Curious Case of 2009 DVD Rentals

This tasteful NY Times digital graphic makes me think one thing instantly. What the hell kind of hold did Benjamin Button have on people in 2009?

Milk is the leader in most parts of the Tri-State area and in my own New York neighborhood, but that is a lot easier to understand.

Heather Struck


Those Game-Changing Films of the 00’s

Some excellent film-making happened during the Cold War, a time when paranoia pervaded movies with such atmosphere and rhythm as to make them fairly indispensable to our back-looking view of those decades. What happened in the post 9/11 years of the 21st century was something different though. Parameters were stretched with visual tactics and narrative structures were blasted and remolded by fantastic writing talents. The films in this list are the game-changers for film in the last decade. They are chosen both for their artistic merits as well as for their popular appeal, and because I will always fall for the masters of the pen.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) – Just a tremendous masterpiece.

Lord of the Rings (2001) – Screenwriters Fran Walsh (married to Peter Jackson) and Philippa Boyens, were both working in flush territory of fantasy and English poetry with this script. I can’t imagine why elves and goblins make a good picture, and military brats and blue aliens don’t, but alas, we have Avatar.

Lost in Translation (2003) – This film helped solidify a new age for introspection and malaise in cinema, Coppola’s muse. Well done, because this one stuck.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Charlie Kaufman is a master. Anthony Lane remarked at the time that he would have liked to see Mark Ruffalo and Jim Carrey switch parts in this film. So would I, you know, just for a laugh.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – This film came right on the heels of the break-out British comedy series, The Office, and it had, along with Simon Pegg’s fine comedy writing, the same idea to embark. We are all, in our hazy, slightly terrified, uncertain daily lives, already zombies.

Naploeon Dynamite (2004) – I may have been persuaded by the time capsule of nostalgia that this film is, but ultimately it’s about friendship, and it pulls off that journey with humor and fluidity. It also lets Jon Heder dance like a white boy at the end.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Annie Proulx’s fiction is a solid base for Ang Lee’s beautiful piece. The American West is the star, but Lee respects emotional conflict enough to let the characters stir up a brilliant narrative.

This Is England (2006) – My favorite film of that year, because it so eloquently said and did what everyone was trying to do — Show that we ache for the lives of others, and that, in itself, is life.

The Host (2006) – Funny and sad, scary and…salty. Lots of ramen. A great take on what a horror film should be.

There Will Be Blood (2007) – If the Western was at all revisited in this last decade, it was to broaden the limits of the ideals implicit in the genre, Brokeback did a lot for that, while films like those by Paul Thomas Anderson, operatic and gorgeous, simply use their existing limits to expose a general uneasiness and fear about our present modern world.

Heather Struck

Oscar-Gala Part 1

Because predicting Oscar winners and losers is what we do in moments of boredom. Not that there’s anything right about that. According to my historical logic, Up In The Air wins Best Picture and Avatar takes home a BAFTA for Best Actress. Here is Part 1:

AvatarKill Bill (Not nominated, 2003)

The $300 million sci-fi back-breaker that J. Hoberman says is a “spectacular instance of political correctness,” I simply call really freakin disappointing. If this is Sci Fi, why is it not acting like it, and if it is expanding the boundaries of a genre, it didn’t work. Sigourney Weaver’s presence in the film tears at my heart and makes me wish for a scene half as awe-inspiring as one from Alien, and one that campaigns for whatever office he’s going for three times less vehemently. The campaign fails because Avatar is a film that seems to have lost its real plot somewhere in production, and is left with a project that is predictable, reused and offensive, which is exactly how this writer felt, as she wrote for The Awl. Hoberman is right to expect a back-lash from the Right as much as Bustillos is right to expect one from women. The former may deride Hollywood and 20th Century Fox for the audacity to pointedly bash the Bush years with little dropped-in lines like “shock and awe” and a delightful ideological battle between science and political power,  but he fails to expect a similar backlash from the Left. What, exactly, are we watching? And why is the American colonization story being used so fluidly without even a nod to the origins of that story? Is this a space story or not, man? I liked some of Kill Bill, but Tarantino’s eagerness to fly his film’s heroine from genre plot point to genre plot point was too jarring to form a cohesive whole. We were left with pieces of some pretty cool filmmaking, but not a film. Cameron hit the same errors with his passionate flight to make a film he could burst back on the scene with. He didn’t realize that 2009 is a far throw from 1994. You just can’t pull one over on us anymore.

