After waiting a year (almost) for the movies of 2000-2009 to fully sink in, we’re finally prepared to unleash our best of the decade list. Hold on to your butts.
20. Memento – The infamous “backwards movie” that really launched Christopher Nolan’s career (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Inception). Nolan packs enough action into his movies to satisfy most everyone, but at the root of his best movies are unique story/narrative concepts that are fully developed and realized via complex plots. Hard to believe that some thought of him as a “gimmick” movie maker when Memento first came out.
19. Cloverfield – A documentary style horror movie, effectively crossing Godzilla with The Blair Witch Project. Maybe not completely beloved by critics, but beloved by me. Cloverfield‘s faithfulness to its point of view gives the unfolding horrors a sense of realism that heightens their impact.
18. Nine Lives – Nine loosely connected, interwoven vignettes, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, son of famed Latin American author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
17. Dogville – Lars Von Trier’s controversial 2003 movie starring Nicole Kidman and set on a stage with no props, backdrops, or scenery. Very dark.
In many ways, life in China is almost incomprehensible to the average American. Lixin Fan’s documentary, Last Train Home, gives us a glimpse, a sometimes disturbing one, of life in China through the lens of one family of migrant workers.
TV Casualties Rating:
out of 5
Run Time: 86 minutes
Directed by: Lixin Fan
Starring: Zhang Changhua, Chen Suqin, Qin Zhang
Theatrical Release: 09/5/10
DVD Release: 2/22/11
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Gross: $272,556
Metacritic Score: 86/100
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%
The movie opens with a shot panning across an endless crowd of people – I’d guess in the six figure range – standing outside of a train station in the rain. Every year 130 million migrant workers head home for the Chinese New Year, which, we’re told via text on the screen, is the largest human migration in the world. The subjects of the film, Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, have been making this annual trek for roughly 20 years – starting when they were just 16 years old and dropped out of school to find work, a decision which they not only regret but seems to consume them – even after 20 years, they bring it up constantly. The couple spends the rest of the year living in a tiny bunk down the hall from the factory where they sew jeans and other garments to be shipped to the Western world.
They arrive home at the family farm to spend time with their 16 year old daughter, 10 year old son and the grandmother that is raising the children with the financial help of the factory money. Their visit is awkward. Spending around 51 weeks a year away at work, they don’t know their own kids very well. Their daughter, Qin, is openly angry at her parents and rebellious. Ironically, and against all the parental advice she’s ever received, Qin drops out and gets a factory job similar to that of her parents. Her parents are confused and upset by her decision. Her mother says, “I’d rather work even harder than have Qin work.”
While there are many differences from American life to be seen, in some ways the similarities are more striking. The first words out of Qin’s younger brother’s mouth when his parents show him the cell phone they bought Qin are, “Does it have games?” During an argument with her mother, Qin says, “I don’t care what you say.” Teen angst and rebellion, it appears, are universal.
If the most important thing in someone’s life is spending time with the people they care about, the economic situation in China has removed this aspect of life almost completely. Last Train Home doesn’t beat this idea over your head, but by the end you realize that’s what it’s all about.
There’s a lot of speculation regarding how true the events portrayed in the Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, actually are. After considering it a while, I’ve decided that I have no goddamn idea. But let’s start at the beginning.
TV Casualties Rating:
out of 5
Run Time: 86 minutes
Directed by: Banksy, Shepard Fairy
Starring: Thierry Guetta, Banksy, Shepard Fairy
Theatrical Release: 04/16/10
DVD Release: 12/14/10
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Gross: $3.29 million
Metacritic Score: 85/100
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97%
Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of Thierry Guetta and the eight years he spent relentlessly shooting footage for his great street art documentary, Life Remote Control. Thierry begins filming his cousin, whom goes by the moniker Space Invader, as his graffiti deals exclusively with the imagery of the ancient video game of the same name. Almost instantly upon shooting Space Invader in action, Thierry is obsessed. He quickly branches out from there, slowly but surely meeting and filming the biggest artists in street art including arguably the biggest name, Banksy, whom is shown only in shadow. Thierry travels the world, filming the hijinks. He scales buildings side by side with the graffiti artists he films and tightropes the peaks of steep rooftops to get the perfect shot. The artists respect his enthusiasm and fearlessness and not only let Thierry shoot them freely but befriend him in the process.
