As a Canadian critic, I feel deeply ambivalent about the cultural chic Australian movies have enjoyed in recent years. The international success of films such as "My Brilliant Career" and "Breaker Morant" has become a stick for Canadians to beat themselves with.
Canada and Australia started out with similar histories and resources. The Australians had the advantage of being far enough from American pop culture not to be swallowed up by it. And they've used their brash confidence to achieve international snob appeal. When rotten movies were made in Australia, they were kept fairly quiet. Canada's rotten movies became a favorite subject, and there were a lot of them during the boom-and-bust years (1979 to 1981) when the Canadian government offered tax shelters as an incentive to movie investors.
Yet the surprise is that Canada has over the years achieved a select list of unusual, excellent movies. Two years ago the Toronto film festival polled critics and industry insiders to put together Canada's 10 Best. Now these films are touring key U.S. cities. (In Washington, they began screening yesterday at the American Film Institute and continue through April 11.)
I would pit these against the best Australia has to offer any day:
*"My Uncle Antoine" (1971): Claude Jutra's quiet, unassuming masterpiece examines the subtle, partly comic tensions in a French-Canadian mining town in the late 1940s. The story is told through the eyes of a child who lives with his uncle, the owner of the town's general store and also its undertaker. When another boy his age dies during Christmas, Benoit, accompanying his uncle, takes a coffin by sled to collect the corpse, only to lose both coffin and body in a snowstorm on the way back. Produced by the National Film Board. (French with subtitles.)
*"Goin' Down the Road" (1970): Don Shebib's tough, gritty look at a couple of Down East dreamer-drifters was a breakthrough -- the film that made everybody realize that having genuine Canadian movies was not an impossible dream. Paul Bradley and Doug McGrath are unforgettable as the two maritimers who take the long, winding road to Toronto, only to have their fantasies smashed.
*"Good Riddance" (1979): An intense, self-dramatizing 13-year-old girl named Manon becomes a sacred monster in this compelling family drama directed by the gifted Francis Mankiewicz, a French-Canadian cousin of Hollywood's Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz. Manon, played by Charlotte Laurier, bewitches the audience, so it's easy to see how she bewitches her mother -- a big-boned, boondocks Mother Courage who ekes out a living in a small town in the Laurentians.
*"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974): Ted Kotcheff adds a dimension to Mordecai Richler's story about a St. Urbain Street hustler desperate to become a somebody, and gives the tale emotional power. Richard Dreyfuss is sensational in the title role, turning in a moment's flash from entertaining charmer to ruthless punk.
*"Orders" (1975): There are five main characters in Michael Brault's film, and the actors playing them talk to the audience directly. They're composites representing the experiences of about 50 people among the 450 Quebeckers taken to jail under the War Measures Act in October 1970. This is not so much a movie about Quebec in 1970 as an exploration of what, exactly, is taken away when a person's civil liberties are suspended.
*"The Grey Fox" (1983): This spectacularly well-made first feature by Phillip Borsos tells the story of Bill Miner, Canada's first train robber, who was known as "the Gentleman Bandit." Miner was an American import, and he's played by an American actor -- the cool, laconic ex-stuntman Richard Farnsworth. The script is shaky, but Borsos is a great image-maker.
*"J.A. Martin, Photographer" (1977): Directed by the relatively unknown Jean Beaudin, this French-language production from the National Film Board tells a turn-of-the-century story, and the movie has a dawdling rhythm and pictorial sense of that period. As a photographer who goes on an annual six-week tour to snap photos of his far-flung clients, Marcel Sapourin beams benevolence. What transforms the movie into something exciting is the tempestuous Monique Mercure as his wife Rose-Aimee.
*"The Moontrap" (1963): Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault collaborated on this study of life on the Ile aux Coudres, an island on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River whose language and culture were virtually unchanged for three centuries. It's the ultimate National Film Board documentary, revolving around an attempt to revive the island's traditional porpoise hunt. Instead of the 300 porpoises anticipated, the venture nets one -- a mini-Moby Dick, which is hustled onto a boat and slapped with bonhomie by one of the captors.
*"La Vraie Nature de Bernadette" (1972): Gilles Carle is the only French-Canadian director who has had hits in both Montreal and Paris. This one, which Carle describes as a religious western, is about an idealistic woman who leaves her affluent husband in Montreal and flees to the country in search of the pure and simple life -- with hilarious and disastrous consequences.
*"Nobody Waved Goodbye" (1963): Don Owen was assigned to make a half-hour documentary for the National Film Board on the problems of middle-class delinquents, and instead sneakily made this 80-minute improvisational feature. The episode had a fairy-tale ending when it emerged as the sleeper of the New York Film Festival.