Sunday, December 30, 2018

My Favourite Films of 2018 - UPDATED

Alfonso Cuaron's Roma
It's that time of year again!  I'm very happy to share my thoughts on my favourite flicks of this past year!

UPDATE on Jan 17th: In December, I indicated I still had more films to see and that could impact on this list.  But today, I can confirm that no new films will enter my Top 10 for 2018, but I have moved Green Book up from 10 to 8 upon more reflection. In addition, I decided to move If Beale Street Could Talk down from 3 to 6 as it resonated less for me on a second viewing. 


1. Roma:  Director Alfonso Cuarón returns to his roots with this sensitive, unbelievably beautiful epic.  Told mostly from the perspective of Cleo, a nanny who accidentally becomes pregnant and is abandoned by her lover, this film is a stunning achievement, so sweet and intimate, with moments that exhilarate, titillate, as well as devastate emotionally.  Cuarón was also his own cinematographer on this, delivering shimmering black and white photography that is unforgettable, including many long takes that will shock you with their perfect execution.  Roma is Cuarón's best and most emotionally resonant film by far and deserves to be watched over and over.

2. BlacKkKlansman: This is director Spike Lee's best film since Do The Right Thing, confirming a mastery of his filmmaking craft that is satisfying and exhilarating to behold.  The direction, the performances, the script, the music, everything about this film, is perfection.  While the subject matter focuses on events in the 1970s, it's horrifyingly relevant to today and the perfect antidote for our troubled times, giving voice to those misunderstood folks still demonized today by racist elements that have even taken over the White House.

3.  First Man: Yes, this is another biopic about a white hero we already know much about and there have been several films in recent years about the struggles of the U.S. space program in the 60s.  Some felt this film was emotionally vacant.  I'd call it an authentic story about emotionally muted people.  This movie succeeds because of its focus on the fine details: the tight quarters into which the astronauts cram their bodies, the tiny windows out of which they peer as their rockets surge into the sky amid pounding and disorienting noise, the small piece of jewelry that Armstrong leaves on the moon.  Director Damien Chazelle foregoes the tropes of the genre and produces something original here, a space flick that physics/aerodynamics nerds will adore.  Plus the score by Justin Hurwitz is the most beautiful music I've heard in a movie this year!

4. First Reformed: Wow! While so many films this year lacked originality or guts, this little masterpiece by director and writer Paul Schrader truly got under my skin and challenged me in ways I was happy to be challenged.  This quiet yet disturbing film delves into the soul of a troubled man of God whose spiritual world unravels following a tragedy he couldn't prevent.  The story goes places I never imagined at the outset, yet never goes over the top, and remains nuanced to the beautiful end while still quietly shocking. Actor Ethan Hawke has never been better in a role and truly deserves a Best Actor nomination, if not the top prize.

5.  RBG: As Gloria Steinem quips in this documentary, the 'Notorious RBG' is the closest thing we have to a super-hero alive today.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a remarkable human being: quiet, unassuming, calm, measured, and deeply effective.  Watching her in this film actually has taught me how to be a better human being.  And now I'm joining so many millions in hoping that she stays healthy and lives to outlast the monster in the White House who would no doubt replace her with some other right-wing monster on the Supreme Court if he had the chance.

6. If Beale Street Could Talk: Director Barry Jenkins proves the magic he created in 2016's Moonlight was no fluke.  This is a director who knows how to authentically give voice to his community and characters in ways we so need to see these days.  The story follows a young woman's struggle to exonerate her husband and father of her unborn child after he's unjustly accused of a rape.  Tragically honest, engaging and sometimes funny, no one else is making movies like this today.  (Originally I listed this movie at #3 on this list, but upon a second viewing, I've re-evaluated it down to #6 as it is a bit slow and less engaging than I remembered.)

7. Vice: Whereas RBG was hopeful and positive in its exploration of its subject matter (what else could a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg be?), Vice was incredibly dark and angering, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.  But how else would a serious exploration of Dick Cheney's life - devoted to promoting his own power, plus unlimited warfare for profit, lies, elitism, and hypocrisy - make a decent person feel?  This film is unforgiving in its thoroughness of the history, warts and all, and unafraid to make fair speculations about things that are not on the record.  There is no doubt this film will infuriate the real man and he deserves it.  Christian Bale's performance is so good you often forget you're looking at an actor playing a role. 