It’s not until much later – approximately 6 or 7 years, in fact – that they realize he is in no way a legitimate filmmaker. He is just a guy that compulsively films everything around him, never bothering to watch the boxes and boxes of tapes lining the walls of his residence. (As Banksy describes it, “I realized Thierry was not a filmmaker but a guy with mental problems.”)
This is where the reality of the events begin to come into question. At Banksy’s insistence, Thierry does attempt to edit together a movie out of his countless hours of footage. We are shown a couple of clips of the final product, which are essentially micro-fragments of nonsense strung together. No shot is over 1 or 2 seconds, nor do they relate to clips before or after them. Totally incoherent.
It’s at this point that Banksy takes over the project and Thierry takes on the street art name Mr. Brainwash and sets out to make a name for himself. The idea that the latter is a hoax has been put forth many times, and I really can’t say. I don’t want to ruin the ending of the movie by giving a lot of details, but I’ll say that the whole thing is almost too clever to be completely true and all of the facts represented accurate.
In any case, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an entertaining movie. It isn’t really the definitive street art documentary that Thierry may or may not have ever intended it to be, though if there’s a hoax involved it does make a fitting piece in Banksy’s collection. Thierry is an interesting character, however much fact or fiction he truly is.
Jack Rebney is the Winnebago Man – an oddly eloquent yet obscenity laced orator that rose to Youtube fame for the outtakes of an early 1980′s Winnebago promotional video that featured him losing his shit repeatedly and swearing up a damn storm. (My personal favorite quote is “My mind is just a piece of shit this morning.”) As a truly eccentric character – he has lived in the woods alone for the past 15 years – with a flair for hilarious dialogue, he is a kickass subject for a documentary. Director Ben Steinbauer, however, took this great subject and made a merely OK documentary.
First of all, take a look at the original video:
The movie begins with Steinbauer following in the footsteps of “throw it together” documentary filmmakers like Nick Broomfield that essentially make a movie about themselves trying to make a movie. They run down leads and try to get interviews. The narrative follows the filmmaker’s journey rather than the subject’s journey, and the story is told to the audience by the director via lots of voice over rather than letting the footage show us the subject and their story. In this case, Steinbauer talks about his personal history with the Winnebago Man video, which actually dates back to the pre-Youtube era of funny videos being spread via hand copied VHS tapes. He then details his early efforts in finding Rebney and setting up an interview with him. In an already very short movie (less than 90 minutes), this is fluff, and there’s an annoying “golly gee, funny videos make everyone happy” quality to the early voice over segments to make it a little worse.
TV Casualties Rating:
out of 5
Run Time: 85 minutes
Directed by: Ben Steinbauer
Starring: Jack Rebney
Theatrical Release: 07/09/10
DVD Release: 11/02/10
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Gross: $181K
Metacritic Score: 71/100
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 91%
As the film progresses, we meet Rebney and he’s exactly the same guy we’ve seen on youtube – sure, he’s older, in his mid to late 70′s, but just as intense, quick-witted and foul-mouthed as he was that day in the Winnebago 20 odd years ago. And here’s the film’s real flaw – we ultimately don’t see a ton of footage of Rebney just being himself. Steinbauer fights with him about talking about his childhood and opening up to people, which Rebney has no interest in. Rebney is extremely skeptical of Youtube and his so-called fanbase, whom he misunderstands and assumes to be laughing at him rather than being amused by his turns of filthy phrase.
Rebney’s dream is to write books about politics and philosophy. He agrees to work on Steinbauer’s project merely for the chance to spread his ideas. Winnebago Man reveals almost none of the content of his message and all the footage is condensed into showing him being defensive about “opening up to people.” Without revealing the ending, the “opening up” storyline does pay off in a satisfying way, and I did feel like Rebney was changed by the experience of making this documentary. Still, I wanted to know Rebney better, not in a superficial “what was your childhood like?” way, but in an adult “what are you genuinely passionate about today?” way. Instead I got a Rebney reduced to a hermit caricature to fit Steinbauer’s sappy ode to the power of funny videos. Golly gee, that’s swell.
