The 25 Best Canadian Movies Ever
Esteemed film critic Linda Barnard shares 25 all-time classics every Canadian should add to their watch list.
Photo: Mongrel Media
Canadian Movies Everyone Should Watch at Least Once
No matter where or when they are set, Canadian movies tell stories through the diverse prism of our country. They may make you consider what it means to be Canadian. You could even say they bring us closer.
You may wonder how I could overlook a beloved movie—or a whole bunch of them. Since it’s impossible to write a definitive list, I’m sharing 25 Canadian movies I’ve enjoyed over the years. I hope you’ll see them, too. Thanks to many streaming, public library and pay-per-view options, it’s easy to find them. As writer-director Don McKellar—whose Last Night is on this list—said at the start of National Canadian Film Day back in 2021, “Let’s watch some movies together.”
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)
A turning point in the then-emerging Canadian film industry as a critical and domestic box office success, Ted Kotcheff directs this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel about the endlessly hustling Duddy Kravitz. Set in 1940s Montreal, Richard Dreyfuss gives a kinetic performance as a striving Jewish kid on a quest to buy a chunk of lakefront land as a way to finally redeem himself to his overbearing family. As often as Duddy sets my teeth on edge with his callous behaviour, he’s making me laugh.
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Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)
This first feature film made in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is often compared to classic American Westerns in tone and storytelling. Director Zacharias Kunuk, however, replaces the symbolic lone rider with a frantic, naked man running across the Arctic ice in his retelling of an ancient Inuit legend. The stunning cinematography and Kunuk’s attention to detail about every element of Inuit life, makes this epic story of desire, retribution and consequences a culturally rich experience.
Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)
Bon Cop, Bad Cop refreshes the classic “mismatched cops” movie trope by teaming an uptight Toronto officer (Colm Feore) with a rogue Montreal cop (Patrick Huard) to solve a string of NHL-linked murders. The movie opens on a body hanging from a welcome sign at the Ontario-Quebec border. The head faces east and the back end, well, “That belongs to you,” Huard tells his new Anglo partner. Canadian insults and inside jokes, as well as quick-witted banter between the two leads, make this an entertaining watch.
This coming-of-age story from future Oscar nominee Jean-Marc Vallée will ring true to anyone who has ever felt like a family outsider. Montrealer Zac (Émile Vallée as a youngster; Marc-André Grondin as a teen) is struggling with his sexuality and trying to find his place in a household dominated by his traditional father (Michel Côté) and four rambunctious brothers. His doting mother (Danielle Proulx), meanwhile, thinks Zac’s Christmas Day birth gives him special powers. Topped with great performances, 1970s-true production design and a killer soundtrack, C.R.A.Z.Y. is a colourful magic carpet ride of emotion and humour.
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Eastern Promises (2007)
David Cronenberg’s London-set crime drama is a nail-biter thriller with Naomi Watts as a midwife trying to protect a newborn from the Russian Mafia. Vincent Cassel also stars as the twisted scion of a powerful don, but Eastern Promises is Viggo Mortensen’s film. As the boss’s taciturn driver and bodyguard, his body is covered in tattoos, each one a symbol of his loyalty and rank. All are on display when he’s attacked in a Russian steam bath in one famously frantic fight scene—you feel each painful smack as his naked body slams into the floor.
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The F Word (2013)
In this brilliant rom-com from director Michael Dowse and screenwriter Elan Mastai, sparks fly between two friends (Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan) trying to deny their feelings for each other. From skyline views to a neighbourhood diner and a bonfire at the Scarborough Bluffs before a moonlit skinny-dip for the two leads, Toronto is on display in all its glory. Future Oscar nominee Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis co-star.
Fubar (2002) and Fubar II (2010)
Hoser antiheroes Terry (David Lawrence) and Dean (Paul Spence) are the modern-day Bob and Doug McKenzie in these frenetic mockumentaries. (The lifelong buds share the same love of beer as the beloved SCTV Canuckleheads, too.) Director Michael Dowse grew an improv sketch about the head-banging, expletive-dropping Terry and Dean into a cult hit with FUBAR in 2002. Sequel FUBAR II, meanwhile, sees the hammerheads in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for sweet jobs in the oil patch, spurred on by Dean’s all-purpose rallying cry of “give’r!”
