Bringing space to the masses

Toronto’s Astronomy and Space Exploration Society has a large presence, boasting 1,200 members made up of students from U of T, York, Ryerson, GTA high school students, and members of the general public. This is impressive considering the group has only been around for five years. A great deal of work has led to this rapid growth, including being part of a successful petition campaign to stop destruction of the McLaughlin Planetarium. The Varsity sat down with executive members Derek Lee, David Rajzman, and Farnaz Ghadaki of the society’s U of T chapter to find out more about this particular group and the work they do.

The Varsity: How has your group been able to grow so quickly over the past few years?

David Rajzman: Recently, in order to drum up support, we went to the Eaton Centre and walked around with Derek in a space suit.

Derek Lee: As I danced, the other members talked about what we are doing. It helped to promote our first event of this year, which brought 300 people to hear Robert Zubrin talk.

Farnaz Ghadaki: That was a big bang for the start of the year. In simple terms, the goal of the group is to “educate, inspire, and excite people about space” and [we] accomplish this in a variety of ways. Our first annual symposium brought attention to exploration on Mars using robotic rovers.

DL: We also wanted to bring in astronauts to U of T and talk about Canadian technology and its involvement in space. We decided to go for the biggest event possible and book Convocation Hall. It brought in 1,400 people, including three school buses full of kids. That event has continued every year since then.

DR: This year we are talking about going back to the moon. Looking at the moon from the past, present and future: its origins and history, current missions, and what the future will hold.

TV: How do you handle financing your events?

DR: In order to bring in big name speakers, ASX relies heavily on U of T and outside sources for funding.

FG: We get a lot of support from the astronomy and astrophysics department, engineering faculty, and aerospace institute. TD bank has been a huge supporter due to an alumni connection.

DL: But two years ago our membership was 400, now it’s 1,200. Membership has tripled. Funding has maybe been increasing 10 to 20 per cent per year.

DR: The biggest problem is that we’ve traditionally held our symposium in Convocation Hall and they are charging more and more every year.

DR: The cost to student groups, no pun intended, is astronomical. That’s why we are holding our symposium at the Bloor Cinema instead.

FG: Although it’s been part of the U of T tradition to hold this event on campus, we are fortunate that we have found an alternate location that meets our needs.

This year we are featuring three speakers, one of whom is Canada’s own Bob Richards, who is the founder of the International Space University. With our line up pf speakers and the Lunar Exploration theme, we expect to attract a large audience and have a full house.

TV: So besides these events, what else does ASX do?

DL: We do stargazing and astronomy. Over the summer we went to Elora Gorge to see the Perseid meteor shower, lying there on airbeds and looking up for the entire night seeing meteors passing by.

Also, we invited kids through the U of T family centre for an observation night. We had our telescope on top of the McLennan physical tower pointed at Saturn, showing its rings. The kids who had never looked through a telescope would just say, “wow, this is amazing.” This is part of the excitement we try to bring to people.

FG: We also do collaborative events with other groups in the community. Back in June, we worked with the Canadian Cancer Society and set up our telescope in Ernest Thompson Seton Park. Our observing station was received with a lot of interest from the Relay for Life participants. We have also collaborated with the Canadian Space Society, jointly organizing the 2005 CSS Space Summit

DR: For the first time ever, ASX has a balance, half engineers, half non-engineers in executive positions. It shows that space is not just a niche, fringe thing.

TV: What drives you to promote discussion of space exploration?

DR: On Earth there aren’t enough resources for humanity to live in peace, because there is only so much energy and room. As long as we have finite resources, the world is always going to be in conflict, because if you have something, it means I can’t get it. In space there is more land energy and resources than humankind could use in 10,000 years. That’s why space is important for further growth of humanity. It puts us towards a future of peace and abundance.

DL: The wonder of looking up at the stars keeps us going.

FG: And our curiosity for what is out there in the universe and the possibility of life beyond Earth.

Gunning for democracy – Part Two

Hungry to fight after two years in the jungles of Thailand, Si Thu marched back to Burma with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front in 1990. With six months’ schooling from medical students, he became one of three paramedics in a regiment of 30, who had been trained by sympathizers in the Burmese military.

