One of the perks of being a critic is occasionally you have access to movies not readily available to the general public. There are movies that don’t have distribution deals and only play at festivals or receive the occasional screening at specially booked theatres. While they might eventually end up as DVDs, they usually pass under people’s radar. When putting together a listing of the movies and DVDs I liked best this year, I restricted myself to those I had reviewed, even though there were others I saw and enjoyed as much as any that follow. However most of you will already know about The King’s Speech, Paul, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 and the others with wide distribution deals and well-publicized DVD releases. The ten below are a mix of DVDs of television series and movies which, while every bit as good as, if not better than, anything that made it to the big screen or had the weight of Hollywood behind its DVD release, have only aired on specialty channels like Public Broadcasting or at one-off screenings. So you might want to call this a list of the best releases most of you probably have never heard of.
Oka is the fictionalized account of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s early days of living among the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. Pygmies, the Bayaka are hunter gatherers most at home in the forests removed from civilization and its accompanying distractions and noise. In the movie Sarno has been renamed Larry Whitman – played by the remarkable Kris Marshall.
While part of the movie deals with Whitman’s obsession with his recordings, what it does best is clearly illustrate the degradation suffered by a people when they are forced off their land and their traditional way of life is taken away from them. Without stooping to sentimentality, or making the Bayaka out to be anything more than they are, Oka tells the story of every indigenous people who have ever been displaced by civilization though its depiction of their situation. Beautifully filmed on location in Central Africa, Oka manages to tell its story without preaching, presenting its subject as victims or objects of pity and with a great deal of humour. It might have a message, but that doesn’t stop it from being a good movie.
The People Speak History is written by not only the winners, but those in positions of power as well. History books tell the story of our countries from the point of view of generals, captains of industry and political leaders, while the voices of foot soldiers, factory workers and farmers – the majority – are never heard. American historian Howard Zinn changed all that when he published A People’s History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other first hand accounts of events throughout American history written by those not normally given a voice. In order to bring these voices to life, a collection of American actors and performers staged readings from the book at campuses and theatres around the country. The DVD of The People Speak is a record of those live shows featuring readings by Viggo Mortensen, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, David Strathairn, Danny Glover, Kerry Washington, Marisa Tomei and performances by Pink, Bob Dylan, Bruce Sprinsteen and John Legend. With material dating back to a speech given by a defendant from a court martial at Valley Forge – the men were upset that they were starving to death and freezing while their officers were well fed and comfortable – to letters home from soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan it presents a very different view of American history than the one offered by most text books. This is the reality behind the statues, famous battles, the headlines and the oratory of politicians. These are also the voices of dissent who protested against slavery and who were responsible for things we now take for granted like child labour laws, mandatory work place safety, minimum wage, the eight hour working day and equal rights. There are more than two sides to every story, including history, and the DVD The People Speak is vitally important for the version of American History it tells.
Murphy’s Law – The Complete Collection While there are plenty of cop movies and cop television shows where an officer goes undercover to get the bad guys, very few depict the cost paid by the officers in question. During the five year run of Murphy’s Law we followed Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) undercover as he descended deeper and deeper into the dark side of policing. While the first two seasons were the usual case an episode type of affair, although of a far higher quality than most anything else you’ll see on television, in its last three years the show went places you don’t often see. With each season following a single story line they were able to bring in details about the reality of undercover police work that make you wonder how, and why, anybody could do that type of work. The acting, writing, direction and camera work is superb throughout (look for Michael Fassbender in series three) but it’s Nesbitt’s performance that will leave you awestruck. Never before has the baggage carried by a cop been depicted in such heart rending detail and how much it costs them emotionally and physically.
Agadez – The Music And The Rebellion is a movie with two purposes. First it tells the story of the indigo clad nomads of the Sahara desert known to the world as the Tuareg and themselves as Kel Tamashek. Over the past thirty years they have fought in three rebellions in a attempt to preserve their traditional way of life as their territory is gradually stolen from them. While they have taken up arms in their fight, they have also used music to inspire their people and to spread the message of the rebellion. As a result musicians were targeted for assassination by the armies of the countries whose borders now dissect the Sahara desert. Like many others the second subject of this movie, the young Tuareg musician known as Bombino, spent years in exile in order to avoid being assassinated like two former members of his band. Through a mix of talking heads, documentation of this young man’s remarkable journey and concert film, audiences are not only given a clear history of these fiercely independent people and their current situation but are introduced to a young artist whose career is motivated by more than just a desire for fame. There is a long history of poets and story tellers among the Tuareg whose job is to remind the people of their traditions and who they are and the musicians of today have inherited that mantle. The camera reveals a climate as beautiful as it is harsh and unforgiving leaving you in awe of those who have called it home for generations. Stirring and unforgettable, Agadez – The Music And The Rebellion is as remarkable as the people it documents.