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Goin’ Down the Road (1970)
It’s been said that Canada’s feature film industry was born with Donald Shebib’s classic 1970 road trip movie. Bittersweet and tragicomic, Maritimers Joey (Paul Bradley) and Peter (Doug McGrath) ditch Cape Breton Island for the better lives they think they’ll find in Toronto. While the pals soon learn that the streets aren’t paved with gold, there are good times to be had—at least for a while. The film’s eclectic soundtrack features Hank Snow, Erik Satie and then twentysomething singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. A consistent entry on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time lists, Goin’ Down the Road still holds up more than 50 years on.
This often-hilarious tale of Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott)—a hockey newbie catapulted into the role of on-ice enforcer after pummelling a fan in the stands for a gay slur—has crude talk and violence aplenty. But Doug is also endearing as a gentle-hearted dim bulb who’s unaware of the power behind his punches. Jay Baruchel, who plays Glatt’s motormouthed buddy, co-wrote the script with Evan Goldberg. Goon ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s fun nonetheless—especially to those who will happily argue about hockey for hours over a few wobbly pops.
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Is there a place for forgiveness after violence? After Montreal twins learn surprising revelations about their late mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) travels to the Middle East to fulfill her last wishes, learning more about Nawal’s turbulent past in the process. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Incendies was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in 2011. Villeneuve has gone on to direct Hollywood films including Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, which snagged six technical Oscars at the 2022 ceremony.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
Insecure optimist and joyously goofy photographer Polly (Sheila McCarthy) is the heart of director Patricia Rozema’s groundbreaking 1987 film. Rootless Polly lands a job as an assistant at a Toronto art gallery and soon develops a crush on gallery manager Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), but her rose-coloured glasses start to slip when Gabrielle’s lover (Ann-Marie MacDonald) reveals some unexpected truths. Fantasy and deft storytelling weave together in this delightful comedic drama. Polly remains one of my favourite Canadian film characters.
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Jesus of Montreal (1989)
How would Jesus act? When the priest of a Montreal cathedral hires young actor Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) to breathe life into a stale production of the annual Passion play of Christ’s life and death, the Biblical story gets a literal interpretation. Writer-director Denys Arcand netted one of his three Best International Feature Film Oscar nominations for Jesus of Montreal. (Although Arcand won his gold statue for 2003’s The Barbarian Invasions, I’m a bigger fan of this highly original life-imitates-art dramedy.)
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Last Night (1998)
What would you do on your last night on earth? Don McKellar explores the question in his directorial debut, an unsentimental dark comedy that’s also one of my all-time favourite Canadian movies. The cast is exceptional: Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, David Cronenberg, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright and McKellar, whose downbeat everyman comic timing is flawless. We’re not quite sure why the end of days is coming, but the characters have various reasons for their final plans.
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Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
The first of three documentaries by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal based on the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes is as powerful as it is visually stunning. There’s a terrible beauty to Burtynsky’s photography of industrial wastelands and dumps. The message is clear: this is our planet’s deadly inheritance and a lethal legacy for humankind, particularly those in the poorest regions. It was followed by Watermark (2013) and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), also compelling documentaries.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
A long-time teacher in his native Algeria, immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) takes over a Grade 6 class in Montreal after the previous teacher’s death. The children struggle with grief and loss, but so does Lazhar, an old-school teacher challenged by culture clashes, prejudice and an education system he finds baffling. Director Philippe Falardeau’s film is sad, sweet and touches the heart with humorous beats. A breakout role for actor Sophie Nélisse, it was Canada’s 2012 entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar.
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New Waterford Girl (1999)
Liane Balaban delights as Mooney Pottie, a 15-year-old who will do just about anything to break free of dismal New Waterford, Nova Scotia, for the bright lights of New York City. She shows remarkable creativity in cooking up a plan to skip town, and her new pal, Lou (Tara Spencer-Nairn of Corner Gas fame), a tough girl with a mean right hook inherited from her boxer dad, is more than happy to help. I love the girl power storyline and director Allan Moyle and writer Tricia Fish’s sharp humour.
