Head Trips and Virtual Life in the Films of 2010

Many of 2010's best triumphed not by rejecting the artifice or fantasy of filmmaking or gaming or dreaming, but by hopping between worlds, ever beginning.

About 10 years ago, reverberating with millennial anxiety, some of the era's most indelible films worked out a sense of existential dread. Movies like The Matrix (1999), Memento (2001), Waking Life (2001), Vanilla Sky (2001), and Mulholland Drive (2001) questioned the nature of dreams, memory, perception, and reality -- self-examination through science fiction and altered states.

A decade or so later, with social media triumphant and more people than ever experiencing a growing sense of ease or even comfort with the virtual yet interconnected likes of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and the like, many of 2010's best movies had one or both feet in virtual or imaginary worlds. Unlike the blatant head trips of the previous set, though, this batch of films finds characters navigating the complexities of these worlds, not waking up to discover their existence -- presenting fewer existential challenges than logistical ones.

It makes a kind of sense, then, that the near-universal choice for movie of the year is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, a chronicle of the founding of Facebook. The movie itself is old-fashioned in terms of craft, with lots of speedy, pointed dialogue and few of Fincher's usual stylistic flourishes. The movie depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a genius with such relentless understanding of what his users want that he barely understands how to be human in real life.

The movie doesn't demonize Facebook or online interaction or even Zuckerberg himself, but it does dramatize the kind of messy interpersonal relationships that went into a website that hinges on accruing and interacting with hundreds or thousands of "friends." Its haunting closing shot, with Zuckerberg obsessively reloading his own Facebook page, hoping for an online connection with his ex-girlfriend, garnered some audience laughter at my showing -- not out of derision, I don't think, but a mixture of pity and discomforting familiarity. For that moment, Zuckerberg is lost in his virtual world.

That danger surfaces for most of the characters in Inception, my choice for the best film of the year. The film, from Memento's Christopher Nolan, was criticized in some corners for a rote approach to the concept of exploring (and stealing from) an individual's dreams. With a concept as freeing and potentially surreal as exploring endless dreamscapes, the argument went, why would the characters' dreams look more or less like a Hollywood spy movie?

Yet Nolan uses the framework of a heist movie to give the dreaming world(s) a seductive, elusive quality. The dangers that interest him -- the way Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) stay trapped in a dream for a virtual lifetime, and can't resume a normal life when they finally wake -- would have less emotional pull in a land of bizarre, Gilliam-esque dreamscapes. Some read Inception's epic meticulousness as an obvious metaphor for the experience of filmmaking itself; I don't think this was Nolan's primary intent, but I understand the mistake. The film's voyages deeper into the subconscious evoke a sensation of perpetual beginning and discovery, one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of film.

Primal feelings animate Toy Story 3, too. The Pixar series has always dealt with the secret world of toys who come to life when people aren't looking, and the trilogy capper brings this extended metaphor for childhood (and parenthood) to a lovely, moving end. Woody, Buzz, and the other toys must face a world without their owner Andy, and the film brings them bravely close to a literal abyss before pulling back and finding a well-earned happy (yet bittersweet) ending. In the tear-jerking sequence of the year, Andy passes his playthings on to a younger child, keeping the secret world of play alive -- yet still separate from the realm of adult responsibilities.

Movies like Inception and Toy Story 3 integrated alternate worlds seamlessly into their narrative reality, toggling between realities with effortless skill. Other fantasy worlds of 2010 depended on a more traditional divide. In that sense, Black Swan indulges a more old-fashioned trippiness when Darren Aronofsky blurs the line between reality and mental instability for dancer Nina (Natalie Portman), and puts viewers into her frazzled, paranoid headspace, working over horror and hysteria tropes with a style and vigor similar to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island earlier in the year. The wonderfully dark yet humane I Love You Phillip Morris takes an even more analog approach to virtual reality: real-life con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) engineers a series of lives through an imaginative and compulsive series of lies and scams.

The construction of these alternate realities probably appeals to some filmmakers because, as those Inception theorists point out, the process does mimic the fundamentals of filmmaking: creating a new world for the audience, even when using naturalism of Fish Tank or Tiny Furniture, and especially when the goal is the sort of heightened B-movie favored by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (what a glorious unofficial alternate universe the latter creates with the Mexploitation of Machete!). The year's biggest hit after the Toy Story sequel, Tim Burton's family-friendly take on Alice in Wonderland, eschewed the seriousness of the Lord of the Rings or even Narnia movies in favor of a fanciful otherworldiness based on Lewis Carroll's stubborn illogic: the fantasy land as an altered state of mind.

Audiences didn't enter every virtual world with such willingness. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was pegged as a possible surprise summer hit, but only a dedicated cult showed up at the box office. The film imagines a videogame-infused consciousness without comment; the film's young characters aren't trapped in a videogame and trying to fight their way out, but rather simply living in a world (or at least operating from a point of view) that uses the language of videogames (as well as graphic novels and technology) to express obstacles, longing, defeat, and triumph. The film was hailed by some as a next-generational event; to others, it was a pandering, empty exercise in demographic targeting, a movie using videogame imagery to adapt a graphic novel with heavy gamer and anime influences -- all culture and no commentary.

Scott Pilgrim certainly soaks itself in pop culture, but its appropriation of videogame and comic book imagery is playful and often ingenious, a witty, daydreamy variation on the psychological horrors of movies like Black Swan or Shutter Island. It also, like Toy Story 3, shows real hope for a multi-world future. If the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg has trouble with his human connections, the movie version of Scott Pilgrim can be his role model: a nerdy, awkward, yet weirdly confident young man who triumphs over his affectations and neuroses not by rejecting his cultural obsessions but taking control of them (and, you know, not being a self-centered jerk). Similarly, many of 2010's best triumphed not by rejecting the artifice or fantasy of filmmaking or gaming or dreaming, but by hopping between worlds, ever beginning.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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