating marriage. Still voyeuristically fascinating, even in our voyeuristic times.
Goin’ Down the Road (1970) What’s left to say? Don Shebib’s frostbitten depiction of two hapless Nova Scotians trying to make it in the big city is the Canadian story of all time. An SCTV parody was a classic in its own right, and even that couldn’t kill the film’s archetypal mojo.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) Richard Dreyfuss will forever remain an honorary Canadian thanks to this fragrant adaptation by Ted Kotcheff of the Mordecai Richler classic. It still holds up, and in its own small way prepped us for a world where Weekend at Bernie’s could exist.
Shivers (1975) I’ll say it if no one else will: this aggressively nasty debut from David Cronenberg is still his most vital film, if only because it’s such a perfect distillation of the themes that would infect his cinema for years to come. The “monster” is a parasite spliced to an aphrodisiac married to a venereal disease—that, people, is genius…!
Outrageous! (1977) It looks like it’s held together with sticky tape, but this super low-budget vehicle for Toronto female impersonator Craig Russell gets right under your skin, thanks in no small part to co-star Hollis McLaren’s devastating turn as Russell’s schizophrenic roommate.
Starship Invasions (1977) Although indefensibly bad, Starship Invasions is also weirdly compelling, and therefore great, with an inappropriately horny vibe lurking somewhere beneath the boxy, ‘50s-era robots and Christopher Lee’s solemn performance as the alien Captain Ramses. A distracted Robert Vaughn allegedly “stars.” Too weird to live, and too rare to die, as Hunter Thompson didn't write in his review.
Skip Tracer (1977) There’s never been a better movie about Vancouver than this ice-cold tale of a debt collector bent on being the meanest (read: most successful) guy in the office. Skip Tracer achieved cult status in the UK and Germany, probably because those people don’t have to live here.
The Rubber Gun (1977) Everybody plays themselves in this incredibly gritty, quasi-fictionalized (and little seen) account of life inside Montreal’s drug culture, including director Allen Moyle (who would go on to make Pump Up the Volume) and actor-artist Stephen Lack—who’s a lot livelier here than he would be in Scanners two years later!
The Kidnapping of the President (1980) It would be ignorant and unpatriotic to ignore the tax shelter era of Canadian filmmaking, and it would be a wasted opportunity if we didn’t mention this massively entertaining William Shatner vehicle, in which Captain Kirk has to somehow save the U.S. president (Hal Holbrook) from a booby-trapped Brinks truck parked outside Toronto City Hall. Maury Chaykin also shows up, like he so often does.
Big Meat Eater (1982) Easily the best film about “bloodthirsty Turks”, aliens, and zombies to ever emerge from Burquitlam. Or indeed the best (and only) film to ever emerge from Burquitlam, period. Did we mention that it’s a musical? Or that UJ3RK5 appears on the soundtrack?
Videodrome (1983) Nauseating gore effects made it a VHS-era cult hit, but it was David Cronenberg’s wittily prophetic attempt to source body horror from Marshall McLuhan that gave it staying power. At one point James Woods’ stomach-vagina swallows a gun. It’s that kind of film.
Strange Brew (1983) “Steamroller!” Bob and Doug McKenzie’s hit and miss big screen graduation is sloppier than hell, but it’s still better than Meatballs. Plus: Max Von Sydow.
Crime Wave (1985) Eccentric Winnipeg filmmaker John Paizs achieves something like hardboiled whimsy in this tale of a screenwriter who’s good with beginnings and endings, but not middles. Paizs' gift for low-key lunacy would eventually get repurposed for Kids in the Hall.
My American Cousin (1985) Sandy Wilson's love letter to growing up in 1950s Canada remains a gentle classic, nostalgic without ever feeling forced.
The Decline of the American Empire (1986) A group of college professors discuss sex over dinner and, of course, things get a little out of hand. An international hit and a rave at Cannes, Denys Arcand’s brainy breakthrough is the kind of film they don’t make anymore, in spite of the fact that PEOPLE ARE STILL HAVING SEX.
Family Viewing (1987) Atom Egoyan's breakout film was eerily prescient in its use of video footage. So were all his ideas about how catching every twisted little thing on cameras and monitors can make us numb. A strange and creepy... Comedy? Tragedy? Whatever you want to call it, it still gets under your skin.
