The best Canadian 2016 films are deep and diverse

Scene from Angry Inuk

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

There’s no excuse anymore to miss the (arguably) best movies produced in Canada in 2016. The TIFF-sponsored 16th Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival will take over the RPL Film Theatre this month. Not all 10 films will be shown, but Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World already hit theatres and Anne Emond’s Nelly has distribution in place.

Noticeably, some well-known filmmakers (Deepa Mehta, Bruce McDonald, Kim Nguyen) didn’t make the cut. Instead, the 2016 crop is filled with first-timers, some downright impressive like Cape Breton’s Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf), an instinctive writer/director whose work wouldn’t be out of place among Dogma’s most iconic features.

More impressive: two of the selected films are from Nunavut. I guess when a province supports its filmmakers, it makes a difference.

I had the chance to see most of the films included in the festival (sorry, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves and Top Ten Student Shorts Programme). There isn’t a dud in the bunch. Worst case: when one of these films fails to live up to its ambitions, it goes down swinging.

Here’s the lineup.

ANGRY INUK (THURSDAY 19, 7:00): An incensed, somewhat disjointed documentary about seal hunting and the Inuit, Angry Inuk has the power of its own convictions.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril makes a strong case for the hunt, first by establishing this is not an industry but a livelihood, and later by exposing ulterior motives behind the campaigns to stop it (seals are cute and bring in the most donations!). Organizations like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and PETA come across very poorly, and not for the usual reasons.

Arnaquq-Baril underlines her point by showing the community of Kimmirut hurting over the EU ban on seal products, and establishing how this may open the door to natural gas and fossil fuel operations. Angry Inuk is so convincing, you might want a pair of seal skin gloves after watching it.

MALIGLUTIT/SEARCHERS (THURS­DAY 19, 9:00): Inspired by John Ford’s classic The Searchers, Maliglutit makes good use of the idiosyncrasies of the Inuit community, language and setting. It feels unique and otherworldly.

A group of outlaws kidnaps the wife and daughter of an Inuit hunter. The incident triggers a manhunt across the desolate Igloolik island. The pursuit sheds light on the early 1900s Inuit lifestyle and the social issues they had to deal with — in this case, the practice of stealing women.

Director Zacharias Kunuk (The Journals of Knud Rasmussen) allows his film to breathe (in the cold, everything takes twice as long). By minimizing the details that give away the time period, Kunuk’s movie is timeless, like an ancient tale. Extra points for the entrancing soundtrack, courtesy of Tanya Tagaq.

HELLO DESTROYER (FRIDAY 20, 7:00): A somber depiction of amateur hockey, Hello Destroyer isn’t particularly kind toward Canada’s puck development machine. The film follows Tyson (Jared Abrahamson), an enforcer for the Prince George Warriors who — in pure Bertuzzi fashion — hospitalizes a rival after following his coach’s instructions.

The severity of the hit attracts media attention and Tyson finds himself first suspended and then cut by the team. Without a safety net or somebody in his corner, the kid spirals downward, his hopes and dreams gone in an instant.

The top half of the film is the most damning. There’s no illusion of “doing it for the sport”: the teens are disposable and the business of hockey has priority. The denouement follows a more traditional route and the movie becomes less interesting as a result. That said, you won’t see any of this in Hometown Hockey.

WEREWOLF (FRIDAY  20, 9:00): A terrific feature debut by Ashley McKenzie, Werewolf is a gritty look at a couple of opioid addicts trying to ‘get better’ in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Even though they face similar obstacles in the rehabilitation process, Nessa and Blaise have different luck. While the former follows the (often patronizing) rules imposed by people in position of authority, the latter becomes easily frustrated and lands in a vicious circle that prevents him from getting better. Their relationship suffers because of this and as painful as it sounds, cutting a loved one loose is sometimes the only way to survive.

McKenzie uses non-professional actors for Werewolf, a strategy that pays off handsomely. Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil give fresh and unassuming performances, captured in tight, oppressive shots. As predictable as the film’s path is, it doesn’t make it any less harrowing.

WINDOW HORSES: THE POETIC PERSIAN EPIPHANY OF ROSIE MING (SATURDAY 21, 7:00): Window Horses is a phenomenal animated drama that proves you don’t need millions of dollars or Pixar-like precision.

Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is a young writer with little life experience who gets the surprise of a lifetime when she’s invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. It’s not entirely out of the blue: Rosie is of Persian and Chinese descent, and is curious about her absent father’s land. The culture shock is considerable, but more jarring is the discovery of how little she knows about her craft.

An already captivating plot is further improved with traditional Iranian poetry and glimpses of history. The film’s looks are deceptively simple (Rosie is a stick figure, but there’s a good reason for that) and enables the participation of guest animators for the most lyrical sequences. There isn’t a weak link in this chain: Sandra Oh’s voice acting is fantastic, Don McKellar as a conceited German poet is a hoot and the narrative builds up to a powerful climax.

MEAN DREAMS (SUNDAY 22, 7:00): In any other year, Mean Dreams would have shined among Canadian offerings. However, given the strong 2016 crop, it feels pedestrian.

In a rural area near Sault St. Marie, two troubled teens fall in love. Jonas (Josh Higgins) is the son of an impoverished farmer who must quit school to help with the land. To the house next door arrives Casey (Sophie Nélisse, The Book Thief), a sweet girl with a rageaholic father (Bill Paxton). The teens soon fall for each other, but Casey’s dad doesn’t approve. Oh, and also, the father’s a police officer running a drug business on the side.

Outside the beautiful fall scenery, there’s nothing particularly moving about Mean Dreams. The “lovers on the lam” angle has been done infinity times and the film doesn’t have anything original to add. That said, Mean Dreams is competently made and Nélisse — who started as one of Monsieur Lazhar students — is a talent to watch. Also, Bill Paxton’s scenery chewing is worth checking out.