The top Canadian movies of all time and where to watch them

In honour of National Canadian Film Day 150 on April 19, we're showing off some of our best Canadian cinema.

In honour of National Canadian Film Day 150 on April 19, we’re showing off some of our best Canadian cinema reporting with a special exhibition of NOW covers at Brookfield Place from April 10 to April 22.

We also put our film department to the test, soliciting nominations from NOW’s Susan Cole, Glenn Sumi, Norman Wilner, Radheyan Simonpillai and Kevin Ritchie for their picks for the best Canadian movies of all time. Then, we made them vote on their top 25.

Here are the results, and wherever possible, the original reviews we published for each film and where to watch each online.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)

NNNN If the heat is getting you down, you can spend almost three hours in the long-ago Arctic with two brothers (Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq) reviled by the evil members of their Inuit clan who set out to murder the popular pair. This landmark Canadian film is the first feature ever filmed in the Inuktitut language and prides itself on its authenticity. Director Kunuk employed Inuit artisans to recreate ancient costumes and props, including dogsleds made of bones, stones, antlers and ivory. The film’s narrative is a little confusing at first, but stick with it as the legend unfolds. You’ll be pulled into an engrossing fable in which the harsh arctic landscape eventually metes out justice to both good- and evildoers alike. Ingrid Randoja [Watch on iTunes.]

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)

NNNNN Stories We Tell is a complex, fascinating inquiry into the nature of truth and memory – and, inevitably, into Polley herself. Beginning as a remembrance of her mother, larger-than-life actor and casting agent Diane Polley (who died when Sarah was 11) but quickly revealing larger scope and a far more ambitious structure, Stories We Tell uses interviews with friends and family to create a sort of master narrative for the Polley family, with the marriage of Michael and Diane as its dramatic focus. But it gradually becomes clear that Sarah herself is the real subject, and it’s thrilling to watch her use the documentary in her attempt to process the revelations that led her to make it in the first place. Given the themes that drove Away From Her and Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell seems like the movie Polley’s been trying to make all along – a personally risky, stylistically assured engagement with persistent issues of family, loyalty, identity and cinema. And it works on every level. Norman Wilner [Watch on iTunes.]

Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)

From our 1988 Festival of Festivals report: The best Canadian film was also the most audacious, nervy choice in the history of opening night galas, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Ever since Cronenberg has achieved respectability beyond the circle that takes horror films seriously, there has been an attempt to fit his work into the mainstream. As a filmmaker whose work forms a hermetically intense, completely controlled universe, his films have problematically maintained the signifiers of the horror/exploitation movie explicit gore, awful things happening to human biological entities, and an obsessive interest in death. John Harkness [Read the rest in our archives here and watch on YouTube.]

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

NNN Welcome to a film that will leave you both disgusted and breathless. James Spader plays James Ballard, whose head-on car crash with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) kills her husband and leaves both survivors physically scarred and sexually aroused by the thought of, feel of, mangled automobiles. Ballard, his wife Catherine (Deborah Unger) and Remington link with with other sexual crashophiles their suicidal leader Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and his body-braced girlfriend Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette). The film becomes an endless chain of sexual encounters the film’s structure is reminiscent of a porn film in which the participants become increasingly reckless in their search for sexual satisfaction and annihilation. Ingrid Randoja [Read the rest and our 1996 feature with Cronenberg in our archives.]

Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

From a 2009 feature on TIFF’s Toronto on Film series: If you have to pick one Cronenberg film to include in a series about Toronto, Videodrome is the perfect choice. Though the vast majority of Cronenberg’s films were shot here, only Videodrome and Crash really use the city as a stage for their action. But where Crash necessarily reduced Toronto to a series of asphalt highways and concrete overpasses, Videodrome engages with the city, capturing a snapshot of a Toronto on the precipice of social upheaval … thanks to a scurrilous UHF station that’s planning to introduce pornographic imagery to the airwaves. Norman Wilner [Watch on iTunes.]

[Watch on iTunes.]

The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)

NNNNN Let me stop hedging bets and say this Atom Egoyan is the best filmmaker Canada has ever produced. No other director has matched the range, weight and consistency of his work, not even the usual sacred cows from here to Montreal. The Sweet Hereafter has already been praised and garlanded here and abroad, though sometimes for odd reasons. It’s an extraordinary film, but not because it makes you cry. Cameron Bailey [Read the rest in our archives here and watch the film on iTunes.]

Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2012)

NNNNN Monsieur Lazhar is a tender and touching drama that captures the pulse of both primary school politics and Canadian immigration. Algerian refugee Bachir Lahzar (Fellag) becomes a substitute teacher to students struggling with grief after their former teacher’s suicide. He must navigate the minefield that is dealing with traumatized children – no physical contact being of utmost importance. Like the kids who are faced with a new world of tragedy and lost innocence, Bachir must confront his own personal demons while figuring out his place in a new country. Director Falardeau proves once again why he’s one of Canada’s premier talents in this focused and intelligent drama that never allows allegorical touches to overwhelm the very personal story at its centre. A witty screenplay, moving performances – particularly from the precocious child cast – and social observations free of a political agenda makes Monsieur Lazhar a high achiever. Subtitled. Radheyan Simonpillai [Watch on iTunes.]

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2005)

NNNN C.R.A.Z.Y. is a highly likeable comedy drama about growing up gay in an ordinary suburban Quebec family in the 1960s and 70s. The story places the estrangement between father and son at the centre and takes time to fully flesh out the characters and relationships, with lots of lively detail and subplot. Polished direction, script and acting keep us engaged, even when scenes seem unnecessary and the film loses momentum. Deftly-handled and very funny fantasy sequences make up for any pacing flaws and bring the film’s mystical streak fully to life. The hero’s magic ascension during midnight mass to the strains of Sympathy For The Devil is priceless. Andrew Dowler [Watch on YouTube.]

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 2002)

NNN I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing is indie miraculous, aggresively winsome and the key to Rozema’s whole body of work. Fifteen years after it charmed Cannes and audiences around the world, the only thing truly dated here are the haircuts. Sheila McCarthy gives a signature performance as Polly, a wide-eyed photographer who pratfalls into the downtown art world when she takes a job as a gallery assitant. Rozema work’s Polly’s awkwardness beautifully but underplays her crush on the gallery owner (Paule Baillargeon). More came in later films, as did more hymns to the simple state of wonder. Cameron Bailey [Buy on Amazon.]

Forbidden Love (Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman, 1992)

NNNNN Images of lesbian life are filling Toronto movie screens, and it’s about time. Unlike last year’s almost barren Festival of Festivals program, this year’s 10-day movie bash hosts a number of lesbian-centred dramas, experimental and documentary films, including the innovative docudrama Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives. Ingrid Randoja [Read the rest of the cover story here, and watch the film at]

Zero Patience (John Greyson, 1993)

NN I seem to recall that the Centre for Advanced Film Studies was set up to help filmmakers make contacts and deal with production so as to create more commercially viable films. This year, the Centre productions in the Festival are I Love A Man In Uniform and Zero Patience, the first AIDS-concerned, ACT UP-approved movie musical. Somebody’s not getting with the program. Leaving aside Greyson’s polemical shrillness and Greyson is nothing if not a polemicist I would suggest that if he wants to make musicals, he should find a better composer (he has a good lyricist) and learn how to shoot dance. Aside from the catchy When You Pop A Boner In The Shower, every song in the picture has the same beat, and the sound mix makes sure we hear it. John Harkness [Watch on YouTube]

[Watch on YouTube.]

It’s Not Me, I Swear! (Philippe Falardeau, 2009)

NNNN It’s Not Me, I Swear! is a tender and touching late-60s period piece starring Antoine L’Ecuyer as tormented and philosophical 10-year-old Leon Dore, a Dennis the Menace who might ponder the existence of the egg before flinging it at the neighbour’s window. After being abandoned by his flighty mother, Leon lashes out by looting homes and conning just about everybody. He finds a fitting partner in crime in Lea (Catherine Faucher), a similarly downtrodden child. Falardeau captures Leon and Lea’s flights of fancy – they are capable of the most elaborate heists – yet keeps a safe distance to observe fragile minds in tenuous circumstances. The child actors are superb in complicated roles. Radheyan Simonpillai [Watch on iTunes.]

