Near, far, wherever you are — these directors have shaped not only Canadian film but the entire art of cinema around the globe.
It’s a trickier question than it seems, and one that perhaps stokes the flames of a long and storied divide: the one between the filmmakers who have stayed in Canada to help build up our own industry… and those who left for greener pastures (at least the money kind of green). But there's no denying how significantly Canadian filmmakers have shaped the art of cinema — no matter where they’re working.
There have been many lists centered around the best “Canadian films,” as there should. Canadian films — those made within our own systems of production — are a distinct representation of our artistry that deserve to be celebrated as their own entity. But why should we narrow ourselves when we’ve also done so much for cinema everywhere? What happens when we look at every single movie ever made by a Canadian filmmaker — anytime, anywhere — and stack them up against one another?
So what is the greatest film ever directed by a Canadian? That’s the question we posed to film critics, programmers, and journalists to create the ultimate list. Responses poured in from across the country, and these were the 50 films that topped their ranks. The results may surprise you, or maybe they’re exactly what you expected. But either way, they make it extraordinarily clear that when it comes to the art of cinema, nothing quite compares to the Canadians lens.
Join us at Toronto’s Paradise Theatre in July for a screening series of films from this list the way they were meant to be seen: on the big screen. Find out more »
We asked participants to rank the best full-length feature films directed by Canadians from 1 to 10, with film #1 being worth 10 points, #2 worth 9 points, and so on, all the way up to #10 for 1 point. 83 participants submitted ballots by the time of our deadline, voting for a total of 230 different films.
The criteria for the selections were as follows: they must be directed by a filmmaker who identifies as Canadian, fully or partially, either by birth or naturalization; they could be produced or set in any country at any time; they must have a runtime of 60 minutes or over. Any films that did not meet this criteria were disqualified.
Once the ballots were submitted, we added up the point totals for each film and arranged them from highest to lowest. For films that had the same number of total points, we used two tiebreaking factors. First, we looked at which film received the most Top 3 placements; the film with the most Top 3 placements won. If the films had the same number of Top 3 placements, we then looked at the total number of people who voted for each of them; the film with the highest number of votes won.
From the first shot of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, as dogs howl on a frozen tundra in Nunavut before we’re launched into an Inuktitut-language story, I knew that I was watching something unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
Based on Inuit oral tradition, the film is about two brothers — one named Amaqjuaq (The Strong One) and the other Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) — and is an epic tale about betrayal, love, and trouble within a tight-knit community. Despite being a work of fiction — this was a retelling of a story passed down through generations for over 500 years — it felt real and authentic. It was unapologetically Inuit, from the cast and setting to the language and storytelling, and it wasn’t going to pander to non-Inuit audiences with overwrought explanations or dialogue.
That’s what made it such an innovative and inimitable film. It gave other Indigenous groups permission to tell their own stories their own way, in their own language, about their own culture — an influence that has been felt in Indigenous film ever since.
Even though there’s nudity (in a famous scene that will stay with you, where Atanarjuat runs naked across the tundra), crude songs, fights, and violence, it never feels exploitative. This can be credited to the efforts made by Kunuk and the Isuma Productions team to stay true to the original story, consulting eight Igloolik elders to hear their versions of the legendary tale and bringing those insights into the script.
They shot the film over six months, entirely on HD video — rare at the time, but also for practical reasons because of the cold temperatures — and from the afternoon to the middle of the night, since there was always sun to work with in Nunavut. The film also changes the ending of the legend: in The Fast Runner: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat, author Michael Robert Evans writes about how we see a gentler banishment of the troublemakers instead of a revenge killing, in a change attributed to writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s desire to end the film with hope.
Atanarjuat received accolades across the globe, including winning the coveted Caméra d’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. That also translated to ticket sales, with the film becoming one of the highest-grossing Canadian releases of that year. “Our objective was not to impose southern filmmaking conventions on our unique story,” Isuma Productions has said, “but to let the story shape the filmmaking process in an Inuit way.”
An Inuit oral story, told entirely in Inuktitut with an Inuit cast, transfixed audiences everywhere. The bar had been raised for the entire industry.
Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and Associate International Programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Memory is a cursed thing. We tell ourselves stories to live, based on the roles we are assigned at birth. Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary Stories We Tell asks why. Do our memories protect us, or exist only to reinforce the secrets, lies, and power structures inherent in any family? Why do we lie to the ones we love the most — and why do we let ourselves believe it?
