These 10 TIFF films are "secretly Canadian"

Arrival starring Amy Adams? A Bruce Lee biopic? Anne Hathaway vs. Godzilla? Good luck guessing their Canadian connections.

There are 38 homegrown features at TIFF this year, but good luck guessing which ones

Amy Adams isn't Canadian. But the director of her TIFF film is. Denis Villeneuve directs Arrival, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9. (Courtesy of TIFF)

"Canadian" is not a genre.

So if we were to tell you there are 38 Canadian features appearing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, would you care? Maybe if Ryan Gosling starred in every one of those 38 movies things might be different, but since our film industry has yet to take the necessary actions towards building a new and dreamier era of CanCon, it's nothing but a number.

Canadian films cover drama, horror, documentary, science fiction, and any number of other adjectives people use to describe movies. And while you'll occasionally stumble on something unusually specific in its regional appeal — say, a feature-length documentary about Gordon Pinsent (which is an actual film at TIFF this year, by the way) — they don't necessarily have anything uber-nationalistic in common. And that's just fine — in fact, it's probably for the best.

But if there's a common theme to be found — one principle bonding them all together like some delicious, patriotic glue made of government money and half-digested Timbits — it's not that these movies are Canadian, but that they are "secretly" Canadian. They're stories that were, let's say, produced by a team from Vancouver but set in Chicago, or China, or an alternate dimension (one where Tim Hortons still exists, provided they didn't alter the street signs in post production). And then there are the international films — maybe adaptations of that novel or short story you had to read in CanLit 101 — films that are Canadian in content, though they're hardly telling anyone about it.

As a result, recognizing these "secretly Canadian" movies in the TIFF programme can be difficult, as subtle a task in detection as recognizing those weird pronunciation quirks the Americans have been teasing us "aboot" for years.

At the very least, it's just time consuming. So, let CBC Arts get you started in sussing them out. We've picked a few of the more anticipated and unusual titles with a CanCon connection. Here's why these 10 movies are secretly Canadian...


The story: The aliens have landed in Montana (and 11 other locations which may or may not fall above the 49th parallel) but how can you say "welcome to Earth" — or "welcome to Earf," for that matter — if you don't speak the language?

To communicate with these extra-terrestrial visitors, the U.S. military sends in a team of experts, namely Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, who must learn the alien language if the world is to avoid all-out annihilation. Either way, human history has changed forever.

The secret: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) directs this sci-fi thriller, and considering he's one of the most acclaimed Canadian filmmakers working today — he's the guy helming the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, FYI — his return to TIFF is more of a selling point than a well-guarded secret. The film gets a gala premiere on September 9 and will expand to theatres across the country November 11.


The story: Godzilla vs. Anne Hathaway?

OK, maybe that's a stretch. For one, Colossal isn't technically a Godzilla movie and they even settled a legal dispute over that point last fall. That said, there is indeed a stompy, giant lizard thing on the rampage in Colossal. On the other side of the globe from said carnage, there's Hathaway. She plays Gloria, a burned-out party girl who moves back to her hometown when her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) dumps her. When she catches a TV report about some IRL Kaiju invading Seoul, it seems the monster is somehow connected to her. But how?

The secret: Could Gloria's hometown be Vancouver? Probably not, but Colossal was definitely shot there. Written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), the film — which has been described as "Godzilla meets Being John Malkovich" — is produced by a Canadian company, Brightlight Pictures.


The story: The scalpel is mightier than the sword. So when her brother is murdered, an unhinged doctor (Sigourney Weaver) puts the killer under the knife — turning hitman Frank Kitchen into a hitwoman with gender re-assignment surgery. There are worse things than waking up looking like Michelle Rodriguez (she plays Frank, so we're clear), but the killer's hell-bent on shoot-em-up revenge in this pulpy action flick from the director of The Warriors.

The secret: Filmed in Vancouver, this over-the-top thriller is actually a Canadian co-production with the USA and France.

