4 Best Canadian Independent Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Riceboy Sleeps looks like a fairy tale. Taken in 16mm and colored to pastel-grain perfection, it’s a captivating picture that moves like a happy memory. And occasionally, the action matches the air. Mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) and son Dong-hyun (Ethan Hwang) share a fierce, us-against-the-world bond as they strive to make it in a Canadian suburb without a lick of help. 

The film is beautiful that way, but it also importantly doesn't spare us from the harsh-edged realities of immigrant life. There are assimilation attempts, cultural divides, and on Dong-hyun’s part, a perpetual longing to know about an unknowable past. It’s a lovely picture, to be sure, but it’s also a tear-jerker, as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming. 

Coupled with writing and performances that are resonant but restrained (they never verge on melodrama), Riceboy Sleeps makes for a powerful debut and a truly unforgettable watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aiden Finn, Anthony Shim, Bryce Hodgson, Choi Jong-ryul, Eric Keenleyside, Ethan Hwang, Hunter Dillon, John Cassini, Kendra Anderson, Lee Yong-nyeo, Ryan Robbins, Sean Poague, Vanessa Przada

Director: Anthony Shim

Forgoing the typical catastrophic approach to the apocalypse, writer, star, and director Don McKellar opts for a grounded tone in Last Night, a film about the end of the world. In it, various Torontonians figure out how best to celebrate and mourn their final hours on Earth. While McKellar’s character Patrick originally planned to spend the day alone, he finds himself gravitating to Sandra (Sandra Oh), a stranger who he gets to know in a series of conversations.

Last Night is more like Before Sunrise than The Day After Tomorrow in that way, filled as it is with thought-provoking dialogue and interesting insights into everyday characters. Whether it was intentional or due to the obviously limited budget, the decision to leave out details like why the world is ending and how is a clever one since it allows us to hyperfocus on everyone's psyche and inner workings. There is desperation, longing, and anxiety, but also relief, gratitude, and joy. 

If you’re watching it for the first time, you’ll be delighted to find surprise stars populate this lo-fi production—apart from McKellar and Oh, well-regarded auteurs Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell) and David Cronenberg (Crimes of the Future) also make welcome appearances. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Arsinée Khanjian, Bob Martin, Bruce McDonald, Bryan Renfro, Callum Keith Rennie, Charmion King, Darren O'Donnell, David Cronenberg, Don McKellar, François Girard, Geneviève Bujold, Jackie Burroughs, Jessica Booker, Karen Glave, Kirsten Johnson, Michael McMurtry, Regan Moore, Roberta Maxwell, Robin Gammell, Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Tom McCamus, Tracy Wright, Trent McMullen

Director: Don McKellar

Rating: R

Sandra Oh earned her breakout in this warm, candid Canadian indie, which — not uncoincidentally — shares its name with that of a decorative Chinese symbol associated with marriage. The movie’s title is also a reference to 22-year-old Jade Li’s (Oh) struggle to pursue her own ambitions and meet the clashing romantic and professional expectations her disapproving first-generation immigrant parents have for her. As she puts it, “Double happiness is when you make yourself happy and everyone else happy, too.”

An aspiring actress who dreams of playing Blanche DuBois, Jade is instead asked by unimaginative casting directors to adopt a pronounced Chinese accent for tiny bit parts. In essence, she’s typecast everywhere: on set, and at home, where she struggles to play the good daughter who’ll give up acting for a more conventional job and will only marry a man her parents approve of. It’s a jarring existence, but Double Happiness never feels claustrophobic because it gives Jade the freedom to finally be herself via witty, confessional monologues and fantasy sequences. There’s undoubtedly bittersweetness to this portrait of a young woman fighting to be herself on every front, but that it's nevertheless such an irresistibly charming, never-flippant watch is a testament to first-time director Mina Shum and Oh’s already mature talents.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alannah Ong, Callum Keith Rennie, Donald Fong, Frances You, Gene Kiniski, Sandra Oh, Stephen Chang

Director: Mina Shum

, 2015

This  exploration of the complex and loving relationship between a mother and her son will take you through a variety of emotions: it's uplifting, disturbing, provocative, sad, and hopeful. We don't get many of these middle-class-budget films anymore, and this one might be one of the category's best.

A kidnapped girl (Brie Larson) has a son after being raped by her abductor. She tries to provide a "normal" environment for the kid in the room where they're being held captive until they can escape. Brie Larson won an Oscar for Best Actress in Room, so make sure to also check out Short Term 12, an equally impressive performance by her in an equally amazing movie.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Amanda Brugel, Brie Larson, Cas Anvar, Chantelle Chung, Graeme Potts, Jack Fulton, Jacob Tremblay, Jee-Yun Lee, Joan Allen, Joe Pingue, Justin Mader, Kate Drummond, Katelyn Wells, Matt Gordon, Megan Park, Ola Sturik, Randal Edwards, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Rory O'Shea, Sean Bridgers, Tom McCamus, Wendy Crewson, William H. Macy, Zarrin Darnell-Martin

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Rating: R