After Away from Her and Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley — already Oscar-nominated for writing the former — turned the camera on herself to investigate a nagging family rumour. It was already a crass joke amongst her siblings, the kind of lore that might fuel a soap opera or an episode of Maury: that her father wasn’t really her father at all. Polley casts her dad, Michael, once an English stage actor, as the narrator. She sets him up in a recording booth, filming him as he ends up telling the most pivotal story of her life.
As a documentarian, Polley is a committed investigative reporter. In a series of interviews, she gently presses her father, family friends, and siblings Susy, John, Mark, and Joanna to give her the facts. Like the scraps of fabric that eventually make a quilt, these testimonials form a patchwork portrait of the brilliant, complicated woman at the heart of the film: Polley’s mother, Diane, who lost custody of the children from her previous marriage after an affair, only to die of cancer days after Sarah’s 11th birthday.
Diane is vivacious; Diane is life itself. Glorious home movies, shot on Super 8, see her lighting up a room, dancing with a cigarette and a drink. She escapes to Montreal to act in a play where she falls in love with her castmate, chasing her snow-suited children mid-rehearsal. Trapped between all the roles she can’t play, Diane’s contradictions are part of her allure. Then, the documentary bends around again, burning everything down.
In Stories We Tell, every convention of “objective” documentary filmmaking gets disrupted in favour of something closer to the truth. One sibling discounts the other, telling a completely different version of what happened. In a brilliant device I’d never seen employed in a film before, we learn that the heartbreaking Super 8 home videos of Polley’s family are completely false — they’ve actually been shot by Polley just for this film, with actors who resemble the real-life storytellers.
Looking back at Stories We Tell in a 2019 interview with IndieWire, Polley said it was the film she felt proudest of. “I feel like I wasn’t trying to make it like anything I’d seen before — I was sort of trying to let it invent itself.”
Made with modest means and uncompromising bravery, Polley’s documentary achieves what’s impossible to do in almost any family — it tells the truth.
Chandler Levack is a writer and filmmaker. Her first feature film, I Like Movies, premiered in 2022.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the level of difficulty it took to turn The Sweet Hereafter into a critical and commercial success. The story’s stock-in-trade is pain — most of the characters are grieving parents — and the audience’s closest thing to a proxy is an opportunistic lawyer looking to weaponize the parents’ sorrow.
In less competent hands, such a narrative would be taxing if not unbearable. But writer/director Atom Egoyan steers clear from exploitation and chooses to humanize both the innocent and the guilty. More impressively, he uses seven fractured timelines to tell the story, placing the focus on the characters’ arcs, not the chronology of events. Having to keep track of every thread forces you to pay attention.
Based on a book by Russell Banks, Egoyan moves the setting of The Sweet Hereafter from Upstate New York to northern British Columbia. Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), the aforementioned slippery lawyer, travels to a mountain town to put together a class-action lawsuit against those deemed responsible for the deaths of 14 children — passengers of a school bus that plunged into a frozen lake. Through Stephens, we meet the parents of the victims (Bruce Greenwood, Maury Chaykin, and Alberta Watson among them), the bus driver (Gabrielle Rose), and Nicole (Sarah Polley), one of the survivors who’s seen as a potential star witness.
The compelling plot (which hit me harder once I became a parent) levels up on the strength of the characters, particularly Stephens — whose charming demeanor dissolves whenever his own daughter enters the picture — and Nicole, slowly coming to the realization that she may be the victim of abuse. Both storylines could sustain a movie of their own, but in the context of The Sweet Hereafter, they frame a tragic tapestry. Mychael Danna’s elegiac score gives the story mythic undertones.
One of the reasons the film lands the way it does has to do with Egoyan being a filmmaker in flux. Before The Sweet Hereafter, he was uncompromising (see Exotica or The Adjuster). After, he started making movies more accessible to the general public (Chloe and Remember are straight-up crowd-pleasers). The Sweet Hereafter marks the sweet spot in which both currents converge, one fuelling the other: the complex storytelling — Egoyan’s trademark — hides relatable, powerful emotions, not quite the case before. The director plays us like a fiddle: we’re alternately saddened, horrified, and slightly hopeful at a moment’s notice.