Leaving the battleground

Though malaria and diarrhea were the main ailments, said Si Thu, their treatment was straightforward. Battle wounds, in contrast, varied wildly.

“When they get shot,” he said, “You look at it. If you can cut it out, you cut it out. If it’s a small one, you stitch it by yourself.”

Thu said the fledgling student army lost because they could not match the army’s superior arsenal.

“Some non-governmental organizations, they give us money for food. So we eat a little bit, and we buy ammo.”

Finding weapons in the region was no problem.

“[The] Vietnam War is just finished. There is a lot of arms, weapons, ammos, everything. Only thing you need is money. […] But we cannot buy all the time. One guy has only 200 ammo for one trip. So you finish that 200 ammos, then you run.

“Still, now, they have a lot of weapons in Vietnam. So all we need is money to buy them.”

However, seeing soldiers and dissidents dying side by side, Si Thu became disillusioned with warfare and decided to try other means of resistance. He left the student army and his native land to eke out a life in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. He was 20 years old.

Refugee life

In Bangkok, he joined The New Era Journal, which is distributed to Burmese communities around the world and, covertly, in Burma. U Tin Maung Win, a dissident who was jailed from 1965 to 1968, began publishing the Burmese-language newspaper in 1993. Si Thu worked there for four years. .

But he grew weary of living as an illegal alien.

“The UN gives you money and refugee status, but the Thai government—no. Every time you went out, you think the police is going to catch you, you don’t know when. We have no country to live.”

“So I decided to apply to Canada and the United States. I got Canada, so I left.”

A friend in Toronto helped Thu get a job as an assembly line worker at a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures. He is now a supervisor there.

“I [got] a month’s vacation,” said Si Thu. “I don’t want to just sit home and watch television, I want to do something.”

Driving for Burma

“We are so close, to get the whole country uprising,” Si Thu said of last September’s pro-democracy protesters in Burma. The military junta cracked down, beefing up the army’s presence in cities, installing curfews, and detaining thousands of monks. State media reported nine deaths.

“But nothing happened. […] United Nations failed.”

En route to work one day, Si Thu spotted a Mississauga bus. “The whole side is advertising, and people are looking at it and talking about it…you know?”

He got an idea. “If I do it like this, people are going to be interested. I can spread the word and raise awareness.”

The month-long drive took an elliptical route, dipping down to the U.S. and returning to Canada in a clockwise direction. At a Vancouver gas station, a man approached Si Thu and asked, “Free Burma, what kind of company is that?”

“I was really surprised,” said Si Thu, chuckling. The man had immigrated from India, Burma’s neighbour to the northwest. “I asked him, ‘You don’t know anything about Burma?’

“He said, “No, since I got here, I’m working for my survival.’”

Si Thu received support from strangers, from the car wash customer in L.A. who gave $100 to the Sudbury mechanic who donated his work.

“Some of [the Burmese community] are here from a long time ago. They don’t want to involve in politics before. Now, after this September uprising, they are really changed. They are coming out, they show their face.”

Fighting violence without violence?

“Canadians can help us in peaceful ways, like don’t buy gas from Chevron,” Si Thu said. Chevron invested in a Burmese natural gas project before sanctions were imposed, making the U.S. corporation one of the few Western companies there. Calls for Chevron to pull out have fallen on deaf ears. Activists also accuse France of backing the junta’s oppressive rule to further its oil interests.

“We are like a virgin, nothing is touched. Everybody wants that,” said Si Thu of Burma’s natural resources. In addition to petroleum and natural gas deposits, the timber-rich country contains deposits of jade, rubies, and sapphires.

“The Canadians, they can help in peaceful way,” he repeated. “For us, most of us believe that we gotta fight ourselves.

“The non-violence way is going this way, I don’t know how long it’s going to take.

“But because people suffer over there, nothing to eat, so that’s why we said we’re going to fight, any way. We cannot wait for United Nations, we cannot wait for United States or Canada. Nobody’s going to help us, we have to fight it ourselves.”

