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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at Christmas; Naughty and Nice up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. As we prepare to unveil a few new features for 2007’s version of the blog, this is an excellent chance to see where we’ve been in the last five months. Thankfully, the road ahead is looking even more remarkable. Enjoy!


Naughty and Nice: The Top 10 Christmas Movies of All Time


The Top 10 Criterion Releases of 2006


The Top 10 Films of 2006 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2006


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2006


The 10 Best Films of 2006


The 10 Best DVDs of 2006


 


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Tuesday, Jan 2, 2007

This morning on the train I unfolded my Wall Street Journal and suddenly felt like the Amazing Colossal Man, as the paper had suddenly shunk down to mini size to become to the old WSJ what Teen Vogue is to Vogue. My first thought was optimistic: This means less space for the editorial page! But then I became disoriented, as I tried to find and read Justin Lahart’s “Ahead of the Tape” column without having to go below the fold or spill my coffee on the unsuspecting rider to my right. It couldn’t be done. Everything seems to be in longer narrow columns. Gone also were the left-column previews of the Marketplace and Personal Journal sections that used to summarize all that was within—again my desire to consume the paper without actually opening it was foiled. And what is this new body-copy font? (Turns out it’s a custom font called Exchange, by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, alleged to be designed for the digital age.) And I think I even spotted a sans serif font in the mix.


Things were happening too fast. All that was solid seemed to be melting into air. So for mollification, I consulted the special “Reader’s Guide” insert, which features a triumphalist rundown of what’s happened that somehow fails to note, amid all the celebrating over how much easier the paper will be to use and how much more forward-looking it’s going to be, how much less space and less information the paper suddenly has. Theoretically lost space will be gained by the jettisoning of the stock-price listings that used to occupy most of section C. In its place we get expanded arts and leisure coverage (which as amusing as it can be, is still what I came to the WSJ to escape) and more infographics and summary boxes. In an attempt to purge the editorial page of all sane voices, the letters from readers have been exiled to section B. Most of these features do make the paper feel more accessible, but they give me more incentive not to read—if there’s a little summary, I’ll look at that and spoil my appetite for the rest of the article. I preferred to do my own summarizing by scanning the article for topic sentences. Now if I’m interested in an article, I have to resist the centripital pull to the summary floating in the center of the text that will bias my view of the story’s significance.


The editors have also rolled out a new slug, “The Business of Life,” to cover the paper’s occasional service pieces, and to show readers “how developments in the industries we cover throughout the paper affect your choices as a consumer.” This is a truly depressing development. The main pleasure of reading the WSJ is that it doesn’t seem to presume you are a consumer, passively responding to the world’s changes, interacting with that world only through shopping. The paper instead encourages the fantasy of control through business minutia and data, suggesting that our reaction to information could be something other than merely personal, that our goal in reading could be something other than mere entertainment. The paper often makes readers feel like the consumers are “them” and that you are instead among the productive forces shaping the world “they” are confined in.


Consequently, it feels like distinctly adult reading to me, purged of all frivolity and feigned enthusiasm and hype—it trusts you to generate your own excitement in relationship to the information. But this “Business of Life” seems like surrender of that high ground, in response, the editors allege, to the incessant demands of readers for more help in making personal decisions. Of course when asked, readers will request more advice in the abstract—in the abstract all advice is good and useful and specifically attuned to whatever problems a reader may imagine having in the future. In practice, advice can be normalizing, pedantic, generating insecurity about the decision you thought you had already settled. This new emphasis on personal advice seems a bit paternalistic—what happened to “free people and free markets”? Are the shoppers now no longer “they” but “we”? This may be a more accurate of our true situation, more consumers than producers and never strictly one or the other, but still it undermines the paper’s singular ethos, that fantasia of being above the muddle of identity-building through shopping to contemplate the broader consequences of political decisions and shifting economic indicators, that some of we consumers sought to escape to.


By presenting only news of significance to business interests, the WSJ seemed to purify the world, repdroduce it in a format made managable by the assumption that the pursuit of profit could ultimately organize and prioritize it all and make it all comprehensible from a fairly straightforward point of view. But once other personal motives are admitted, that purity is lost, and the contradictions between seeking corporate profit, social recognition and personal security simultaneously become more apparent and troubling. By folding more lifestyle elements into the paper, the editors likely hope to be adding value, and making the paper more of a one-stop publication for a reader’s daily information needs. But instead of making the paper feel more complete, the editors risk undermining the hermetic austerity it once had that fostered the businessperson’s necessary illusion, that public and private life could be walled off from each other.


