Top Ten Movies of 2010! Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, Fish Tank, You Are Here, True Grit, Enter the Void, The Kids Are All Right, Kick Ass, Mother, Nowhere Boy.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies, Uncategorized by on December 30, 2010

Well, we’re on the verge of a new year, and movie reviewers seem obligated to say which movies were the best in the past year. But I’m what you’d call a promiscuous moviegoer (I see about 250 movies a year), so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. But I’ll try. (I’m not including documentaries or animated movies, just because I’m trying to narrow it down. And I’m also not counting any movies I saw at film festivals that haven’t played publicly yet in Toronto.

The best movies all have a great story, script, direction, and acting, and are in some way new and novel. They also go beyond what’s normally expected from a movie, and transcend genres. Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favourite movies of 2010.

Black Swan

Dir: Darren Aronfsky

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a sheltered, young ballerina who wants to play the lead part in Swan Lake, but the ballet director wants her to explore her dark side, and try to play the Black Swan. She has to overcome her inhibitions, her rivals, her doubts, and her increasingly psycho-sexual delusions if she is to make it in her part.

Despite my ignorance and lack of interest in Ballet dancing, this movie had me transfixed. Aranofsky successfully navigates between the documentary-style hyper-realism of backstage massages, taping and bone-cracking, the high camp of melodramatic scenery-chewing and cat-fighting, and the surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies. All of this plus stunning visuals and sound.

Winter’s Bone

Dir: Debra Granik

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who lives in dirt poor rural Missouri in the Ozarks with her silent mother and two little kids. She has to find her missing father, who’s out on bail before a trial, or else lose the family homestead. She’s a Dolly – “bread and buttered”, she says. The Dollys aren’t the nicest family in those parts, but they’re her kin and she has no one else to turn to so she starts on a mysterious journey into the dangerous swamp of her creepy family’s secrets.

Winter’s Bone is an excellent, compelling mystery-drama, made on location in the Ozarks, with great acting, a compelling story, and an unknown cast. With the fiddle, banjo and the guitar and mountain folksongs in the soundtrack you really feel like your there with her.

Fish Tank

Dir: Andrea Arnold

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high-rise council flat in England. Her hobbies are drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to be a dancer.) Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised, though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is

You Are Here

Dir: Daniel Cockburn

This first feature is an experimental film that’s hard to categorize: it’s like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. I don’t have enough time to even attempt to say anything about the story or characters, except that its sort of like an abstract physics string theory plot… if that makes sense. You are Here is a great, unique, Toronto movie.

True Grit

Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

In this remake of a 1960’s John Wayne western, 14 year old Hattie hires a drunk Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer. Can she depend on the True Grit sincerity and perseverance of either Cogburn or the Texas Marshall LeBoeuf? It’s a great, classic western, complete with Spielberg-style cliffhangers and tear-jerking scenes, along with the Coen brothers absurd comedy and violence.

Enter the Void

Dir: Gaspar Noe

A Canadian brother and sister living in Tokyo are tied together by a childhood bonding. But when the brother dies, he’s torn from his body and his spirit drifts around the city’s underworld, back and forward in time, through walls and over rooftops. This spectacularly, overwhelmingly trippy is a 2 1/2 hour hallucinogenic experience, seen directly through his eyes. Enter the Void is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is an extremely absorbing and mind-blowing — but looooong — work of art. Even the opening credits are more fantastic than most movies.

The Kids Are All Right

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

Nik and Jules (are a southern California middle-class, lesbian couple living happily with their two teenaged kids. But things change when their daughter hunts down the sperm donor (Mark Ruffallo) – a happy-go-lucky, organic motorcycle rider and college drop out who hits on every pretty woman he sees. He’s the third wheel that intrudes in the peaceful family.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, (Juliane Moore playing against type, and Annette Bening in what I think is her best role ever) and is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. It’s a honey of a movie.

Kick Ass

Dir: Matthew Vaughan

Dave (Aaron Johnson) is a High School boy who’s tired of the undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So he makes himself a superhero costume, and when he’s caught on film fighting some street thugs, it goes viral on youtube and he becomes a superhero for real. But when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy (played by Chloe Moretz and Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” were also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal. The even more horrific villains he encounters, forces him to make a decision.