The Complete Doc Martin Collection – Series 1 – 4 This series could have been your typical fish out of water tale with the easy sentimental conclusion of the stranger growing to love his rather eccentric new surroundings. However, when London based surgeon, the Dr Martin Ellington of the title, develops a phobia to the sight of blood and is forced to become a general practitioner in a small Cornwall fishing village, that’s not the case. While he treats them for their various complaints, from the ridiculous to the dangerous, aside from one exception, he remains as aloof and abrupt towards his new patients in the last episode as he was in the first. Even falling in love with the local school teacher does nothing to soften his attitudes. Remarkably, Martin Clunes, manages to take this seemingly unlovable character and make him remarkably sympathetic. While he may end up with his foot in his mouth far more often than most of us, and definitely doesn’t suffer fools gladly, his heart is more often than not in the right place. Funny, and at times poignant, the series avoids most of the pitfalls and stereotypes you’d normally associate with this type of story line and makes for entertaining and intelligent viewing.
Wild Horses & Renegades This is not a movie for the faint of hear, weak of stomach or horse lovers of any stripe for that matter. For it details in stark and horrifying detail how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the United States, the very people whose job it is to protect the few remaining herds of wild horses in that country, have slowly but surely been working towards their complete extinction.
In 1971 the American government passed the Wild Horse and Burro Preservation act into law which was meant to guarantee the survival of both species. However, as the film carefully details, almost since the act was passed the BLM has done everything in its power to ensure the opposite. From fudging figures as to how many animals actually exist in the wild to “leasing” the land out from under them for everything from grazing cattle to mining for uranium – the latter which makes the land unfit for any living creature for decades thanks to tailings and other pollution. Horses are rounded up without accurate records being kept as to what happens to them and footage included in the film shows animals from BLM holding pens passing through Mexican slaughter houses after being illegally shipped across the border. (Definitely not footage for horse lovers) This movie makes for bitter viewing as it documents the betrayal of trust on a massive and organized scale and how one of America’s great natural treasures is being exterminated as a result. A labour of love by all involved Wild Horses & Renegades is a desperate cry for help on behalf of those whose only crime is to exist. Hopefully enough will hear before its too late.
George Gently, Series 3 The 1960s were turbulent times the world over and the north of England was no exception. In the third series featuring Martin Shaw as Inspector George Gently and Lee Ingleby as Sergeant John Bacchus the two police officers deal with everything from anti-war protests, changing attitudes towards sex and still try to solve two rather sordid murders. The first of the two 90-minute episodes, “Gently Evil”, involves the murder of a young woman of questionable morals. However, as they investigate her family life they uncover some dark and nasty secrets which leaves them both disgusted and horrified. The second, “Peace and Love”, finds them smack in the middle of both the anti-nuclear missile campaign of the mid 1960s England and the burgeoning free love movement at the local university. When a professor, who also happens to be the leader of the protest movement, is found murdered the problem is in trying to figure out which of those he’d managed to piss off is the actual killer. One of the many students he has slept with, including the latest who is pregnant with his child, the female professor he jilted or the night porter whose job he imperilled. While the investigations are interesting and push both officers into having to examine their judgements, what makes the series even more enjoyable is the interplay between the two leads.
While Bacchus likes to think of himself as hip and modern, he is in fact the more conservative of the two. The shifting times make it very difficult for him to hold onto his view of the world being nicely divided up into good and evil, and without his more worldly superior officer he’d be soon lost. Both Shaw and Ingleby give stellar performances making George Gently some of the finest police television produced.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People were both six part television adaptations of the John Le Carre books of the same names. Reissued on DVD in 2011, originally airing in 1979 and 1982 respectively, they both faithfully recreated Le Carre’s fascinating works that delved the depths of British counter intelligence during the latter days of the Cold War. At the centre of each show’s byzantine and many layered plots sat Alec Guiness giving the performance of his career as George Smiley, the most unlikely hero of a spy thriller the world has ever seen. Seemingly just another one of the thousands of faceless civil servants employed by the British government, quiet, unassuming and befuddled looking, his outward appearance hides a brilliant intellect and a deep well of emotions. Whether tracking down the “mole” within British intelligence, in “Tinker Tailor”, or investigating the murder of an elderly field agent in “Smiley” he is able to weave seemingly unconnected loose ends together into a pattern that everybody else missed. Yet for all his skill and his ability he is filled with an ever increasing sense of disgust at the work he does and the means employed to achieve success. While the recently released movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts a stellar cast of British actors, I don’t see how it can hope to match these earlier adaptations with their faithful adherence to the books and Guiness’ tour de force performance.
Case Histories The troubled private investigator with dark secrets lurking in the background has become such a well worn device in movies and television it now borders on cliche. It takes either a masterful performance, great scripts or a combination of the two for a show based around that premise to deliver something original.
The six episodes of Case Histories, adapted from novels written by British crime author Kate Atkinson, staring Jason Isaacs as retired Scottish police officer Jackson Brodie turned private investigator, don’t just rise above the cliche, they are so well done it’s like the premise is brand new. Isaacs is one of those great actors who understands just what to give the camera in order to communicate with an audience and he does more with his eyes than most actors can do with any number of facial expressions. Brodie has wound himself so tight in order to hold his past at bay, you have the feeling if he were to display anymore than what appeared in his eyes the whole facade would shatter.
As the series progresses each case he takes seems to open up the past just a little bit more and we begin to realize he’s attempting to seek redemption for what he considers past failures. Haunting, intelligent and leavened with just enough humour to make the characters human and the circumstances real, this two disc DVD set is a treat for fans of great acting and detective shows alike.