Up In The AirCrash (Best Picture, 2005)

Jason Reitman’s respectably neat film may be this Oscar season’s Crash, not in the sense that it’s an overblown, overrated act of atmosphere, but because it offered a view of ourselves in 2009 that seemed to flow directly into a recognizable cultural ethos. Up In The Air is a good film with a surprising ending and actors who are up to the task of comedy and everyday drama. It finally, in the end, shows us that we are indeed wounded by an economic storm that has left more men and women out of work than have been in 3 decades. Its real effectiveness, however, is in Reitman’s ability to draw out the flaws and desires of his central character, whose own heartbreak and ultimate realization mirror our own. We were ready for this easy film because it happily reminds us how to live. And we will always take that reminder.

-Heather Struck

21st-Century Films I Can’t Get Outta My Head

These are the films I am most constantly revisiting, in my head and on my TV screen. They are a good way to measure the noteworthy films of the last decade because, while they have myriad artistic merits, they more importantly have that certain something that creative, ambitious cinema can produce. My head tells me so, at least.

Sexy Beast (2000): Few characters scare me…Ben Kingsly’s Don Logan terrifies me.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): How we deal with technology and how it deals with us. I remember many people thinking that the ‘future robots’ were aliens, which is an example of how outright misunderstood this film was.

25th Hour (2002): There are certain times when we can look back at our decisions in earnest. In the wake of 9/11, we could relate to this.

Irréversible (2002): The entire length of this film captures pure states of emotion, a unique feat. It is by no means an easy viewing experience, but one that is rewardingly unforgettable.

Finding Nemo (2003): The first Pixar film that hit me on all levels, this is one I’ve kept on my mind. Family and friendship is even better illustrated without the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia that its Toy Story films swam around in.

Lady Vengeance (2005): The entire Chan-Wook Park Vengeance Trilogy is amazing. This one has the most emotional impact in my book.

Shaun of the Dead (2004): I think I’ve mentally exhausted everything this film offers, but it took about a dozen views to get there. It’s the best comedy and the best zombie film of the decade.

The Host (2006): A dysfunctional family melodrama with a monster. This film has it all. If only more films would just add a monster.

Zodiac (2007): This film tells us, in a brilliantly moody way, that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

There Will Be Blood (2007): Cue the chorus to the theme from America’s Funniest Home Videos. “America…America…This is youuuu.”

And I am prone to panic at the moment where I have to cut my list off, so here are a few very honorable mentions:
Battle Royal, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Dancer In The Dark, Requiem For A Dream, Amelie, Mulholland Drive, Y Tu Mamá También, 28 Days Later, Adaptation, City Of God, Punch-Drunk Love, Road To Perdition, Solaris, Dogville, Kill Bill 1, Oldboy, The Dreamers, Collateral, Kill Bill 2,  Sideways, A History Of Violence, The New World, The Departed, A Scanner Darkly, Borat, Children Of Men, Little Children, United 93, Once, Death Proof, Eastern Promises, No Country For Old Men, Persepolis, The Orphanage (El Orfanato), Burn After Reading, Let The Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In), Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Waltz With Bashir, Where The Wild Things Are, Coraline, Thirst, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, A Serious Man

-Patrick Starr

Decade List TK — The Best Movies Since 2000

We are working on it with great intensity. Here’s a recipe for Russian Tea Cakes (my favorite Christmas cookie) for the mean time.

Betty Crocker has a simple version, an index card somewhere in my Mom’s old cookbook has a better one. I’m going to try the former and see if I can possibly go on in life with 2nd best.


We’re Not Totally Sure What He “Does,” But Here’s Reggie Watts, and It’s Good

There are two reasons that Reggie Watts makes for a good set, and they are 1) he doesn’t get bogged down in, you know, ‘jokes,’ which, let’s face it, can be onerous and tiresome, and 2) he’s referred to as a “performance artist” more than anything else. This is a word that, above all else, means that if you don’t catch this set and whatever happens in it, you never will. Alright, obviously. The poster above is not for this New Year’s Eve, it was last year’s, but I imagine his performance at the event advertised above was altogether similar and different to the one he delivered at The Onion’s holiday party this month (in Bell House, an oasis in the seedy part of Brooklyn used in Goodfellas for Ray Liotta to cut his teeth).

