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Monday, Dec 31, 2007


Okay - so it’s actually 11. Instead of playing by the rules and sticking to the mandatory 10, another title managed to sneak its way onto SE&L‘s annual celebration of the artform’s best. Even more depressing, there are dozens of releases from 2007 that deserve almost equal appreciation. You know it’s been a banner 12 months when films like Grindhouse, SiCKO, The Simpsons Movie, Knocked Up, Eastern Promises, Juno, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are stuck circling around numbers 11 through 20. Unlike past years, where compiling this list required a fair amount of aesthetic archeology, practically every week saw another astounding effort announce its classic intentions. Some may quibble with a few of the selections, but the bottom line remains firm - 2007 was a great year in cinema, and these 11 masterworks are proof of same.


Still, with nearly 300 titles taken in during the last 52 weeks, what is and is not included here may seem specious. After all, there were dozens of foreign works (Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) that never got screened for SE&L. In addition, there were monumental movies that had to use a direct to DVD ideal just to get distribution. Leaving them out was painful as well. It’s important to remember, however, that said lists may look like consensus, yet remain securely in the paradigm of personal opinion. Your choices may vary, and indeed, probably should. If we all agreed, it would make such annual wrap-ups rather pointless. With that in mind, here are SE&L‘s selections for the 11 best films of the year, starting with the tie at 10:


#10 (tie) - Sunshine
Sunshine is a film about sacrifice. It’s a movie that asks the big questions and waits for the inevitable answer. It’s the kind of intellectually driven science fiction that Hollywood can’t be bothered to make nowadays. Instead of staying betrothed to the George Lucas School of Speculative Design, where everything is techno-wow and movie serial sodden, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland have gone back to the original source of serious future shock – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – and fashioned their own post-modern, post-punk space odyssey. The results resonate inside the brain in a way few films in recent memory can claim, awakening long dormant desire for truth and explanation. This is the kind of movie that stimulates debate as it mires us in the mysteries of the cosmos. It sings – and it also saddens.



#10 (tie) - Ratatouille
Like the gourmet food it so exquisitely renders, one fears that the sensational Ratatouille will end up being a decidedly acquired commercial taste. Far too languid for sugar fried kid brains, but marketed in such a manner as to keep the more mature demographic it’s actually perfect for from lining up, it represents a brilliant step forward in Pixar’s continued domination of the 3D animation realm. It also proves that Brad Bird is the reigning king of outsider cartooning. From his pen and ink triumph The Iron Giant to the pumped up perfection of The Incredibles, he’s managed to become a genre genius by refusing to believe the artform’s inherent limits. Constantly pushing beyond its narrative and visual capacities, Ratatouille ends up one frighteningly effortless entertainment.



#9 - The Darjeeling Limited
Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see director Wes Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.



#8 - The Brave One
Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.



#7 - Into the Wild
Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and Christopher McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Sean Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.



#6 - Gone Baby Gone
In the hands of first time director Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone arrives as an incredible cinematic experience. Taken from a novel by Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, this simple story of an abducted little girl, the surrounding investigation, and the suspicious mother at the center, has the kind of narrative power and acting prowess that elevates it above other like minded dramas. By capturing a sense of society lost, by using both the media focus and the behind closed doors denouements that seem to follow such situations, Affleck produces tragedy on an epic Greek scale and moviemaking of classic neo-noir artistry. In combination with some of the most riveting performances in recent memory, as well as a true sense of setting, what we wind up with is an incredibly dense and layered exploration of human ethics.



#5 - Zodiac
It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work: Lots of late nights; Way too many cups of coffee; Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed, and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged. It’s also David Fincher’s best work to date - and when considering his creative canon, that’s amazing.



#4 - Hot Fuzz
Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette. And they do so magnificently.



#3 - There Will Be Blood
This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own style. Well, all reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.



#2 - No Country for Old Men
Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.



#1 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Fans of Stephen Sondheim had every reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.


Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.


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Sunday, Dec 30, 2007


It will be remembered as the year when past geniuses (The Coen Brothers, Sidney Lumet) made astounding comebacks, while others (Francis Ford Coppola) merely continued to slip and stumble. It will be the time when the ongoing writer’s strike threatened to close down the industry come Summer blockbuster time - or destroy the union in the process. The typical topic areas - family dysfunction, crime and punishment - found new and novel ways of expressing their ancient Greek drama dynamics, and blood flowed freely from barber’s razors and a despotic oil baron’s temperament. All in all, 2007 was an astounding year in film. Too bad we’re about to look at this baby’s messy, muck filled diaper.