I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) An exemplar of how Canadian comedies can eschew Hollywood standards to follow the offbeat of their own drum. Sheila McCarthy charms in her role as the idiosyncratic secretary Polly, who idolizes her female gallery owner boss (who is in a relationship with a female painter), as her awkwardness precludes her from joining the art world she aspires to be a part of.
Dead Ringers (1989) While the box office-friendly The Fly was spectacular fun, this tale of twin gynecologists and the woman they both obsess over is the more dangerous and difficult work, and by far the filmmaker’s most frighteningly honest view of misogyny gone into pathological overdrive.
Cold Comfort (1989) A prairie blizzard forces traveling salesman Paul Gross (in his debut) off the road and into an incestuous psychodrama between uber-creepy Maury Chaykin and his 16-year-old daughter, Margaret Langrick. A real skincrawler from B.C.’s Vic Sarin that deserves to be revived.
Archangel (1990) Any number of films from Guy Maddin’s singular cinematic universe could make this list, but Archangel still feels like a young genius really hitting his stride, from its perfectly rendered faux-Expressionism to a theme—amnesia—that actually seems to seep into the very experience of watching. I think. (I don’t really remember.)
Highway 61 (1991) Bruce McDonald's cult rock 'n' roll road movie captured everything that was weird and fun about indie filmmaking in the early '90s. Added bonuses: Art Bergman, Jello Biafra, and Don McKellar at the height of his eccentric-nerd powers.
Léolo (1992) Madness, masturbation, and impregnation by tomato form the basis of Jean-Claude Lauzon’s fanciful work of autobiography, easily one of the spiciest and, at times, unsettling films to emerge from Quebec.
Double Happiness (1994) Chinese-Canadian life had precisely no representation on the big screen when this unassuming gem—about a dutiful daughter straining against her parents’ traditions—came out of nowhere in 1994. Sandra Oh became a star, while first time writer-director Mina Shum didn’t do too badly out of it, either.
Crash (1996) David Cronenberg’s cinematic gestalt collides with JG Ballard's clinical literary style in a film that famously divided Cannes, thanks to its subject matter (the eroticization of deadly car accidents, what’s the big whoop?)
Hard Core Logo (1996) It's easy to forget how innovative director Bruce McDonald's faux-doc structure really was. In this story of a bunch of washed-up punk rockers, you could almost smell the stale high test in his gritty concert scenes.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997) In what is arguably his most accomplished work, director Atom Egoyan plays with structure to show the endless spiral of grief. Haunting and poetic, the film centres on a horrific school-bus accident in an icy lake, but it's about so much more. As Roger Ebert, one of the film's biggest champions wrote at the time, "the accident is like the snow clouds, always there, cutting off the characters from the sun, a vast fact nobody can change".
Last Night (1998) Otherwise known as the apotheosis of Don McKellar. Canada’s one-man film industry gathered up an impressive array of friends (Sandra Oh, David Cronenberg, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Tracy Wright) for this, his directorial debut and the very sweetest of apocalypse tales.
Smoke Signals (1998) Despite being an international coproduction helmed by an American (Chris Eyre), this bittersweet crowdpleaser—about a road trip to retrieve the ashes of an absent, alcoholic father—was pioneering in its depiction of aboriginal life. It also gave Adam Beach a star-making turn while introducing us to the comedic talents of B.C.'s future deputy medical health officer, Evan Adams (who really oughta get back into acting!)
Vinyl (2000) Never will there be a more honest and heartbreaking film about the record collector mentality than this first feature from the increasingly awesome documentarian Alan Zweig. Sometimes painfully hard to watch, impossible to forget—anybody who’s seen it will never be able to hear the name Queensrÿche again without cracking up.
Ginger Snaps (2000) Pubescent female sexuality has provided the subtext to way too many horror movies, but Ginger Snaps is smarter and a lot more sensitive than most, arguably because it was written by a woman (Karen Walton) and not a male CIA officer (William Peter Blatty).
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) A truly epic work set on the bleakly-beautiful icescapes of the Canadian north, but with all the passion and violence of the great westerns.
The Corporation (2003) An authentic game-changer, this Vancouver-made doc hipped pretty much everyone to the notion of corporate personhood and then demonstrated that the “person” in question was an out-of-control psychopath. Crucial stuff. Now—what are we gonna do about it?
C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) The levitation scene set to "Sympathy for the Devil" in a Quebec Catholic Church says it all. Jean-Marc Vallee's wild, unhinged enthusiasm is everywhere here, as he pours pop songs, period details, and surreal flights of fancy into his gay coming-of-age tale.
