Sunday, July 8, 2012

A (Kind of) Half Time Top 10

Normally in late June or early July I do my so called “Half Time Top 10”, running down the best films of the first six months of the year. This year, I decided to do something a little bit different – and highlight 10 films, in alphabetical order, that audiences should have seen but didn’t. The following 10 films all made under $1 million at the box office in North America – and some substantially less. But all deserved more attention. A number of these films would have made a regular half time top 10 had I done one, and most of them are already on video or soon will be. So do yourself a favor this summer, and skip a blockbuster or two, and pick up one of these small, wonderful films.

God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait) – You may not have noticed but Bobcat Goldthwait, that squeaky voiced, angry, sometimes extremely annoying stand-up comedian and Police Academy co-star has turned himself into a very good indie director in the last few years – with daring films like Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad. Now comes his best film to date – this angry, extremely dark and violent comedy about a man (Joel Murray), a divorced office drone who in the span of one day gets fired and finds out he has cancer. Murray, fed up with America’s rude, shallow, celebrity obsessed culture and he decides before he kills himself, he’s going to kill a teenage girl he saw on My Super Sweet Sixteen, who is the most spoiled, bratty, horrible person he can think of. While doing so, indivertibly makes a fun out of another teenage girl – Tara Lynne Barr – and the two decide to become “platonic spree killers”. There is nothing subtle about God Bless America, which takes aim at everyone and everything that Goldthwait finds repulsive in modern American society. Goldthwait’s direction is excellent – especially the 10 minute montage that details Murray’s anger, including spot-on reality TV parodies. Some have complained that movies like God Bless America are part of the problem Goldthwait is addressing, but Goldthwait knows this – why do you think he ends the movie how he does?

The Innkeepers (Ti West) – Ti West loves horror movies, which you can tell with his first two features. The first was the 1980s throwback House of the Devil, which was way better than most of the higher profile films that try to recreate that era. For his follow-up, West looks even further back – to the old school haunted house, or in this case, hotel, movies of the 1950s and 60s. Sara Paxton stars as one two hotel employees working on the last weekend in turn of the century hotel that has long been rumored to be haunted. They want to prove the stories true. The hotel only has a few guests – all of them somewhat creepy. West movie has doses of humor, as it plays with our expectations, but when he decides to ratchet up the tension, he does so in a brilliant way. The finale is the most spine tingling one of the year so far. A must for horror fans.

Kill List (Ben Wheatley) – Ben Wheatley’s film is a hybrid – a kitchen sink drama that morphs into a crime thriller that morphs into a 1970s style British horror film. The reason why it works as well as it does is because each transformation makes utter and complete sense in the terms of the story, and because each segment is horrific and violent in its own way. Neil Maskell stars as a former soldier, now out of work, and hearing it from his wife (MyAnna Burning) for not bringing in any money. They are visited by his old army buddy (Michael Smiley), who visits with his hot not girlfriend (Emma Fryer), who there is something not quite right about. Smiley offers Maskell a job – Burning knows what the job is, and pushes him toward taking it anyway. To reveal more would be criminal. Kill List is shockingly violent, but it works wonderfully well. This is one of the very best films of the year so far. Do not miss it.

The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne) – This Aussie horror film is what torture porn aspires to be – heavy on the blood and carnage, but actually scary, well-acted and believable. It is one of the best out and out horror films you will see this year – even if it barely got a release, about two years after I saw it at TIFF. Robin McLeavy delivers an amazing performance as a warped teenage girl with a huge crush on a popular boy. When he cruelly rejects her prom invitation, her demented father decides to throw her a prom of her very own – and the popular boy is going to be there whether he likes it or not. The movie is hard to stomach because of the horrific level of violence going on, but this is a movie that actually has a story – actually has characters you care about, which of course is necessary if you’re going to root for them to survive. The film takes some odd twists and turns in its final act - ones that I'm not full fully sure work. But most of the movie is so far superior to the horror movies made in America that it is hard to complain too much. This is the film Eli Roth would make if he had talent.

Michael (Markus Scheleinzer) – Markus Scheleinzer`s Michael is one of the most disturbing, detailed portraits of a pedophile ever made. The film is deliberately cold and distant – the very controlled visual stylistics mirror the movements of Michael, the pedophile in question, placing the audience inside the head of the man who keeps a 12 year old boy captive in his basement. The film does not judge Michael itself – it leaves that up the audience, who will clearly see that Michael is a monster, but will also be forced to see things from his point of view. Most audiences will not want to see this disturbing film – they like everything to be clear cut – for the filmmaker to in essence do all of their thinking for them. Scheleinzer refuses to do that – it doesn’t let anyone, not even the audience, off the hook.

Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo) – Gerardo Naranjo`s Miss Bala looks at Mexico`s massive drug problem, by looking at the case of one woman – a would be beauty queen, who happens to be in a nightclub bathroom where a massacre begins. From that moment one, she is caught up in a world she doesn’t know and doesn’t understand – and has to make unthinkable decisions in the blink of an eye. The film is a mash up of genres – from crime thriller to character study to something just above the level of an over the top Mexican soap opera, and yet every twist and turn makes sense when it happens in the context of the movie. At the heart of the film is a wonderful performance by Stephanie Sigman, who seems to be in a daze for much of the film, as well as an equally good performance by Noe Hernandez, as the drug lord who uses her. This is a film that addresses a national, really an international problem, into a personal story, and a great one.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - (Nuri Blige Ceylon) – Nuri Blige Ceylon`s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia takes the form of a police procedural or crime thriller, but like other recent masterworks – from Fincher`s Zodiac to Bong Joon-ho`s Memories of Murder to Cornielu Porumboiu`s Police Adjective to Cristi Puiu`s Aurora – it is a movie that cannot explain everything. Yes, who committed the murder in question is never in dispute, but the details as to why, and even how, cannot be fully explained. Like those other films the closer one looks at the details, the more hazy they all get – we get no closer to the truth. The film takes place over one long night, and into the next morning, where a group of cops – all men - along with a lawyer, a doctor and the confessed killer – all men again – head out into the Turkish countryside to find the body of his victim. But one road looks like another – one town, just the same as the next – and it takes him a long time to find that spot again. There is a lot of talk in the movie – not all about the crime – as one by one, the men in the movie snap into focus, and reveal what they have in common (wife troubles is a common theme). There is also a great, extended sequence half way through when they stop for dinner – and everything takes on a new light. This is one of the very best films of the year so far – and unfortunately, almost no one has seen it.

The Snowtown Murders (Justin Kurzel) – Justin Kurzel`s The Snowtown Murders is about the most infamous serial killer in Australian history – John Bunting. What separates Bunting from many other serial killers is that he didn’t work alone – and that his greatest act of evil is how he was able to manipulate those around him into committing murder. Played in a brilliant performance by Daniel Henshall, Bunting is a man who worms his way into your life – and is always the center of attention in group gatherings. And although he is the driving force behind all the evil – the murders motivated by bigotry – he almost gets the others to think it’s their idea. The movie focuses on Bunting`s youngest co-conspirator Jamie Vlassakis (Lukas Pittaway), a troubled kid, who has suffered years of abuse even before Bunting enters the picture, and how he slowly manipulates him into committing murder. The movie doesn’t concern itself with the details of the murders – only one is shown in detail, and most are just implied. What the movie does do is show the world these people live in – low income housing, constant abuse, casual bigotry and homophobia that turns into something more. The Snowtown Murders is almost unremittingly bleak, but it is also great.

The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr) – The Turin Horse is about the long, slow journey to death – the nothingness. It is a slow film – a very slow film – and many audience members will grow restless with the lack of action in the movie – the lack of dialogue, which sometimes goes on for minutes on end. The one time sometime does open their mouth, and delivers a long monologue it is promptly dismissed as bullshit. The film is about a father and daughter, alone on a farm in the middle of nowhere. They go through the same routine every day. And then one day it changes – the well the daughter gets their water from runs dry. Their horse refuses to move. The father and daughter decide to leave the farm, and we see them walk off into the horizon, over a hill – and then return. Why. The movie never says. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, and is transfixing from beginning to end. What it all means will be up to you to decide.

We Have a Pope (Nannni Morretti) – Many were surprised that a director as politically inclined as Nanni Morretti made what they saw as nothing more than a gentle satire of the Catholic Church. It is easy to see why some saw it this way – Moretti`s film, about an aging Cardinal (Michael Piccolli), who is the surprise choice of his fellow Cardinals to be the new Pope – and promptly loses it, refusing to go out on the balcony to address the faithful. The Vatican tries everything to convince him – including bringing in a shrink (Morretti himself) to try to talk him down. But things take a turn when the Cardinal disappears into the streets of Rome, connecting with the common people, and rediscovering his first love – acting. Meanwhile, the rest of the Cardinals are still technically in conclave, and the shrink, also stuck inside, decides to start a volleyball tournament among the Cardinals. Yet, while We Have a Pope is admittedly silly at points – and hilariously so – it is not simple a gentle satire. It actually goes much deeper than that, just in a subtle way. Legendary Piccolli, brilliant as usual, gives two speeches – one under his breath on the bus, and one that climaxes the film, that criticizes the church harshly. No, this isn’t an overtly political film like Morretti`s last film, The Caiman, but it is more effective – because this time, Morretti isn’t using a sledgehammer.

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