8. Green Book: A wonderfully entertaining two-hander between great actors Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali working with lovely material.  Foregoing melodrama and the tropes we might expect from this story, this was an enjoyable if somewhat uneventful ride.  Perhaps I was expecting a bit more after all the hype.

9. Black Panther: Director Ryan Coogler and everyone else who worked on this knocked it out of the park, producing not only an immensely entertaining super hero flick, but also an intensely socially relevant film that'll resonate with many for years to come.

10. A Star Is Born: Bradley Cooper's talent knows no bounds.  He pulls off a great directing job here while also pulling off a completely believable performance as a fading rock star.  He also gives all of his actors the opportunity to shine in great performances, including his leading actress Lady Gaga who is perfect in her role.  The first hour of this is pure magic, if you ask me.  The rest is well-done but unremarkable.  Overall, this is highly entertaining.  Does Lady Gaga deserve Best Actress?  Probably not.  Will she win it?  Probably yes. (UPDATE: Actually, no, with Glenn Close's very well deserved win at the Globes, she looks well placed to finally win for The Wife.)

Eighth Grade
Ant-Man and the Wasp
The Rider
Avengers: Infinity War
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Boy Erased
Mary Shelley
At Eternity’s Gate
The Favourite 
Sorry to Bother You
Deadpool 2
Love, Simon
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Fahrenheit 11/9
Life of the Party
Ocean’s 8
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
The Wife
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Front Runner
Crazy Rich Asians
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
The Spy Who Dumped Me
Ready Player One

On The Basis of Sex
Mary Poppins Returns
Tea With the Dames
Mary Queen of Scots
A Quiet Place
The Sister Brothers
The Hate You Give

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A Wrinkle In Time
How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Truth or Dare
The Commuter

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sifting through the ashes for signs of pro-PR life in Canada after latest big referendum defeat...

B.C. voters opted for status quo by 61.3% this year
After this week's big defeat for proportional representation (PR) in the British Columbia referendum, change in Canada remains as elusive as ever.
It's almost enough to make me give up that change is even possible.  

This was the third referendum B.C. has held on the question of voting reform.

The first vote in 2005 was a simple Yes or No vote on a proposed system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is used in Ireland, that was recommended by a B.C. Citizens' Assembly.  That referendum immediately followed four years of near one-party rule in the legislature after the B.C. Liberal landslide in 2001 of 77 out of 79 seats.  Voters seemed to grasp the folly of the current system and voted Yes in 2005 to change with 57.7%.  However, the conservative masters in the B.C. Liberal government had set the bar for change at 60% that year and thus the reform failed.

Considering the ambiguous result with a majority voting in favour of change, to his credit, former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell held another referendum in 2009.  But this time it was a choice between the proposed PR system STV against the current system, First-Past-The-Post.  That year, voters opted to support the status quo with 60.9% of the vote, with only 39.1% voting for proportional representation. 

With the formation of a NDP minority government in B.C. supported by the Green Party in 2017, the prospect of a third referendum came about.

I've been a critic of our current First-Past-The-Post system for years.  Its distortions of voters' intentions, frequently handing the winning party a majority of seats with only a minority of the vote, have irked me to no end.  It has frequently led to the enactment of conservative policies not supported by the majority of voters, like in Ontario right now.  Even worse, First-Past-The-Post sometimes hands the second-place party the most seats, as it did recently in New Brunswick, leaving voters with a government that looks nothing like what they voted for.

The best solution has seemed to move to a proportional representation system so that voters' intentions are reflected in the seat count.  However, there are no PR systems that are easy to understand, including how they use formulae, percentages, or regional lists of at-large candidates to arrive at final seat counts.  All of them look incredibly convoluted next to the current system.

I had hoped for a victory this year.  If not that, I had hoped to see some growth in the support for PR among voters. 

Yet nine years on, the margin against change is even slightly stronger.  This year, 61.3% of B.C. voters opted for First-Past-The-Post.  Despite excellent arguments and years of discussions, there was no growth in support for PR among voters who actually participated in the vote. 

Proponents for reform have argued over and over that 1 + 1 should equal 2 in our voting system.  We've said over and over that 2 + 3 should equal 5, not 2 + 3 = 3 as it does under First-Past-The-Post.  We've argued that 3 + 4 should equal 7, not 10 or 12 as it does sometimes under our current system.

Simple enough.