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007


Double takes are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, this is not your run of the mill Best of list. Look around the web (or in any of the still viable print publications) and it’s a safe bet that many, if not all, of these unusual titles fail to make the Top 10 grade. As a matter of fact, you could probably look from #11 to #100 and not find a single one mentioned. The reason why remains rather simplistic. SE&L is not overly impressed with pure technical merits. A stellar picture and perfect surround sound might be amazing, but when wrapped around the latest lame-ass Hollywood hack job, who gives a digital dung heap? No, what we like is quality – in presentation, in packaging AND in product. That’s why our 2006 tally of the best the home theater medium has to offer is just a wee bit…eclectic. We’d rather celebrate the unknown film in a barebones version than a tricked out work of limited likeability.


Truth be told, this list could be a lot bigger. As sales slack off and marketers grow manic over the lack of blockbuster sales, the smaller companies in the distribution game – Troma, Synapse, Subversive and Anchor Bay – have gone out of their way to track down obscure entries, flesh them out with an amazing array of contextual content, and provide them at a price that both aficionado and novice can support. Sure, some big league studio releases turn up here, but you probably won’t recognize the films featured. That’s the great thing about DVD – within its practical and portable format, a wealth of cinematic knowledge and appreciation can be gained. So get out your guidebook and be prepared to jot down a few of these filmic travels for future reference. After you’ve finished with that regular Tinsel Town treat, you can give one of these experimental excursions a try. You won’t be disappointed:


1. Tromeo and Juliet: 10th Anniversary Edition
Marking the second DVD go-round for this beloved Troma title, this double dip is still a significant improvement over the original digital presentation. As before, the Bard’s basic story of star-crossed lovers is fused with a scatological punk rock sensibility to create the first ever gross out version of a Shakespeare play. Perhaps more amazing than the awkward performances, bizarre-world found locations, plentiful gore, and abundant nudity is the number of unknown actors and crewmembers who went on to become famous fixtures in both Hollywood and the Indie film scene. Along with the typical Kaufman crew, screenwriter James Gunn (Scooby-Doo, Dawn of the Dead) Will Keenan (Operation Midnight Climax) and current reigning b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon all found celebrity inside this insane iambic pentameter.


2. Street Trash: Special Two Disc Meltdown Edition
It is, perhaps, the most unlikely subject matter for a horror film ever devised. A group of homeless winos, led by an ex-Vietnam vet who takes his frequent homicidal flashbacks out on the surrounding populace, begin drinking a new cheap hooch that’s hitting the street. Unfortunately, one of Tenafly Viper’s liquor-laced drawbacks is the unfortunate side effect of personal putrescence. That’s right, one sip and you start to ‘bleed’ out in a multi-colored array of bodily fluids. A masterpiece made by fright film fans for fright film fans, Trash has long been unavailable on DVD. Last year, Synapse Films promised a new, fully tricked out edition, and they weren’t lying. This is, hands down, one of the best movies of the late ‘80s, given a proud near perfect post-millennial package.


3. Christmas Evil
Overlooked upon initial release, Lewis Jackson’s You Better Watch Out is actually a minor masterpiece. Audiences were stunned when they learned that this holiday horror film – later re-titled with the far more lurid Christmas Evil label – featured an unstable man who took the notion of “playing” Santa to uncomfortable extremes. The seedy subtext involving children and random carnage made even the most magnanimous macabre fan a tad queasy. Too bad, since their ready dismissal prevented them from appreciating a truly remarkable movie. More a character study than a standard slice and dice, Jackson’s journey into the mind of a morally misguided man is an unusual artistic triumph. Besides, it’s John Waters’ favorite holiday film. You can’t ask for a better vote of creative confidence than that.


4. Cemetery Man
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it’s not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals—zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it’s a thriller, in the most soul-uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so bafflingly beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is poetry, cinema as a stunning visual feast. It remains one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power inherent in thoughts and imagery.


5. The Green Pastures
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma remains that, no matter how personable Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still subjugated by a segregated South. No such distinction exists in The Green Pastures - at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—from the biblical characters to the individuals spinning the yarn. Made in Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of minorities, one can read all manner of sinister significance in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.


6. Ganja and Hess
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive Big Apple play date, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut and re-released it as Blood Couple. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s version, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries and making-of documentaries, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. With all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.


7. The Loved One
Back in 1965, a movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold-hearted manner, vilifying religion with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions, and tweaking artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked-out fey momma’s boys, was scandalous stuff. Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones’ Oscar wins, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s mortuary satire to the silver screen. Mimicking fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (borrowing Strangelove‘s look and placing comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus), he took pot shots at several “isms”—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—creating a comic masterwork more or less unseen until this DVD release – 41 years later.


8. The Addams Family Volume 1
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Viewed some 40 years later, the show is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and rebellious to a fault. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family’s main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive. It is easy to see what ‘60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. Thanks to MGM, and their initial DVD offering of the original black and white episodes, we can experience just how immensely entertaining this sadly underrated series actually is.


