Best movies (in 2010)

In putting together my Top 5 album list it got me thinking about the few good movies that I came across this year.  When I was thinking back, there weren’t that many standouts to be honest, which perhaps is in part a reflection of fact I didn’t get to see as many movies as I would have liked this year.  But still, there were some noteworthy additions…

Avatar: the plot for this film was terrible, but just for the imagery and technological marvel alone it gets number one spot for me.  It was the only film that prompted repeat viewings (3 times — all in 3D, once at IMAX).  I don’t know that I want it on DVD as it was in part the immersion into James Cameron’s wonderful 3D world, at cinema scale, that really grabbed me.

Inception: this was such a wonderfully crafted film.  I loved the premise and it was excellently executed.  I’m a fan of Leonardo Di Caprio’s abilities, but despite excellent performances in the past few films I’ve seen him in (The Departed, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies, Shutter Island), his casting has left me a bit out of sorts — for some reason the characters just seemed to have been a misfit, this one included.  However, the strength of performance (across the cast), fantastic script and great execution (the visual effects are mostly very effective as a storytelling device, rather than for the sake of them) really made up for any such misgivings to land this in my top 5.

The King’s Speech: I admittedly only saw this film the other night (a day or two after the new year kicked in), but I figured it worth including in last years’ list as it was released then and I’d only missed it by a few days.  It was great to see a great character driven piece with exceptional performances by all of the headline actors.

The Hurt Locker: another one I was late to get to see (originally released in 2008), I finally got this out on DVD and had the opportunity to see what all the hype was about.  A tremendous film — terrifically shot to provide a real sense of being close to the action/character with great performances across the board, but especially by Jeremy Renner.

The Social Network: I want to preface this one by saying I didn’t actually want to go and see this film due to the subject matter being so close to my profession, but the hype around the director and screenwriter pushed me over the line, and I must admit it was an excellent film — but very much, in my mind, a work of fiction.  The dialogue was fast-paced and witty (though clearly not based in reality).  And for the filmmakers to turn such dry material into such a great piece of cinema deserves due credit.  However, I was left wondering at the end of the film how much was real and how much was “creative license”, especially after hearing on two separate occasions how far from reality Justin Timberlake’s entertaining portrayal of Sean Parker was.  I would also recommend reading Lawrence Lessig’s critique of the meta-story in the film also.

As with my music Top 5, I found myself with two “notable mentions” in this category also:

Tron Legacy: I want to love this film, but I’m not sure I can.  I will see whether it is a grower (I will watch it again on DVD).  I love that we get to continue the previous story which has become such a cult hit.  I loved the visuals.  But it felt a little too heavily derivative of The Matrix in many parts, and I felt it also suffered a little from the same problems of Star Wars Episode I — the plot filling in gaps between fast-paced, high-effects action sequences.  For whatever reason, though, it didn’t resonate with me as a classic.  I read Andy Carvin’s review on NPR and I agree with a lot of what he says as driving the success of the film at the box office.  However, Legacy fails to inspire the same creativity and action that he describes for a new generation, so I think in the long run it will remain relevant mostly for fans of the original.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: we got this out for laughs over the Christmas break (at the recommendation of my hairdresser of all things) and I can’t help but like the film.  It is ridiculous and fun.  It has a unique visual style that I find quite appealing.  It’s the sort of film I feel like I shouldn’t like, but I did.  Your mileage may vary. (Update: Scott Zoller Seitz’s take over at Slate was an interesting read…)

Strummer and Once

This week I’ve been lucky enough to make it along to Newtown Dendy to see two music related films. The first was Strummer: The future is unwritten – a documentary by Julien Temple, probably best known for his pair of films on the Sex Pistols – The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury. After the film, Temple took part in a Q&A session.

The film follows the rise and fall (and reprise) of Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, and later in life Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I knew some of the more classic Clash’s songs, and vague bits and pieces about their history. I knew that Mick Jones, Clash guitarist, went on to form Big Audio Dynamite. But that was about it.

The archival footage in the film is amazing. Temple was a friend of Joe’s – and was part of the scene that gave birth to The Clash. During the Q&A we learnt that Temple lived in a squat near Joe, and helped to sneak the band into his film school at the time to record early Clash material.

The film flicks between this archival footage and interviews with people that knew Joe, from the early days in the 101s through to his final band, the Mescularos, and is punctuated throughout with segments from Joe’s World Service radio program, London Calling. What’s cool is that for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, all of the people interviewed had unfamiliar faces – they are the people who Joe grew up with, people like your next door neighbour. You do get an insight into his history and up-bringing, and some of the experiences that influenced his move into the punk movement.

The odd celebrity then appears, seeming almost out of place: Bono, Flea, Anthony Kiedis, Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon, Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Jim Jarmusch all make appearances. At the Q&A session, Temple apologised when asked about the stars in the film. Not quite sure why, but perhaps he also felt they were out of place in telling Strummer’s story.

Through the film I got a real sense that Strummer had a kind of artistic rebirth – starting in London slums and joining The Clash, then joining the rave circuit in a tent around campfires then rekindling his musical passion over a decade after The Clash imploded.