Many of the nominees for the year’s worst derive their awfulness from a purposeful demographic pose. Apparently, making entertainment for the underage crowd gives Hollywood hacks a creativity migraine. At least half of the movies that made the list are pre/post tween terrors, geared so far down on the intellectual paradigm that they battle the Earth’s magnetic core for control of its gravitational pull. The rest of the dross is derived from unfunny comedies, unexciting thrillers, and the kind of sickening schmaltz that leaves many a viewer in a cinematic sugar coma. While direct to DVD offerings can be far, far worse (look here for some incredible foul examples), you’d think a major mainstream corporate media giant would know better. Looking at the 10 worst films of 2007, that’s clearly not the case, beginning with:


#10 - Hitman
Hitman overstays its welcome from the moment the ammunition starts flying, and never finds a satisfying way of winning us back. It’s dry and dour, so full of itself that you’d swear it was a college athlete. In a genre not known for its subtlety, cinematic tact, innovation (unless you’re John Woo), or lack of contrivance, this vacant videogame adaptation is a barely passable poster child. You’d figure a movie with such a title should revel in its gory, gratuitous killings. Sadly, the filmmakers don’t comprehend the fun in firepower. Instead, they keep pushing things into political intrigue mode – and in these days of uncertain international ideology, a From Russia with Love storyline feels so Tom Clancy.



#9 - Underdog
Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update - the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily to, its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.



#8 - Shrek The Third
Though it tries to deliver something new this third time around, the truth is that this tired tre-quels narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, lame rap lingo and prevalent pop culture references that seemed to work before now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices looking to enliven things. They don’t.



#7 - Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series was a class act of timing and treatment. Now, on celluloid for a second time, it’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.



#6 - The Heartbreak Kid 2007
This is a disaster, an unmitigated humorless horror that never once plays as raunchy or as outrageous as it thinks it is. Realizing that their patented gross out scheme has long been usurped by others more adept at said scatology (read: Judd Apatow), the Farrelly Brothers have managed to make the worst film of their careers – and that’s saying a lot. Using extremes like excuses and shouting where a script should be, this guaranteed to please the least demanding of audiences atrocity is a perfect illustration for why Mr. Freaks and Geeks and his party posse had to step in and save cinematic comedy. Without their Superbad life support, an effort like this would have been fatal.



#5 - August Rush
Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick. It’s Oliver without the twist, a well-meaning lament fashioned out of arrogance, artificiality, and artlessness. This ‘adult fairytale’ is one of those films that announces its archetypal intentions from the very start. It salutes you with schmaltz and then turns up the convolutions until the clichés no longer have room to breath. Eventually, they die off in waves of unexplored potentiality, resulting in a literal ghost of a film. There are times when this maudlin muck is so lightweight and wispy, we fear a sudden sneeze from the audience will cause the screen to go blank.



#4 - I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
No one in Hollywood ever went broke underestimating the entertainment taste of the American public. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is proof of such a sentiment. Geared directly toward the lowest common denominator, with occasional side treks into PC-lite pronouncements of tolerance and acceptance, this is comedy as callous homophobia. In a current social climate where same sex marriage has been bandied about as a powerful political and pundit tool, to treat the issue as the basis for a frat house level of funny business is disturbing. But then to watch as the plot purposefully backtracks in order to make amends for such lampoon-based insensitivity is disingenuous at best.



#3 - Mr. Woodcock
With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could have worked. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with the evil and uncouth PE pig, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness.



#2 - Alvin and the Chipmunks
Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. And with box office grosses well beyond $100 million, it’s clear that many are taking the ersatz au pair bait.



#1 - Norbit
Like a Jerry Lewis vehicle gone gangrenous, Norbit is a nauseating mess. It finds Eddie Murphy once again treading water, working within the same lame stunt gimmickry that resuscitated his lagging star quality some 11 years ago. Back then, his multi-character turn in The Nutty Professor actually had some intelligence and humorous heft (excuse the pun) behind it. The remake of the classic farce contained heart, insight, and just a smattering of the scatological material that usually mires most post-modern comedies. But by the time the inevitable sequel came along, the crappy Klumps proved that the ‘man of many make-ups’ conceit had really run its course.


Now, seven scattered years later, Murphy is back under latex and foam, reduced to race baiting and egregious ethnic slurs for his supposed satiric insight. Norbit is so bereft of laughs that it actually owes the cosmos a couple dozen cleverness IOUs. What passes for jokes are obvious swipes on color, creed, and context, and the physical slapstick is so outrageously amplified that it plays like a metaphysical Merrie Melody on massive stupidity steroids. From the opening moment where an infant is randomly tossed out of a car, to the sequence where the rotund Rasputia gets scrimshawed in the blowhole (don’t ask), the basic brutality and aggressive abuse garners little except contempt.


