Even if this column were weekly—even if this column were daily—I’d be hard-pressed to keep up with the dozens of DVD and Blu-ray releases new and old rolled out every Tuesday throughout the year, not to mention the mushrooming number of titles made available via cable on demand and Internet streaming. All of which is great, but that means that there were a number of worthy 2010 titles that I got to late or didn’t get a chance to write about here. And so, before we launch fully into 2011, a round-up of releases that are so last year but shouldn’t be missed.
A couple of the more fascinating films of the past year purported to be documentaries, and then made critics and audiences question whether or not that could possibly be the case. Regarding I’m Still Here (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray), the Casey Affleck-directed account of fellow actor Joaquin Phoenix turning his back on acting, embracing an ill-advised rap career, and sinking into drug abuse and insanity, the film was eventually revealed to be an elaborate performance. It takes a special sort of viewer to sit through its mental and emotional sadomasochism even knowing it’s all a put-on, but there’s something fascinating about it nonetheless, a morbid humor brought on not so much by wondering if the bloated and unwashed Phoenix is truly losing his grip as by marveling at the fact that he isn’t and still thought this was a good idea. There’s no telling how this will affect any career he has from here, but I for one will never look at him again without picturing him wondering aloud what various hookers’ buttholes smell like.
In the case of Exit Through the Gift Shop (Oscilloscope DVD and Blu-ray), the jury is still out on whether or not this account of the rise of contemporary street art is entirely “real” in its particulars. Purportedly directed by enigmatic street-art dean Banksy, it follows the story of Thierry Guetta, a pudgy French ringer for Ron Jeremy who starts filming hallowed street-art pioneers such as Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy himself, for a purported be-all end-all street-art doc. When Guetta turns out to be not much of a filmmaker, Banksy takes over the film, only to capture Guetta—now calling himself Mr. Brainwash—transforming himself into an overnight street-art sensation with far greater success. “Real” or not, Exit captures the history and trickster spirit of street art as well as one can imagine any medium getting it down and provides a fascinating meditation on contemporary fame in the bargain.
As a parent, I spend a lot of time watching movies made for kids, few of which I actually enjoy or find much to recommend about. The best kids film of the year, hands-down, was The Secret of Kells (New Media DVD and Blu-ray), and it appealed far more than many of the films designed for grown-ups. The feature debut of a group of Irish animators known as Cartoon Saloon, it tells the story of the origins of legendary Dark Ages illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells via the story of a young monk named Brendan, incorporating elements both historical (the bloody Viking raids on Britain) and fantastic (the fearsome pagan deity Crom Cruach; a female fairy named Aisling). The visual style that directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey create here simply dazzles: computer animation made 2-D flat, beautifully stylized a la the book in question, and detailed down to the smallest speck (e.g. each individual snowflake is a tiny illumination symbol). Best of all, though, the story is well done, poignant, and wonderfully humanist. A contemporary classic for the whole family, literally.
Jeez, already I’m running out of room. Those looking for an urbane but biting comedy in the vein of mid-period Woody Allen would do well to rent Please Give (Sony Pictures Classics DVD and Blu-ray), Nicole Holofcener’s smart, subtle exploration of the uncomfortable first-world struggle between good fortune, good deeds, and guilt, plus some of the most realistic family dynamics you’re likely to see onscreen anytime soon, even set in the fantasy land of well-to-do Manhattan. Fans of Animal Kingdom or any number of the other solid crime films to hit screens big and small this year shouldn’t miss The Square (Apparition DVD and Blu-ray), a tense, low-key Aussie indie that expertly piles up base motivations, petty crimes, and grim twists of fate into a hurtling Double Indemnity-style classic noir. And props are due to a personal fave type—the overachieving genre movie—in the form of Splice (Warner DVD and Blu-ray), Vincenzo Natali’s uncomfortable family drama disguised as a scientific horror flick. A couple of hot young genetic scientists (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) whip up a new life form in the lab and all sorts of complications ensue in their attachments to it and to each other. Not a deathless classic by any means, but far smarter and deeply icky than its modest box office take would indicate. There are still more titles to talk about, but now it’s time for 2011.