Escapism. In a nutshell, that’s what we look for in our entertainment. Whether it’s a futuristic sci-fi fantasy, a mythic episode from the annals of history (real or imagined), a taut crime drama, or even a fact-based documentary, we find considerable interest and even excitement in exploring alternate realities — just as long as they’re not our own reality, it seems. Most films satisfy our need to transcend our mundane existence and play voyeur in the lives of people infinitely more interesting, successful, or attractive than ourselves.
So, forthwith, here are our annual DVD picks for 2004. These weren’t necessarily the best new releases and reissues that came out over the past twelve months, but they all represented one form of escapism or another.
Festival in the Desert
How you’ll wish you were in the middle of the Malian Sahara, four hours from Timbuktu by car. This music documentary captures the Tuareg equivalent of Woodstock, a weeklong celebration of incredible-sounding rhythms and heartfelt collaborations. The live material with indigenous groups such as the Tikrit Ensemble and Tinariwen, who have emerged out of the desert’s nomadic tribes, is jaw-droppingly good, and world-beat superstar Oumou Sangare and African bluesman Ali Farka Touré are also on hand to lend their support and participate in a few jam sessions, which strike the universal chord more often than not. Depending on whether you’re a dyed-in-the-mudcloth world beatnik or an exotica-minded rawk fan, you’ll either appreciate or rue the appearance of onetime “Golden God” Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame and his equally European younger sidekick, guitarist Justin Adams. It’s just that it pales in comparison to the much, much deeper African rhythms featured here.
Andy Warhol was the guy who, rather presciently, proclaimed that in the future, everyone would have precisely fifteen minutes of fame. How appropriate and ironic, then, that poor-little-rich-girl
-turned-Warhol-Factory-“superstar” Edie Sedgwick, in her last role before dying of a drug overdose, is featured in the newly reissued Ciao! Manhattan. In the postmodern age, celebrity has become more about pretentiousness and superficiality than anything else, which Warhol glommed onto decades before it became painfully obvious to everyone. Yet Paris Hilton in all her tawdry glory couldn’t hold a candle to Sedgwick on one of her bad days, several of which are depicted in Ciao! Manhattan.
Move over, Mamet; There’s a new David in town. David Simon’s HBO-produced series The Wire has been called the best show on TV by more than one critic, and the DVD release of its excellent first season only lends credence to that claim. The show plays like a younger, fresher cousin of TV crime drama juggernauts Law & Order and CSI. Sure, it treads much of the same ground as other cop shows, but it’s edgier, grittier, and not as contrived or predictable as its network competitors. The dialogue effortlessly captures the essence of urban Baltimore, while the storyline draws some interesting parallels, rolls them up into a huge ball of wax, then ties up the loose ends with a satisfying sense of closure rarely achieved in either feature films or normal TV.
This feature-length Japanese animation film stands apart from the rest of its genre. Dead Leaves is like your favorite anime on crack (if crack were a relatively good thing that lasted for the length of a movie and had no ill after-effects). The plot, about the escapades of two rebels breaking out of a space prison, is nearly incomprehensible, but that’s part of the appeal of this fun-filled thrill ride. It’s a little bit naughty, completely cheeky, and totally bugged-out. More to the point, the constantly shifting and changing backgrounds revel in Dalí-esque surrealism, something that’s been missing from most anime until now.
Guang Dong Face
In the post-Crouching Tiger world of Asian cinema, films like Hero not only get made, they land overseas distribution deals. Thanks to the international breakthrough of what not so long ago was considered a cult genre, more ambitious films with bigger budgets are being released. And while Miramax has not yet officially released this film on DVD, it’s available right now in Asian specialty stores such as Berkeley’s Eastwind Books. So if you don’t mind navigating through Chinese-language menus to find the English subtitles option, there’s no need to wait for this masterpiece from director Zhang Yimou. Hero combines the thrilling action sequences of Hong Kong kung-fu fare with the art-house sensibilities of Raise the Red Lantern, making it easy to recommend not just to martial-arts fans and the PFA crowd, but anyone who enjoys an engaging story, excellent cinematography, and mind-blowing visuals. Jet Li turns in his best performance to date as Nameless, the constable who dispatches three deadly assassins and is granted an audience with a king who would become emperor, while the fight sequence between Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi is alone worth the purchase price. Part historical drama and part epic fantasy, Hero is majestic, stupendous, awe-inspiring, and powerful — and that’s just the opening scene.
