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  • Introduction
  • Features
  • Shorts

Bad year, great movies. Here are TIFF’s selections for
the 10 best Canadian features and shorts of 2020.

We can’t proceed without first acknowledging it: 2020 was a traumatizing, debilitating year. An absurd number of avoidable deaths around the world. Entire countries and industries effectively shut down. Wholesale abdication of leadership. Social oppression that gave way to political upheaval — and new flickers of hope — as racism and state violence were confronted both in the streets and in boardrooms.

Meanwhile, filmmakers kept going. The pandemic had a massive impact on exhibition and production, and kneecapped both conventional and alternative distribution strategies such as film festivals. But they found ways to finish — in some cases both shoot and finish — their films. Even amid the confusing landscape of today, we would be remiss not to acknowledge their extraordinary efforts — efforts that resulted in so much exceptional work that, as in any previous year, there were too many great features and short films to be able to include all of them in our annual Canada’s Top Ten lists. (Of particular note: a string of COVID-related shorts that engaged with the world and recorded our reality without anything approaching a real budget.)

Many Canadian filmmakers illustrated how important the past is if we want to change the future, delving deep into Indigenous, national, and international history to remind us how we got to where we are now. (See: Beans, Funny Boy, Judy Versus Capitalism, The Nest, and No Ordinary Man.) Others stressed the importance of growing up and moving on (The Kid Detective; Nadia, Butterfly), the influence of mass media (Fauna), or the catastrophically divided mindset of our epoch (Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi thriller Possessor, which felt eerily timely in its portrayal of how we can separate ourselves from our worst acts).

Short filmmakers were equally — perhaps even more — engaged. Witness Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s Black Bodies, a powerful gut-punch that is one of the most urgent and timely films on either list. Canada’s Top Ten shorts includes everything from skilfully-told dramas about fighting for your independence and place in the world (Aniksha; Benjamin, Benny, Ben; êm?cêt?cêt: Many Bloodlines; Foam; Scars; Sing Me a Lullaby) to utterly unclassifiable visions (The Archivists, Stump the Guesser).

Finally, Andrea Dorfman’s exquisite animated film How to Be at Home tackles anxiety-inducing lockdowns head-on and explains how the pandemic actually reminds us of how profoundly we are connected to a world outside ourselves, evident in the act of something so small as watching a movie — or, as Tanya Davis puts it in the poem that drives the film: “Watch a movie and read all the credits, because you have time and not much else to do to. Remember how many people come together just to tell a story or make a picture move.”

STEVE GRAVESTOCK
Senior Programmer
TIFF

Dec 22, 2020 Update: After listening to the Indigenous film community, and at the request of the National Film Board of Canada, 90th Parallel Production and producer Jesse Wente, we have withdrawn INCONVENIENT INDIAN from this year’s TIFF Canada’s Top Ten.

Canada’s Top Ten Features

Beans
dir. Tracey Deer | Quebec/Ontario

The 1990 stand-off between two Mohawk communities — Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke — and federal, provincial, and military authorities over the annexation of Indigenous land, dubbed the Oka Crisis, captured the attention of Canada and the world. In her debut feature, Tracey Deer puts a poignant and personal spin on these events by recounting them through the eyes of a 12-year-old Mohawk girl named Beans (Kiawentiio, in a phenomenal performance). A promising student, Beans faces familiar adolescent problems, but she also experiences violent racism first-hand — and bravely forges her own path. With its sensitive portrayal of internal and community conflicts gleaned from lived experience, Deer’s film blazes a new trail for the next generation of Indigenous filmmakers.

RAVI SRINIVASAN

Winner, DGC Discovery Award, 2020 DGC Awards

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
?????? Second Runner-up, TIFF People’s Choice Award

Official Selection, 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival
?????? Best Canadian Film

Fauna
(Flora y fauna)

dir. Nicolás Pereda | Ontario (Canada/Mexico co-production)

Nicolás Pereda’s ninth feature, Fauna, is a sly, comedic take on how violence in Mexico has infiltrated popular imagination. When estranged siblings Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez) visit their parents in an eerily deserted mining town in northern Mexico, the presence of Luisa’s affable actor boyfriend, Paco (Francisco Barreiro), adds a whole new layer of awkwardness. Their father’s ambivalence toward his children is transformed by his fixation on Paco’s role in a famous narco-themed television series. Hilarious, bittersweet incidents are underscored by a nuanced, acerbic critique of masculinity and media glorification of violence. Breezy and pitch perfect, Fauna is a film about the power of the subconscious, told with uncanny humour and confidence.

ANDRéA PICARD

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
?????? Special Mention, Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film

Funny Boy
dir. Deepa Mehta | Ontario

Heartbreaking and clear-eyed, Deepa Mehta’s visually striking adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s award-winning novel ranks among her best work. The hero is the precocious Arje, whose discovery of his sexuality in late 1970s and early 1980s Sri Lanka coincides with rapidly escalating tensions between his country’s Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority. His beloved aunt dotes on him, but he’s tormented by his martinet father, who stubbornly refuses to see how divided the country is until it’s too late. Mehta expertly shuttles between home and the world (to cite Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray), wisely noting that while the latter can do untold damage, it can be the dismissal of a family member that cuts the deepest.