A common mistake is thinking that this is a movie about community. Sure, the concept is paid lip service by many of the characters, but at the end of the day, greed is the strongest motivator, followed by retribution. In the ethos of The Sweet Hereafter, community is an illusion. The characters — and, by extension, us — are irrevocably alone.
Jorge Ignacio Castillo is a writer and film critic. He currently serves as chair of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.
With his Oscar-nominated 2010 film Incendies — a haunting, cross-generational tale about confronting dark secrets from the past in order to break cycles of trauma — Denis Villeneuve firmly established himself as one of the great filmmakers of his generation.
A reworking of Wajdi Mouawad’s celebrated play, the director toiled on his script for half a decade, keeping the original story structure while replacing all dialogue. The end result is an emotionally rich, morally ambiguous masterwork that draws from ancient myths while presenting a narrative that continues to shock audiences with its emotional rawness and startling third-act revelations.
The opening shot, soundtracked by Radiohead and with framing inspired by war photography, provides an intense introduction. We see a strong-willed child — with three dots tattooed on the back of his right foot — having his hair shorn; as he stares defiantly and directly at the viewer, we are practically dared to know more about his origin.
We then meet twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who have been summoned to the office of notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard). Lebel reads to the children the will of their late mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), and it’s in this dull, grey office that they learn of a final request for them to deliver two letters — one to a brother they previously knew nothing of, one to a father long thought dead.
Thus begins a journey that takes places in multiple liminal spaces, from disparate geographical locations to sectarian religious divides. This is a tale mixing past and present, where the deeper that one explores, the more uncertainties are then revealed. The use of flashbacks is both unsettling and informative, as Villeneuve weaves a multi-temporal tapestry that mirrors how shattering the series of revelations about Nawal’s past truly are. A harrowing sequence on a bus is as searing as anything you’ll see in most horror films — yet some of the film’s most chilling moments occur in near silence as the full weight of the past comes to bear.
Working with cinematographer André Turpin, the majority of the film is captured using natural lighting, giving Incendies a documentary-like feel. The murky, dreary, concrete jungle of a mid-winter Montreal — with half-melted snow revealing the detritus of the city — matches, in subtle ways, the similarly monochromatic, rubble-strewn landscapes shot in Jordan, which stands in for the unnamed, fictionalized Middle Eastern country of Nawal’s birth. It’s a visually profound way of comparing motherland and home; travelling to the other side of the world is not sufficient to fully escape from the horrors of the past.
Given the film’s focus on how the past informs the present, Incendies provides a unique lens through which to view the director’s own creative journey. One can find desiccated elements mined for blockbusters like Dune or Blade Runner 2049, the family secrets in Arrival, the moral quagmire illustrated in Sicario, or the dark psychology of Enemy, as well as the ambiguities seen in earlier films like Maelström and Polytechnique. These are all exceptional works — but it was with the pyrotechnical Incendies that Villeneuve’s fire first burned this brightly.
Jason Gorber is a writer and film critic. He is the editor-in-chief and chief critic of That Shelf.
In a career spanning more than 50 years and as many films, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance stands as Alanis Obomsawin’s magnum opus.
Winner of 18 different prizes at film festivals around the world — including becoming the first documentary to win Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival — it’s among the most important documentaries ever made here. While Obomsawin was already a well-known filmmaker when Kanehsatake was released, this is the film that made her a legend.
A behind-the-pines view of one of the most infamous confrontations between the Canadian state and First Nations people, the film chronicles the dispute over traditional Kanien’kéhaka territory in Quebec during the summer of 1990 (also known as the Oka Crisis). The land was designated to be turned into a golf course, culminating in its occupation by community members and armed warriors. As tensions and temperatures mounted, the provincial Quebec police gave way to the Canadian Army, cutting off those inside and preventing the media from seeing what was happening.
Obomsawin spent 78 days behind the lines, often alone, recording the events. She faced verbal abuse from the soldiers and has described her time there as “hell on Earth.” She remembers crying as the warriors made out their last wills and testaments, sure they would be killed by the army.
For very different reasons, both the army and the National Film Board wished she would leave. But she stayed steadfast, determined to preserve her work and bear witness. She crafted the material she gathered there into four films (the others being Rocks at Whiskey Trench, Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man, and My Name is Kahentiiosta), telling different aspects of the story while providing viewers with the context for how Canada arrived at this horrific moment.