David Byrne’s 1989 documentary transports viewers deep inside the mysteries of the Candomblé religion of Brazil — similar to Santeria in Cuba, Voudun in Haiti, and Yoruba in Nigeria — to meet the worshippers of the African deities-cum-Christian saints called orishas. The triumph of Ilé Aiyé is in the revealing way it shows the spirit-possession rituals usually only witnessed by Candomblé initiates. Byrne — who served as second-unit cameraman, as well as director — had impressive access in making the film. He doesn’t just show us the door where the magic happens. He takes us right up to the gate of the orishas themselves, a domain usually accessible only to Candomblé believers in the throes of a trance state. But this film, which features an awesome soundtrack as well as ritual sacrifices, is definitely not recommended for animal-rights activists.
Inventos: Hip-Hop Cubano
Clenched Fist Productions
Hip-hop is mainstream pop culture in 2004, for better or for worse. Except it’s mostly for worse. Maybe that voice-over guy in the airline commercial was right: sometimes you wanna get away. If you’re a hip-hop fan or an open-minded individual, a place where the culture is not only revolutionary but is framed against a revolutionary backdrop is just the ticket. Luckily for you, such a place exists: Cuba. Directed by onetime Berkeley resident Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, Inventos offers an often-breathtaking look at international hip-hop, as experienced by the leading lights of the Havana rap scene. Similar to this year’s also-impressive Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars (the two share some of the same principals, and director Joshua Bee Alafia is, like Jacobs-Fantauzzi, a Bay Area expat now living in NYC), Inventos is the more ambitious and ultimately more satisfying of the two. Compiling several years of footage into a coherent piece of work, Inventos shows the aspirations of Cuban rappers as well as their artistic purity. Extras include two photo galleries, bonus footage of live shows in Havana and NYC, a director’s bio, and a slammin’ mix CD.
La Dolce Vita
When people say “Fellini-esque,” this is what they mean. Influential enough that it birthed the term “paparazzi,” La Dolce Vita is escapist fantasy taken to an extreme, yet somehow manageable, level. Long considered a Grand Statement in International Filmmaking, this movie has it all: a Venus-like Anita Ekberg frolicking in the famous Trevi fountain; a young, handsome Marcello Mastroianni cruising around Rome on a too-cool Vespa scooter; and a score by Nino Rota (The Godfather). A must-have for any true film buff, the premiere of La Dolce Vita on DVD comes with enough bonus features to make you forget about the outside world and live in Fellini’s — for a few hours, anyway. Filmographies; biographies; interviews with Fellini, Mastroianni, and Ekberg; commentary by film critic Richard Schickel; a musical montage, and a collection of never-before-seen Fellini shorts — they’re all here.
Tent City: A Social Antidote
Imagine if you quit your day job, became a skater, and took a road trip to Australia, where you slept in a tent alongside your best friends and traveled around Down Under, looking for twenty-step rails to grind. Now imagine if that was your day job. The road trip/skate movie isn’t a particularly original idea, but who cares, as long as you can find some cool pools to skate? The nine skaters who make the mission are dedicated to their sport, to an extreme degree. There are plenty of nifty board tricks en route as the nine explore Aussie territory, but it’s almost more interesting to watch them interact and develop a sense of camaraderie that comes from sharing a common goal. Bucketloads of extras round out the package.
If American action movies have gotten a little too pat, a nice alternative is Japanese yakuza (gangster) films, a genre well worth mining. This double feature disc offers a jackpot for fans of laconic tough guy “Beat” Takeshi Kitano — in addition to his critically acclaimed remake/tribute to the classic blind swordsman and masseur, Kitano’s Tarantino-endorsed neo-noir epic Sonatine is also included. Kitano’s Zatoichi is that rare remake that outdoes its source material (1962’s The Tale of Zatoichi), eschewing the character’s well-known backstory while making the protagonist even more heroic (with a nod to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Sonatine, meanwhile, keeps Kitano’s Gary Cooper-esque stoicism intact, but trades katanas and kimonos for handguns and designer suits. It’s a bit slower-paced than Zatoichi, but Kitano’s direction is just as artfully done; many subtleties are to be found within the subtitles.