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Saturday, Dec 29, 2007


Believe it or not, making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.


So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. Between Joe Bob Briggs’ famous three “Bs” – blood, breasts and beasts” – there’s enough genre junk on hand to send horror back to its pre-Gothic roots.


So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2007 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:


#10 - Mummy Maniac
At first glance, Mummy Maniac looks like your standard serial killer crap. After watching it, you realize it’s just another dismal digital excuse for dread. It’s the product of first time filmmaker Max Nikoff and his ongoing association with none other than Ulli Lommel (the direct to DVD cousin of fellow German joke Uwe Boll). Reduced to churning out horrendous hack fright flicks with all the panache of a heart punch since his ‘80s heyday, the aesthetic acorn hasn’t fallen far from the offal oak Lommel has spawned. Nikoff, who worked on a few of his mentor’s miserable motion pictures, produces equally worthless junk, excuses for entertainment that are neither clever nor competent.


#9 - Gag
Sigh. This is what it’s come to. This is what dedicated fright fans, supporters of the genre critics love to hate and mainstream audiences love to marginalize, have to put up with. Gag is an appropriate title for this offensive little load. The entendre applies to a number of B&D ball stoppers used, the nauseating nature of our murderer’s methods, and our intestinal fortitude once this 78 minute stool sample has finally passed. In a world where some manner of god would step in and stop such unimaginative copycatting, this Sawstel slop wouldn’t exist. Clearly, said creator is on extended holiday as Gag is more than happy to deliver scene after scene of mind-numbing gorno mediocrity.



#8 - Mad Cowgirl
So pretentious that free-verse reading Goth poets are pissed off at its affectations, Mad Cowgirl is an overly arch load of bovine bollocks. It reeks of the ambitions of its self-important creator, crashing and burning like any good train wreck should. At any given moment, this dung pretends to be a sobering drama, an erotic thriller, a dark comedy, a character study, a social commentary, a harangue on the human consumption of red meat, and a mannered martial-arts homage. Unfortunately, our director can’t find his way through or out of any of these concepts, resulting in a movie that frequently plays like the cinematic equivalent of channel surfing.



#7 - Creepshow III
When you want horror, go to the people who know it best. For example, when you’re out to make a film called Creepshow III, based on a previous pair of cinematic installments created by macabre maestro Stephen King and terror titan George Romero, don’t send in a couple of hacks whose main credits consist of some under the radar episodic television work. Yet the directing team of James Glenn Dudelson and Ana Clavell were given the call. Responsible for some incredibly inept onscreen shivers (Museum of the Dead, Day of the Dead 2: Contagion), after watching their work in this abysmal DVD tre-quel, it’s clear that neither knows the first thing about delivering fear factors.



#6 - Curse of the Zodiac
Make no mistake about it - this is one of the worst movies ever made. Actually, comparing this crudely conceived compost heap with cinema and the infamous litany of lame motion pictures does a disservice to both entities. Rare is the filmmaker that finds Ed Wood or Dale Restingini readily capable of mocking him, but ex-Rainer Werner Fassbinder pupil Ulli Lommel easily earns said metaphysical mudslinging. This senseless exercise in celluloid hubris wants to bring a new perspective to the now notorious ‘60s/‘70s unsolved killing spree. Apparently, such a revamp needs to involve inconsistent period details, incredibly bad adlibbed acting, and a killer whose externalized internal monologue sounds a lot like that YouTube boob known as the Insult Alien.



#5 - Bizarre Lusts of a Sexual Deviant
Part pointless pornography, part attempted psychological character study, first-time filmmaker Zert Sineca’s cinematic stasis is all tease and very little release. It prepares its audience for 70 minutes of mind-numbing sleaze and ends up delivering a little over an hour of awfulness. It would be nice if the director had come up with some occasionally clever dialogue, or valid insight into the understanding of the sexually depraved mind. But all we get is another of those time warp titles that refract the passage of minutes and turn this entire entertainment experience into the cinematic version of a Depression-era danceathon. It’s as physically and emotionally tiring as those torturous excuses for 1930’s escapism.



#4 - Exterminating Angels
Mix one part David Lynch, a few unhealthy jiggers of Zalmon King, a quart of the typical French film flesh peddling, and a decidedly asexual approach to softcore, and you’d get just a small portion of this preposterous self-righteous smut stupidity. It’s not just that we could care less about fictional filmmaker Francois, his fascination with troubled actresses Charlotte, Julie, and Stephanie, or the preposterous moments when the foursome flits off to a hotel room to “rehearse” their “screen tests.” No, this movie hopes to probe the problematic mind of the female species. What it winds up offering is nothing more than endless sequences of existential conversation followed by moments of babe/babe finger-banging.



