TORONTO — If there’s one thing that knits together this year’s slate of Genie nominees, it may simply be the sheer diversity of Canada’s biggest homegrown films.
Movies that made an impact range from the star-powered cavalcade of Canadiana in Barney’s Version to the sharply divisive sci-fi shocker Splice and the wrenching war-torn saga Incendies.
Those films, along with the candy-coloured comic romance Heartbeats, and the heavy social drama 10 1/2, will vie for the honour of best film at the Genie Awards on Thursday while bucking expectations of typical Canadian fare.
“I think at one point in our cinematic history we were referred to as ‘earnest filmmakers’,” says Kathryn Emslie, director of film & TV programs at the Canadian Film Centre. “I don’t think that that label applies any more.”
The Genies have done a good job this year of recognizing a wide array of film styles, adds cinephile Steve Gravestock.
“You just look at the best picture nominees and you have fairly large-budget films represented, you have younger directors represented, you have a variety of genres or approaches to filmmaking represented,” says Gravestock, Canadian programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Traditionally when awards are given out some genres are often slighted and horror movies are one of those genres and comedies, like The Trotsky, are often not given their due. It’s nice to see these films given their due.”
Barney’s Version, Splice, The Trotsky, Resident Evil: Afterlife, and Fubar 2 are among the higher-profile films being feted at the awards bash, each brazenly geared to get bums in seats with either international star power, dazzling visual effects or just plain silliness.
Commercial aspects aside, this year’s Genie noms are also just well-crafted films worthy of being recognized with the industry’s highest honour, says Gravestock.
Of course it helps when the televised awards show, to be broadcast Thursday on CBC-TV, features nominees that the average Canadian has at least heard of — no small feat when the English-language market accounts for a tiny share of the box office that generally hovers around the one per cent mark.
Contrast this year’s celeb-driven crop to last year’s front-runners — Quebec director Denis Villeneuve led the nominees with his haunting Polytechnique, a black-and-white rendering of the 1989 Montreal massacre, but the two other front-runners were little-seen films that barely registered in theatres: the urban mother-son tale, Nurse.Fighter.Boy and the exquisite Inuit survival story Before Tomorrow.
Those lesser known films were no less deserving of Genie attention, notes Emslie, but they failed to make a big splash largely because of a punishing marketplace that is especially hard on new and emerging filmmakers.
While the Genies offer Canadian films much needed publicity to find their audience, Gravestock notes that attracting interest in the awards themselves is a whole other hurdle.
“It’s always problematic to have a list of (nominated) films that are primarily unknown because then people are kind of puzzled by the whole thing,” says Gravestock.
“Whenever any awards are given out it’s important to recognize esthetic achievement as opposed to box office achievement but you always need to strike a bit of a balance.”
Sure to add a unique mix of camp and patriotism to the Genie proceedings is host William Shatner, while Canadian celebrities confirmed to appear include favourites Gordon Pinsent, Remy Girard, Bruce Greenwood and Jay Baruchel.
Musical performances will come from Kardinal Offishall, Melissa Etheridge, Montreal rockers Karkwa and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Meanwhile, a classic horse race is shaping up between the romantic dramedy Barney’s Version, with a leading 11 nominations, and Villeneuve’s tormented drama, Incendies, with 10 noms. Both movies are up for best film, best adapted screenplay and best director. The Genie acclaim follows Oscar nominations for both — makeup for Barney and foreign language film for Incendies. Both films lost.
Barney’s producer Robert Lantos has high hopes for acting nominees Paul Giamatti, who plays the cantankerous hero Barney Panofsky, and supporting actor Dustin Hoffman, who plays Barney’s foul-mouthed father, Izzy.
“Paul carries this entire movie on his shoulders,” says Lantos, who laboured more than 12 years to bring the Mordecai Richler book to the big screen.
“He invested words that were originally Mordecai Richler’s in the novel with flesh and blood and infused them with life. That is exactly how I had imagined it in my most optimistic dreams.”
Villeneuve’s Incendies has already racked up several big prizes on the festival circuit and was named best Canadian film by Toronto and Vancouver critics. It’s also up for a leading 10 Jutra Awards, the biggest film honour in Quebec.
The 43-year-old filmmaker was typically modest as he headed into the Genie bash, deflecting any talk that he could dominate for the second year in a row.
“There are very good films this year,” said Villeneuve, whose Incendies follows Quebec twins who uncover dark secrets from their mother’s past.
“Barney’s Version is a film that I loved and I go there with humility.”
Villeneuve says his whirlwind trip to the Oscars had him rubbing shoulders with movie heroes including Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Roger Deakins and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He says he can see himself working in Hollywood one day.
“There’s different Hollywood systems. The big (studio) one I don’t know (if I can work in) but there’s people that are making film d’auteur over there,” says Villeneuve, whose “Incendies” gets a limited U.S. release April 1.
“I believe that it’s possible to make a small film over there and that I would love.”
Emslie was in Los Angeles on Tuesday with a group of Canadian filmmakers taking part in a CFC comedy lab. The program matches six filmmaking teams with experienced mentors who can shepherd them through the filmmaking process with the aim of boosting box office success.
Mentors include the producers of smashes “The Hangover,” “Legally Blonde,” “Meet the Parents” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
Emslie says she’s excited to see Canadian filmmakers become more aggressive in their pursuit of a hit.
“I think we’re getting bolder, I really do,” Emslie says. “We’re just sort of thinking about a larger audience than our own domestic audience.”