We say it every year, but it remains true. DVD has been a godsend for filmmakers desperate for distribution. Thanks to the advances in technology, the accessibility of an available audience (otherwise known as the Internet) and a definitive DIY stance, more movies are available than ever before. Finding them is another issue all together. Most of your noted B&M retail and rental outlets don’t touch ‘unknown’ quantities helmed by unproven talent with a tendency to believe their own hype. Instead, they fill their shelves with standard operating hackwork, the latest (and usually lamest) efforts from Tinsel Town’s crap factory – and its varying direct to digital run-offs. In order to find the truly obscure titles, one must do a lot of research and think outside the Netflix envelope, so to speak. As part of our blog prerogative, that’s exactly what Short Ends and Leader tries to do.
Of course, as with any year end list, a few consideration parameters have to be laid down. First and foremost, it’s important to note that the films themselves do not have to be made in, or originally released during 2009. After all, some outsider cinema takes years in legal or logistical limbo before making it out via some manner of viewable state. In addition, there is no need for an Oscar like NY to LA preview schedule. As long as the film made it out on DVD during this year (originally or in an update) SE&L considered it. Finally, we don’t discriminate against those who self distribute. As long as it passed over our critical transom, we considered it, no matter how it first got there. About the only consistent element is worth – if the movie wasn’t something really special, we just didn’t consider it in our final overview.
With that being said, 2009 was another sparse year in undiscovered gems. Messageboard nation loves to champion the underdog, and a lot of films that would normally make the list – Paranormal Activity, Sita Sings the Blues – are seeing major studio and media support. Still, the ten titles here mark the cream of the independent crop, movies that find there way onto screens around the world thanks to one significant reason – they’re damn good. So without further ado, let’s begin our discussion with:
Director: Paul O’Callaghan
Critics are always taken to task over the whole “complain but can’t do” concept of their job. Filmmakers, often the beneficiaries of negative reviews, love to point out that movie journalists rarely step behind the lens and let their own motion picture muse come crawling forth. Not true with Ron and Fez cinephile Paul O’Callaghan. Taking the first person POV style scary movie and making it into a psychological serial killer rant against society, this mostly bloodless effort is still highly effective and rather chilling. While it may not meet the expectations of gorehounds and genre purists, it proves that some film critics can function both within and outside of the industry they comment on.
9. Dragon Hunters
Director: Arthur Qwak/ Guillaume Ivernel
James Cameron is getting all kinds of praise for the “visionary” look of his amazing Avatar film (yes, we loved it too), but there is another film that offers an equally breathtaking view of a fictional fairytale world. French animator Arthur Qwak’s Dragon Hunter series made the leap to the big screen (or at least, DVD) this year, and the results were astounding. While the character design here is nothing more than simplistic cartoon clever, the backdrop and aerial vistas are simply stunning. With the help of co-director Guillaume Ivernel and some masterful CGI, the decomposing landscape of the far off planet is so accomplished and artistic that it makes up for some otherwise minor narrative missteps.
8. Humanity’s End
Director: Neil Johnson
Talk about plot convolutions! This unique homemade sci-fi film is so bizarre and idiosyncratic that it’s almost impossible to define. If you took a smidgen of Serenity, filtered it through a little post-modern Battlestar Galactica, tossed it all inside an insane salad of old school ’50s schlock, musky male machismo, and intergalactic tech-speak, and garnished it with a big fat helping of unintentionally hilarious cinematic cheese and you’ve got some idea of how completely nuts this movie is – and how much fun it is as well. A clever cult conceit just waiting to be embraced by the speculative fringe.
7. Dark Reel
Director: Josh Eisenstadt
Clearly an attempt to mix the moldy old mandates of the slasher film with the equally ancient concept of a whodunit, this Hollywood insider fright flick has too much going for it to be completely dismissed as b-movie schlock. First off, there’s the man himself, Lance Friggin’ Henricksen. There’s king Candy Man Tony Todd. And just to make things interesting, former Terminator tyke Edward Fulong is onboard giving Crispin Glover and Casey Affleck a run for their Method madman money. The storyline centers on a bad pirate movie within the movie, a dead body from decades back, and the still secret identity of the psychotic sicko responsible. You’ll enjoy the scenery chewing so much you won’t need a last act denouement.
