THE TEN BEST UNSEEN FILMS OF 2004
1. GEORGES BATAILLE’S STORY OF THE EYE
Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s stunning feature, based on the notorious 1929 novella, employs absurd humor and avant-garde pornographic imagery to convey a sense of emotional desolation brought about when depravity and carnality is valued above emotion and love. This brilliantly conceived and handsomely produced film created a jolting shock to senses and sensibility. It is no exaggeration to state this production should be viewed as a new landmark in underground cinema.
STATUS: In very limited theatrical release from ARM Cinema/25; no announcement yet of a DVD release.
2. UNTIL THE NIGHT
Veteran film distributor Gregory Hatanaka made his directing debut with this raw, jolting drama about the self-destructive habits of a group of young people in Los Angeles who seem to have everything and still feel lacking within. Not since the peak years of the John Cassavetes canon has a film with such visceral emotional maturity come around. Brilliant performances by chronically undervalued actors including Norman Reedus, Missy Crider and Kathleen Robertson (plus a memorable cameo by Sean Young) caps this excellent endeavor, which dares to assault the mind with a troubling tale that offers no easy answers or happy endings.
STATUS: Currently in festival playdates.
3. KUNG FU HUSTLE
Stephen Chow would’ve become a household name in America if Miramax didn’t mess up the release of his blockbuster Shaolin Soccer. Chow will certainly get his chance to shine when his extraordinary over-the-top martial arts comedy hits American theaters. A wild adventure of a Shanghai crime gang battling the bizarre residents of a rundown slum, “Kung Fu Hustle” mixes surreal cartoonish humor with some of the most imaginative CGI effects ever devised. Even the Buddha shows up for a cameo appearance!
STATUS: U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, American theatrical premiere in March.
4. KUXA KANEMA: THE BIRTH OF CINEMA
Margarida Cordoso’s documentary on the rise and fall of the state-sponsored film industry during the first decade of Mozambique’s independence is not only among the very best films ever made about filmmaking, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse into how cinema was used to both promote Mozambican President Samora Machel’s cult of personality and to document the gruesome military attacks against the defenseless country by the white-minority governments of neighboring South Africa and Rhodesia. With its rich mix of very rare footage and a clear understanding of Mozambique’s complex history, this production is an amazing triumph of art and intelligence.
STATUS: In non-theatrical release only from First Run/Icarus Films.
5. VIRGINAL YOUNG BLONDES
Mark L. Feinsod’s enigmatic and disturbing short film traces the unlikely seduction of an unemployed slacker by an ice queen blonde offering “private striptease” sessions. This wise story of people who are not what they seem to be achieves more in its 16-minute running time than most feature films could ever dream of achieving.
STATUS: Currently in festival release; public screening in New York on January 9 at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater as part of a Mark L. Feinsod retrospective.
6. UNION SQUARE
Stephen J. Szklarski’s brutal documentary on the lives of seven heroin addicts living on the streets of New York may be too rough for some people, but it provides a sobering glimpse into the pain and squalor of young people who threw away their lives in pursuit of the next miserable fix. This is a truly memorable and haunting film.
STATUS: In limited theatrical release last spring from Alliance International Pictures; currently on DVD.
A small film from Mahamat-Saleh Haroun focuses on two young brothers in a small village in Chad who awake one morning to discover their father has disappeared. Their search for the missing man takes them into dangerous and ultimately tragic adventures. This stark, simple drama features an extraordinary ensemble cast of non-professional actors and an original story with a powerful and heartbreaking conclusion.
STATUS: In limited theatrical release from Leisure Time Features; no DVD release yet.
8. CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE FORGOTTEN YEARS
Felice Zenoni’s wonderful documentary traces the last 25 years of Chaplin’s life, when he settled in Switzerland after being expelled from America by the U.S. State Department in 1952. Using rare newsreel footage, Chaplin home movies and interviews with his family and friends, the world of Chaplin’s self-exile is given an uncommon depth and scope in this fascinating feature.
STATUS: A Swiss production, currently not in U.S. release.
9. BILLY TODD’S WAR
Boston-based actor/filmmaker D.R. Farquharson’s wonderfully loopy comedy about a newly-released mental patient who creates a real estate brouhaha by taking up residence in a bomb shelter buried on property claimed by a dubious real estate developer. This funny slam at sanity perceptions and media manipulation is a wry delight, with winning performances by Farquharson as the not-so-crazy Billy Todd and Beno Chapman as the hyperventilating gadfly who uses the controversy to promote his own crusade in support of pornography.
STATUS: Currently on the festival circuit.
Kraig Feldman’s exhaustive bodybuilding training and diet regimen for the 2003 NPC Teen National Champions, conducted under the supervision of his brother Brett, who won the title in 2000, is the subject of this compelling and intelligent video diary. The Feldman Brothers, who come across as dedicated and charming young men, created this documentary themselves (I don’t believe either had previous filmmaking experience or training) and their skill with the camera is mirrored by their success in their sport.
STATUS: On DVD from Repetrope Productions.
HONORABLE MENTION: Bear Movement, Jimmy Traynor’s amusing short comedy about a teddy bear’s revenge on a family of miscreant children; I Still Worship Zeus, Jamil Said’s insightful documentary on Greeks who continue to worship the ancient gods of Mount Olympus; Home of the Brave, Paola Di Floria’s absorbing documentary on the life and death of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman killed in the violence of the 1960s civil rights movement; Finding Faith in Christ, a surprisingly funky 29-minute film produced by the Mormon Church, in which the Apostle Thomas recalls Christ’s ministry during a dinner party at his humble home; Algeria’s Bloody Years, a harrowing documentary tracing the North African nation’s seemingly endless civil war; and Giant Behind Zipper, the unintentionally hilarious striptease video where Las Vegas muscleman Rico Elbaz completely embarrasses himself for the cause of shameless exploitation.
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