Kick Ass is not just a typical teen action comedy. It’s a fascinating, shocking, extremely violent, morally ambiguous drama, adapted from a graphic novel.


Dir: Bong Joon-ho

A desperately poor Korean mother (Hye-ja Kim), is shocked when her ne-er-do-well, not very bright son is accused of a murder. When the police don’t help her , she sets off to find the real killer. The great acting, uncomfortable characters and gripping mystery/detective plot make this a cinematic treat.

Nowhere Boy

Dir: Sam Taylor-Woods

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), is a high school student in the late 50’s, growing up with his cold aunt Mimi in a middle class home in Liverpool. But when he discovers his long-lost mother is still alive, and lives a couple blocks away, his life turns upside down. His mother introduces him to banjo music. He combs his hair like a rock n roller, and becomes rebellious, cocky, almost a local tough, joy-riding around town on the roof of a double decker bus, smoking, drinking, and kissing strange girls. I was expecting another tired Beatles biopic, but this actually a great movie.

Have a Happy New Year, control yourselves, go crazy but not too crazy, and I’ll be back next year (and next week) with more movies.

Canada at TIFF. Movies Reviewed: Modra, Daydream Nation, You Are Here

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Communism, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Drama, High School, Movies, Sex, Uncategorized by on September 10, 2010

What’s going on around here? Toronto looks different. The atmosphere has changed. Something feels… cooler, buzzier.

Why are all these people marching down Yonge street in matching baggy, coloured T-shirts, shouting some unintelligible slogan? Are they religious cults or political parties? I’m not really sure… Do the ugly yellow-shirt marchers belong to the same political party as the silly purple jumpsuit marchers? Or are they enemies? And are they all going to pull out there weapons soon?

Oh, wait… never mind. They’re not political at all. They’re freshers, newly-arrived students at the downtown universities, getting used to the big city, and bonding with their dorm-mates so they can feel patriotic toward one building over another.

But that’s not all. There are guys in po-boy caps with bad complexions and three cameras around their necks, lurking in hotel doorways. Wait – are there paparazzi In Toronto? That only happens once a year, when the Toronto Film Festival, (now known affectionately as TIFF) blows into town. Noooww I get it.

What is TIFF?

TIFF is one of the top-ranked festivals in the world now, up there with Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, and usually considered the most accessible of any of those, with numerous public screenings for every film. There are mainstream movies, soon to be released, that have big galas with the stars. There are drive-in or genre movies, filled with gore, zombies, or explicit sex. There are unusual movies chosen by festival programmers in various categories, there to get some buzz, and, ideally, to get sold to distributors. And then there are a whole lot of others, which, even though they may be amazing, or warm or original, are not considered commercial enough to release.

So every which way you look you’re bound to see some deal being made, and idea being pitched or a nascent story gelling inside a writer’s mind.

Where is it playing? It’s at all the downtown theatres, especially AMC Dundas, The Scotiabank Theatre aka the Paramount, at John and Richmond st., the Varsity at Bay and Bloor, and the brand-spanking new theatre complex called the The Light Box which was built especially for this film festival.

How do you get tickets? There are tickets still available at lots of movies – there are over 300 movies and they run through the next week. It’s easier to get a seat if you try for a daytime screening, rather than a nighttime one, and weekdays are better than weekends.

Do you have to stand in line for hours? Not really. Once you have a ticket to a movie, you’re guaranteed a seat as long as you show up on time – 15 minutes before the movie starts. They release new tickets at the box office each morning at 7 am. Or you can take your chances with a rush ticket – so even if a show is sold out, there may be some empty seats left, but they only determine that right before the movie starts – and rush seats are first come first served.

So check it out on-line at for the right info.