6. We Live in Public
Director: Ondi Timoner
Ondi Timoner is a documentary force to be reckoned with. As she did with the music industry masterpiece DiG! , she takes a relatively simple subject (’90s Internet icon Joshua Harris) and deconstructs the outer layers to show the surreal substance within. Many could look at the man who more or less invented reality TV as nothing more than a high tech con man, a slick huckster working in the human condition vs. ornate Bibles or Florida swampland time shares. Timoner, using the man’s own words and online “art projects” shows just how mannered, miserable, and misguided he truly was. Some considered Harris the future of entertainment. In Timoner’s view, he’s its executioner.
5. Rob Zombie Presents the Haunted World of El Superbeasto
Director: Rob Zombie
This is the movie that animation maverick Ralph Bakshi has been trying to make for the last 40 years. It’s a sublimely sleazy combination of Ren and Stimpy surrealism, old EC comics, and a touch of Tijuana cartoon porn for good measure. It is undoubtedly the best thing Rob Zombie has done as a director, and from the moment we enter his bizarro world of luchadores, lotharios, and the living dead, we instantly recognize the ‘in your face’ approach.
The fear fanboy is going to comb through all of his obsessions, picking out the sexiest, stupidest, and sickest material he can remember and then turn it into one of the cleverest, most entertaining “adult” cartoons ever.
4. Attack of the Slime People
Director: Martin King
Imagine David Lynch’s demented sitcom On the Air retrofitted for the ‘50s b-movie biz mixed with a hilariously healthy dose of baseball bat wielding spree killing and you have some idea of the unsane madness that is Attack of the Slime People. It is safe to say that there has probably been no greater illustration of Hollywood’s dehumanizing effect on talent than this clever, quirky bit of burlesque. With a terrific tour de force performance by co-writer/co-producer Robert Tiffi and spot on era-appropriate direction from Martin King, what could have been artificial and phony becomes arch and very, very funny. It makes Mulholland Dr. look like a sensible, straightforward sitcom. Now that’s scary – and hilarious.
3. Embodiment of Evil
Director: Jose Mojica Marins
Unlike many former masters who return to the territory that made them famous, Jose Mojica Marins truly delivers with his first Coffin Joe Movie in decades. While it doesn’t have the daft deranged darkness of his first few films, or the intellectualized assault of his pseudo-documentaries, it’s a brilliant wrap-up to an equally impressive career. After nearly five decades delivering the kind of foreign fright flick shivers that turn the curious into obsessives, his latest is a triumph of tenacity and temerity. If ever a filmmaker lived up to his own self-created reputation, it’s Jose Mojica Marins. He doesn’t just make Coffin Joe movies – he lives them. And a world of scary movie mavens is happier for it.
2. Life is Hot in Cracktown
Director: Buddy Giovinazzo
If Combat Shock was a weary, excessively dire walk on the wild side of early ’80s NYC, Life is Hot in Cracktown is said sickening stroll times ten. If anything, Buddy Giovinazzo’s jaded view of an American Dream gone sour is even more spoiled and rotten retrofitted for 2009. Hope here is measured out in tiny white rocks, even the most mainstream individual corrupted by the ever-present haze of a drifting, depressing smoke. Some may argue that the outsider auteur is just wallowing in squalor for squalor’s sake, that he has no real point other than to manufactured misery for the sake of some slumming star turns. Such a statement, however, fails to take into consideration the blatant truths exposed.
1. Hungry Years
Director: Isaak James/ Eva James
Isaak James is clearly the future of sophisticated, smart cosmopolitan comedy. He’s Woody Allen without all the Me Decade angst, an incredibly talented hyphen (writer-director-composer-actor) who infuses the already idiosyncratic indie motion picture with his own uniquely observed sense of quirk. With sister Eva along for the ride, he finds the hilarious and often ridiculous truths in such outlandish ideas as mental illness, culinary self-sacrifice, and weak-willed altruism. With the flawless mock-doc Special Needs already under his belt, and a wide open window of creative opportunities present, the man who made the handicapped into heroes here takes down the haughty, the arrogant and idealistic. But just as he did with his previous satiric statement, he uses the know-it-all and the narrow-minded against themselves to brazen, brilliant effect.