Upon release, Kanehsatake and Obomsawin faced fierce criticism in Quebec. Premiering internationally at first, the CBC initially balked at showing the film, instead asking for its own access to Obomsawin’s footage. The NFB and Obomsawin declined, and the film was ultimately shown on CBC after its historic win at TIFF.
“It’s changed the way people have thought about us,” Obomsawin tells me when asked to reflect on the legacy of the film. This is certainly true. Our understanding of the events of that summer in 1990 have been forever shaped by Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which has prevented the state’s narrative from being the only one heard. Rather than Indigenous radicals out to prevent approved development, the film’s historical details show a dispute stretching back generations — one deeply embedded in Canada’s ongoing colonialism, and of land defended by not just armed warriors, but elders, women, and children as well.
Among its many lasting contributions, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is a totem to the determination and will of Indigenous people to defend our lands. “You should stand for the land,” Obomsawin says. This film is her way of doing just that.
Jesse Wente is an Ojibwe journalist and broadcaster. He is the director of the Indigenous Screen Office and chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts.
When David Cronenberg’s film about a group of middle-aged Torontonians who are aroused by car crashes debuted at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, audiences jeered and stormed out of the theatre. Outrage over the aptly-titled Crash spread like wildfire throughout the industry, drawing the ire of Ted Turner and Francis Ford Coppola, who, according to Cronenberg, refused to personally present him with the Special Jury Prize at the festival.
Across the pond, Crash set in motion a debate on censorship; it has often been referenced in academic papers on the subject since. British news outlets The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard infamously launched a highly orchestrated campaign to ensure that Crash would not be seen by British audiences (though, after a lengthy review by the British Board of Film Classification, the film was found to be neither dangerous nor harmful). Suffice to say, the hysterics around Crash eclipsed the movie even before its release.
It’s rather ironic, then, that for all that controversy, when considering the muted thriller for its two most-discussed elements — sex and car crashes — neither are actually particularly remarkable. The sex scenes are enticing, no doubt, but nothing salacious; the same can be said for the violence. It’s when the two parts are considered as a whole that an unsettling discomfort is found.
A meditation on emptiness and technology’s emerging ability to fill that void, Crash takes this common Cronenbergian theme to an extreme. When James Ballard (played by James Spader) feels a crackling of titillation after being in a near-fatal collision, he finds not only the spark that has been missing in his life but a community of like-minded people who have made the same discovery. Social commentary woven together with commanding storytelling has always been Cronenberg’s hallmark, and Crash is the perfect coalescence of what makes the filmmaker one of our country’s finest artists.
Looking back on the outrage Crash caused at Cannes must be akin to how Elvis Presley’s scandalous gyrations on The Milton Berle Show in 1956 seemed to audiences in the ’70s — rather subdued and even innocuous in comparison to the acts of the day. Thankfully, in the nearly 30 years since the film’s release, the initial frenzied reception has tampered and is now relegated to its trivia page, leaving the genius and beauty of Crash to shine unencumbered.
Rachel Ho is the film editor at Exclaim! Magazine and co-founder of The Asian Cut.
If you’ve never seen Dead Ringers, you might only know it as that creepy ’80s drama where Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists who spiral into drug addiction and depravity when their codependent dynamic is threatened by a woman strong enough to call them out on their collective bullshit. And if you have seen David Cronenberg’s 1988 masterwork, you know that everything in the previous sentence is indeed accurate — and also that it’s one of the saddest, most astute studies of despair ever captured on film.
Every time I revisit Dead Ringers, which I first saw on its opening day in Toronto’s cavernous and long-gone Uptown 1, I’m struck less by its disturbing qualities and more by how terribly sorrowful it is. From the first notes of Howard Shore’s mordant score to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s heartbreaking final tableau, this is a movie steeped in tragedy and inevitability.
Dead Ringers is the story of Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical twin brothers who’ve grown up convinced that no one else will ever understand them. And they’ve spent their lives making sure of it, amplifying their mutual weirdness to the point that they’re comfortable standing in for one another in the exam room — which, given their chosen field, serves as a betrayal of the intimate trust they’ve built with their patients.