Manufactured Landscapes (2006) Edward Burtynsky's sprawling industrial photos can more than stand alone, but by putting the world around them in motion, documentarist Jennifer Baichwal manages to give them even more powerful meaning. Like the endless panning shot of a gigantic Chinese factory that begins the film, it's visually arresting yet terrifying.
Fido (2007) Standing out amid even the last decade's unrelenting torrent of zombie movies, this B.C.–made comedy finds perfect '50s suburbia enlisting the living dead for domestic help. The metaphors run hilariously deep here, all shot in Cleaver-crisp style.
Eastern Promises (2007) Had enough Cronenberg yet? Canada's most valuable natural resource (after uranium) was on a serious roll with this London-set tale of human trafficking and the Russian mob, which boasts Viggo Mortensen’s best ever onscreen performance and one hell of a nude bathhouse fight.
Polytechnique (2009) How do you portray one of Canada's most horrific tragedies on film? You leave it up to one of the country's most formidable talents to take up the challenge. Employing formalist techniques, emotional restraint, and monochromatic film, Denis Villeneuve elevates the 1989 Montreal massacre into thought-provoking art.
Last Train Home (2009) Financial, not gravitational, forces govern the tides in this thoughtful documentary. Lixin Fan captures China's eye-opening annual floods of migrant workers surging home for the Lunar New Year. Fan's illumination of the familial sacrifices that these workers make serves as a reminder of the invisible ripples made by the quest for cheap prices in affluent countries.
Incendies (2011) From the opening moments of Denis Villeneuve's haunting film, you know you are in the assured hands of a master—one who would go on to Hollywood to create such complex and riveting works as Sicario and Arrival. Few other directors could have pulled off the structure and scope of this Quebec-Lebanese mystery, let alone with such atmosphere.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012) A mind-fucking psychedelic-sci-fi flashback to '80s kitsch, complete with shiny plastic sentinel drones, flashing tetrahedrons, and delirious synth music courtesy of Black Mountain/Sinoia Caves’ Jeremy Schmidt. You'll never look at Bloedel Conservatory the same way again.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013) Québécois auteur Denis Côté parlays his skillful, low-key storytelling abilities into this unnerving, slow-burn thriller about a female ex-con couple whose attempt to blend into rural Quebec is perturbed by the forbidding presence of someone from the past.
The Husband (2014) Bruce McDonald revealed a new and subtler dimension to his filmmaking with this bitterly hilarious tale of a man whose wife has an affair with a 14-year-old boy. Much more sensitive than it sounds, thanks to a fine script by the film’s star, the eternally destroyed-looking Maxwell McCabe-Lokos.
Mommy (2014) Xavier Dolan's audaciously shot story of a mother and her ADHD–afflicted son feels so fresh it practically vibrates. Deep ideas about whether we can ever control another person blend with off-the-hook visual style and an intimate sense of Quebec locale.
In Her Place (2014) A remarkable debut. In this psychodrama, a Seoul couple's visit with the teenage surrogate mother of their baby at a South Korean farm quietly turns peculiar. Toronto filmmaker Albert Shin takes his cues from Asian cinema, revealing more through what is left unsaid.
Les démons (2015) One of the most purely evocative depictions of childhood ever made, with all its unnameable fears and desires set inside a strangely timeless and sun-bleached interzone that looks a lot like a Montreal suburb but is really situated square in the middle of director Philippe Lesage’s haunted mind.
Ninth Floor (2015) The so-called Computer Riot at Montreal’s Sir George Williams College in 1969 becomes a haunting meditation on Canadian xenophobia in this, the first documentary by Vancouver’s Mina Shum.
Hello Destroyer (2016) Slap Shot aside, the Straight's Mike Usinger has beefed for years that nobody’s ever made a decent movie about hockey. This exceptionally sensitive debut from B.C. filmmaker Kevan Funk, about a junior league enforcer scapegoated over an on-ice incident, is the film that changed his mind.
Into the Forest (2016) The world ends with even less than a whimper In Patricia Rozema’s haunting film, in which two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) wait out the collapse of society in a crumbling luxury home somewhere around Squamish.
Werewolf (2016) The spiritual successor to Darrell Wasyk’s lost grimefest H, this widely buzzed about debut by Ashley McKenzie, about two junkies wasting away together in Cape Breton, is a marvel of intimate, compassionate storytelling.