Overall the doco was really inspiring and fascinating, but despite its depth I still don’t feel I really know “Strummer” all that well. But I certainly feel like I now have a little insight into what shaped his life and brought him to become the star he was – as much as any film can do that I suppose. I’d definitely rate it 4/5 stars.

The other film I saw last night was Once, featuring The Frames‘ Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Marketa Irglova. I have to admit, going into the film, I wasn’t familiar with Hansard’s work with The Frames, nor Irglova’s work as a solo artist and with Hansard. I’d read good reviews of the movie, and Dave at work had highly recommended it to me, so was keen to check it out.

By the time I saw the film I’d forgotten the plot line from the review I’d read and only had Dave’s comment that it was a loose musical of sorts – having seen the film I now know what he means – so I was pretty much going in without much expectation.

The film follows an unnamed “guy” (I didn’t realise he was unnamed until the credits – “Guy” and “Girl” are how the leads Hansard and Marketa Iglova are credited) as he meets “girl” when he is busking. They discover a shared interest in music and start writing together as we learn more about their lives.

There is a loose romance that is apparent between the two characters, but always at a distance. The plot is very loose – pretty much joining the various musical pieces together. We follow them on their journey to record a record and returning to their previous lost loves.

The film walks a fine line between becoming a naff parody and naive gem, but luckily falls on the right side of those two extremes. The music is great, written and performed by the two leads – I am keen to get the soundtrack after seeing the film. It’s a delightful film – another I’d recommend. 4/5 stars.

Downfall

Another really powerful film I saw a little while back was Downfall – a German film about the last days of Hitler’s reign leading up to his suicide.

The film has received many accolades, so I was looking forward to seeing it. It’s a pretty impressive film, if only through it’s restraint. Hitler is often portrayed as this larger than life, devil-incarnate character. This film portrays a man who is deeply troubled, and deeply flawed – but without the over-the-top dramatisation.

The film is set in Hitler’s bunker. One of the strange things I found is how everyone was going to great lengths to make the bunker feel normal. The decor was very much modeled after a house – not the concrete bunker I would expect.

But the other thing that I found amazing is that no-one topped him in those final days. As it’s portrayed in the film, it’s clear he’s completely lost the plot, and that even his closest allies realise it’s all coming to an end.

It’s a very good theme – I definitely recommend it.

Manufacturing Consent

A few months back now I rented the DVD of Manufacturing Consent, the documentary based on the classic book by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.

The production is pretty rough, but the substance is incredibly relevant even today. What I found most interesting about the film was how much of the “future of media” that was presented is now coming to fruition through blogs and internet-based activism. Anyone that’s read Jay Rosen’s PressThink blog probably won’t find a whole lot of new stuff here, but it’s still very good.

Chomsky, as always, is full of factoids and amazing examples that demonstrate the issues he sees in the media. But one quote really stood out to me. Unfortunately I can’t find an exact reference – but paraphrased, it went something like: history likes heroes – in history social movements are often attributed to individuals, but it is the social movements that make the individuals historically significant.

In other words, heroes are often born out of mass social movements, the heroes don’t create them – but our history presents things the other way around. Maybe if I get the DVD out again I can find the exact quote – I don’t think I’m doing it justice here (and if anyone knows the quote I’m referring too, please leave a comment)…

Leveling playing fields in the music biz

The Devoted Few recently finished their latest video-clip for their single, Don’t Listen to Us (which, incidentally, you can download from their website).

The clip captures moments from their recent touring and recording activities, and looks pretty cool. The band currently doesn’t have a label deal, despite getting high-rotation airplay on Triple J, and therefore they don’t have the budget to produce a video clip. (I still don’t get this: band that consistently gets good airplay and has done some amazing live dates supporting top-line acts like Eskimo Joe hasn’t received any bites from a major label? But I digress…)

So they turned to iMovie. Barry collated a bunch of footage captured on his personal digital video camera and pulled it into iMovie, then cut it to the track. The bridge section needed a little “something else”, so a friend helped them by pulling it into Final Cut Pro to do the 16 panel sequence that fills that spot. That’s the only sequence that wasn’t done on a basic G4 iBook and the free software that comes with it.

And the result is quite compelling. Sure, it doesn’t have fancy special effects, but it does capture the tone of the band, and is compelling enough to hold its own. Compelling enough for multiple spins on Rage, and hopefully jTV – Triple J’s digital TV channel (which also appears occasionally on free-to-air ABC).

So – let’s recap. They couldn’t get a label deal so released the single on the net and got high-rotation Triple J airplay. They didn’t have funding for a video clip, so they did it themselves using a video camcorder, an iBook (recently replaced in the Apple hardware lineup by the more powerful MacBook), and a bit of creativity – posted it on YouTube, and also had it played on free-to-air television.