One of those patients is Claire Niveau, played by the formidable Geneviève Bujold. Niveau is an actor in Toronto shooting some generic thriller (a throwaway gag about the city’s growing reputation for hosting American productions like Cronenberg’s own The Fly). She comes to the Mantle Clinic for a checkup and falls for Beverly’s tenderness and compassionate nature — but, once she realizes Elliot is part of the package, refuses to play along with any of it. This introduces an irreparable fault between the brothers, which Cronenberg and Irons play out in meticulous detail and without ever tipping over into the fantastical. Yes, there’s a subplot that finds a drug-addled Beverly designing “gynecological instruments for working on mutant women.” But it’s not a genre element — it’s a sign that this damaged but essentially decent man has come unmoored, now a danger to both the women in his care and to himself.
The tragic aspects of Dead Ringers shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s development as a filmmaker — few of his heroes live to see the end credits, and some of them aren’t even heroes in the first place. But the specificity of the Mantle brothers’ tragedy, and the tenderness with which it’s told, marks the moment where Cronenberg comes into his own as a filmmaker.
Both Irons and Cronenberg have become legends in their respective pursuits. Irons would go on to win an Oscar for playing Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune — he made a point of thanking Cronenberg in his acceptance speech — while Cronenberg would go on to make more great films in and out of the genre realm (Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Crimes of the Future). But I’d argue that Dead Ringers remains their greatest work: two bodies, two minds, one masterpiece.
Norm Wilner is a writer and Acting Lead Programmer for Canada and Industry Selects at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Something C.R.A.Z.Y. happened at the movies in Quebec in the summer of 2005.
While the rest of the continent was busy watching aliens, superheroes, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Quebec filmgoers decided to acheter local in an unprecedented manner. And it was with a film that, on paper, reads like the antithesis of a blockbuster: a family drama about a young gay man coming of age in a big, strict Catholic family during the Quiet Revolution of 1960s and 70s Quebec.
But that’s how irresistible the late, great Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. is as a work of cinema. Not even Batman Begins — which C.R.A.Z.Y. outgrossed significantly in Quebec — stood a chance.
Deeply moving as much as it is wildly entertaining, the film charts the evolution of both this one family and the culture of an entire province as its queer protagonist, Zac (Marc-André Grondin), tries to figure out how he fits into both. Its title is derived from the names of Zac and his four brothers: Christian, Raymond, Antoine, and Yvan. But it’s also a reference to the abiding love their father (played by legendary Quebecois actor Michel Côté, who we sadly lost earlier this year) has for the Patsy Cline song of the same name — just one of the many songs that help make up the film’s staggering, era-specific soundtrack. (It took the producers two and half years and nearly 10% of the film’s entire budget to secure all the music rights; Vallée even gave up his salary to help pay for it.)
C.R.A.Z.Y. was nominated for 45 major awards around the world, 38 of which it won. It remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made in Quebec, and was a hit everywhere from Italy to Brazil to Singapore. And, oddly enough, it also made its director one of the most sought-after talents in the one place it struggled to be released (due to royalty disputes over the Pink Floyd song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”): the United States.
Vallée would go on to direct essentially everyone in Hollywood to major awards recognition, from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club to Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in Big Little Lies. He left us far too soon in 2022 — but, in the wake of his death, American audiences were belatedly gifted with one of Canada’s modern movie miracles when C.R.A.Z.Y. was finally released in U.S. cinemas.
As the golden age of summer blockbusters fades further into the rearview, it’s nice to be reminded that once upon a time in the province of Quebec, this little movie that could was just too good to be ignored by the zeitgeist.
Great works of cinema have an uncanny ability to transport the audience to a specific place and time, while prompting them to imagine the possibilities of the world just outside the theatre doors. Norman Jewison understood this better than most directors when he made In the Heat of the Night.
Based on John Ball’s novel about two cops investigating a murder in Mississippi, Jewison used the unlikely partnership of Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a Black homicide detective from Philadelphia, and Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), a racist Southern police chief, to get viewers thinking about the changing climate in America.
Released in 1967 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it was one of the first studio films to directly address the flames of racial tension that were engulfing America. And while Jewison’s film wraps itself in a ribbon of hope, as both officers reach a mutual understanding by the end, the viewer is keenly aware along the journey that it could unravel at any moment.
