Tuberculosis, Zombies, and the IRA: Canada's Top Ten Films of 2008 on Screen

The Toronto International Film Festival Group rolls out its selection of the Top Ten Canadian films of 2008 with a nine day event that includes screenings, panel discussions, and Q&As with acclaimed homegrown filmmakers. This year's lineup features the latest from local directors Bruce McDonald, Deepa Mehta, Kari Skogland, and Atom Egoyan.

These screenings are a relief from the Oscar Season pack that has been dominating Toronto's movie theatres for the past few months (although I should note that Ce qu'il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life) was on the Foreign Film short list).

I am looking forward to seeing some of the French-language films that will not get a wide release west of Quebec.

I asked Steve Gravestock, Associate Director of Canadian Programming for the Toronto International Film Festival Group, to fill me in on the selection process, highlights of the programme, and why there are so many French features on this year's list:

Canada's Top Ten features and short films are selected by a panel of renown filmmakers, journalists, programmers and industry professionals. How is the panel selected?

The two panels are from a cross-country as well as a mix of different sectors: critics, filmmakers (director, producers, performers, writers), scholars, and industry professionals (people in distribution etc.). The panels are completely anonymous until we make the announcements. Even the other panelists don't know who's on their panel. The panelists submit two ballots and do not discuss their selections with one another. The individual ballots are kept confidential, unless the panelists want to disclose their list.

Is the success of a film (such as awards and festival screenings) considered in the selection process, or are the films chosen strictly on the strength of their content?

No, selection is based solely on the quality of the films as determined by the panelists.

Most years, it seems like the selection includes an even mix of films by established and emerging directors, drama and documentaries, and from across the country - but in 2008 there seems to be a fascination with French features from Quebec - do you agree with this thought and why or why not?

It's been a strong year from Quebec with a pretty wide variety of impressive material ranging from an almost dialogue-less yet strikingly beautiful compilation documentary (MEMOIRE DES ANGES) to a stark, near naturalistic piece about a couple struggling to deal with parenthood (LOST SONG) to two extremely vibrant coming-of-age movies (MAMAN EST CHEZ LE COIFFEUR and C'EST PAS MOI, JE LE JURE!), radically different takes on the same family, to the emotionally devastating account of an Inuit man who's ripped from the life he knows to undergo treatment for tuberculosis (CE QU'IL FAUT POUR VIVRE).

Quebec has a very different film tradition and heritage from the rest of the country, partly because of language (which has enabled them to create a star system and given them a domestic market the other provinces don't really have --for both art house films and more commercial work), and partly because of the presence of the NFB in Montreal since the 1950s. (Re. art house work, people in English Canada don't know that MEMOIRE DES ANGES, which is virtually an avant-garde movie, had the most consistent highest per screen average over the last couple months when it was playing in Montreal.) The NFB's presence has given Quebecois filmmakers access to equipment and training other regions didn't have and they've responded brilliantly to this opportunity.

Perhaps more significantly, there's a kind of dialogue between Quebecois films and filmmakers. They speak the same emotional and cultural language, which offers the filmmakers extremely fertile ground.

This tradition is invariably reflected each year at Canada's Top Ten. We've always had sizable representation. I think one of the main reasons why there are possibly a few more titles this year is also, partly, serendipity. A lot of significant filmmakers were working this year.

Who is the audience for Canada's Top Ten screenings and panel discussions?

It's the general public really though we do have a lot of students in attendance, especially for the panels, which provide very interesting insights in to the filmmaking process. I'm especially excited about the two panels this year because they examine areas which are either new or emerging (the Aboriginal Storytelling Panel on February 7) or neglected (the challenges faced by women filmmakers and their successes).

I'm particularly proud of the fact that there are so many films from women directors this year. That panel and we've just added one of our finest filmmakers, Deepa Mehta, to the panel will be quite intriguing.

For the past eight years, the Toronto International Film Festival Group has been celebrating and promoting Canadian talent with its Canada's Top Ten initiative. Canada's Top Ten screenings and panels will take place at the Cinematheque Ontario from January 30 to February 7, 2009. For schedule and advance ticket purchase, see Canada's Top Ten website. Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival Group.

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