I have been involved in the film and television industry in Nova Scotia for almost twenty years now, first as the Program Administrator at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, and since 1999 as a filmmaker myself. During that time, I have seen pretty much every film made in this province. Some have been terrible (including one of my own), and most have been fair to middling – but some have stood out to me as compelling examples of the kind of original filmmaking, to the point of true artistry, which Nova Scotians are capable of creating when they have the resources and the infrastructure to support and encourage their inspiration, and their aspirations.
Here are the ten films made in Nova Scotia by Nova Scotians (in whole or in significant part) from the past decade that in different ways really made an impression on me. As with all such exercises the choices arrayed below in alphabetical order are highly subjective. There will accordingly be folks who think that any “list” like this should include their favourite, and that’s eminently fair – indeed, I encourage them to offer their thoughts in the comments section. In the meantime, I’m happy to recommend these films without hesitation as some of the best cinematic storytelling that not only Nova Scotia but Canada has to offer.
Charlie Zone (2011)
Glen Gould delivers a riveting performance as Avery Paul, a disgraced boxer and ex-convict who now makes money in underground street fights. When Avery is hired to abduct a runaway (Amanda Crew) from a notorious drug house and return her safely to her family, he becomes involved in an increasingly dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the Halifax underworld where nothing is really what it seems. Writer / director Michael Melski has given audiences a look at the grimy underbelly of Halifax you won’t see on government-sanctioned tourist brochures. There’s lots of violence and action for people who like that sort of thing, but the real strength of the film lies in its layered character studies. Melski transcends standard black-and-white depictions of morality to show a grey world where everyone is compromised to one degree or another, and where even the most inhuman characters exhibit traces of basic humanity. The twists and turns that the story takes lead to a surprising resolution that is well-earned and satisfying for the audience. With Charlie Zone Melski has crafted a true indie film noir that pays homage to its influences even as it moves beyond them.
Based on a play that writer / director Thom Fitzgerald debuted in 2010, Cloudburst tells the touching story of Stella (Olympia Dukakis) and Dotty (Brenda Fricker), a lesbian couple from Maine who embark on a senior citizens Thelma and Louise-style road trip to Nova Scotia to get married after an ailing Dotty is moved into a nursing home by her granddaughter. Along the way they pick up Prentice (Ryan Doucette, who played the same role in the play), a hitchhiking hustler travelling home to visit his dying mother. This is a bittersweet film full of truth and humour and, most importantly, profound love, as Dotty, Stella and Prentice explore the real meaning and importance of family and commitment. Cloudburst features three tremendous performances by the leads in a wonderfully-crafted tale that takes the maxim “the journey is the destination” to heart. I think many people consider The Hanging Garden to be Fitzgerald’s best work, and it’s a fine film to be sure, but in my opinion Cloudburst is the work of a more mature filmmaker who has developed both his craft and his artistic vision over the years. The result is a more confident storyteller, and ultimately a more accessible and compelling film.
The Corridor (2010)
Equal parts horror, science fiction, and psychological thriller, this edge-of-your-seat mind-bender written by Josh MacDonald and directed by Evan Kelly stars Stephen Chambers, James Gilbert, Glen Matthews, Matthew Amyotte, and David Patrick Flemming as five high school friends who get together for a reunion at a cabin in the woods. Tyler (Chambers, in a bravura performance) suffered a mental breakdown years earlier, and the other four are trying to reintegrate him into the group. Things start to go awry, however, when the quintet encounter a mysterious corridor of light in the woods that offers them a drug-like euphoric energy, and allows them to experience each other’s thoughts and feelings. Like every drug, however, there is a considerable price to be paid in order to get high – in this case, the madness that Tyler has learned to control within his own mind bleeds out into the minds of his friends, who then proceed to turn on each other even as Tyler tries to save them. The film was a smash hit at the 2011 Atlantic Film Festival, and garnered critical acclaim as it made its way around the festival circuit. Ain’t It Cool News summed up the general consensus at the time in its review when it called The Corridor “one of the most terrifying new films of the year,” an assessment with which I heartily agree.
