Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Posted in movies, reviews at 10:06 pm by danvk

Last fall, I was excited to read about Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s new film, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

I bought tickets for its one-night premiere at the IFC. Raven and I raced from our dinner to catch the 9 PM show… only to find out that it had been the night before. A tragic mistake for a one-night only show!

I recently found a full copy of the film on YouTube and we watched it. (Pro tip: the volume is a little low in the YouTube video. You can visit saveyoutube.com to download it to your hard drive. Then watch it in a desktop player like VLC with the volume turned up past the max.)

Herzog and Vasyukov glamorize life in the Taiga. The fur trappers’ existence is simple. They have few material possessions which they do not make themselves. A rifle, snowmobile and outboard motor are the lone exceptions. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the hunter making skis and a canoe in the fall, then using them in the winter. They are nearly completely cut off from the modern world. The only intrusion it makes into the film is when a Siberian politician visits on a boat, a curiosity to which the villagers pay little regard.

The men live for the winter hunt, and this is clearly the part of their lives which the filmmakers found most interesting. We hear more about their hunting dogs than we do about their wives or children. The only time we see real emotion from a hunter is when he describes watching a bear kill his favorite dog. Less pleasant things are talked of only briefly: the native people have been largely displaced by ethnic Russians, and those who remain are alcoholics. The protagonist of the movie was brought to Bakhta by helicopter thirty years ago to trap for the communist government. They had few supplies. Another man came with him, but he was “not up to the task” of survival.

This is a beautiful film which offers a glimpse into an increasingly rare way of life. Herzog and Vasyukov portray it as simple and remote, but I think is more due to their editing than to the reality of life in Bakhta. What about the women, who never speak in this film? Or the natives? Happy People leaves you respecting the people who live in the Taiga, but wanting to know more about them.


Top 25 Documentaries of All Time

Posted in movies at 12:35 pm by danvk

I recently stumbled across the International Documentary Association’s list of the top 25 documentaries of all-time. Here they are (I’ve bolded the ones I’ve seen):

1. Hoop Dreams (1994), Steve James
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris
3. Bowling for Columbine (2002), Michael Moore
4. Spellbound (2002), Jeffrey Blitz
5. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), Barbara Kopple
6. An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Davis Guggenheim
7. Crumb (1994), Terry Zwigoff
8. Gimme Shelter (1970), Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
9. The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris
10. Roger & Me (1989), Michael Moore
11. Super Size Me (2004), Morgan Spurlock
12. Don’t Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker
13. Salesman (1968), Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
14. Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), Godfrey Reggio
15. Sherman’s March (1986), Ross McElwee
16. Grey Gardens (1976), Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
17. Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Andrew Jarecki
18. Born into Brothels, (2004), Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
19. Titicut Follies (1967), Frederick Wiseman
20. Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Wim Wenders
21. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Michael Moore
22. Winged Migration (2002), Jacques Perrin
23. Grizzly Man (2005), Werner Herzog
24. Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais
25. Woodstock (1970), Michael Wadleigh

Only seven out of the top 25. I’ve got some documentary-watching to do!


Favorite Movies of 2007

Posted in movies, reviews at 10:12 pm by danvk

(See also podcasts, TV shows and books)

In case it hasn’t been clear from the previous posts, these are movies that I enjoyed in 2007, rather than movies that came out in 2007. I couldn’t hold myself to five movies this year, so I went with seven. Several of these came from “best of 2006″ lists like the Oscars. A few others came from the BAFTAs.

My Summer of Love
(Pawel Pawlikowski – 2004)
With only three real characters, this is a very simple, tightly-constructed movie. There’s nothing excessive about it. It’s carried by its strong themes: class, adventure, deception. The fact that the story revolves around a lesbian relationship is never mentioned — its light treatment here makes films like Brokeback Mountain seem very heavy-handed in comparison. I liked Pawel’s explanation of the film:

If you wanted to make a film about British teenagers it would be… well, it wouldn’t interest me, let’s put it like that. They’d be listening to music I hate, watching TV all the time, and talking about Big Brother. I needed to remove it, to get to the essence of adolescence without the paraphernalia of today. In a way I am arrested in my adolescent emotions, like most of us I think are, so [the film is] very personal, funnily enough, despite it being about two girls.