The Bleeder

The story: In 1975, Chuck Wepner went up against Muhammed Ali for the world's heavyweight title. One year later, Rocky arrived in theatres. According to Wepner, Sylvester Stallone based his Oscar-winning underdog tale on his story, but now, he's getting the official biopic treatment. Starring real-life couple Liev Schreiber (as Wepner) and Naomi Watts (as Linda, his wife), The Bleeder premieres at the Venice Film Festival a week before reaching TIFF.

The secret: Although the film's screenwriter, Jeff Feurzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnson) was first attached to direct, it's Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Falardeau who's at the helm of this biopic. His film Monsieur Lazhar repped for Canada at the 2012 Oscars, receiving a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

The story: It's a classic premise for an old-fashioned horror movie: a young nurse (in this case, Ruth Wilson from The Affair) comes to care for the local recluse. A once famous author of ghost stories, it would seem the old woman's mind is failing her. But things in the house are — of course — not what they appear.

The secret: The flick's (haunted?) mansion is on the edge of the Ottawa region, and the Netflix original film was shot in the city — just like director Osgoode Perkins's first feature, February. Both films were produced by Canadian companies: Zed Filmworks and Go Insane Films.

Brain on Fire

The story: A young woman wakes up in a hospital bed. She can't move, she doesn't know how she got there and she has no memory of the last month.

Based on a memoir by New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan, Chloe Moretz stars in this real-life medical mystery. With her life unravelling as she swings from violent outbursts to bouts of catatonia, a diagnosis is her only hope.

The secret: A co-production between Canada, Ireland and the U.S., Brain on Fire shot in Vancouver last year, with the west coast standing in for NYC. 

The Headhunter's Calling

The story: For his entire career, he's fought for success, and it's finally his moment to rise. Gerard Butler plays a corporate headhunter in this drama from screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Accountant). With the boss (Willem Dafoe) on his way out, the company's top spot will either go to him or his younger rival (Alison Brie). But when tragedy strikes at home, he's forced to re-evaluate everything.

The secret: Toronto company Scythia Films produced the drama — though the city stands in for Chicago. 

Birth of the Dragon

The story: In the early '60s, Bruce Lee faced off against Shaolin master Wong Jack Man in a secret, no-holds-barred fight.

It wasn't captured on film, but for certain movie fans, the story is something of a Hollywood legend — one that's captured in the new Lee biopic, Birth of the Dragon. Set in San Francisco's Chinatown, the film is an origin story, focusing on Lee's fight to share martial arts traditions with outsiders.

The secret: A co-production between the U.S., China and Canada, director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) filmed the biopic in Vancouver last fall.


The story: Julieta, a 55-year-old teacher from Madrid, is on the eve of leaving the country, when a chance encounter changes her plans and sets her on a journey into the past, reflecting on her relationship with a long-lost daughter.

The secret: Originally, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar planned to make Julieta — his 20th feature film — his first in English. Meryl Streep was set to star, and he reportedly scouted locations in Vancouver. Why Vancouver? Because the film is adapted from three Alice Munro short stories. Taken from the Canadian author's 2004 collection, Runaway, the stories in question were partially set in B.C. before Almodóvar moved the action to his Iberian home turf.


The story: Like so many dystopian worlds, the one seen in this Netflix original production is facing one hell of a doomsday crisis.

The air is unbreathable, food and water are disappearing fast and what's left of the energy supply has been seized by devious corporations. The end is nigh.

Enter Robbie Amell (The Flash) and Rachael Taylor (Jessica Jones), hot engineers in love who know how to science a solution to everything. They're developing a new form of energy, guys! The world is saved! However, test results have been dodgy — and after one experiment, the couple finds themselves trapped in a sinister time loop, one that forces them to relive a life-threatening episode over and over again — like it's Groundhog Day, but evil.

The secret: Arq's writer/director, Tony Elliott, is perhaps best known for his contributions to the Toronto-based sci-fi hit Orphan Black. As for the setting of this Canadian/U.S. co-production, we're not 100 per cent sure of that detail —  but the beautiful thing about a dystopian future is that it affects us all. Why not pretend Armageddon's threatening Montreal or Winnipeg?

The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8 - 18. For more info, visit


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