9. Wonder Showzen: Season 1 & 2
At one time, Wonder Showzen was the new “it” phenomenon – a corrupted kid-vid concept brilliantly realized and abstractly insane. It was Pee Wee’s Playhouse if that magnificent man-child Paul Reubens’ porn store persona had run the show, a sensationally sick perversion turned into a proto-pedophilic playtime. After a brilliant first season, some feel that creators Vernon Chatman and Johnny Lee went overboard in series two with their unabashedly political take on Hee Haw, Horse Apples. But the fact is that no other recent series has taken on the sacred cows and untouchable taboos of our pro-child society as astutely and caustically as this definitive dada-esque satire. Get both DVD sets now before some state wises up and bans this genuine genius effort all together.


10. Dust Devil: The Final Cut
In 1990, Richard Stanley’s Hardware was a heralded event in genre cinema. It had all the trappings of a classic. However, it was merely a minor success, earning little more than a considered cult following among rapid fright fans. As a result, Stanley found it difficult to get his next film off the ground; the metaphysical spree slaughter South African epic Dust Devil. Miramax promised all kinds of support, but after seeing a work print, they chopped it up and dumped it onto home video. There, it died a completely undeserving death. Thanks to an amazing new box set from Subversive Cinema, we finally get a chance to see Stanley’s visionary work, as well as a chance to visit his career since the entire Devil debacle.


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Monday, Jan 1, 2007

Editors—"Camera (Rubber Bullets Remix)"
Editors—"All Sparks (Phones Remix)"
From Remixed on iTunes


According to PopMatters’ own Michael Lomas, Editors’ The Back Room “is an assured debut album from a promising band. Greatness, for the moment, might elude them, but Editors are the real deal. The spiky guitars and swirling synth textures that make up this record are hardly visionary, but when it’s all done as effortlessly as this, it sure is exciting. Touching on desolate themes of loss and mortality and shooting them through with a sparky, almost hopeful abandon, the songs Editors have given us here are definitely worth listening to.”  Now, Editors have returned with an iTunes-released EP that gathers four tracks from The Back Room as remixed by various artists.


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Sunday, Dec 31, 2006


To the discerning eye, this list is going to appear a little odd. At first, you see films that typically make most end of the year inventories – movies like The Queen and The Departed. These are the quality efforts that many critics recognize as stellar filmmaking, flawlessly executed. But about halfway through, things start to shift wildly. Before long, outright genre efforts - and even a film unseen by most of the movie-going public - are taking the place of other, overly praised efforts. This is done on purpose. Here at SE&L, we sing along to our own inner soundtrack and praise the movies that we feel best fulfilled their cinematic promise. A great film doesn’t have to meet a journalist-mandated set of standards, nor does it have to be a true fan favorite. Like humor and taste in music, what zaps a cinephile’s aesthetic is individual and unique. One man’s Trash is another man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, so to speak.


So behold, the first ever PopMatters Film Blog Top Ten. Frankly, it was a fairly easy list to compile. Take the movies seen throughout the course of 2006, rank them in order of personal preference, and write up some blurbs. Certainly, there will be choices that people point to (Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine) that aren’t represented here, and again, that’s intentional. If we enjoyed a slice and dice bit of slasher superiority from the guy who created Cabin Fever over a no nonsense reminder of 9/11 heroism, so be it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it promotes a certain storyline featuring motherf*cking reptiles on a motherf*cking airliner. So get out your poison pens and prepare to pick apart the choices. Here are Short Ends and Leaders picks for the Best Films of 2006:


1. The Prestige
If films are supposed to make you forget your troubles, whisk you away to worlds and places unknown, and deliver the kind of insightful, absorbing entertainment that only great art can accomplish, then The Prestige is definitely cinema at its most amazing. No other movie in 2006 was as painstakingly creative and visually arresting as Christopher Nolan’s take on Christopher Priest’s battling magicians novel. Much more than The Illusionist, which couched its pretty prestidigitation in a setting of pure old fashioned romance, The Prestige played with notions of obsession, dedication and deception. It remains a dark and dazzling work of masterful manipulation with an ending more saddening than shocking.



2. The Fountain
When you tear away the artifice, when you understand the links between the three arcane storylines (Conquistador, Contemporary, Cosmic) as well as the couple at the center of this staggering drama, you realize just how deep Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain really is. A magnificent meditation on how we accept death, and our inner struggle over demands of immortality, the Requiem for a Dream helmer describes love and loss, science vs. the spiritual, and hope against horror, all in the eyes of his two desperate leads. Dismissed by most critics who couldn’t wrap their brain around the unusual narrative structure, this is a film destined to grow in stature and significance in years to come.