He dismissed international sanctions out of hand. “It’s not affecting this military regime. […] They have weapons, they have arms, they’re going to kill us anyway. Why should I sit out here and wait for them to kill?” he said.

“I don’t want my country to be like Iraq,” he said, but added that the hopeless outlook of the Burmese people, especially its youth, inevitably leads to violence. When dissenters take up battle again, said Si Thu, “I have to go back to the borderline, to the Thai-Burma border, and fight from there, not from here.

“I would like to see [imprisoned Burmese pro-democracy activist] Aung San Suu Kyi get free. And all the political prisoners free. We want freedom of speech. We want to see the talk [between] the regime and the opposition.

“I don’t care about my life. I want to give my life for my country.”

Gunning for democracy

When Si Thu hits the road, everybody pays attention. For the past month, his BMW 318 has been a moving billboard, championing Burmese democracy across North America. Five provinces, 13 states, and over 15,000 kilometres later, the car is still emblazoned with the words “Free Burma,” the country’s flag, and photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy.

When he reached his first stop in the Drive for Burma campaign, Washington D.C., a friend helped contact someone in the next city. What started out as a self-financed solo project quickly gathered supporters among the Burmese community, who housed Si Thu in their homes or in Buddhist temples, and planned protests in front of Chinese consulates and Burmese embassies.

“We are working together, everybody, to finish this trip,” said Si Thu.

A military junta has ruled Burma since 1962, when General Ne Win took control of the country in a coup. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a rallying figure for the democratic movement, has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

Si Thu was spurred to action when the military reportedly rounded up thousands of Burmese monks in October 2007, snuffing out their peaceful anti-government protests.

The Burmese-Canadian, who marched and saw combat in 1988’s bloody demonstrations, regained his conviction that peaceful protest would not suffice.

“Before I had in my mind, soldiers are like people, our own people, why do we have to kill each other? Now I saw on the television […] They are soldiers, they don’t care. They hit the people, they’re killing monks, and so they are not human anymore. They are not people anymore.”

On August 8, 1988, the whole country took to the streets in a general strike for democracy. The government planted agitators to incite violence and the army opened fire on protesters on Sept. 18, killing thousands.

Si Thu, then freshly out of high school, marched with other students in Moulmein, the third-largest city in Burma. After the shooting began, he and a group of 30 others took a four-day, three-night boat trip to the Thai border, where ethnic militia were supposed to provide them with weapons.

“We were going to come back and fight. We were going to take down this military regime.

“But when we got there, situation is totally different. There’s no arms, there’s no place to live, nothing to eat, nothing.”

Expecting to return home immediately, Si Thu had brought nothing. “Not even an ID card,” he said.

“Then we formed the ABSDF—the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. It’s an army. A student army.”

After seeing battle, once as a combatant and once as a paramedic, Si Thu decided to pursue other means of resistance. “The regime is at the top,” he said. “At the battle, it’s just regular people like us. So we are killing each other for nothing.”

But the recent brutal crackdown on Burmese monks has brought another change of heart.

Si Thu still considers himself part of the ABSDF and helps the group fi- nancially. He said he would take up arms again when the time comes. “If you want to go to war, nobody supports it. But for us, we need to fight it, our own way.”

Though defiant, he expressed concern about fallout from his declaration.

“If you put this thing in the newspaper, and people read it, they’re going to think I am a terrorist.”

Boys’ club dismembered

In the wee hours of a grey December morning, Grayson Lee was all alone, struggling with a massive erection.

“It was raining, so no one else really wanted to get involved,” he said over the phone from Peterborough. “So it was just me out there for a couple of hours at one in the morning, in the rain, building an 8-foot snow penis.”

The first-year student lived at Gate House, Victoria University’s last allmale residence. Notorious for monkey business, Gate’s toga parties are said to be an inspiration for Animal House: co-star Donald Sutherland lived in the neighbouring South House. Alumni include former prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

Lee freely described Gaters as “rowdy,” “annoying,” “childish,” and “loud and obnoxious.” Still, he said, their antics and rituals—expressions of the tight-knit G-House spirit and harmless diversions—were all in good fun.