What about Canadian movies? Well, this year there’re a lot to choose from, in both French and English. Bruce McDonald, who’s been making movies that premier at TIFF since it was still called the Festival of Festivals, has directed Trigger, about two female rockers who reunite ten years after their band called it a day. It’s starring the amazing Tracy Wright in one of her last roles. Incidentally, there’s a free public screening of one of his first film, Roadkill, at TIFF. If you’ve never seen it you should definitely catch that one.

Score (the Hockey Musical) – yeah you heard me right, it’s a musical about hockey – opened the festival last night.

Bruce LaBruce, the always controversial, always surprising, and always interesting, gay/punk/independent director, is showing his movie L.A, Zombie, about a dead homeless man, played, of course,by an actual porno star. There are no lines in the movie, but lots of sex and lots of blood and gore.

Other Canadian movies with big expectations include Barney’s Version, from Mordechai Richler’s last novel; 20-year old Montreal director Xavier Donat’s Heartbeats;

Repeaters, dir by Carl Bessai, about 3 young guys in a drug rehab centre; A follow-up to the amazing mockumentary FUBAR, called FUBAR II, about the two longhaired rockers in their lumberjack jackets; Patrick Demers’ Jaloux – an improvised thriller; and Jacob Tierney’s Good Neighbours – about the odd people living in a montreal apartment building – (Tierney’s the guy who directed the Trotsky last year).

Here are some short reviews of three more Canadian movies playing at TIFF:


Dir Ingrid Veninger

Modra is about a 17 year old girl named Lina (Hallie Switzer). She breaks up with her boyfriend just before they were supposed to fly to visit her relatives in Slovakia. On an impulse she invites a guy, Leco (Alexander Gammal) from her high school to go with her instead. So they land in this very small town, with orange rooftiles in a green valley. And Leco, who speaks no Slovakian, is introduced as her boyfriend – they’re given a room to share.

Lina and Leco’s – who make a very cute couple – relationship shifts gradually from non-existent to estranged, to warm, and back again over the course of their week long visit. This is not a conventional, mainstream boy-meets-girl drama, with revealed secrets, and big plot turns. And Slovakia is not thought of as a cool or trendy place, just the opposite. It’s rustic. The locals wear their traditional costumes for special occasions – embroidered dresses, men with black feather plumes on their hats as they sing or dance folk songs. There’s the town mute, the local ranch, the local hood who hits on Lina. Loudspeakers on poles make echoey announcements harkening back to Stalinist precedents.

“Modra” is a very sweet, low-key, naturalistic film, with first-time actors – and non-actors – experiencing things on camera at the same time as the audience. It’s a gentle, verite travelogue of two kids on the cusp of adulthood. I like this kind of almost-documentary film when it works — and in Modra, it really works. It had the same great feel as those other Toronto summer movies, like “No Heart Feelings”, and “This Movie is Broken”.

“Daydream Nation”

Dir: Mike Goldbach

In this movie, another 17 year-old girl, Caroline (played by the appealing Kat Dennings) moves to a small town. She finds it boring and stupid so she seduces her young teacher (Josh Lucas). Uh, oh. And there’s a also a kid in her class who likes her. And maybe his mother will like her father? Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer going around the town leaving bodies. And a little girl who loves to scream when she finds them. Seems like you can’t do anything in this burg before someone finds out…

Who’s the killer? Will her secret relationship be exposed? Who does Kat like more, her sleazy teacher or the brooding adolescent in her class? And what about the smokestack in the town?

Who cares? Caroline is alienated, I get that. But the story keeps wavering between serious, and flippant, from edgy, experimental ideas, to conventional TV sitcom-style plot-turns… This movie just doesn’t do it for me. Too muddled. (The title BTW, comes from the Sonic Youth album from the 80’s.)

“You Are Here”

Daniel Cockburn

This ones a real gem. Confusing as all get out, but a great movie. I reviewed this about 5 months ago, and finally it’s at this year’s TIFF. The movie is like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. Each plot turns is revealed to be connected to an earlier scene, but if you look to closely you miss the connection with the other story-streams. OK here goes:

On a You are Here sign on a map, wherever you are should appear as a red dot. But how does anyone know where they really are? What if there were people who made it their job to keep track of your red dot?

