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Wolfville, Nova Scotia


Top Ten Films of 2004

Chris Campbell

It's fun to make lists and I think that I have my top ten films for this year. Looking back I had 5 favourites for 2002 and 7 for 2003, so I figured that I'd be more traditional this year and have 10. What always happens near the end of the year is that a bunch of films are released in time for the awards season, but don't get out that wide... so this list exists without me seeing The Aviator, House of Flying Daggers and A Very Long Engagement which I think may make my list for next year. The other fascinating (at least to me) thing about the list for this year is that I have the DVDs of half of the films on my list and will get the DVDs of the others as they come out.
Here is my alphabetized list:

  • Bus 174 - José Padhilla tells the story of the hijacking of a bus in an unforgettable documentary that manages to combine a personal story with an analysis of a social problem that is both suspenseful and tragic.

  • Machssomim (Checkpoint) - Is a documentary about checkpoints in the occupied territories around Israel. I saw it at the Atlantic Film Festival and it doesn't appear to have distribution yet. Subtle and moving without being preachy. The form and content of the film balance very well.

  • Control Room - Being in the right place at the right time means that you'll have a documentary that people want to see, but it doesn't mean that the documentary will work well. With Control Room in Jehane Noujaim's hands the film becomes much more than just a lucky break for filming. She manages to give a fascinating glimpse into Al Jazeera television in a period of time during the invasion of Iraq when the world was watching and she focusses on the people who are there and lets the story emerge from them. Human and more complex and emotional than I thought it would be.

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman perfectly balance each other out in a tale of love and memory and loss that is understated and more complicated and finely-tuned than it appears on the surface. Gondry is a mad-scientist genius of a director and with cinematographer Ellen Kuras he creates a film that looks casual, but is tightly constructed. I see more (and enjoy it more) each time I watch it.

  • Hero - A visual poem that is dazzling in how it looks, sounds and moves. A simple story told in a complicated fashion that reminded me how beautiful a film could be. Zhang Yimou creates a large film that works on a human level with Christopher Doyle's stunning cinematography that made me glad that I saw it in a theatre on a big screen.

  • Tarnation - Jonathan Caouette made an incredibly personal and unique documentary out of his life. It's amazing to watch and the question that most people at the Atlantic Film Festival said when you asked if they saw anything interesting was, "did you see Tarnation?" It was powerful on the big screen and I'm wondering if it will work as well on a smaller screen when it is released on video.

  • The Dreamers - Bernardo Bertolucci is a romantic and I think that he (along with many others) has a thing for Paris in 1968. He captures the vital link between sex, cinema and Paris in a film that is thin, but a treat for those who love cinema and what France gave to the world through the Nouvelle Vague.

  • The Fog of War - Errol Morris continues his string of flawless documentaries that are precise and personal. Morris refines the form with a film built around one talking head. Carefully constructed with a perfect score the film shows Robert S. McNamara in a new light and reveals more about the Vietnam War than was previously known.

  • The Incredibles - When I saw The Incredibles I was thinking that I would see another great Pixar film with solid animation a few twists. What surprised me was how well it worked as a film, not an animated film, but a film. It felt like one of the great James Bond films (the ones with Mr. Connery) combined with a family drama. I didn't think of the animation a lot, but I was sucked in to the story, the sets and the costumes. All of it done with a computer, but it didn't feel animated, it felt real even though it did not look realistic. Apparently Brad Bird originally was going to do the film as live-action, but the computer animated version is much more human than most of the big-budget action films of recent years.

  • Young Adam - The last film on the list is also the film that I saw most recently. A simple Scottish tale of a man and the decisions he lives with is subtle, sexy, understated and haunting. It's great to see a film that is built around the characters with great performances.

A film that I saw this year that would have made the list if it were a 2004 film was Lynn Ramsay's haunting (and Scottish) Morvern Callar. Other great films that almost made my list from the year that is soon to be over are City of God, Melvin Goes to Dinner, Good-Bye Lenin, Bright Leaves, Spider-Man 2, and Spartan.

One Thousand Photos

Chris Campbell

Film on a ReelI just uploaded a photo to Flickr that brings the size of my archive to one thousand photos. That's a lot and it confirms my belief that Flickr is a killer app. It's actually changed the way that I think about photos and I'm taking a lot more. There are many ways to upload and share photos, but what makes Flickr great is the social component. When I started uploading pictures I was thinking that it was a great way to share photos with my family as it just didn't make any more sense to keep emailing the same photos around all of the time. The other thing is that I didn't want to upload photos of the kids and family events for the world. Sharing pictures with the family worked great, but it wasn't until I started getting comments on my public photos and started participating in groups that I really started to get more heavily addicted.
What is wonderful about Flickr is that you can connect with people from around the world and communicate visually. You find people who have a similar visual sensibility to you. Now if someone adds me as a contact I look at their photos to try and figure out why. Usually it only takes a few images to figure out what you share in common, whether it is an interest in things that are rusting, similar framing or topics. I look forward to seeing the images that my contacts have uploaded and I want to share more.
The other thing that this sharing has encouraged me to do is more fully embrace Creative Commons licensing as all of my public photos have an "attribution-NonCommercial" license. I love being part of a community that communicates through images.

