If you want to know what’s wrong with this year’s Genie Award nominations, look no further than the best documentary category, which pits Guy Maddin’s Manitoban phantasmagoria My Winnipeg against Yung Chang’s Three Gorges tour Up the Yangtze.

While these films deserve recognition in the non-fiction category, they’re also both far better than most of the titles nominated in the “dramatic” categories. Surely Maddin’s strange, inventive doc-fantasy hybrid (named the best Canadian feature of 2008 by the Toronto Film Critics Association) warrants consideration above Carl Bessai’s hapless, Paul Haggis-flavoured drama Normal — inexplicably nominated for best motion picture.

Not to mention Passchendaele‚ the likely winner of the Genies’ top prize was one of the year’s biggest critical punching bags. Considering that the best motion picture category has been dominated in recent years by films that strike a balance between artistic and commercial imperatives (like Away From Her, C.R.A.Z.Y., Atanarjuat).

A Passchendaele victory could be seen as a booby prize in a year when many of Canada’s top auteurs (David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Denis Villeneuve) sat out and others (Deepa Mehta, Jeremy Podeswa) contributed sub-par work.

It would also be a comment on the Genies’ eligibility guidelines, which require entrants to have received extended theatrical engagements in major Canadian markets. While this theoretically works to ensure that the awards go to films that people have actually seen, it also acts as a buttress against festival entries that haven’t secured distribution — a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that denies under-the-radar titles a chance to get a “Genie bump.”

The emphasis on theatrical screenings also makes for odd some match-ups. Leaving aside the question of their relative merits, why should Normal and Richie Mehta’s gentle Delhi drama Amal — both of which showed at TIFF in 2007 — be competing against a film (Passchendaele) that premiered exactly one year later?

The good news is that the vagaries of Genie policy should create a very strong field in 2010, when several solid films — including Bruce McDonald’s semiotic-zombie flick Pontypool, Rodrigue Jean’s probing character study Lost Song and Denis Villeneuve’s affecting Montreal Massacre drama Polytechnique — will all be eligible for consideration.

Of course, they’ll all probably lose to Atom Egoyan’s Adoration, but nobody ever said that film awards were fair.

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