STEVE GRAVESTOCK

Canada’s Official Submission, 93rd Academy Awards (2021)

Judy Versus Capitalism
dir. Mike Hoolboom | Ontario

Mike Hoolboom’s moving portrait of his longtime friend, legendary social activist and author Judy Rebick, artfully fuses different cinematic and narrative strategies, combining political history and confessional, the atmospheric and the ruminative. Judy Versus Capitalism recounts Rebick’s extraordinary impact on Canada’s politics, including her work helping to build the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, her writing and broadcasting, and her ceaseless advocacy on a wide range of crucial issues. Indeed, at times Rebick emerges as a kind of leftist Pynchonian character who’s eerily present at the most pivotal moments — from her involvement with the Waffle caucus to when she prevented an assailant from stabbing Henry Morgentaler as he opened his abortion clinic in Toronto. Hoolboom seamlessly links this history to Rebick’s own struggles with physical and mental health, most notably dissociative identity disorder, a condition she has been extraordinarily courageous about discussing. Few films have shown how the personal and political are intertwined so effectively, and fewer still have managed to be poignant, harrowing, and yet affirmative.

SG

Official Selection, 2020 Hot Docs Festival

Official Selection, 2020 Rotterdam International Film Festival

Official Selection, 2020 Festival du nouveau cinéma
?????? Best Canadian Feature

Official Selection, 2020 Rendezvous with Madness Festival

The Kid Detective
dir. Evan Morgan | Ontario

The feature directorial debut from screenwriter Evan Morgan (The Dirties) begins as a genial oddball comedy, about a 32-year-old man clinging stubbornly to his glory days as a celebrated tween gumshoe who solved all the town’s petty misdemeanors. Stuck in a holding pattern since he failed to solve his one serious case, Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody) suppresses his own fearsome angst while ignoring the frustration of locals (including the proprietor of an ice cream parlour where he collects daily on a decades-old promise of free ice cream for life). When he finally finds an actual mystery, Abe senses redemption — if he can keep it together long enough to solve it. Boasting a great ensemble cast (Sophie Nélisse, Wendy Crewson, Peter MacNeill, and Sarah Sutherland as Abe’s sardonic, long-suffering secretary), Kid Detective plays like a mashup of the Hardy Boys, SCTV, early Jonathan Demme, and a twisted Afterschool Special about Peter Pan complex and PTSD.

SG

Official Selection, 2020 South Western International Film Festival

TIFF Industry Selects

Nadia, Butterfly

dir. Pascal Plante | Quebec

Though only in her twenties, champion swimmer Nadia (Katerine Savard) has decided to make the Tokyo Olympics her swan song. Top-tier amateur athletes have painfully short careers, but Nadia’s decision to leave now is especially fraught. She is resented by her coach for quitting so abruptly, and by her teammates for reminding them they don’t exactly have unlimited horizons. Ostracized, Nadia wanders awkwardly around Tokyo. (Ironically, it may be her first experience as a tourist — earlier, when someone comments about her extensive travel, Nadia responds that she “only saw the pools.”) A tone poem driven by fine performances (especially from Savard), Nadia, Butterfly deserves comparisons to classic sports movies (see: Sarah Prefers to Run, Personal Best) that deal with the athletes’ mindsets rather than the results of their competitions. Adding to the poignancy is the fact that the particular Olympics of the film’s setting didn’t even happen as scheduled in 2020 due to COVID.

SG

Official Selection, 2020 Cannes Film Festival

Official Selection, 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival
?????? Special Mention, Best Canadian Film

The Nest
dir. Sean Durkin | Ontario (Canada/UK co-production)

The latest from writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene; Southcliffe) is a family drama–psychological chiller hybrid set amid the high-finance rat race of the mid-1980s, in which the spectral forces are unchecked ambition and obsession with status. Rory (Jude Law) is a charismatic stockbroker of English origin who relocates his family from New York to a drafty manor home in the Surrey countryside — their fourth move in 10 years. His American wife, fellow striver Allison (the gifted Carrie Coon, best known for FX’s Fargo and HBO’s The Leftovers), has her doubts about this latest scheme to profit from London’s investment banking boom; only Rory seems to know where the money is coming from. Not helping is the building sense of dread that seems to emanate from the walls of their creepy rented mansion, a feeling not lost on the couple’s two jaded children, who are convinced the place is haunted. As Rory and Allison fumble to manage their aspirations and the promise of a lucrative new beginning starts to unravel, the couple is left to face the unwelcome truths lying beneath the surface of their marriage.

TIFF

No Ordinary Man
dirs. Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt | Quebec

American jazz musician Billy Tipton gained prominence in the 1940s and ’50s, but his trans identity remained unknown in the jazz and pop worlds, and it wasn’t revealed publicly until after his death in 1989. For decades, Tipton was falsely portrayed as an ambitious woman “passing” as a man in pursuit of a music career at a time when the industry was dominated by men and trans representation was virtually non-existent. Since then, he has become a foundational icon of transmasculinity. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s brilliantly crafted and poignant documentary maps out Tipton’s legacy, reimagining his narrative through a diverse group of contemporary trans performers. As these artists touchingly recall their own journeys towards self-recognition, No Ordinary Man creates a singular tapestry of trans expression that’s both formally and socially groundbreaking.