Senior administrators weren’t amused. Gate House will be co-ed as of January 2008, and its former residents, some of whom didn’t participate in pranks, have been rehoused. Paul Gooch, president of Victoria University, cited “flagrant acts of defiance […] reasonably seen as disparaging and demeaning of women” in his decision to break up the house.

Supporters bewailed the loss of Gate House traditions, but “breaking the cycle” is exactly what Jason Hunter, Vic’s dean of students, sought to do.

“If something’s a tradition but it’s racist, or sexist, or homophobic or whatever the case may be, then that tradition isn’t acceptable,” he said.

The latest caper saw a pack of Gaters baking a pig’s head, taken from the annual Vic festive dinner, in an oven at the co-ed Middle House before chucking the burnt noggin in a third-floor shower at the all-female Annesley Hall.

In September, then-president Chris Hummel continued Gate’s traditionals, a mischievous three-night orientation, despite the dean’s warnings previous to and during the revelry. Hijinks included chalking Convocation Hall and other buildings, singing an obscene song to Annesley, and leading blindfolded frosh around campus.

“That’s the gist of it all the way through, the lack of respect or willingness to recognize Gate House as a part of a college, as part of a universi- ty that has certain standards in terms of making people feel welcome,” said Dean Hunter.

In addition to the well-known practical jokes, said Hunter, his office received numerous complaints of ongoing disturbances throughout the semester, with Gate residents yelling out the window at passers-by, 2 a.m. airhorn trumpeting, and other rambunctious behaviour.

“That’s what residence life should be about, getting together as a community in mock wars against other communities,” cried Lee, operating under a completely different definition of communal harmony.

Some students, like Annesley residents Karen Schieman and Maggie Stephenson, don’t see what all the fuss is about. “It wasn’t a specific tactic against any individual or our gender,” said Shieman of the pig’s head. “It was just a prank.”

Jeska Grue, who lived at Annesley last year, said that some women were more angry because the administration forbade them from retaliating against Gate’s offensive song.

Grue also found crime and punishment incongruent, especially compared to the stunts of her father, Jim, and his fellow Gaters in the ’70s: “They did atrocious things.”

Barred from Annesley for the rest of the school year for accompanying the pig’s head partway on its journey, she said she will transfer to Dalhousie University next year due to a combination of disappointing academics and “admin jazz.”

“It’s a breach of trust that kind of frightens you,” she said.

For his part, Jim Grue rued what he viewed as lack of student activism. “They’re bogged down with political correctness,” he said of the Vic and U of T student unions. “Certainly in my day they never would have let such a blatant bullying by the administration go unchallenged. At Convocation Hall there would be 10,000 students with police and horns and everything else.”

Though Hunter acknowledged the unpopularity of all-male housing—“ 30 to 50 per cent of the students living in Gate House wanted a co-ed residence”—he flatly denied that supply and demand influenced the admin’s decision.

“There are so many ways that things become more public now,” he said. “And once things become public, then of course the college has a responsibility to address them.”

Wikipedia provides a detailed chronicle of Gate House. Media coverage by outlets such as the Toronto Star and Reuters led several offended students to message Lee on Facebook, prompting him to hide his profile.

Gate House now lodges a mix of Vic and international exchange students, including female residents for the first time in its 94-year history. For Lee, this is the end of an era. “Gate House is a brotherhood,” he said mournfully. “That’s where it dies now. It dies now with us.”

This Christmas in Crime

’Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the campus not a creature was stirring, except for a squirrel. In the relatively quiet month of December, University of Toronto Campus Police were called to the Munk Centre, where an errant tree rodent had been spotted dashing around, a few days before students retreated for the holidays. No word on whether the squirrel was carrying an acorn.

The few major incidents included an arrest made on campus by Toronto Police for an alcohol-related offence, and a man who fled the Koffler Centre’s bookstore after attempting to buy a laptop with a “suspicious” credit card. He was described as 5’ 11”, white, with short greasy hair, wearing large sunglasses and dark clothing.