Young Adam

Chris Campbell

Young AdamThanks to a mention by Hugh MacLeod. I found out about the film Young Adam, directed by David Mackenzie. It's a film from Scotland that's hard to neatly categorize other than being something that is well-crafted all around. Not a feel-good story, but a somewhat dark, but always mesmerizing tale of a young man and his past. While there is a bit of a secret at the core of the film, that's not what makes it interesting. The wonderful cast of characters Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, and Emily Mortimer fit into the roles perfectly with understated performances that are subtle and perfect. You're not watching actors acting, but people who you are fascinated with. A glance or a touch becomes significant and with Mackenzie's direction it becomes an introspective story that involves us on a visceral level as the events unfold. The most difficult thing to show in a film has to be a connection between characters that feels real. Why do they love each other? What is the attraction? In Young Adam we see it between the characters. It doesn't need to be explained in the dialogue that papers over a weak performance. Based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, the story is sexy, haunting and meticulously constructed. Set mainly on a barge that travels between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1960s, the locations mirror the feeling of being trapped within the choices that you make. Every decision that we make determines our fate and it's rare to find a film that explores that idea in such a compelling way. It's great to find a gem like this.
Hugh Macleod also interviewed Tilda Swinton via email on gapingvoid as well as calling Young Adam "the best Scottish film ever", which is a quite a bold statement considering the competition, but I'd tend to agree.

Shaun of the Dead

Chris Campbell

Shaun of the Dead posterEvery now and then you find something interesting by accident and really enjoy it. It's like a wonderful present and a glimpse of a world you didn't know about. Since we don't see all tv from the UK, we get a distorted view since we see a lot of great stuff. It's probably the same the other way around where people outside of North America think that tv here is a wonderful mix of "Six Feet Under", tv documentaries and wonderful dramas and sitcoms. The truth is there is a lot of crap everywhere.
A few years ago I discovered a television series from the UK called "Spaced" which was shown on Bravo here in Canada. It's a clever sitcom written by (and starring) Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson and directed by Edgar Wright. It follows the struggles of flatmates and is filled with references to science fiction and horror films. Pegg and Wright then went on to write Shaun of the Dead, which is a parody of zombie films.
I saw Shaun of the Dead last night and I really liked it. What distinguishes it from most parodies is that it isn't a series of jokes loosely linked together by characters or a theme, but it is built around the characters. It challenges the conventions, is funny, but is also scary at times. What makes it work is the linking of the lives of the characters and the conventions of horror films. It works both as a comedy and as a horror film. While there are a ton of jokes related to other films, I don't think that you wouldn't enjoy it without getting them (although there is some gore...) One of the neat things that I found out about the film is that many of the zombie extras were cast based on a call that went out through the Spaced-Out fan site for "Spaced". Hopefully we will be able to buy the DVDs of the series on this side of the Atlantic soon thanks to the success of Shaun of the Dead.

Melvin Goes to Dinner

Chris Campbell

Melvin Goes to DinnerRemember that night you went out and ran into a friend and had a drink and started talking. You found out a lot about your friend, things you never knew, and you shared some of yourself as well. It's captured in the film Melvin Goes to Dinner. Transient moments that you remember your whole life.
I read about Melvin Goes to Dinner on the Bob and David site, but hadn't been able to see it (or really find it in many places). Luckily I was able to finally buy it, unseen, and I was very glad that I did. Usually I'll know a lot about a film before I see it and will have seen a trailer and read about it. I hadn't read very much about it and I really enjoyed the film. It's based on the play, Phyro-Giants! by Michael Blieden and directed by Bob Odenkirk. The writing and acting are amazing. It's a talky, character-driven film, but after a great conversation you don't say, "I just spent an hour with someone and all we did was talk!" You're more likely to say, "is it really that late?" The direction by Bob Oderkirk is interesting as well, with the core of the film being handheld and gorgeously processed digital video, with some neat stills-based sequences outside of the dinner with Melvin, a friend who he accidently goes to dinner with and another couple of friends who are also there. I don't think that I've ever seen a film that has captured a night out with a group of people so well where they, as Bob Odenkirk puts it, "accidently tell each other what is actually going on with their lives."