It is this delicate mix of unease and optimism that makes In the Heat of the Night such a compelling work. Jewison captures the frustrations that often come with being a Black person in a predominantly white space. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, plantation owner Eric Endicott strikes Tibbs for daring to interrogate him about the murder — and Tibbs immediately slaps him right back. Besides being the first time a Black character had ever struck a white person in a major film, the scene allows Tibbs to assert his sense of agency in a town where everyone seems eager to strip away his humanity.
What I love most about this multi-Oscar-winning film is the way it works as both a character study and an engaging crime drama. Free from the confines of filming on a Hollywood lot — the studio did not think a movie with a Black lead was worth spending that type of money on — they shot the film in Illinois, as Poitier refused to film in the South due to safety concerns, which gave Jewison more creative freedom. Whether incorporating handheld cameras to make a chase scene more visceral, using zoom lenses to accentuate the tension, or playing up the wealth of humour in the script, it remains an endlessly fascinating watch.
In the Heat of the Night shows us just how many racial barriers can lie on the path toward mutual respect — and that makes it a timeless work that still reverberates 56 years later.
Courtney Small is a writer and film critic. He co-hosts the long-running radio show Frameline.
There’s an underrated scene early in Titanic, James Cameron’s 1997 disaster-romance, where Rose (Gloria Stuart) — a fictional survivor of the real-life ship’s sinking 84 years prior — watches in awe as it’s rendered as a sped-up animation.
Complete with profanity and sound effects, a researcher of RMS Titanic’s wreck (Lewis Abernathy) unfeelingly — almost excitedly — narrates how an iceberg punctured holes in the ship’s starboard, how freezing water flooded its bow until snapping it in half, and how the two parts then plummeted to the ocean floor.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he asks, capping off his sportscast of the worst night of this woman’s life.
The exchange clarifies, as much for us as for 100-year-old Rose, what actually happened the night of April 14, 1912 in terms of basic physics. But it also operates on a second level. We’ve been watching as this research crew jokes around and plunders the wreck in pursuit of their ultimate “payday”: an 18th-century diamond they believe went down with the ship. Rose is here to shine any light whatsoever on whether that’s true.
What she does instead is tell her passenger story in full, humanizing the more than 2000 souls on board at the time of the sinking, most of whom did not survive — the glaring omission in what she sarcastically calls the crew’s “fine, forensic analysis.”
Titanic might be read as an extended self-drag. The Kapuskasing-born Cameron first pursued a film about the ship because he wanted to explore the wreck himself and, quite simply, have someone else pay for it. But upon making the dive, he was overcome by the human element that had gotten lost somewhere in his science geekdom.
“I’d been studying it for months,” he’s recalled, “but … now it wasn’t at a remove … These were real people.” His three-hour epic — which he wrote, produced, directed, and co-edited — would weave these two threads, using a pair of imagined star-crossed lovers to hammer home a totally factual tragedy of human error and maritime climate.
The high-society melodrama of Titanic’s first half — Cassette One of the worn-out VHS two-parter still sitting in my parents’ basement — revolves around 17-year-old Rose (Kate Winslet), the suicidal fiancée of an evil Pittsburgh steel tycoon (Billy Zane). She’s saved “in every way that a person can be saved” by the freewheeling Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class passenger with whom she’s resolved to disembark in New York City. But the couple meets their fate in Cassette Two, Cameron’s harrowing and extraordinary aqua-spectacle, for which he required millions of gallons of water and, famously, millions of unbudgeted studio dollars.
Though there was plenty of concern — to say nothing of the simmering media schadenfreude — that those dollars had been spent in vain, the film’s impact would quickly go far beyond ROI (though it was indeed the highest-grossing film of all time until Cameron’s own Avatar). The instant classic also made overnight superstars of its two leads, gave Céline Dion her spine-tingling signature song, and took home the coveted Best Picture among its 11 Oscar wins.
As for Cameron himself — a just-okay screenwriter but the kind of unparalleled showman that made you forget to care — he’d be allowed to do virtually anything he wanted from then on (including make the film again on another planet). Titanic, like his work since, was a staggering cultural moment whose greatness you had to respect no matter how you felt about its goodness.
Sydney Urbanek is a culture writer and editor. She holds a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto.
Michael Snow's avant-garde 1967 film received a total number of votes that tied it for 50th place, but at a runtime of 45 minutes, the film did not meet our criteria for inclusion on this list.
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