The rest of the month passed without notable incident. The number of reported thefts on campus plunged by 17, down from 44 in November. Bicycle theft was greatly reduced, with two bikes stolen, one from the Galbraith building and and one from in front of Robarts. Cold weather and a low student presence on campus over the holidays are likely behind the crime drop.

No assaults were reported, although U of T Police Services did receive a slightly higher-than-normal number of building alarms. The two buildings that got the most police visits for all incidents were Robarts and the Jackman Humanities building on the northwest corner of Bloor and St. George streets.

Editorial: Welcome back! We missed you

Whether you rang in 2008 at a raunchy nightclub on Richmond or an arty Kensington Market loft party (or, let’s face it, your friend’s suburban basement with their parents’ stolen beer), another year has passed in your young life. While the first issue of the year usually tries to sum up 2007 in terms of music (In Rainbows), film (No Country For Old Men), cultural politics (neo-liberalism), and burgeoning trends (hostile Facebook takeovers), there’s more at stake. 2007’s heroes were Al Gore, Vladimir Putin (according to TIME), and Stéphane Dion. Anti-gay senators were found in men’s bathrooms, something called the Iphone transformed the way we communicate, and, in one case, our news editor found himself skyrocketed when a gas line underneath several midtown Manhattan buildings exploded.

Needless to say, 2007 was not for the faint of heart.

At our university, we saw religious accommodation for Halal food split UTSC in two, a student space referendum turn ugly, and the issue of ethical divestments come to a head as the links between the University of Toronto and the totalitarian Darfur regime became widely known. The tragic school shooting at Virginia Tech made campus security at our own institution a chief concern. And as always, students across the country continued taking steps towards creating a better university: one with lower tuition, flexible meal plans, and a progressive attitude towards education. As proven by the brutal violence between Université du Québec à Montréal student protesters and police officials, we are still a ways away.

It’s difficult to define a year in passing when, as an undergrad, months seem to melt away like ice cubes. Weren’t we just suntanning in the UC quad and buying textbooks we’ve barely cracked once? How does one squeeze everything they can out of the university experience, when it all seems so fleeting—a hazy blur of skipped lectures, coulda-woulda-shouldas, rough commutes and bouts of procrastination—if not depressing. For a student population that’s supposed to be changing the world, sometimes it’s hard enough to pass your science distribution credit. Hell, sometimes it’s hard enough not to go to school in your pajama pants. I’m looking at you, girl in my 11 a.m. tutorial.

Students exist in a community that is entrenched with political, cultural, and economic concerns. But as much as we are affected by the decisions policy makers and university bureaucrats enforce upon us, we’re the ones who can supposedly make a difference. Aren’t we supposed to stride down Philosopher’s Walk, inspired by what we desire? Isn’t a campus supposed to open our minds instead of making us feel hopeless, small, angry, or alone?

My dad often waxes rhapsodical on his days as a freewheelin’ U of T student in the 1970s, smoking cigarettes in Hart House Circle in between Marshall McLuhan lectures and discussions of the Vietnam War. While the haircuts and Top 40 hits may have changed, all generations of students want the same things. We want to learn. We want to grow. And we wanna walk around our campus feeling satisfied.

Think of what you’re reading on this page as your blank slate. It’s a new year, so get out there and start doing everything you want to do. And do it now. And do it often. Because sooner or later, you’ve graduated and it’s over.

Half-baked Alaska

Ever since last Thursday’s primaries in Iowa, the media has been abuzz with analysis of what the results mean for the leading candidates. Has Barack Obama stamped his ticket to the White House? Will Hillary Clinton be able to recover from her devastating third-place finish?

But all this coverage has unfairly focused on the candidates who actually got votes. As such, the media has completely overlooked Mike Gravel— a 78-year-old former Democratic senator from Alaska who failed to get a single caucus vote in Iowa.

Gravel is an odd man, and an even stranger candidate. If you haven’t seen his campaign videos on You- Tube, I recommend you look them up. They’re quite possibly the best piece of surrealist political theatre you will ever see. In one, Gravel raps to “Give Peace a Chance” while pseudo- Schoolhouse Rock animation plays in the background.