It’s the Appalachian equivalent of Jersey Shore. The opening minutes of Julien Nitzberg’s documentary, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia“, give a rapid fire family history of the film’s subject, the White family of Boone County, West Virginia. A gun shot sound effect punctuates. The patriarch, D. Ray White, was a clog/tap dancer, growing famous both for his unique performances as well as his outlaw lifestyle that ultimately resulted in him getting shot and killed. His sons attempted to follow in his footsteps, perhaps finding more success in terms of achieving the outlaw lifestyle than anything else. One died a violent death at a young age, one fled the area to keep out of trouble, and the most famous, Jesco White, has brain damage from “ten long years of huffing gasoline.” He isn’t sure if the damage is on the left or right side of his brain, but does recall the doctor saying that in essence he has a hole in his brain where the remaining tissue is like cigarette ash. (Jesco is the subject of a 1991 PBS documentary called “Dancing Outlaw” which we plan to review later in the month.)
TV Casualties Rating:
out of 5
Run Time: 84 minutes
Directed by: Julien Nitzberg
Starring: Jesco White, Hank Williams III
Theatrical Release: 05/05/2010
DVD Release: 10/26/2010
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Gross: N/A
Metacritic Score: N/A
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 50%
In many ways, this super quick opening summary is the most compelling part of the film. The outlaw life and death is dramatic and intriguing from a distance. It all gets uglier upon closer examination.
After the shock of the family’s violent history, Nitzberg moves into the day to day life of the Whites, which is an all you can eat, smoke and snort buffet of prescription drugs, whiskey and weed. We watch a new mother chop and snort oxycontin off the hospital room end table a few hours after giving birth. We see two 50-60 year olds blow smoke in their 85 year old mother’s face during her birthday party. We meet a lot of family members that talk way slower than Tommy Chong.
The Whites have a histrionic streak about as wide as the New River Valley Gorge. Family members trade off bragging about using and selling drugs or committing acts of violence. They take an enormous amount of pride in their fame and the attention they get for being so dysfunctional. The infamy and death are glorified as much as possible.
But generations of this lifestyle lead to a value system that a normal person can’t really comprehend until they watch this. Drugs and violence have been such a part of the Whites lives now for so long that they have no real sense of the negative effects they can have, even in the case of guarding their kids from them. There are scenes of one of the 5 or 6 year old kids drinking 6 or 7 cans of Pepsi and bouncing off the walls. How many years until it’s something more serious? In later scenes, the same child threatens to murder his estranged father. His aunt’s response is something along the lines of, “You wanna go to jail? Don’t say that kinda stuff on camera.”
In the end, there isn’t really a single clear cut good guy among The White clan. Jesco may be the most articulate and charming, which is insane considering his aforementioned brain issues. The family is fascinating on a certain level, but there is ultimately no real substance to their story. The violence of a train wreck is visceral and thrilling, but the aftermath, the reality, is no fun.
Last October we reviewed Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, a 1997 Canadian horror movie that seems to have slowly and surely built a strong cult following over the years (and rightfully so, as it’s good.) It was a bit of surprise to see Natali back with Splice in June 2010, writing and directing a horror film for the first time since Cube – and this time with a fairly big name cast and the movie going wide in U.S. theaters.
In Splice, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are scientists who create a human animal hybrid by splicing together DNA from various species. As the hybrid, Dren (Delphine Chanéac), rapidly develops into something more human than animal, the lines between science experiment subject and child are blurred. Elsa and Clive struggle with the ethical implications- they can’t tell anyone about their breakthrough because human testing is illegal, and they can’t just kill Dren because she’s part human.
The story is instantly engaging. As Dren is introduced over the first two thirds of the movie, she evokes a response almost like the Elephant Man, a deep sympathy with some curiosity and a little revulsion. This provides an emotional punch to the ethical conflict that develops between Elsa and Clive. They rail against each other some, not quite sure what role to take with Dren or how to deal with her. The audience has similarly mixed feelings that shift and change as Dren quickly mutates, and we’re forced to reevaluate things again. Natali has a gift for making genre movies that are competent and suspenseful as standard horror, but also ask the audience ethical or philosophical questions that resonate on a much deeper level.