RS

Official Selection, 2020 Inside Out
?????? Best Canadian Feature

Official Selection, 2020 Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

Possessor
dir. Brandon Cronenberg | Ontario

Evoking the uncertain, paranoid worlds of Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson, and boasting a stellar cast, the chilling, hypnotic Possessor follows an assassin, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), who uses brain-implant technology to take control of people on the periphery of her targets’ lives. The “killer” then commits suicide, leaving no witnesses or easy explanations. But Tasya begins to buckle under the demands of her handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as both her sense of self and her only lifeline, her family, drift away from her. An essential addition to the impressive Canadian canon of intelligent science fiction, Cronenberg’s film is tailor-made for a digital age in which identity and memory are nothing if not mutable.

SG

Official Selection, 2020 Sundance

Official Selection, 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival

Official Selection, 2020 Sitges – Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya
?????? Best Film

Dec 22, 2020 Update: After listening to the Indigenous film community, and at the request of the National Film Board of Canada, 90th Parallel Production and producer Jesse Wente, we have withdrawn INCONVENIENT INDIAN from this year’s TIFF Canada’s Top Ten.

Canada’s Top Ten Shorts

Aniksha
dir. Vincent Toi | Quebec

In the wake of her arranged marriage, a young woman in Mauritius begins a job at a call centre. Her first steps toward independence have repercussions no one could have expected, in this visually gorgeous and remarkably sophisticated drama by Montreal-based director Vincent Toi.

JASON ANDERSON

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

The Archivists
dir. Igor Drljaca | Ontario/British Columbia

After uncovering a degraded vinyl album in an abandoned home, three musicians attempt to reimagine one of its songs. Shot on stunning 16mm, Noah Reid, Bahia Watson, and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos star in this wistful dystopian sci-fi that is hauntingly eerie and will also get your foot tapping.

LISA HALLER

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

Benjamin, Benny, Ben
dir. Paul Shkordoff | Ontario

An intense, compelling, and expertly controlled portrait, Benjamin, Benny, Ben centres on an anxious young man travelling to a job interview who begins to unravel when faced with an unexpected occurrence.

LH

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
?????? IMDbPro Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film

Black Bodies
dir. Kelly Fyffe-Marshall | Ontario

A beautifully poetic and extremely timely account of what it means to be Black in 2020, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s powerful Black Bodies is essential viewing.

LH

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
?????? Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award

êm?cêt?cêt: Many Bloodlines
dir. Theola Ross | Manitoba

Two-spirit Cree filmmaker Theola Ross shares her emotional journey to start a family with her white partner. Through much laughter and tender discussions about the challenges of a queer interracial relationship and the importance of keeping Indigenous bloodlines and cultural traditions, the couple finds their own path to pregnancy and parenthood.

ROBYN CITIZEN

Foam (écume)
dir. Omar Elhamy | Quebec

A carwash has become a surrogate family for the diverse crew who works there. On the day that one of the workers returns from serving time, they learn that the owners are closing the doors — and what was a reunion becomes a fragmented search for answers that threatens group solidarity.

RC

How to Be at Home
dir. Andrea Dorfman | Nova Scotia

Andrea Dorfman’s lovely animated piece, driven by Tanya Davis’s poem about the challenges of living in lockdown, is rueful yet deeply optimistic. While acknowledging the pain, sorrow, anxiety, loneliness, and flat-out boredom of living in this time and this year, How to Be at Home finds hope in the situation, reminding us what we’d forgotten before the pandemic yet somehow always knew: that we are all connected.

STEVE GRAVESTOCK

Scars
dir. Alex Anna | Quebec

Her body is a canvas and her scars stand as testament to a part of her life. Blending documentary and animation, Alex Anna’s courageous, distinctive, and poetic reflection of her mental health struggle brings to light a new story of self-harm that is both impactful and intensely intimate.

LH

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

Sing Me a Lullaby
dir. Tiffany Hsiung | Ontario

In an act of love and determination, director Tiffany Hsiung embarks on a journey to Taipei to uncover the missing pieces of her mother’s fragmented past. This documentary weaves a tender, personal story about unexpected familial healing and connection.

LH

Official Selection, 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
?????? IMDbPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award

Stump the Guesser
dirs. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson | Manitoba

This latest collaboration is a small-form masterpiece, boasting the exhilarating fusion of anachronistic techniques and tragicomic deviance its filmmaking team is heralded for. Set in a Soviet agitprop carnival and chronicling the downfall of a champion guesser who falls madly in love with his long-lost sister — this is the greatest film about incest and bureaucracy ever made — Stump the Guesser plays like Murnau’s The Last Laugh remade by Dziga Vertov and produced by Georges Méliès, while remaining a film which could only be made by Maddin and the Johnson brothers.

SG

Official Selection, 2020 Berlinale

Official Selection, 2020 Sydney Underground Film Festival

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