But voters keep rejecting this argument, opting instead for a system that frequently distorts voters' intentions, handing one party all the power in the legislature. 

It's hard for me to understand this reality.  I'm an idealist perhaps who thinks systems should be primarily just and fair to all, or to as many people as possible.

But sadly, I've also come to realize that the majority of my fellow citizens see life quite differently, particularly those who are more conservative in their values.  To them, life is not about fairness for all, but is winner take all.  To them, life is a race and those who finish first get the spoils and that's how it should be.

First-Past-The-Post rewards mainstream, middle-of-the-road voters who would never describe themselves as radical.   It's fair to say that 70 to 80% of Canadians would largely be found in the centre / centre-left / centre-right area of the political spectrum.  I would consider myself to be centre-left, for example.  While I didn't vote for John Tory this year, I consider him to be centre-right.  So rarely am I overly offended by most of what he does as he's a fairly moderate conservative.

If my moderately progressive side loses an election, as long as the winners aren't too radically conservative, I can live with it for a few years.  It's when our current system rewards a radical conservative do the faults of First-Past-The-Post become more glaring to me.

Canada in some ways has embraced the concept of the collective good.  Our universal health care system is a shining example of this.  Most Canadians do adhere to the notion of basic equality under the law.   

Yet when it comes to our voting system, the majority of Canadians seem to have a block.  A majority of us don't seem to care much that the votes of many have zero impact on the make-up of the legislature.  So cynical are we perhaps about politicians and government, we don't see much upside to a system that produces a more proportional result.  The impact will likely be much the same, I presume many believe.  So why change to a more convoluted system which would have two types of elected representatives (those representing districts and those representing wider regions or perhaps the province as a whole elected from lists)?  I suspect most voters believe life would be little different under PR than under the current system.  Furthermore, most Canadians probably believe that things in Canada, while not perfect, are pretty damn good.  Especially compared with other parts of the world (including other countries where they have proportional representation.) 

There is one more chance for change in the near future in Prince Edward Island.  A non-binding plebiscite was held there in 2016 where voters did pick PR by well over 50%.  But the Liberal government there decided to ignore the results as turnout in the plebiscite was only 36%.  They are instead going to hold another plebiscite in conjunction with the next provincial election in October 2019.  (Incidentally, the pro-PR Green Party in Prince Edward Island currently seems poised to make major gains if not win outright that election.) 

But even if PEI does embrace PR, while it would be a rare Canadian victory for change, it's unlikely it would provide much momentum to the PR cause in Canada.

Especially after such huge defeats for PR in British Columbia, perhaps the most progressive of English-Canadian provinces.

Quebec's new CAQ government did promise to change to a system of proportional representation.  But I'm betting that new premier François Legault will figure out a way to abandon that promise and keep the current system which handed him a majority government with only 37% of the vote.

Had the B.C. vote showed growing support this week for PR, there might be cause for optimism.  If we had seen generational change with more voters moving toward change, one could argue that reform is only a matter of time (like it was for so many other social justice issues over recent decades.)

This opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid did indicate that 54% of voters aged 35 to 54 supported PR, as did 67% of voters aged 18 to 34.  It was older voters who massively defeated PR in B.C.

However, I have to quibble with the poll which doesn't seem to jibe with actual voter turnout in B.C.   The poll asked respondents how they voted in the 2017 B.C. provincial election (when overall 40% voted Liberal, 40% voted NDP and 17% voted Green) and compared it with how they say they voted in this year's referendum.

Angus Reid says that 84% of B.C. Liberal voters supported First-Past-The-Post this year, while 70% of NDP supporters voted for PR, and 74% of Green voters voted for PR too. 

But when you do the math, that equates to about 50% for First-Past-The-Post and 47% for PR.  However, the referendum final result was 61% for First-Past-The-Post and only 39% for PR.  Thus, I have to conclude this poll is either inaccurate or supporters of the status quo are simply much more motivated to vote in referendums on this question.

Either way, it's not good for PR.

It may be time to give up on the PR dream in Canada. 

Constantly putting forth the same strong arguments yet getting crushed in favour of the status quo is getting very tiring.

Yet I expect advocates for change won't give up.  In life, anything worth having never happens easily.  The arc of history does bend toward justice as long as those who want justice continue to fight for it.

Because fundamentally, the distorted results and injustices of First-Past-The-Post can't be allowed to stand forever.   