Performance is impermanent, off-the cuff and consists of energy that people often only derive while in front of a group of people, or peoples (in an anthropological sense). Yes, Watts could have been doing his thing in a midnight fire and steel drum session as part of a native community in the West Indies. It would be the same creative burst and the same reception.

I don’t know what actually culturally happens in many West Indian territories as much as I’d like to, alas, but even in New York, theater is often the same. You can’t capture that energy and hold onto it in anything but memory, which is bittersweet, because what stays in memory tends to get more and more gilded and more distant from the moment of creation as time passes.

Reggie Watts fits in this world, where music and impromptu story-telling are the ways to pass our time. His music is extraordinary in such a way that he could easily be that quirky member of the band with the massive afro and the hookups to all the good parties. But while he’s onstage at a comedy show, getting laughs the way a musician snags cheers over a toss of the head or a killer solo, his promenence among a culture of performers is clear. Watts is a student of meta-analysis, and he takes care in reigniting songs and ephemera from our memories so that we can see what had made them so meaningful in the first place. In a lot of cases, we don’t know what the hell made them so meaningful. They were single-celled, monotonous, catchy pop culture. It’s not so important what the words to any of the pop songs in the early 1990s actually were, since we laugh and sway to Watts’ reimagined version of a song by Third Eye Blind or somesuch band, in which he stumbles over lyrics and sustains only the pop-beats that made the songs so catchy in the first place.

It’s all, really, a bit of fun of course. Nothing to be taken so seriously as a communal ritual or a Harold Pinter play. But it’s a comedy show, which is, of course, one of the most serious things in the world to those who love them.

-Heather Struck

What’s Playing in Town — Men Staring at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a book by Jon Ronson that claims to tell some truly bizarre facts about the U.S. military’s foray into some psychic experiments in its Fort Bragg training facility that involve mind control, and what the film calls “nonviolent combat.” Some of these tactics, which for some reason include a room full of maimed goats (they have had their bleating abilities removed) were tested in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Weird stuff.

The film pulls a mental prank repeatedly on an audience that is caught between images of Ewan McGregor’s still young visage in a t shirt and a journo’s charcoal trousers, running around Iraq with George Clooney (he has a gift), who calls himself a Jedi. That’s right, Clooney’s a Jedi, but so is Ewan McGregor, sort of, whose American accent is woven of the same lyrical inflections as his Obi Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ latter three Star Wars Films. So Clooney’s telling an incredulous McGregor to act and think like a Jedi, while Jeff Bridges is The Dude in the desert, in a chakra shirt and braided hair, teaching soldiers the art of nonviolent combat.

We’re left with a film that is fun, strangely, despite the fact that it doesn’t pick up any of these pieces and turn them into something meaningful. Clooney’s professionalism is apparent when he is shifting to and fro from absurd human nature to cynicism. He can run up allys and sail down sand dunes, his arms aloft like a flying squirrel, into the body of his nameless assailant, and his body, stretched tall, still rivals Hollywood’s most tenacious hotties. He’s a pro, like the best who came before him, Cary Grant and Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Those guys didn’t make too many boring movies.

Where the film chooses the option to follow a few true stories of American war practices that involve psychic experiments in contention with Russia and the unfortunate test subjects (the animal in the film’s title), it loses the seriousness of the idea that is presented at the beginning. That is, people are far more efficient at being peaceful than they are in violence. As ridiculous as this sounds, try watching the scene in which Clooney’s character kills a goat while staring at it from across a room, and see how acutely you feel for the poor absurd creature.

Heather Struck

If You Build It…

The secret stimulus that has allowed for a wide peripheral range of cinema success, specifically independent films with small budgets, visionary directors, and a dream, may be the next step for television and video games as well. That is the festival. Robert Redford’s Sundance festival in Aspen every year introduced the idea that when producers and film makers are brought together with fans and critics to appreciate and analyze the films that artists continue to have the impulse to make, it produces business.

The New York Television Festival started with exactly this concept, connecting the studios with the talent.