3. The Queen
They say that famed British actress Helen Mirren stars in this unusual docudrama on the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Unfortunately, all one witnesses in this magnificent bit of motion picture imagining is her Royal Highness herself, Queen Elizabeth II. So effective is Mirren in drawing us into the world of the socially sheltered monarchy that we never once doubt we are watching the real Windsor clan reacting to a troubling, traumatic event. Michael Sheen is equally amazing as Tony Blair, the newly elected Prime Minister forced to face off against Her Majesty when the country’s grief grows too powerful. Together they show how power blurs the edges of one’s humanity, and how hard it is to get it back.



4. The Departed
Martin Scorsese and crime seem to be synonymous, but for many, The Departed marked a transitional moment for the American auteur. While this good cop/bad cop game of double crosses contained the essence of the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs in its narrative basics, the man behind such masterpieces as Goodfellas and Raging Bull reconfigured the story into something deeply personal. All three main characters, and the actors who embodied them, come across as worn and worked over, tired of constantly having to stay one step ahead of each other. Add in a superb supporting cast, an enigmatic Boston location, and a barrel full of Scorsese’s standard directorial brilliance, and you’ve got one of the year’s best, most accomplished films.



5. Clerks II
Kevin Smith can claim a great many things, but making one of the best movies of any year is not really one of them. Oh sure, his fans in the View Askew universe recognize that anything he does is brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that the far more condemning critical community follows suit. For 2006, things have changed. By revisiting his past, Smith has expanded his generational language, doing for maturity and moving on what the first Clerks did for sublime slackerdom a decade before. With its biting dialogue, insightful humor and smidgen of open-handed heart, what we wind up with is a wonderful dissertation on arrested adolescence and adulthood.



6. Hostel
Some find Eli Roth repugnant, the founding father of the new fangled ‘horror porn’ ideal. Anyone dismissing Hostel like this obviously has no movie macabre credentials. Doing for the genre what the Texas Chain Saw Massacre did in the ‘70s, and Evil Dead did for the ‘80s, Roth reinvents the scary film, taking it to levels both extreme and easily identifiable. Many people failed to see the cynical commentary on American nationalism and even fewer missed the swipes at the softcore sex farces that made up the majority of the early home video catalog. The results are dark, disgusting and definitive. Like The Fountain before, this is one that will age well indeed.


7. Snakes on a Plane
All right, complain all you want. Declare this a clear case of Internet hype failing to fulfill its promise, but dammit, Snakes on a Plane was a blast. People constantly comment on how the web-based ballyhoo didn’t translate into massive box office dollars, but the truth is that for anyone who grew up in the 1970s, SoaP was a terrific throwback to the original concept of a blockbuster. As the missing badass cousin of the kitschy Airport films, it’s a perfect example of the Zen popcorn experience, offering as much goofball yin as cinematic yang. Sure, it barely transcends its b-movie trappings, but for pure uncomplicated entertainment, you can’t beat these sensational serpents.



8. Silent Hill
Creepy can be its own virtue, and no one did disturbing better than Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans. Given the charge of bringing to life the popular video game, the French filmmaker turned Hill‘s horrible imagery into a metaphor for life under the threat of constant upheaval. Few cinematic sequences were more compelling this year than the moments when the town’s ‘dark’ alarm sounded off, its baneful wail reminding all who hear it of the days when US Civil Defense used the same signal to announce an imminent nuclear threat. Between the dread-inspiring creatures and the brilliant visual flair, this was one spine-tingling take on terror.


9. Apocalypto
Mel Gibson may be as mad as a hatter – and a regular racist fool – but he sure can make magnificent cinema. Using a digital set-up to increase the realism and a measured approach to both history and histrionics, this old fashioned action romp rides the fine line between period piece and sci-fi spectacle. By taking us into the tale end of a corrupt Mayan culture, and watching the weird, sometimes contemptible way in which they held onto their power, we are literally whisked away to places afar and unknown. By grounding all the gore and gratuity, this tale of a kidnapped tribesman desperate to get back to his family proves a prolonged chase can carry with it more than just filmmaking panache. There can be heart and humanity as well.



10. Idiocracy
It’s the best movie of 2006 that no one saw – and that was on purpose. Fox, feeling let down once again by Mike Judge’s slanted satirical eye, relegated this 2004 futuristic farce to a high shelf in their direct to DVD release schedule. Then, feeling considerable pressure from the filmmaker, dumped it in a few theaters during the end of the Summer, signaling their overall contempt for the title. It makes sense, once you’ve seen the film. The very demographic Fox was wagering would fill the Cineplex were the very target of Judge’s derisive skewering. A movie that makes the bold prediction that our country is getting stupider every year, here’s hoping it finds an knowing audience on home video.



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