Regardless of poll results, there is strong reason to believe that younger generations (currently aged 18 to approximately age 54) do strongly value true equality and fairness - values that First-Past-The-Post constantly offend.  That younger demographic will continue to get bigger and bigger.   

Eventually, the older generation will die off, let's be honest.  When Canada is 99% Generation X and younger, it's reasonable to assume that - should strong arguments continue to be made in favour of a voting system that produces results in line with the population's wishes - change is not only possible but likely.

In the mean time, let's keep our eye on PEI.

Monday, December 17, 2018

I agree: Let's downsize Pride Toronto and bring it back to its roots, or let it die and start anew as something else...

Following November's announcement that Pride Toronto would again allow police organizations to apply to march in uniform in next year's Pride parade, I wrote that it was time for that two-year ban to end.  For me, it was mainly fatigue with the ongoing ideological stand-off and a great discomfort with the notion that a ban on an entire profession of individuals, regardless of the content of their personal character, would stay in place indefinitely. 

After that, I got into a great many heated discussions with supporters of the ban who rightly argued that the police have done pretty much nothing to fix their systemic problems when it comes to how they currently treat marginalized communities.  Letting uniformed police back in would be rewarding them for doing nothing.  

Ban supporters have excellent points that I find impossible to refute.  Individual cops were of course always allowed to participate out of uniform.  But keeping out the police as an organization sent a strong signal that organizations that have oppressed LGBTQ people and continue to do so, with little if any accountability, will not be rewarded.  

Furthermore, the fiasco of Pride Toronto's annual general meeting on December 4th, in which the organization's executive director and board refused to clearly answer community questions about how the police ban reversal had come about, nor even take any questions about Pride's woeful financial situation before a sudden end of the meeting, exposed an organization in chaos.

I have to be honest: I've grown tired of the monster that Pride Toronto has become.

In the early 1980s, it was a grassroots movement that played a vital role in our community, challenging bigotry and creating vital community for a hated sexual minority.

But over the years, it has grown and evolved into a giant celebration that at some point in the 1990s became very corporate (once corporations saw value in sucking up to us, or at least not being seen to snub us.)  Gay Pride even got watered down to the generic "Pride" which now means almost anything you might want it to mean.  Pride Day became Pride Week became Pride Month, all the more opportunity for corporations to cash in. 

Did the community ever vote to see Pride turn into the giant monster it's become today, filled with every corporation under the sun, and other fake allies like the police looking for good public relations?  I sure didn't vote for this.

Yet somewhere in the backrooms of Pride Toronto over the decades the decisions to make Toronto Pride as big as possible, with as many sound stages and giant events, costing huge amounts of money every year, were set in motion.   This made Pride dependent on corporate and government sponsorships, which in recent years has led to annual debates at city council where funding is constantly threatened should Pride not conform to the latest wishes of some unenlightened suburbanite's conservative agenda.   

Many queer people of colour have long complained that they didn't feel welcomed as a part of Pride Toronto, both by the organization but also the white LGBTQ community as a whole.  The actions of Black Lives Matter in 2016, halting the parade and bringing attention to their demands, re-focused those issues and led to the official police ban.  Yet the ban reversal this year, negotiated in secret, has undermined those efforts again.

The result seems to be a mess.  There are reports that Pride Toronto is hundreds of thousands in debt and struggling to stay afloat.  It appears the ban reversal was probably all about money: were the ban to continue, private and public funding would be denied and threaten to bankrupt the whole organization.  The inability of Pride's leadership to be honest about those realities is off-putting.

What's the solution here?  I have to agree with Kristyn Wong-Tam, Rinaldo Walcott, and many many others: It's time to downsize Pride and get back to basics.

Does Pride need to take over all of the streets and other public spaces it does for one or two weeks at great cost?  Do we really need to have this giant party with endless lines, noise and mounds of garbage piled up along Church Street?  I say hell no.

There are still aspects of Pride like the Night March or the Dyke March which still do reflect the grassroots nature many of us crave.  They take little money at all to put on. 

The solution should be that Pride Toronto, as the umbrella organization, should fix itself and its governance and become the community organization it was originally meant to be.  If it refuses, then grassroots LGBTQ folk who want change need to break away and form our own celebrations at different times in the summer.  It's happened in other major cities like Montreal where alternative festivals went their own way and had much success.  If Pride Toronto won't change, it should happen in Toronto too.