The Best of Reel Toronto
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The Best of Reel Toronto

For its fifth anniversary, Reel Toronto assembles a true Torontonian's guide to the best films ever shot here.

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.

It’s hard to believe, but it was almost exactly five years ago that the first Reel Toronto appeared. (It gave the goods on the 416-ness of the Police Academy series.) Never could we have imagined that a half-decade later we’d still be watching largely inferior movies that happen to have been shot in Toronto—or, for that matter, that something like Google Streetview would be available as a research aid.

By our count we’ve done 134 columns under the Reel Toronto banner, featuring nearly 150 movies. (Some Reel Torontos focused on more than one movie. Others were digests, trailer previews, or music video posts.)

We looked up as many of those movies as we could on Rotten Tomatoes, and we can now say definitively (but unscientifically) that, statistically speaking, nothing good comes from shooting a movie in Toronto.

On average, critics approve of just over 50 per cent of films shot here. (Which is a bit better than we guessed, we admit.) That makes Atom Egoyan’s Chloe—with its Rotten Tomatoes score of 51 per cent—the quintessential, Platonic ideal of a Toronto movie. Hey, you could definitely do worse.

Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look back at some of the best and the worst Reel Toronto films. These are movies that should, mixed together, give you a tremendous amount of civic pride (and/or shame), at least when it comes to this city’s role in the history of cinema.

Rather than using Rotten Tomatoes to define the best and worst movies shot here, we thought we’d rely on own sense of what’s worth considering. Just winning an Oscar isn’t enough to get you near the top of our list (we’re looking at you, Chicago). You have to either fully embrace Toronto’s Torontoness or actually produce a quality piece of entertainment that makes us go, “Wow, we had no idea that was even shot here!”

Here, for our first instalment of this retrospective: the very best of the films we’ve explored.

1   Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World celebrates its Torontoness in so many ways and makes such an effort to that end we hardly know where to stop praising it. But we can certainly start by saying we had a blast talking with director Edgar Wright about what went into making it.

If you watch a movie set in New York City—even if it’s filmed in Toronto—there’s a good chance you’ll see awesome, dramatic, postcard helicopter shots of the skyline. So, you could be pardoned for thinking that when someone finally films a movie that takes place here, they should do the same. But Scott Pilgrim isn’t nearly that flashy about Toronto.

Indeed, it shows the CN Tower only twice: once as a punchline and once in a perfect, romantic moment (it’s the picture at the top of this article). It treats the city as simultaneously normal and magical…

…and understands the irony not only of shooting at Casa Loma (home to everything from X-Men to The Love Guru to crappy Hilary Duff vehicles), but also of making the scene about a crappy American movie shooting at Casa Loma. It’s not the the most meta thing in the history of meta-dom, but it’s sure good for a chuckle.

In Scott Pilgrim, you’re not looking for those big Toronto moments. You just appreciate the banality of the recreated Lee’s Palace, or the enjoyment of a slice at Pizza Pizza.

2   The Silent Partner

The Silent Partner is a relatively hard-to-find classic that every Torontonian should see. It’s a good movie that includes a great glimpse of ’70s era Toronto, the chance to see Chris Plummer as a psycho, and a reminder than Elliot Gould was once a cinematic superstar, and it even features John Candy in a semi-dramatic role.

Like Scott Pilgrim, the movie isn’t flashy about its Torontoness. It shows that while this city may have been a boring WASPy place lame enough to be nicknamed “Toronto the Good,” it wasn’t too good to have its share of cross-dressing lunatic bank robbers or womanizing bank-robbing tellers, both of whom live, in The Silent Partner, in Cabbagetown.

It recalls a time when the Eaton Centre was shiny and new…

…and when Captain John’s was not only an operating eatery, but also somewhere people went. On purpose. For the eating of a dinner. To impress a date.

Some honourable mention should perhaps go to the recent The Samaritan, which also suggests that Toronto has as much seediness and criminal drama as any other town. It’s more forceful with its Toronto-ness (e.g., it does have some of those postcard skyline shots—not necessarily a bad thing!) and it’s definitely not as good a movie, but lord knows it’s a Toronto we don’t see very often.

3   The Black Stallion

We’ve previously opined that The Black Stallion might be the best all-around movie shot here. It was released way back in the 1970s but it still stands up today. It’s a reminder that Toronto can work in the service of your movie and not be just a cheap place to shoot.

Maybe, as with the also-wonderful A Christmas Story, the fact that it’s a period piece makes it harder to tell that, say, the horse is suddenly running down Queen East…

…visiting the Distillery District…


…or doing some nighttime racing at Woodbine.

It’s not a stretch to call the film a bona fide “family classic,” and it gets bonus points for bringing Mickey Rooney back up here when they made a TV series based on the film.

4   Narc

From it’s kick-ass opening chase through Regent Park to its conclusion in a DVP-area industrial park, Narc is a great little indie movie that makes you think you’re actually in Detroit.

It had that shaky-cam thing going before it became ubiquitous. And it paints the city with this cool, blue tint. Aside from the odd little bit…

…like this peek at Lamport Stadium, you hardly see Toronto. Indeed, in its review, the New York Times noted, “There’s not a sense of antiseptic sterility here: the Detroit of Narc…is so run down that paint seems to be peeling off the sky.” Right, except it’s not Detroit.

So, you can be excused if you don’t recognize your happy hometown on screen. You can also be excused if you watch it and think, “This hot young director has mad skillz and will never become the kind of hack who’d make an A-Team movie where they fly a tank and then alter the trajectory of the flying tank by firing its canon!” There, however, you’d be wrong.

5   Good Will Hunting

It was a bit of a toughie, but we felt we had to give the final slot here to Good Will Hunting. Unlike some movies (again, we’re looking at you, Chicago) it actually earned its Oscars. Moreover, the film that made Matt and Ben “Matt and Ben” and gave Gus Van Sant a real taste of mainstream success takes place very firmly in Boston and you need a real keen eye to discern that much of it wasn’t actually shot there. Keen eyes will notice that U of T’s lecture halls, dorms, and hallways are prominently featured.

Do you think the movie is a classic? Or do you make fun of it by putting on a funny sweater, randomly hugging friends, and assuring them that something isn’t their fault? There’s no question: your mileage may vary. But every Bostonian should know that the movie’s most iconic scene was shot at the Upfront Bar and Grill. It’s all ours. How do you like them apples?

Next week: The worst of Reel Toronto.