Touching the Void
(Kevin Macdonald – 2003)
Another BAFTA winner, this is a documentary about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ mountaineering expedition in the Andes. They’re both extremely down to earth, which makes it possible to relate to the extraordinary experience they went through. Simpson has dealt more directly with the prospect of his own death than just about anyone else, and his night in the crevasse is at the heart of this movie. His reaction isn’t heroic, but it’s very genuine.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – 2006)
I saw two excellent German movies this year, both featuring Ulrich Mühe (the other being Zwartboek, technically a Dutch movie). Ironically, Mühe died a few weeks after I saw this movie. It follows a writer in Eastern Germany and a Stasi agent (Mühe) assigned to observe him. I don’t want to say too much, but the ending is absolutely perfect. It couldn’t have been done any better.

Pan’s Labyrinth
(Guillermo del Toro – 2006)
The combination of Spanish Civil War and a child’s fantastical imagination is strange, but it works surprisingly well. Innocence and Experience would be the themes here. An interesting side note: by 1944 the Spanish Civil War was almost entirely over. These really were the last holdouts.

The Fog of War
(Errol Morris – 2004)
An extended conversation with Robert McNamara, one of the more interesting and controversial Secretaries of Defense in the 20th century. I can only imagine how interesting it must be for someone who lived through the Vietnam War to hear what was going on behind the scenes like this. I can see why he was so hated during that war. He was a statistician during World War II managing bomber runs, and this kind of analytical approach to people informed everything else he did in his life. He views everything in a very detached way, always looking at the numbers. An interesting look at an interesting life.

The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy
(Israel – 2002)
A documentary about break-dancing, or “breaking” as the dancers prefer to call it. I learned a lot about the history of hip-hop from this movie, but if you don’t care about that, there are worse things you could do than watch a few hours of break-dancing. Highly recommended if you’re curious what the difference between “rap” and “hip-hop” is.

The Room
(Tommy Wiseau – 2003)
Tommy’s a genius, what more can I say? Oh right, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”



Posted in movies, personal, web at 10:33 pm by danvk

One of the best perks of working at Google is the Authors@Google program, which brings in authors to speak about their books. We recently hosted xkcd‘s Randall Munroe, who gave a completely hilarious talk. I only caught the end in person, but it’s now available on YouTube for all to see.

For some context, the guy who does the intro is Peter Norvig, the guy who asks the first question is Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, and the the guy who asks the second question is Don Knuth!

Here’s one of my favorite xkcd’s:



Posted in movies, web at 11:35 pm by danvk

picture-1.pngI wrote a few weeks ago about enjoying The Fog of War, the 2003 Academy Award winner for best documentary. The list of winners over the last sixty years has some fine-looking films on it. Clicking around Wikipedia, I’d quickly assembled a list of five movies I wanted to see:

I hit up my usual movie source, but it only had the first two. I watched The Wind That Shakes the Barley last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. It brought me back into the Irish history kick I was on after visiting the Emerald Isle last winter. The Deer Hunter is on the way.

For the others, though, the internet has failed me. The free internet, that is. There’s still Netflix. They have all but the last movie on my list. Craig, Nick and I had a good experience with them two summers ago, so I’m tempted to give them a try. I’d most likely go with the $15/month plan, which gets me two DVDs at a time and unlimited monthly rentals. It also gets me their Instant Viewing service, which lets me download movies. Or would, if only I didn’t have a Mac. This is almost annoying enough to make me avoid Netflix entirely. To watch movies online, you need to be running Windows, Windows Media Player, and you can only watch them inside a special Netflix application. Lame.

Netflix has a two week free trial, so I may give that a shot. Any Netflix subscribers out there? What do you think?

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