And then there’s the question of how do you know who you are? When you’re working at a desk job with no real point, how do you know what you’re saying makes any sense at all? How do you know you’re not a cog in a vast machine that takes in and spews out information, like an old mega computer.

Anyway, you really should check out this abstract, and at the same time totally watchable, narrative of linked plot threads, interwoven into a seamless bolt of shimmering whole cloth. (Read the full review here.)

I’ll be posting frequently during TIFF.

Matruschka Dolls Dancing on a Moebius Strip. Films Reviewed: The Crazies, The Runaways, You Are Here

Posted in Action, Army, Canada, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Drama, Feminism, Japan, Movies, post-apocalypse, Thriller, US, violence, War, Western, Women by on March 26, 2010

No Spoilers!… is a refrain I hear fairly often, and have been known to say it myself. Not everybody cares whether they know what’s going to happen before they see a movie – actually, there are people who would rather see their favourite movies over and over again, than seeing something they’re not sure about. But I also know some people who the second you say even the title of a movie that they haven’t seen yet, their fingers fly to their ears and they start humming tuneless songs.

Ok, I admit it, that’s me sometimes, and I have a sister who does that, too – maybe it’s hereditary. But this definitely poses a dilemma for a movie reviewer – how much do you give away? You want to be able to talk about the movie in concrete terms, to tell about its story; but you don’t want to spoil the ending, because that essentially ruins the whole thing.

One Toronto critic who shall remain nameless (but who some people call "The Schpoiler") can’t resist giving away a movie, in a review, a puff piece, an interview, or even in a one paragraph summary. It’s reached the point where if I see this reviewer’s name I reflexively turn my eyes away, since she’s been know to includes spoilers even in story headlines.

So what’s the right amount to reveal?

If you see a trailer for a movie, sometimes you get the whole movie chopped-up into a 3-minute summary – they figure you won’t be seeing that movie for a while, so it’s OK to say a lot about it, hoping a smidgen will remain in your mind when the movie is released.

So should a film review include no more than you can see in a trailer? Maybe. Depends on the genre. If it’s a standard comedy, the plot is more like that of a TV sitcom: they set up the situation, then give you riffs on that, with all the twists and variations they can fit into 90 minutes — then the story line isn’t so important, it’s the characters and their lines. But if it’s a mystery or a thriller, or an intense drama, or an adventure, part of the fun of watching the movie is seeing the plot turns and surprises while they happen, and sometimes a big shocking reversal (or two) by the end. So you don’t want to know everything that will happen before you see it.

Here’s what I will say – I promise not to gratuitously give it all away… (except when I need to for it make sense.)

First I’m going to talk about “The Crazies”, directed by Breck Eisner, a remake of the George Romero film from the seventies. “The Crazies” is the sort of a movie you don’t want to hear spoilers about – it’ll kill all the twists.

In a small farm town near Cedar Falls Iowa, something strange is going on. It’s not clear what exactly it is, but some of the people in this red-blooded, god-fearing town start behaving in a very strange way. A crazy way. People are getting killed. A man walks onto a baseball diamond with a rifle. Is he drunk? Is he possessed? Is he ill? Nobody realy knows, but it’s spreading around. Strange things happen in a funeral home. And all this is being observed. From somewhere high above, in sattelite pictures with cryptic, forebding messages typed on the screen. And while all this going on, there are some local hunters in the town swamp (are there really swamps and bayous in Iowa?) who seem to like their guns too much, and look like rednecks who just stepped out of the movie Deliverance.

It’s up to the town sherrif and his wife the town doctor, played by Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, to look out for themselves and their buddies.

This movie has that excellent post-apocalyptic, holocaust-y feel to it, with empty streets, burned-down towns and an especially haunting truck stop with gaily recorded come-on announcements continuing to play loudly to an empty parking lot.

Although it has horror elements, it’s also a mystery-chiller-thriller, and a classic road drama. “The Crazies” is a very scary movie, but it’s also a movie with content (not just “boo!”) and great acting. Go see this one, on a rainy day.

