Egoyan tops Canada’s all-time best movies list

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter has been voted the best Canadian movie of all time in an online poll of Playback readers.

The 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel about a tragic school bus crash and its impact on a small town, The Sweet Hereafter, produced by Egoyan and Camelia Frieberg, garnered Academy Award nominations for Egoyan for best direction and adapted screenplay. While the film did very respectable business in Canada, its critical acclaim south of the border translated into only about US$4.3 million in ticket sales, due likely to the film’s uncompromising subject matter.

The Sweet Hereafter’s major category Oscar noms, unprecedented and yet to be repeated for a Canadian production, were largely thanks to an aggressive promotional push by distributors Alliance Communications (now part of Alliance Atlantis) and Fine Line Features.

Egoyan figures once more in the top 10, placing Exotica, his 1994 breakthrough film, at number seven. The story of the interdependence among hangers-on at a local strip bar, the film’s success surprised everyone except its creator. ‘It was turned down by so many distributors – people who really should have known better, because, in retrospect, the movie’s called ‘Exotica,’ it’s set in a strip club and it’s a thriller,’ Egoyan says.

Produced by Egoyan, Frieberg and then Alliance president Robert Lantos, the film grossed more than $1 million at the domestic box office and eventually picked up U.S. distribution through Miramax, grossing more than US$5 million. Following a Cannes critics’ prize win, Exotica also became a hit in France and as far away as Singapore.

Felicia’s Journey, Egoyan’s most recent release, was not as enthusiastically received by critics or the public, but there are high expectations surrounding Ararat, his latest offering and biggest production to date, which opens the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.

Arcand checks in

Quebec director Denys Arcand also placed two films in the top 10, with 1989′s Jesus of Montreal, a drama tackling themes of censorship, art and the church, at number two and 1986′s The Decline of the American Empire, a satire of sexual mores among academics, at number 10. The latter was an especially big international hit, reaping nearly $30 million in worldwide box office. Both films were nominated for best foreign-language film Oscars.

Arcand has since adapted to cinema’s globalization, switching from his native tongue of French to English on his two subsequent features, Love and Human Remains (1993) and Stardom (2000), neither of which matched the success of the pair that preceded them. This very likely explains the filmmaker’s decision to revisit the characters of Decline in his next feature, Les Invasions barbares, to be produced in French this fall.

The Red Violin (#3) is a shrewdly designed $14-million epic directed by Quebec’s Francois Girard and coproduced by Toronto’s Rhombus Media and Italy’s Mikado Films. Tracking the history of a peerless violin and its owners over several continents and centuries, the film was shot around the world and includes sequences spoken in English, Italian, German and Chinese, cementing its international appeal. The movie played in such unlikely locales as small-town Ohio, ultimately grossing nearly US$10 million in the States and winning an Oscar for best original musical score for John Corigliano.

The multi-talented Don McKellar figures prominently in five of the top 20 films. The Toronto performer cowrote and acted in The Red Violin, acted in Exotica, wrote, directed and starred in the end-of-the-world drama Last Night (#9), cowrote and starred in Highway 61 (#13) and acted in waydowntown (#17), helmed by Alberta’s Gary Burns.

Director Bruce McDonald, a frequent McKellar collaborator, chimes in at #4 with Hard Core Logo and with Highway 61. While McDonald has tried for years to mount a film version of Chester Brown’s underground comic book Yummy Fur, he has found it easier to raise funds for the kind of road movie which established him. But the elements all gelled in Hard Core Logo, a mock-rockumentary about a punk band’s last gasp reunion tour through Western Canada. While neither it nor Highway 61 set the box office ablaze, their strong showings in the poll speak to McDonald’s cult popularity.

The Playback list represents somewhat of a changing of the guard, raising the status of several Canadian talents who have come to prominence in the last decade. Nevertheless, Goin’ Down the Road and Mon oncle Antoine, traditional best Canadian film list toppers, have lingered in viewers’ minds, clocking in at numbers five and eight, respectively.