The Disappeared (2012)
In her first feature film, writer / director Shandi Mitchell tells the story of six men lost at sea 300 miles off Newfoundland after their fishing boat goes down in a storm in the unforgiving North Atlantic. Confined to two lifeboats and with very few supplies, all they have is their own strength, skill and determination to save themselves by rowing for land. As the film moves along, the bonds between the men inevitably begin to fray as they confront the increasing desperation of their plight, and the diminishing chances for their survival. Mitchell assiduously avoids the use of obvious shock plot devices (no shark pops up out of the briny deeps to consume one of the seamen) as she constructs a powerful and nuanced meditation on honour, duty, endurance, and friendship, all set amidst the harshest and most unremitting enemy of all – nature itself. The result is a stark and grim portrait of men pushed to their limits and then beyond, and how they strive first to master their fate, and then accept the inevitability of their failure with grace. The film was shot on the ocean and looks fantastic as a result, exuding an authenticity that couldn’t have been achieved on a sound stage. With pitch perfect performances by Brian Downey, Ryan Doucette, Gary Levert, Shawn Doyle, Billy Campbell, and Neil Matheson, The Disappeared is a poignant character study that remains with the viewer long after the characters themselves have drifted beyond the horizon.
Hard Drive (2014)
Hard Drive is a twisting tale that starts as a romance film between two dislocated twenty-somethings and slowly works its way into an edgy thriller. Ditch (Douglas Smith) is a well-meaning but underachieving young man who still lives with his mother (Megan Follows), who wants Ditch to make something of his life before it’s too late. He clearly loves her, but his only real connection is with Boomer Knudsten (Jerry Granelli), a burnt-out old jazz drummer who boards with the family, and who stands in as a father-figure for Ditch (whose real father, also a musician, left years earlier). When Boomer dies suddenly, Ditch’s world is thrown into turmoil until an enigmatic young woman named Deb ((Laura Wiggins) enters the picture. Ditch quickly falls in love, much to his mother’s chagrin, as she senses that there is something not quite right about Debs. Sure enough, Ditch soon discovers that his new love is a runaway carrying some heavy emotional baggage and some deep secrets. Writer / director Bill MacGillivray builds multiple layers of mystery into Hard Drive through characters that are all wounded in different ways. Wiggins and Smith are terrific as the young lovers, one trying to find his path in the world while the other is trying to escape from hers, but the real treat is Follows, who delivers one of the best performances of her career as the eminently sensible and hard-working every-woman who loves her son deeply but is afraid to let him be himself for fear that he will leave her like his father did. A coming-of-age film that also doubles as a psychological thriller, it’s a captivating hybrid that defies convention. In other words, very much the kind of film that Bill MacGillivray has been so good at making for his entire career.
Poor Boy’s Game (2007)
Co-written by director Clement Virgo and Chaz Thorne, Poor Boy’s Game is a gritty tale of revenge and redemption set in Halifax. As the film begins, Donnie (Rossif Sutherland) is being released from prison after serving almost a decade behind bars for the savage beating of Charlie (K. C. Collins), a young black man who was left permanently brain-damaged as a result. Charlie’s family and friends have been waiting for the moment when Donnie returns, and soon a boxing match is arranged between Donnie and a talented local black fighter (Flex Alexander). The film offers trenchant observations about class struggle and racial tension as well as knock-out performances from the stellar cast. Danny Glover stands out in particular as Charlie’s father, a man who has waited years for revenge only to find himself agreeing to train Donnie as they both attempt to move beyond the past even as their two communities remain consumed by it. It is one of the finest performances of Glover’s storied career, and it provides Poor Boy’s Game with its powerful and resonant emotional core.
Michael Ray Fox had spent a decade making little-to-no-budget short films until he finally got his shot at helming a feature film when he was selected as the first recipient (along with his producer Richard MacQueen) of the ground-breaking First Feature program created as a partnership between Film Nova Scotia and Telefilm Canada. Given a budget of around $140,000, Fox made the most of his opportunity with Roaming, which he also wrote. The film tells the heartfelt story of Will (Rhys Bevan-John), a mildly autistic video game designer who has been disconnected from the world around him for his entire life. When Will is reunited with Olivia (Christina Cuffari), the friend that he has loved since high school, he is slowly drawn out of his shell and begins to really interact with the people around him for the first time. That includes his roommate Trey (Cory Bowles), their friend Shannon (Sarah McCarthy), and his father (Daniel Lillford). The acting is first-rate throughout (in particular, Bowles and McCarthy invest their romantic subplot as friends who should be a couple with real depth, and Martha Irving is very good in a small role as Olivia’s estranged mother), but Roaming is ultimately Bevan-John’s film on screen. Fox gave him a complex character, and then provided Bevan-John with the space to bring Will to full realization. There are no compromises in a film that could easily have drifted off into sappy melodrama; instead, Fox gives the audience a subtle and affecting portrait of a man desperate to connect, not only with the world around him but with himself.