TV Casualties Rating:
out of 5
Run Time: 104 minutes
Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Written by: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac
Theatrical Release: 06/04/10
DVD Release: 10/05/10
Production Budget: $26 million
Domestic Gross: $17 million
Metacritic Score: 66/100
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 74%
Visually, Splice has some of the best CGI I’ve seen. It was about halfway through the movie before I even stopped to consider the fact that a lot of what I was watching wasn’t real, and then wondered how they did it. Everything looked solid and tangible. It didn’t have that super phony CGI sheen. There were tricks to make Dren’s eyes extremely far apart when viewed from straight ahead – essentially some CGI or other effect literally on one of the lead’s faces for the bulk of her screen time – and I could not tell how they achieved this. It looked unsettling and inhuman in the ways they clearly intended, but it didn’t look fake the way Jar-Jar Binks looks fake.
And yet somehow, great visuals, a great story idea and a very good cast did not add up to a great movie. I’ve never said this before, but Splice was a movie crippled by its overly speedy pace. Too much story was crammed into the allotted time, and the plot and character development seemed forced. For example, in an early scene, Elsa and Clive are wracking their brains trying to figure out how they can possibly bind the animal DNA with the human DNA, something considered nearly impossible. The entire transition from “Try this!” and “Damn! It didn’t work. We’ll never figure it out.” to “OMG, it worked!” takes about 30 seconds. In the grand scheme of the movie, this is actually one of the more forgivable cases of blazing through a scene to set things up, but almost the entire movie was that rapid. By the time things frantically raced – literally – through the final chase scene and climax, the lack of real thrills leaves you feeling that the movie didn’t live up to its early promise.
Splice would probably have made for an awesome book or first season of a TV show. Instead, it’s merely a pretty good movie.
Synopsis: Part autobiographical, documentary style show about the life of Louis CK, a misanthropic middle aged divorced comedian, part surreal weirdness… interspersed with bits of real stand-up footage. Our take: “Louie” is by far our favorite new show of the season. The stand-up alone makes it funnier than almost anything else on TV. Early on, the show struggled to mash together all of the elements, but as the season went on, it really started to come together. It seamlessly transitions from the profound and meaningful to purely absurd filth like nothing else we’ve ever seen. Grade: A
Synopsis: The first episode is not the event. The second episode is not the event. Our take: They should have called this show The Lost V-Files. They’ve blended a lot of elements of “Lost”, “V“, and “The X-Files“, to create a sort of mediocre science fiction soup. (Which, coincidentally, is one of Emeril’s least popular recipes.) There’s a lot of jumping back and forth in time, and most of the dramatic interest is derived from the writers not telling you exactly what’s going on. Their hope being that you’ll be curious to find out what’s going on. Despite its hamfisted effort, I was a little curious. “The Event” fails, however, at creating even one character worth rooting for, so I doubt I’ll be back for episode 3. Grade: C
Synopsis: When a vacation to Brazil goes awry, and by “awry” I mean their plane crashes into a glowing river, one ordinary family develops super powers. Our take: “No Ordinary Family” is not at all something I’d watch, but for what it’s going for – sort of a watered down “Modern Family” crossed with “Heroes” – I think it does a decent job. I’ll even admit to chuckling a few times. My only complaint is that Michael Chiklis was laying the cheesy kid’s movie dad stuff on a little thick. In the comedy scenes it worked well, but in the dramatic family scenes, it didn’t seem to fit. Grade: B-
Synopsis: Will Travers cracks codes and analyzes government intelligence for a living. When his boss/father-in-law is killed, he’s sucked into a whirlwind of conspiracy and intrigue. Our take: In fairness, the bar for AMC shows is extremely high. “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are arguably two of the best shows on TV now and ever. But for me, the “Rubicon” intrigue is wearing a little thin with the turtle speed pace the show has set for its mystery. To illustrate the slowness, it was ten episodes before the two leads (Will and Katherine Rhumor) finally met up, so everything from episodes 2-9 was at best a baby step and at worst, irrelevant. The two most amusing characters, Miles, the nutty analyst and Kale Ingram, the dour boss, are almost distractions from the main plot. It’s good enough that I’ll keep watching, but the pace is frustrating. Grade: B+
Synopsis: Two cops with enormous capped teeth fight terror on the front lines… in the tropical paradise of Hawaii. Also Jin from “Lost” and Boomer from “Battlestar Galactica” are there. Our take: I made it about ten or fifteen minutes before I had my fill of Alex O’Loughlin’s faux badassness. He’s still the guy from that J-Lo movie to me. For a network show, the action scenes were pretty impressive. Grade: D