“The Runaways” has everything I hate about some movies – it’s a biopic, it’s an exploitative, b-movie about an old, defunct rock band and the sentimental drama of its members; and it’s kinda Canadian, but in that bad, crappily-done way. So how come it’s so good?

“The Runaways”, a first film by Hamilton photographer and music video director Floria Sigismondi, tells the story of the seventies rock band The Runaways and how they got together.

Cherrie Curry – the movie’s based on her autobiography – and Joan Jett, a legendary hard rocker, are brought together as teenagers to form a teenage girl rock band. Cherrie (played by child actor Dakota Fanning), whose divorced dad is an alcoholic washout, and whose dilletante-ish mom comes home one day to announce “I’m moving to Indonesia!” depends on her identical twin sister to help her through hard times. She sees herself as a female David Bowie and paints lightning bolts on her cheeks. Joan Jett, (Kristen Stewart, the star of the Twilight vampire-romance trilogy, who plays Joan like a young, sullen Patti Smith) wants to form a rock band, but gets no help from her High School music teacher who says girls shouldn’t play electric guitar. Together with manager Kim Fowley, who sees big bucks in a teenage rock band, they get together to form The Runaways. There’s a great scene where you see them come up with the lines: I’m a ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch cherry bomb. The musicians get trained to avoid rowdy audiences throwing stuff at the stage. Then they start touring… a group of teenaged girls with no supervision. Drugs, sex, exploitation, screaming Japanese fans, and recording room drama are sure to follow.

Even though the movie occasionally collapses into Valley of the Dolls kitsch, and even though the whole thing has a low-budget feel to it – maybe they spent all the funds on the amazing soundtrack of The Runaways and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – and even though the period seventies scenes didn’t seem right, and even though Cherrie’s identical twin sister looked like she was 10 years older than her –it was still a great movie. It might be the first real girl rock band movie, and I really liked it. I think every teenager or former teenager who considers herself a rocker should definitely see it.

You are Here, Toronto video artist Daniel Cockburn’s first feature, is an experimental movie about the real dangers of following a red dot. OK, spoiler alert – I have to explain large parts of this movie to make it make any sense whatsoever. But it’s an art film, so that’s OK, right?

The movie is like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. Each plot turns is revealed to be connected to an earlier scene, but if you look to closely you miss the connection with the other story-streams. OK here goes:

On a You are Here sign on a map, wherever you are should appear as a red dot. But how does anyone know where they really are? Are there people who make it their job to keep track of your red dot? A lecturer points out using a red laser pointer on a rear projection screen showing waves, to prove how hard it is not to follow the red light dot. But we also see him at the beach filming the waves where he gets ambushed by small children who partially blind him with his own laser pointer. One of the kids writes a story about this incident, but says it’s an evil genius (with one eye) trying to take over the planet – because in a land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

At the same time as all this, a man named Alan, records his thoughts into a hand-held tape recorder so he can remember who he is – you see, he’s actually a collective entity, made up of hundreds of people, men women young old of every colour and nationality who all occupy his same life, taking his place – in his mind – at the drop of a hat.

And then there’s the question of how do you know who you are? When you’re working at a desk job with no real point, how do you know what you’re saying makes any sense at all? How do you know you’re not a cog in a vast machine that takes in and spews out information, like an old mega computer. So we see a man who’s locked into a cell, for an experiment of course, who has to diligently copy the Chinese characters (he’s not Chinese) that are slid under his door on a piece of paper, using a bizarre custom encyclopedia, and slide them back out the door until the next one appears.

I believe the director was himself an archivist (like the character in the movie played by the great Tracy Wright) at V-Tape in Toronto, and so maybe elements of this film – the defunct vintage machinery, the seemingly endless, disconnected and pointless cataloguing, the disseminating of information to no one in particular.

Ok, don’t worry there’s at least two other major plot lines I’m not even going to get into. Suffice it to say, this movie is really complicated, but also fun to watch – and looks good, too, in a very straightforward, calm, drab-looking design. But it’s not just hollow forms, it also has fascinating stories. I don’t know when this extremely strange movie is coming out, but hopefully soon – look out for it.

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