#3 - Amateur Porn Star Killer
If you have the audacity to scream “snuff film” you better have the cinematic huevos to deliver on such crass carnival barking. No, we don’t want to see you actually murdering your neighbor/spouse/significant other on screen. What we’re talking about here is realizing and fully understanding the vacuous reasons why such an exploitation non-reality remains a viable urban legend. Couple Shane Ryan (co-writer/director/star) and Michiko Jimenez (co-writer/star), think they have found a novel, neo-Blair Witch way to make such a dull first person POV slasher experiment resonate with retail possibilities. Mixing borderline XXX gratuity with a pseudo-realistic recreation of your typical pedophile/victim playdate, the results are horrific, sickening, sad, uncompromising - and impossible to enjoy.



#2 - Oil and Water
According to the old proverb, oil and water do not mix. Well, after watching the independent mess named after such a sentiment, it is clear that writer/actor/director Peter LaVilla and talent do not gel either. Sloppy, stupid, and without a single redeeming cinematic characteristic, this supposed romantic comedy is about as funny as a foot rash and as sentimental as a slap in the face. You can see what LaVilla is striving for: he wants love to bloom between two impossible egotists. Unfortunately, the filmmaker makes his leads into the most mean-spirited, miserable mofos ever to stain a screen. It’s like cheering for Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter to settle down and start spawning.



#1 - Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door is a frighteningly irredeemable film. It’s light years beyond any so-called ‘torture porn’ and is so repugnant and reprehensible that Eli Roth would probably disown it outright. This doesn’t make it an unprofessional or talent-free experience, just an excruciating, nauseating, and distasteful one. With its ‘based on true events’ motivation and exploitation like desire to investigate the most vile of human behaviors, this is a drama that gives off significantly mixed signals. It’s like Stand by Me in a slaughterhouse, a retro coming of age where acts of inhuman brutality substitute for sipping beer and sneaking a peek at a girlie mag.


There will be critics who compliment the ‘brave’ performances all around, who point to Blythe Auffarth’s hapless heroine Meg and Blanche Baker’s completely wicked witch Ruth and froth at how daring and uncompromising their acting is. But in the end, it’s all in service of a sleazy, incomplete narrative that never explains the dementia behind the disturbing imagery. Instead, we are supposed to be shocked at the numerous atrocities (the plot is based on the horrible case from the 1950s involving the torture and murder of teen Sylvia Likens by her clearly insane Aunt Gertrude Baniszewski) and marvel at how artfully it’s all been done. Instead, we wonder how something this sordid ever got made. It’s beyond salvation or explanation.


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Friday, Dec 28, 2007


It’s no small measure of the last 12 months that half of the films featured on SE&L’s 2007 list are without confirmed distribution as of this date. Sure, Manhattan mavericks Troma will eventually release two, but the other three stand out as attempts by completely independent filmmakers to get their efforts out into the money-engorged mainstream market. In past years, makers of such an obscure top ten had to pick from movies made decades earlier, only now getting a legitimate digital release. Today, the potential selections are so numerous that it’s almost impossible to glean the valid from the vapid. Still, when you consider the untold number of direct to DVD films available, finding a group of praise worthy productions remains a daunting task.


So before the breakdown, some rules. We narrowed the choices down to anything released between 1 January and 31 December. The actual year of origin/production was not important - the movie simply had to have a digital version available in 2007. Similarly, we tried to champion as many unknown writers and directors as possible. While Lloyd Kaufman and crew probably don’t count, everyone else here is practically a feature film newbie. Finally, we tried to tackle as many genres as possible. As part of this Decalogue, we have three clear comedies, one documentary, three horror films, a pair of avant-garde grindhousers, and a spaghetti western homage. They add up to one amazing set of movies, a collection of creativity the likes of which many of you have never seen.


So let’s begin 2007’s Top 10 Films You Never Heard of with the ridiculously randy entry at the bottom:


#10 - Pervert!
Proudly proclaiming its debt to Russ Meyer and the frisky exploitationers of the past, outsider auteur Jonathan Yudis has ALMOST made one of the best worst movies ever. Starring “adult film star” Mary Carey and a remarkable Darrell Sandeen in the mandatory Stuart Lancaster roll, what we get here is part horror film, part softccore smut fest and a whole lot of bare naked bosom. In fact, the film is flawless for its first 40 or so minutes. When our lead finally leaves the narrative, her replacements can’t keep things afloat. As long as you ignore this questionable quibble, you’re sure to have a good time.