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One Week (2008)
At a time of year when we’re all craving an epic road trip, director Michael McGowan’s visual love letter to Canada nicely fits the bill (sans exorbitant fuel prices). Newly diagnosed with cancer, Ben (Joshua Jackson) finds inspiration in a Tim Hortons coffee cup to delay his treatment and take a spontaneous motorcycle trip from Toronto to Tofino. More than a travelogue, Ben learns truths about himself, life, his feelings about a relationship back home and the people he meets on the road. Spectacular scenery, an all-Canadian soundtrack and a cameo by late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie make this an immersive Canuck experience.
Craving a Canadian zombie flick? In director Bruce McDonald’s innovative, low-budget Pontypool, a former big-time shock jock (Stephen McHattie) mistakenly thinks the worst thing that’s happened to him is having to take a gig in the basement studio of a small-town Ontario radio station. As things start to get weird outside, the station staff may be the last ones standing—and the only ones who can figure out what sets the bloodthirsty marauders rampaging. It’s not a bite; it’s saying the wrong thing. That’s right: this undead virus spreads through words.
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The ghosts of murdered villagers haunt a young girl (Rachel Mwanza) brutally forced into slavery as a child soldier in director Kim Nguyen’s powerful Rebelle. Mwanza, then 14 years old, was living on the streets of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, when she was cast. Her character narrates the film through conversations with the baby growing inside her, sharing memories of the past two years of her life. A haunting drama filled with violence, torment and magic, Rebelle was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 85th Academy Awards.
Sleeping Giant (2015)
It’s summer and the days stretch long for teenager Adam Hudson (Jackson Martin), whose boring stretch with his family at a Lake Superior cottage is granted a reprieve when more worldly kids Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino) show up and invite him to hang out. Their friendship has uneasy angles and their urgings to Adam to start taking risks sound more like dares. Director Andrew Cividino perfectly captures the dynamics of a transformative adolescent summer, where discovery has a whiff of danger.
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Stories We Tell (2012)
Every family has secrets. Sarah Polley’s very personal documentary weaves these truths together as she follows a trail of rumours surrounding her late mother, the actor and casting director Diane Polley. Each family member and friend is asked for their version of Diane’s past. As they do, a new story emerges, one that is unexpected, revelatory and will change Polley’s self-identity forever.
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In this comedy from Ken Scott, Patrick Huard plays Montrealer David Wozniak, a slacker who, in his college days, fathered 533 kids as an anonymous sperm donor under the alias Starbuck. Now adults, 142 of them have launched a class-action suit to learn Starbuck’s identity. As Wozniak reads the profiles of his numerous offspring, he has one more child to be concerned about: his girlfriend is pregnant. Can he learn about the meaning of fatherhood with incognito observations of the good and bad of his sizeable brood?
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The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter follows the aftermath of a tragic school bus accident that kills 14 children in a small British Columbia town. Ian Holm plays the lawyer who arrives to convince the families to join a class-action suit. The truth of what happened, however, is hard to find in a place filled with so many secrets. This haunting story of how a tragedy impacts a close-knit community features a standout performance by Sarah Polley, who plays one of the accident’s few survivors.
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Take This Waltz (2011)
Toronto glows with midsummer heat and vibrant colour in this sensual romantic drama written and directed by Sarah Polley. A love triangle involving Margot (Michelle Williams), her cookbook-writing husband Lou (Seth Rogen, who is very good in a dramatic role) and Margot’s love interest Daniel (Luke Kirby) plays out around the Centre Island ferry, Queen West streets and a thrilling midway ride in the dark.
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The Trotsky (2009)
I was charmed by writer-director Jacob Tierney’s take on John Hughes with his story of Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel), a high school senior in Montreal who’s convinced that he’s the reincarnation of the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Teen Leon struggles to round all the Trotsky life bases as quickly as possible: meet Lenin, get exiled, avoid icepicks, organize a student union and hook up with an older woman, preferably one named Alexandra. It’s hard to squeeze homework in with organizing a hunger strike among the workers at his long-suffering father’s factory.
After you’ve added the best Canadian movies to your watchlist, check out 10 great films that are actually set in Canada.