SINCE CANADA CAME ALONG

The title of the Walter Reade's Canadian retro and the amusing if dubious claim in the program that many New Yorkers still see their neighbors north of the border as "lumberjacks in earmuffs, trudging around the frozen tundra . . . singing Gordon Lightfoot songs" (surely not after the South Parkmovie) acknowledge that Canadians have long been the butt of nationalistic joshing that they mostly shrug off with uncanny good humor. But enlightened cinephiles, too, have a fairly limited view of the north country—as a chilly, cerebral enclave of determined perversity, presided over by David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. "Blame Canada!"—which encompasses 22 features, "classic and contemporary," over three weeks—kicks off this weekend with two new movies that go some way toward refuting the archetype.

Funny, generous, and exuberant, Allan Moyle's New Waterford Girl (from a dead-on screenplay by Tricia Fish) revisits that well-trodden rites-of-passage motif—small-town teen disaffection—with effortless empathy and highly specific local color. Or lack thereof, as the case may be; the film might have been called Fucking New Waterford, to invoke the original title of last year's similarly themed Show Me Love. The setting is a Nova Scotia backwater in the '70s, and Moonie Potty, a worldly, sharp-witted 15-year-old who doesn't suffer the Catholic yokel-natives gladly (her family included), is both an ostentatious moper and a wide-eyed dreamer, a memorable character that newcomer Liane Balaban embodies with a singular brand of gawky poise.

New Waterford Girl—which plays Film Forum in July—marks an overdue return to indie filmmaking for Moyle, the Quebec-born director of increasingly listless Hollywood youth flicks (from Pump Up the Volume to Empire Records). Top of the Food Chain, with which Moyle's movie shares top billing, is also by a long-dormant director. Only John Paizs's second feature in 14 years (his first was the screenwriter's-block comedy Crime Wave), this daft, schlocky midnight-movie oddity winks so furiously at the viewer it might as well have one eyelid welded shut. Campbell Scott stars as an atomic scientist investigating a case of flesh-eating aliens in a sleepy town populated by inbred kooks. Paizs—who, like Guy Maddin, started his career at the Winnipeg Film Group—has a formidable grasp of scrap-heap pop culture (Food Chain in fact makes an interesting counterpoint to The Cable Guy), but the movie seems curiously off-target, like a spoof of a spoof, and for every moment of throwaway lunacy, there are too many that turn Mystery Science Theater-style lampoon into heavy lifting.

Most of the other newish films in the series have previously surfaced in New York: Twilight of the Ice Nymphsat AMMI's Guy Maddin retro; and Robert Lepage's in limited release; Gary Burns's suburban farce Kitchen Party (a multigenerational spin on Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party) and Cosmos, a six-part, Montreal-set shaggy-dog omnibus with a cabdriver as tenuous link, in "New Directors/New Films."

A snapshot of the national state of mind emerges in Catherine Annau's lively, thoughtful documentary, Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the '70s Generation, which sizes up the enduring legacy of prime minister/world-class swinger Pierre Trudeau. Annau taps into the psychic turbulence engendered by Canada's linguistic and cultural divide through interviews with a cross section of thirtysomethings (Anglo- and Francophone, federalist and separatist) who were a product of Trudeau's fervent efforts to create a bilingual Canada (his "social experiment," as one of them puts it). By way of history lesson, "Blame Canada!" offers Quand Je Serai Parti, Vous Vivrez Encore (The Long Winter), a new period drama by veteran Quebecois filmmaker and direct-cinema pioneer Michel Brault. The film chronicles the Lower Canada Rebellion of the 1830s—mounted by the French Canadian Patriotes against the British regime—in unfortunately broad strokes. Pour la Suite du Monde (Moontrap), the seminal and rarely screened 1963 National Film Board documentary about an island community in the St. Lawrence River that Brault codirected with the late Pierre Perrault, is a highlight of the series.

As is the bitter cold—see Michael Snow's structuralist tundra brain-freeze, the three-hour La Région Centrale, and Peter Mettler and Andreas Zust's trippy Picture of Light, in which the filmmakers endure Arctic conditions in an attempt to capture the northern lights on film. With Mettler's measured, quizzical voice-over, Picture of Light doubles as a wry meditation on representation and the limits of the medium. The climactic images of the aurora borealis—rendered via time-lapse photography, compressing hours of footage into mere seconds—are, as advertised, gorgeous, otherworldly, and mysteriously affecting.

In the "classic" section of the program, it's gratifying to see the name directors accounted for with less-than-obvious choices: Patricia Rozema's playful voyeuristic fantasy, White Room (still her best film); Léa Pool's portrait of a feral, troubled young woman, La Demoiselle Sauvage; and an early Denys Arcand (1973's little-seen Réjeanne Padovani). The two czars of modern Canadian cinema are in no danger of being overshadowed, though, represented here by two of the best films of the '90s. The mordant wit and obsessive, poetic power of Cronenberg's Crashheightens with each viewing. And Egoyan's witty, formally ingenious Calendar—made before Exoticapropelled him into the art-house stratosphere—remains his boldest and most achingly tender anatomy of loss and displacement.

 
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