My favourite features Gravel, looking like someone’s sweet ol’ grandpa, standing on an Alaskan beach staring into the camera with doelike eyes, expressionless and silent, for about a minute and a half. Then he picks up a rock and heaves it into the lake, turns around and wanders into the distance for another minute and a half. Hilarious.

Gravel has vowed to continue his campaign right up until November 3, the night of the presidential election. He’s not going to drop out of the race, he says, even though his own party has barred him from participating in any further debates. The Democrats are trying desperately to get back into the White House after being shut out for nearly a decade. They don’t have time to fool around.

Here’s the thing: Gravel’s no joke (at least not entirely). He’s got more senatorial legislation under his belt than any other candidate and is responsible for major events in American history. In 1971, he entered the infamous Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record despite extreme pressure from Richard Nixon’s Justice Department to keep them quiet. Gravel read the 4,000 page report to the press until he virtually collapsed in tears from exhaustion. These documents revealed the true nature of the Vietnam War to many Americans, and their publication was key to ending the conflict.

Gravel subsequently faced charges from the FBI for revealing state secrets, but defended his publication of the papers as “essential to [Americans’] democratic decision-making.”

Thirty-seven years later, Gravel is still campaigning in the name of “democratic decision-making.” His main goal is to change the constitution to allow voters to actually write and pass legislation, rather than voting others into office to do it for them. He basically wants to bypass the current U.S. governmental system, because he thinks it’s corrupt.

Gravel says American “representative government is broken.” He’s bashed all the presidential front-runners as being “politics as usual” and for selling out everyday citizens for big-business interests.

He has a point. For all the candidates’ talk of “change” and the positive optics of finally having nonwhite, non-male contenders, are any of them really capable of overturning America’s bankrupt political system of big money, lobbyists, and corporate interest?

Obama, widely seen as the candidate most dedicated to change, now the clear front-runner, may well be a trustworthy, well-intentioned politician, but he’s not immune to corporate influence. In his time as Illinois senator, he’s helped funnel taxpayer money to Exelon Corporation, the world’s biggest nuclear power plant operator and a key Obama funder. He also voted down legislation that would limit credit-card interest rates for debt-ridden citizens—financial firms were his second biggest campaign contributors. He has deep ties to multinational agribusinesses operating in his home state.

No matter what good Obama might do for the American people, he’ll always have to balance their needs with the needs of the people and corporations who put him in the position to run for president. That’s just the way the system works.

Gravel isn’t going to get much attention as he wanders his lonely campaign trail in the coming months, but his presence on the fringes of 2008’s “landmark campaign” should serve as a reminder—albeit a somewhat comical one—that America’s a long way away from a democracy that responds to the needs of its citizens instead of the demands of its lobbyists.

Rewind 2007

The characters in David Fincher’s Zodiac obsessively poured over minute details of an aged but unsolved murder mystery in a futile attempt to find new answers. Like them, the movies of 2007 returned to explore well-worn genres and tired tales, in the hopes of revealing something fresh and enlightening beneath the surface. For the most part, where Fincher’s characters failed these movies succeeded.

2007 turned out to be a great year with a surplus of standouts. While the most prominent didn’t pave new roads, they revisited old ones with innovative perspectives that reflect current sentiments.

Old genres—the western in particular— gained prominence, either by spit shine (3:10 to Yuma), obsessive deconstruction (The Assassination of Jesse James), or through soul searching that took the form of a self-induced death and reincarnation (No Country for Old Men). Examine P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and you’ll find a primitive American fable older than Citizen Kane, hard-wired with an intoxicating and fatalistic aesthetic.

It was a year of “review” in every sense of the word. And if these flicks could talk, they would quote P.T. Anderson: “You may be through with the past, but the past is not through with you.”

10) Sweeney Todd

It takes a little while to get in tune with Johnny Depp’s sonorous Sweeney Todd, a vengeful barber who raises hairs when he draws blood. However, when heads begin to roll, Tim Burton’s opulently gothic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical carries you away with its ravenous indulgence in harmonious gore.