#9 - Disaster!: The Movie
Is a filmmaker tempting critical fate by taking on a cinematic archetype in a manner that shows like South Park and Robot Chicken do a heck of a lot better? Does a stop motion animated action adventure featuring caricatures of the genre’s greatest hits lose some of its lampoon luster thanks to non-stop references to BMs and other bodily fluids? The answer, fortunately, is no – at least in the case of director Roy T. Wood’s anarchic Armageddon send up. Overloaded with cartoon T&A, non-PC puppeteering and about every Hollywood cliché the apocalyptic thriller has to offer, this cornball cavalcade is a pure schlock sensation. 



#8 - Knee Deep
Documentaries don’t get any more compelling than this hilarious whodunit clash over a depressed dairy farm. While hanging clothes on the washing line, Janette Osborne heard a small pop. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in her side. As she headed for her car, she thought she saw her son standing near the house, a rifle in his hand. Seconds later, two more shots were heard. Thus began Farmington, Maine’s most notorious case of attempted murder with the estranged Josh and his latest live-in gal pal Donna charged with the crime. Filmmaker Michael Chandler was lucky enough to hit on the case and, Brother’s Keeper style, he delivers one of the most compelling works of stereotypical ‘stranger than…’ ever.



#7 - Deadwood Park
For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Eric Stanze’s Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, this creative classicist goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking.



#6 - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best, most original horror spoofs ever. Like a substantially sharper Scream, it wants to deconstruct the slice and dice genre staples while creating some terror benchmarks all its own. First time filmmaker Scott Glosserman should be proud of what he accomplishes here. The narrative is fresh, innovative, intelligent as Hell, and completely capable of delivering both scares and satire. Taking the slasher storyline as a literal lifestyle choice, and tossing in a solid murderer’s mythology, he resurrects a long dormant fear factor and makes it sing with new cinematic significance.



#5 - SpaceDisco-One
What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Damon Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than his Reflections of Evil. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life.



#4 - The Blood Shed
Imagine if David Lynch and Rob Zombie had a baby, and they let John Waters, Jack Hill, and Edith Massey act as guardians ad litem. The results would begin to resemble something similar to the wonderfully weird brain damaged b-movie The Blood Shed. The conceptual offspring of couture auteur Alan Rowe Kelly, this tasty take on the entire Texas Chainmail Massacre strikes an intriguing balance between scares, stupidity, and satire. It takes all the archetypal elements of a Deliverance level hillbilly hoedown, macerates it in a cinematic concoction of kitsch, creeps, and dollar store perfume, and paints a perverted patina over every last piece of lunatic fringe. The results are resplendent.



#3 - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead
Sadly, the Troma trademark has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth, perfect proof arriving in Poultrygeist. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to the entire service industry. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.



#2 - Special Needs
At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy reality show spoofing. Isaak James - who wrote, directed, and stars - appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us nervous and uncomfortable. It will all be in bad taste and very obvious. But believe it or not, this isn’t where the filmmaker and his clever cast decide to go. Instead, we are introduced to an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. What should be shallow becomes sensational.



#1 - The Legend of God’s Gun
Like El Topo on even more peyote, or a spaghetti western as directed by Kenneth Anger channeling Federico Fellini, The Legend of God’s Gun is an absolute masterpiece of style over surreal and slightly stereotyped substance. A homemade horse opera, shot of video and put through a millions different digital and post-production elements to create a cacophony of illustrative explosions, the effect is a mindf*ck as episode of the hallucinogenic death metal version of Sugarfoot. With as much in common with the works of Jodoworski and Leone as those of Dennis Hooper (especially The Last Movie) and Sam Raimi (the quirky The Quick and the Dead), what we wind up with is something so invigorating, so jam—packed with implausible pleasures that we really don’t mind the inconsistent acting or lack of linear storytelling.


Sure, some could argue that this is all arch artifice subbing for art, people role playing the Fistful films for the sake of some specious post-modern homage. But because of the loving care director Mike Bruce takes with the overall look of the action, and the numerous knowing beats provided by screenwriter Kirkpatrick Thomas, we get something more than just a glorified geekville serenade. Instead, this is inventive eye candy poised as categorical creativity, a fascinating cinematic case study given a whole new technological shimmer thanks to the ‘anything goes’ availability of amazing aesthetic tools.


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Thursday, Dec 27, 2007


No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.


Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:


Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.


Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.


The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.


The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.


Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.


If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.


Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.


Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.


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