Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Best 16 Movies I Saw Last Year

Here is a list of the 15 best movies I saw last year, in no particular order. The best of the best are in bold. These movies didn't necessarily come out last year; that's just when I saw them:

1) Milk - In many ways a typical biopic, but I knew little of Harvey Milk before seeing it and it was a very well acted, entertaining way to learn about an important political figure in the movement for gay rights.

2) Hamlet 2 - I thought I'd had enough high school comedies, but Andrew Fleming was perfectly bizarre enough to flip the whole genre on its head without even mucking much with the formula.

3) Frozen River - My favourite kind of movie: simple, well-told story (about two desperate women who get involved in human smuggling across an Indian reservation straddling the USA and Canada), with plenty of suspense.

4) God Grew Tired of Us - Emotionally powerful, sometimes funny documentary about some of the "lost boys of Sudan," who in this case make it to the USA and experience tremendous culture and economic shock in the land of excess.

5) Che Part 1 - Documentary-style story of Cuban guerillas fighting their way to take the capital, led by Che Guevara as portrayed by Cannes best actor Benicio Del Toro. It has a similar feel to Battle of Algiers - raw realism without a lot of Hollywood drama, so despite its being a war movie the violence is sudden and shocking. A clear example of show-don't-tell. (Part II will likely be on next year's list.)

6) The Wrestler - Micky Rourke's comeback vehicle got me good - he may be nothing but a busted up piece of meat making bad decisions and big mistakes, but his character rings true and sympathetic, and the tension of his story escalates right to the cliffhanger ending.

7) Pan's Labrynth - This movie creates a convincing world for the young protagonist to rejoice and suffer in, and to grow in ways she can't in the real world of the Franquist repression. Although it is a fantasy with a happy ending, it does honest justice to the hardships and cruelties of the real world, without any cheap preaching.

8) The Tiger Next Door - A heart-breaking movie about a crazy man who raises tigers in Indiana, and sees himself as some kind of animal saviour while keeping them in cages where they get sick. Sadly, he is one of many. The doc lets the viewers judge for themselves.

9) Moolaade - Story of a Burkino Faso village in which young girls and women resist genital mutiliation, heroically fighting cultural tradition and patriarchy. It is a story of heroism that resists the oversimplicity of a good v. evil motif.

10) Darjeeling Ltd - Deadpan funny story of three brothers traveling through India in search of their mother, trying to patch the wounds of their relationships with one another and deal with the death of their father. The deepest of Wes Anderson's movies, except maybe that animated one, called:

11) The Fantastic Mr. Fox - An animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's novel. The movie seems geared more to adults, but then Dahl tended to write pretty darkly, and with sophistication, for a children's author. The movie, to me, is a great allegory about the downside of civilization, how it has tamed us at the cost of our sense of place in the world, and our freedom.

12) Goodbye Solo - Straight story of an old guy in Winston-Salem who wants to die, and a Senegalese-American cab driver who wants to be his friend, and maybe stop him from killing himself. The movie is very character-based and shows so much about culture clash, and the joys and regrets of life and living.

13) Jesus Camp - Scary documentary about pentecostal fundamentalists in North Dakota, and their use of a children's camp to indoctrinate. There's very little editorial - the filmmakers just show you the craziness as anti-abortionists and other devout republicans visit the camp and tie politics to religion. It's a fascinating look at the lives of people in the American far-right Christian movement, and how they pass their message on to the next generation.

14) We Feed the World - A documentary about farmers and fishermen, and how the globalized industrialized food system is eating up their livelihoods and their knowledge and their ways of life, and torturing and destroying our food in the process.

15) Bruno - Once again Sacha Baren Cohen made me very uncomfortable, and made me laugh very hard. Making people uncomfortable is his gift, and the viewer gets to see how people react in comic and often twisted ways. We criticize because we know he's showing us how shallow and intolerant we really are, when we'd rather pretend we're not.

16) Addicted to Plastic - Great documentary follows plastic around the world from cradle to grave, including the massive "plastic islands" accumulating in our oceans. It stays with you and makes you re-consider every purchase.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Nova Scotian wisdom

"Bhutan's sacramental attitude towards the natural world - that the world is literally alive and sentient - is the normal human view. It's shared by my Celtic ancestors, by virtually all ancient civilizations, by aboriginal peoples worldwide." -Silver Donald Cameron


Saturday, January 09, 2010

Best Books I Read Last Year

Below is a list of the 11 best books I read in 2009. These books weren't necessarily published in 2009; that's just when I read them. These are in no particular order, but my top four are in bold text:

1) Nisa, the Life and Words of a !Kung Woman - by Marjorie Shastak; An engrossing antrhropological account of a group of !Kung San hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari desert, full of lessons that civilization continues to ignore.

2) Resistance - by Derrick Jensen; This is volume II of the two-volume Endgame, and it argues for the forceful dismantling of civilization. Needless to say it is provocative, if not an argument I've been able to get behind. Jensen is also a great writer of personal narrative.

3) The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith - by Peter Carey; Carey creates a convincing and telling slightly alternate universe and a great twist on the nerd done good genre, in which the plucky kid with immense physical challenge is also a hard-to-love know-nothing brat.

4) Lost Highway - by David Adams Richards; He has an unusual, rambling kind of writing style that goes to great lengths to rationalize the morally ambiguous, leaving you sympathetic to the most dastardly and confused as to what is right. This is my favourite by him so far, a work of art.

5) Dust From Our Eyes - by Joan Baxter; The straight truth on what rich countries have done to Africa, and the resilience and beauty of that continent, by a journalist who has spent much of her adult life reporting from there.

6) Through Black Spruce - by Joseph Boyden; Some of the best, tautest prose I've ever read, such beauty in a bleak tale. The best book I read last year.

7) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - by Barbara Kingsolver; Fantastic personal narrative of a locavore family growing their own food, and the challenges and joys therein.

8) Nova Scotia: Visions of the Future - edited by Lesley Choyce; For full disclosure I had a chapter in this book, which I loved reading mainly because it revealed the depths of talent in this province, and the brilliant array of ideas. I hope all the newly elected officials read it, and the old bureaucrats too.

9) The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss - by Claire Nouvian; The gorgeous images of deep deep aquatic life in this book look alien because we are so unfamiliar with what lies beneath. Many of them can't be studied out of water because they explode when removed from the extreme pressure of the deeps. And there are countless more species down there yet to be seen, let alone understood. I felt like a kid again reading this book, full of the excitement of new discovery.

10) Amphibian - by Carla Gunn; Nine-year-old Phin Walsh is the narrator, and he's all wound up in knots over the destruction of the earth. Despite the adults' best efforts to reassure him, his logic is indisputable. How I wished I could stamp his earnest, honest lack of cynacism on every adult.

11) Imani's Music - by Sheron Williams; This is the first kid's book I've ever put on a best of list, but then I probably read more kids books last year than anything else. The writing is superb and the tale is complex, weaving in the transatlantic slave trade in a way kids can understand (as well as anyone can) without being trite, and exploring the immense power of music, culture and tradition.

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