Calendar (Atom Egoyan, 1993)

NNNNN Calendar carries the modest hallmarks of a director’s side project, but it may be Egoyan’s most successful filmyet. Loosely and played and precisely structured, it’s the story of an American Canadian photographer (Egoyan) who travels to Armenia with his wife (Arsinee Khanjian) to take 12 pictures of old churches for a calendar. Cameron Bailey [Read the rest or try to! in our archives here and watch on iTunes.]

The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003)

NNN The Barbarian Invasions is a sequel to The Decline Of The American Empire, 17 years later. Arcand says it’s not, but the same actors play the same roles. The reunion scenes have an odd forced quality and interrupt the film’s focus, which should truly be on the reconciliation between Remy Girard’s dying lit professor and his long estranged son (Stephane Rousseau). The sharpest and funniest scenes depict the nightmare of the Quebec health system, counterbalancing the wintry, death-obsessed tone of the film. Winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes, which this year was like being voted best-looking in a leper colony. John Harkness [Watch on iTunes.]

Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971)

Read about the Quebecois coming-of-age story at The Criterion Collection.

[Watch at en Francais ici.]

From NOW’s 1989 report from Cannes: If the Cannes Festival took on strange shapes this year, it was because the categories all felt wrong. The competition had its usual share of the international cinema’s big guns, major talents using the medium to explore serious themes in a mature manner Fred Schepisi’s a Cry In The Dark, Liliana Cavani’s Francesco, Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain. But it also welcomed a gang of eccentric talents more at home in the funkier Director’s Fortnight Denys Arcand’s Jesus of MOntreal, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Claire Devers’ Chimera, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. John Harkness [Read the rest in our archives here and watch on iTunes.]


Dying At Grace (Allan King, 2003)

NNN This is a brilliantly disturbing documentary that plays like an extremely convincing ad for the palliative care clinic at Toronto’s Grace Hospital. That’s not a bad thing. Meet the kindest, most supportive nurses and doctors you’ll ever see. When they’re not offering up religious prayers like candy, they’re hugging their patients and smiling empathetically. Award winner Allan King proves that his reputation for honest filmmaking is well-earned by focusing on five diverse individuals, from a breast cancer victim to a former heroin addict, he shows the universality of their reactions, and his unflinching camera manages to catch one woman’s dying breath on film. Required viewing for those needing assurance and for admirers of King’s talent, but at two-plus hours, watching family after family say goodbye to loved ones may be more truth than anyone wants or needs to handle. Lori Fireman [Buy on Amazon.]

Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)

NNNNN (2013 Blu-Ray review): Naked Lunch, making its Blu-ray debut, stands alongside Dead Ringers and Videodrome as David Cronenberg’s most complex and disturbing movie. Bug poison addict Bill Lee (Peter Weller) shoots his wife (Judy Davis) and takes off for Interzone, a city where non-stop sex and drugs are the norm. His typewriter morphs into a talking beetle and enlists him as an agent tasked with penetrating the mysterious Interzone Corp. A woman who resembles his late wife, sinister strangers and weird creatures offer pleasure and menace. Lee greets whatever comes his way with a straight face and a wary eye. This sells both the tension and the dark humour and makes for a riveting performance. Everything in Naked Lunch is metaphorical, some of it obvious, some not, and all layered with hidden meanings. On their alternating commentary, Cronenberg and Weller, both knowledgeable William Burroughs fans, discuss these layers. The director also talks about scripting Burroughs’s source novel, long considered unfilmable. Andrew Dowler [Watch on iTunes.]

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993)

NNNNN Director Francois Girard and his co-writer, Don McKellar (Highway 61), have created a cubist portrait of pianist, philosopher and media savant Glenn Gould. The film weaves together episodes from Gould’s life, myth and art with interviews from Gould’s family and colleagues and some of the products of Gould’s industry, like Norman MacLaren’s film Spheres, for which Gould provided the soundtrack. Rhombus Media has created some fine musical documentaries, but Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is an unexpected triumph that extends the formal boundaries of the genre. Colm Feore, the last actor I would have thought of, is startlingly effective as Gould, and film has the best soundtrack of the festival aside from a bit of orchestral Wagner, it’s all from Gould’s recordings. John Harkness

Don’t miss: 2013’s top 25 Toronto films of all time | @nowtoronto

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