What would you do if your life was torn asunder by a devastating natural disaster and you were forced to move to a strange and distant land to start over again? This is the question that writer / director Rohan Fernando asks in Snow, which tells the tale of Parvati (Kalista Zackhariyas), a Sri Lankan refugee who moves to Canada to live with relatives after her immediate family is killed by the 2004 Asian tsunami. Fernando and cinematographer Tarek Abouamin use tight shots and a pseudo-documentary style throughout to effectively and movingly portray a character who is “cabined, cribbed and confined” (to quote the Bard) by the tragic events which have destroyed the world she knew. Fernando addresses the themes of loss, despair, alienation, and dislocation head on, even as he suggests possibilities for rebirth and renewal. Symbolism abounds, and at times you wonder whether what you’re seeing is real or whether Parvati actually died in the tsunami with her family and is working her way through a sort of purgatory. The cast, comprised largely of people with little to no on-screen acting experience, are grounded in an authenticity that makes their struggles truly resonate. Zackhariyas is the eye of the hurricane, however, offering an emotionally transcendent performance that connects on multiple levels with the audience, a testament to her commitment to the role as well as the strength of Fernando’s overall vision.
There Are Monsters (2013)
Writer / director Jay Dahl has only one feature film as a director under his belt, but it’s a stunner. Preceded by a short film that caused a sensation on YouTube, There Are Monsters is easily the scariest film ever made in Nova Scotia. The premise is, on its face, simple enough – four film students set out on a road trip to obtain promotional interviews for their college. But their well-ordered (and rather banal) universe collapses as they make their way from interview to interview and in the process find themselves in the midst of an unfolding and very surreal apocalypse, where people are slowly being possessed by monsters. Shot in a documentary / found footage style, the film is a horrifying descent into a rapidly disintegrating suburban madhouse that seems all too real. The success of the film is a tribute to Dahl’s effectiveness as a director, particularly when it comes to setting up the scares for maximum effect, subverting genre-related cliches, and getting gritty and fully invested performances from the lead actors (Guy Germain, Kristin Langille, Jason Daley, and Matthew Amyotte). I saw the film at a screening sponsored by Film and Creative Industries Nova Scotia prior to its release for a festival run, and I remember every single person in the audience, including my date and me, being terrified and shocked as the film wound its way to its heart-pounding conclusion. There Are Monsters isn’t commercially available yet, but hopefully it will be out sometime this year so that everyone can experience it.
Your Money or Your Wife (2015)
When his girlfriend dumps him, the meek and mild Lionel (Craig Brown) goes to a bar, gets drunk, and passes out on the wintry walk home after a drunken vision leads him into someone’s else garage. When he wakes up the next day he is confronted by the gun-toting homeowner Warren (Brian MacQuarrie), who mistakes Lionel for a mysterious master criminal named Mike with whom Warren and his wife Elsie (Anna Valentina) have signed on to conduct a burglary (without ever having met him, naturally). Lionel becomes an unwilling accomplice in an incompetent home invasion where he meets and falls for the homeowner, Annie (Meredith MacNeil). If this all sounds implausibly silly, that’s because it is, which is why it’s so much fun! First-time feature director Iain MacLeod (who also penned the screenplay) just keeps ramping up the jokes and situational humour in this screwball romantic comedy to the point where even the most hardened cynic will find it impossible not to get caught up in the laughs. Your Money or Your Wife is played with a lot of verve, features hilarious turns by the entire cast (MacQuarrie was my favourite, although an extended cameo by Josh MacDonald as Annie’s completely self-involved husband almost steals the show), and highlights some heart-of-gold chemistry between Brown and MacNeil in the romantic subplot. Quintessential Canadian humour at its best, Your Money or Your Wife is a charming debut feature that makes you want to see what MacLeod comes up with next.
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