Toronto-based director Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, a spiritual ancestor of McDonald’s oeuvre, is often cited as putting Canadian feature production on the map. Riding the wave of the cinema verite esthetic, the drama tells the simple story of a pair of Nova Scotians who move to Toronto in search of a better life. Made for a measly $26,000, the lion’s share of which came from the Canadian Film Development Corporation, the film went on to play for half a year in Toronto and four months in New York and Boston.

But Goin’ Down the Road’s critical and commercial one-two punch proved impossible for Shebib to repeat, and raised the bar to a daunting height for the English-language features that followed. Nonetheless, the poll provides hope for a Canuck New Wave: 11 of the Top 20 films are English-Canadian productions made since 1988.

The poll also reaffirms that the kind of films the Canadian industry does best is low-budget, auteur-driven work, which describes three-quarters of the movies on the list. When Canada loses one of its principal auteurs, it leaves a big hole, and unfortunately the country has lost two, both from Quebec.

Claude Jutra directed Mon oncle Antoine, a coming-of-age story about a boy in a small Quebec town, in 1971. The film won more than 20 international awards and made $700,000 in box office during its initial release. Jutra, who worked with the likes of Francois Truffaut in Paris, was a Quebec nationalist who also worked for the National Film Board. Suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, he was found drowned in the St. Lawrence River in 1986 at the age of 56. The Quebec film awards have been named the Prix Jutra in his honor, and since 1993 the Genies have presented the Claude Jutra Award for direction of a first feature film.

Leolo (#6) is another story about a young boy, one who shares the last name of the film’s director, Jean-Claude Lauzon. The follow-up to Lauzon’s debut, Un zoo la nuit, which nabbed 13 Genie Awards, Leolo disturbed many but also won ardent fans with its often graphic portrayal of a poor Montreal boy who uses his imagination to escape his lunatic family life. Lauzon was prepping his third film when he died in a 1997 plane crash with his girlfriend, actress Marie-Soleil Tougas.

The two most notable exceptions to auteur filmmaking are the raunchy adolescent comedy Porky’s (#16) and the summer camp fave Meatballs (#18), the inclusion of which likely points to respondents’ happy childhood memories more than anything. While not high art, the films are genuine Canuck blockbusters, taking in US$105.5 million and US$43 million on North American screens, respectively.

More than half the films in the top 20 are connected to Alliance Atlantis in its present or previous incarnations or through its Odeon Films division in terms of production and/or distribution, an indication of the merged company’s dominance on the Canadian scene since the mid-1980s.

The films that finished in the poll’s 11-20 spots are, in order: Atanarjuat, New Waterford Girl, Highway 61, Dead Ringers, Cube, Porky’s, waydowntown, Meatballs, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Hanging Garden.

The Playback All-Time Best Canadian Movie List was voted on by Playback readers, who were invited to submit their five favorite Canadian movies in order of preference at Number one choices were awarded five points, number two choices four points, etc., and the results were tabulated by Playback staff. More than 500 industry respondents participated in the poll.

With files from Peter Vamos

Playback’s All-Time Best Canadian Film List
1. The Sweet Hereafter (1997) Atom Egoyan Atom Egoyan Alliance Communications Alliance Communications $1.48 million
2. Jesus of Montreal (1989)
Denys Arcand Denys Arcand Max Films Film Tonic $3.4 million
3. The Red Violin (1998) Francois Girard Don McKellar, Francois Girard Rhombus Media Odeon Films/Film Tonic $4 million
4. Hard Core Logo (1996) Bruce McDonald Noel S. Baker Shadow Shows Everest Entertainment $350,000
5. Goin’ Down the Road (1970) Donald Shebib William Fruet, Donald Shebib Evdon Films Phoenix Films $540,000
6. Leolo (1992)
Jean-Claude Lauzon Jean-Claude Lauzon Alliance Films Corporation Alliance Communications $740,000
7. Exotica (1994) Atom Egoyan Atom Egoyan Alliance Entertainment Alliance Communications $1.08 million
8. Mon oncle Antoine (1971) Claude Jutra Clement Perron National Film Board $740,000
9. Last Night (1998) Don McKellar Don McKellar Rhombus Media Odeon Films $375,000
10. The Decline of the American Empire (1986) Denys Arcand Denys Arcand Malofilm/National Film Board Seville Pictures $3.6 million