Anna Vander Broek at Forbes reports that this may be happening in the video game world as well, which at this point is just as full of artists and appreciators who make games and hope to see them fly one day.

With the talent embedded in the hands and minds of the kids who grew up playing video games, we have to hope that a Scorsese or a Taranatino is working somewhere on his first masterpiece, and that fateful day at a festival where he or she is discovered may be in our future.

-Heather Struck

[Press Start] to Laugh and Cry

Movies and video games go together like ice cream and steak. Both are wonderous in their own respects, but mix them and the idea of a swirl cone with frozen chunks of rare cooked cow comes to mind. One would think that since movies and video games are each a form of visual media, both employing teams of writers, producers, composers and cutting- edge graphics, that the overlap would be natural. Yes…one would think.

Somewhere along that relationship, something goes terribly wrong, and you end up with a bowl of Angus n’ Cream (or maybe a Uwe Boll. HA…and seriously, if you don’t know the German producer of playfully terrible films that include BloodRayne and House of the Dead, go look at his IMDB profile and feel my hate).

Usually the trouble has to do with the fact that all the people involved in the production of films view video games as curious, and something the kids are into these days, what with their penny whistles and rap musics. They see the multi-billion dollar game industry-goldfish swimming around the bowl and they know that gamers are willing to drop 60 bucks on a new game because the art on the box “looks sick.” Still, they’ll be damned if they can figure out how to cram their paw past the water filter and snag that fish to produce any reasonably entertaining film product. Comic books have suffered the same relentless onslaught of cinematic atrocities, but now we have movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which gives me some hope for movie ideas formed out of the stuff creative video games make.

That ember of hope has recently been stoked. Please note that I said “ember,” and it is in the form of a student-made film called Turbo. I must state first that this movie is by no means good, nor is it tragically bad. You at least see break lights flicker on before it goes rocketing off a cliff to join its foresaken video game brethren at the bottom of Bargain Bin Canyon.

Turbo models itself after one of the greatest video game movies of all time (which is not saying much), The Wizard, in which a kid wants to be the Best, plus he needs money, so he enters a tournament to risk it all against a semi-pro badass with a power glove. Oh yes, this was a time when a power glove actually carried significant cultural currency. Turbo, like The Wizard, is clichéd, predictable and riddled with bad acting, but there are highlights. One, it is only about 20 minutes long, and two, it’s free.

There may be hope, but here is something to think about. This is a list of every movie based on or peripherally about video games. If you can find the pony buried in all this shit then congrats, a gold star for you. Here is a hint, it is “King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters”.

-Travis Wannlund

Police Blotter — Roman Polanski Arrested by LAPD

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office, in a move that surprised everyone, arrested Roman Polanski at Zurich airport while he was on his way to a Swiss film festival that was honoring him with its annual Golden Icon Award. An award that was given last year to the somewhat less imaginative Sylvester Stallone, but at least he got to accept the award in person. Festival representatives released a note saying that they did not worry in the least about something like this happening to this year’s honoree, and they are sorry that it has. At least I think that’s what it says, I don’t speak German. Why the Los Angeles DA chose to arrest Polanski on this day and time is a bit of a mystery, seeing as he travels around Europe regularly on far less public business, but it seems they took the opportunity to bring him to trial after recent efforts by Polanski’s lawyers to have the case dismissed.

The case is a legendary one at this point, brought by the LAPD against Polanski in 1977 after the 13 year-old girl he had had sex with, apparently in Jack Nicholson’s LA home, charged him with statutory rape. Polanski fled the country after the charges were made, leaving behind two fine films, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, that he had written and directed from Hollywood’s overly-permissive den.

Is Polanski’s case an exemplary one, especially since statutory rape as a practice appeared to happen in circles where artists and filmmakers congregated? There is visual evidence of Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario Van Peebles, having relations with a mature woman in his father’s 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, at the age of 14, which is questionable parenting to say the least. This fact should trouble us, not help to exonerate the perpetrators, about the ways that sexuality and the submission of minors and women were combined and used for experimentation in the 1960s and 70s. What is even more troubling is how these events, and the fact that a respected film auteur is on trial for such an act, figure into the timeline of artistic expression that has produced some of the art we view today. There are certainly black spots that cannot be ignored.