As I understand it they are currently working out how they might fund their next long-player themselves also. Sure, it’s a lot of hard work. Sure, it would be nice to have the funding to get other people to do the job – more time to spend on creating music. But whereas these used to be barriers that couldn’t be overcome unless you had truckloads of cash, nowadays bands can do stuff on a shoestring and pull it off.

Anyways, enough philosophising on the power of digital and social media 😉 Give them a hand and go check out the clip, download the single, request it on Triple J’s Super Request and jTV.

Fast Food Nation

Mickey D’s spends a couple of hundred thousand dollars to promote a campaign telling us to Make up your own mind about whether their food is ok for you or not.

I was at a seminar just before my holidays (which explains the lack of updates around here of late) and the MD for Clear Blue Day was there sharing some really useful tidbits. When discussion turned to viral marketing, he mentioned that they wondered “is it ‘make up your own mind’ or ‘make up your mind’? hmmm… I wonder if they’ve registered ‘makeupyourmind.com.au‘”.

They hadn’t… The result is a quick redirect to Fast Food Nation. Nice jujitsu move that one…

I’d love for Clear Blue Day to go one step further though. Put up a form where you can sign up to tell McDonalds that you would like to make up your own mind – that you’d like a tour of the facilities depicted in the ad and to ask questions on the way.

I wonder how many expressions of interest they’d get? Perhaps the PR agency for Fast Food Nation here in Oz would be interested in putting something together?

Bonus link: Toby has posted a review of Fast Food Nation.

Who killed the electric car

Who killed the electric car - inset

Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).

An Inconvenient Truth WWF advance screening

Speaking of An Inconvenient Truth – if ya want to come along to an advanced screening, WWF is putting on a preview on September 6 at Dendy Opera Quays. Tix cost $15 with a small proceed going to WWF – but as you know from my recent review, I think it’s a must see film so come along if ya can. I’ll be going, and hopefully hanging about for a few drinks after at the Opera Bar.

Bookings through WWF – details here.

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

As I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to see An Inconvenient Truth at the Sydney Film Festival. I never quite got around to writing my thoughts up, but I figured better late than never eh?

Let me first say that I thought the movie was excellent. It is a well edited, well shot movie that eloquently explains why global warming (or climate change, climate crisis, atmospheric cancer, whatever you want to call it) is such an important issue. As someone who works for an environmental NGO, there wasn’t a whole lot that Al Gore says that I hadn’t already read or heard. But what impressed me most was the delivery of the message.

The visual support (namely, the presentation upon which the doco is based) was superb. The visuals not only re-inforced the message, they illustrated it so well even I found myself with my jaw dropping in places. It certainly makes me consider how we (as in "the movement") communicate visually – I think we can learn a lot from Gore’s presentation.

If I was to criticise the movie in any way, I would point to it’s American-centric view. It’s only a criticism in the sense that an international audience may be a little alienated by it, but the American public, for whom the documentary is obviously aimed, definitely needs to see this movie (America is the #1 greenhouse gas polluter in the world), and if that means taking an Amercian-centric view, so be it. So I can’t criticise this aspect too heavily.

Another minor criticism I would have is that the interstitial segments on Al Gore’s life, although I think work as a narrative device, do tend towards the "Al Gore, seen here looking out a window in deep thought" kinda vibe a bit too much. A little indulgent perhaps, but a minor criticism nonetheless.

Lastly, the actions that appear in the closing credits are cleverly presented, but fall into the "list of ten" category and really don’t mean much without explanation. There’s a little bit more on the movie’s website, but not much. It wouldn’t fit within the film to have more information, but I do wish they could have dropped the "Al Gore staring out the window" shots and put a bit more effort into describing the solutions at the end of the film.

My first thoughts upon leaving the cinema was "I really hope that lots of people get to see this" – more than the left-leaning inner-westies and usual suspects. I’m trying to work out how to get my family to go along – I think I might just have to buy them tickets.

I did notice that Hoyts George Street (the main cinema strip in the Sydney CBD for those that don’t know) is going to be showing it, which is a good sign. I kinda expected that this would be a Dendy only release initially, so it’s good to see it jump that first hurdle into the mainstream cinema’s early. Whether that means that it will receive a wide general release remains to be seen.

I asked Ang, who is aware of the threat of global warming, but not so close to the reports, facts and data that I am, did find some new information in the film, which is great. I will be thoroughly recommending the film to my friends and family when it reaches broader theatrical release mid September.

WWF-Australia (my day job for those that don’t know) will be actively promoting the film, as I’m sure many other environmental NGOs will. It’s an important story, well told. And I’d like to think that the Prime Minister Howard would have a tough time attacking the credibility of this particular global warming advocate. I do hope that Gore manages to meet with Howard when he is out here promoting the film.

Two last quick things to add – this film (along with Syriana, another Participant Productions film) is "climate neutral". That means that an estimate of all the carbon dioxide emitted during the production and promotion of the film has been "offset" through investments in renewable technology and other methods of reducing CO2 in our atmosphere. Participant Productions also run a group blog that is a very interesting way to "continue the debates" around their films. An interesting use of social media to promote their films and engage with their audience. Bravo, I say…