The Best Films You Never Heard Of… Sort Of

Every year, since I’ve been a so called “professional” film critic, I have looked forward to End of Year lists. Best ofs. Worst ofs. The obscure and the obvious. It’s one of the joys of suffering through 12 months of measured mediocrity, of putting in the hours and contemplating the collective. One of my favorite features has always been The Best Films You’ve Never Heard Of, an attempt to bring attention to titles that might otherwise never get a single aesthetic credit. In past years, I’ve championed such amazing works like Eric Stanze’s Nazi immortality serial killer crime epic Ratline, Giuseppe Andrews’ Orzo, the spaghetti western surrealism of The Legend of God’s Gun, and Issak and Eva James’ contemporary comedy triumph Hungry Years.

Part of the pleasure is in the discovery. When Hollywood rolls out its usual cinematic suspects, there is typically no surprise. Actors are handpicked to play parts they are cravenly comfortable in while scripts spoon feed the story in slight, uninspired routine. Sometimes, a directing choice can elevate this otherwise ordinary material, but for the most part, Tinseltown excels at predictability and sameness. So when something like Caleb Emerson’s astonishing Frankie in Blunderland comes along, you can’t help but cheer. Sure, it may not be something everyone cottons to, but acquired tastes can often be just as filling. That’s why rifling through the pile of possibilities is so much fun every year. It’s a chance to revisit, remember, and reflect.

Except, 2012 seems to be one of the rare instances where I have nothing new to offer. Oh sure, there were a few left field releases I could (and will) discuss, but for the most part, the pickings were beyond slim. I can remember years when I had to whittle down my eventual 10 from a pile of plenty. Now, I can hardly drudge up five…and that’s putting it mildly. The task of taking on this year’s Best of feels practically Herculean. DVDs are out (especially in light of the overwhelming dominance of Blu-ray and streaming options) and the other categories (Criterions, Worsts) just don’t garner much desire. Outside of 2012’s mainstream highlights and lowlights, there will be little else for me to celebrate.

Why? Well, the previous paragraph contains at least one hint. Streaming, especially in all of its various commercial and ad-free variants, have turned fledgling filmmakers into iTunes like hitmakers. Instead of putting out actual product, these Kickstarter panhandlers put their efforts out on one of the many possible web net formats and then hope for a helping hand. If it’s horror, it goes to the standard online sources (Bloody Disgusting,, etc.). Shoe-gazing indie has its outlets as well. Every once in a while, a higher profile picture will find a home on HDNet or a pre-theatrical On Demand run. This means that, outside of an occasional screener, many of the possible picks are sitting somewhere, online, waiting to be discovered…or discarded.

Which leads to the second part of the problem. As portability has replaced product as a means of marketing and merchandising, filmmakers are struggling to find friends. They used to be able to fire up their camcorder, download the efforts onto their Powerbook, and edit their way to a burnt DVD day with destiny. But with so many possible allies rejecting the physical for something more ‘convenient,’ the days of delivering your masterwork to the mailbox of some blogging pundit appear to be over. Sure, some distributors still believe in the value of such aluminum disc driven PR, but for the most part, we have taken the entire social media mentality to a weird, word-of-mouth mania.

That being said, I was impressed with a few unknown quantities this year, films the vast majority of the moviegoing public probably didn’t even know existed. The third installment in the [REC] mythology ditched the hand-held, you are there found footage conceit to become a Cabin in the Woods-lite deconstruction of movie macabre, while Troma did something similar when it decided to help creative collection Astron-6 reestablish the viability of the grindhouse with the stylist ’70s inspired splatter fest Father’s Day. A personal favorite, Damon Packard, delivered his mini-meta-masterpiece Foxfur, a difficult and divisive work which seems inspired by David Lynch and too many days wandering the LA Galleria, while another amazing auteur, Giuseppe Andrews, gave us Diary, a quasi-swansong, send-up of everything he had done before.

Toss in a terrific documentary on the man who made Pee Wee’s Playhouse the silly, psychedelic place to be on Saturday mornings (Beauty is Embarrassing) and a wannabe film franchise based on a young adult novel that actually promises greatness to come (Tomorrow, When the War Began) instead of groans, and…well, that’s it. That’s the lot. Sure, there are other titles that could be mentioned, movies that were barely better than bad but at least tried to test the talents of those involved, but there was nothing in 2012 that resonated – beyond those already mentioned – like previous years. It’s as if the entire industry from the studios on down just decided to shrug their shoulders and wait for the next installment of The Dark Knight to arrive in theaters.

We are living in the age of the event, where every weekend proffers the next big thing, the phenomenon in the making, and/or the hit without any home support (read: poised to be huge overseas). Stars are seen as bankable beyond their borders while the little guy lingers around the fringes, finding suckers who will finance their latest whim for the sniff of some insignificant closing credit. When an artist has to beg to be heard, when he or she has to rely on the graces of the very audience they are planning to preach to, the cannibalizing nature of the beast becomes clear.

There will always be insanities like Packard and Andrews, madmen driven by the talented and intense visions in their head. But for the most part, 2012 was a whimper instead of a wow. Instead of telling you about those films you probably couldn’t find, I’m stuck searching them out myself…and having little luck in the discovery.