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.