9) The Savages

A father’s collapse into senility weighs heavily on his middle-aged children, who can barely get past their own unresolved issues to put him to rest. Tamara Jenkins’ witty and sardonic screenplay is proof that a dysfunctional family comedy need not rely on the off-the-wall. Jenkins’ work combined with the endearing performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turns growing old with the Savage clan into teary-eyed hilarity.

8) Offside

Since girls in Iran are banned from all sporting events, the Tehrani misfits of Offside disguise themselves as boys to gain entry into a soccer stadium. Discovered and rounded up into a makeshift cage, the girls begin a verbal sparring match with their boy soldier captors. Jafar Panahi’s bittersweet gem keeps a critical eye on Iran’s politics but still maintains affection for both the boys and girls held captive to age-old customs.

7) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Director Andrew Dominik and his star Brad Pitt rewrite Jesse James as a man whose knack for unnecessary violence, paranoid demeanor, heroic whimsy, and hazy moral standing define the America infatuated by him. The film is a myth deconstructed in Dominik’s lyrical elegy.

6) Eastern Promises

Cronenberg crafts a moody, deceptive, and cultivated genre piece where the smooth (often tattooed) surfaces are boiling over with the grime just below. Viggo Mortensen delivers a composed performance as a Russian mob driver who aids a British nurse (Naomi Watts) in uncovering the sordid roots of a dead immigrant, an investigation that decides the fate of a newborn child. The plot is both a pretext for a portrait of London as an immigrant hub—where the money and blood of outsiders flows freely but never amounts to a permanent home. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the infamous bathhouse scene, where Viggo’s manhood almost meets a sharp edge.

5) Killer of Sheep

Although it’s been 30 years since Charles Burnett’s thesis project for UCLA began touring the festival circuit, this unrequited American classic didn’t get a public exhibition until last summer. In Killer of Sheep, vignettes of black youth and adults, rummaging through the crush of daily life in L.A.’s Watts ghetto, ride a gritty bluesy vibe with shades of neorealism, making for a haunting portrait of African- American strife.

4) No Country For Old Men

A creaking, pulsating, darkly humourous, and masterfully executed neo-Western, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men mars genre convention just far enough to leave a mark. At the centre of *No Country *is Javier Bardem’s riveting turn as a ghostly assassin hunting for stolen cash. Toting a Beatles moptop, cattlegun, and a skewed set of principles, this apparition of American malaise ushers the death of the old west with a silencer on his shotgun.

3) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days

Cristian Mungiu’s Palme D’Or winner is a raw and uncompromising tourde- force that leads us through a day where one girl sets out to obtain an abortion for her friend. The polar opposite of the buoyantly optimistic Juno, pregnant girls situated in communist era Romania face an immediate dismal reality. Mungiu disavows cinematic gimmickry, allowing the drama to unfurl in long takes of overwhelming force.

2) Zodiac

David Fincher’s masterpiece is a thoroughly detailed and deliciously frustrating account of the men who went catapulting down the rabbit hole of a media-fuelled obsession. Zodiac delivers a discourse on the nature of human fixation, the dangers of the press, and the impossibility of absolute knowledge, all while remaining an absorbing thriller from start to finish. With pitch perfect performances, a magnificently adapted screenplay, and stalwart directing from Fincher, it was difficult to not give this one top honours. But …

1) There Will Be Blood

P.T. Anderson’s bold vision of the turn-of-the-century California petroleum boom is akin to Citizen Kane à la Stanley Kubrick. This sprawling epic tells the classic tale of a greedy capitalist (Daniel Day Lewis is spoton) competing with an opportunistic Christian fanatic (Paul Dano) to bleed the land and workers dry to make his fortune. Anderson wrestles together a cinematic stunner, where absorbing visual compositions and Jonny Greenwood’s jarring score constructs an apocalyptic experience that is quintessentially American—disorienting, brutal, and picturesque.

Honourable Mentions: Away From Her, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Bourne Ultimatum, Charlie Wilson’s War, Control, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Grindhouse, The Host, Into the Wild, Knocked Up, The Lives of Others, Lust Caution, Michael Clayton, Once, Persepolis, Ratatouille, Waitress, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.