Posted by Susan Doll on December 17, 2012
Each year, it becomes more difficult to pull together my top-ten list of “Films You Will Likely Never See,” which is my annual compilation of indies, documentaries, and mistreated Hollywood films. Part of the problem is that it is getting harder for indies and documentaries to find distribution and exhibition. If it were not for film festivals and venues such as Facets Multimedia, these smart, challenging titles would go completely unnoticed.
My list also includes Hollywood features that have been overlooked or marketed badly by studios incapable of promoting anything to anyone who is not an adolescent male. The impression left to the press and movie-goers of the studios’ negligence or narrow-minded marketing is that these films are not worthy viewing, which is often untrue. Recently, in an interview with IndieWire, director James Gray (We Own the Night; Lowlife) criticized Hollywood for its dismissal of “middle” movies, that is, middle-budgeted Hollywood efforts with glamorous stars and high production values. These are not huge blockbusters, awards contenders, or low-budget indie-style movies but competently crafted dramas, mysteries, or comedies with something of interest for a segment of the viewing audience. Often, middle movies foreground theme, character, and dialogue over computer effects, ironic one-liners, or hip nonlinear structures. Not only are studios producing fewer and fewer “middle movies,” but those that are released suffer from misguided or too little marketing. Gray’s so-called “middle movies” are those that tend to make my end-of-the-year list.
To be clear, my top-ten list does not represent the best films from this year; nor are they my ten favorites. It’s a list of unconventional, challenging, and provocative movies that didn’t get the attention they deserved. Take the time to track down one or two; if you consider yourself a movie-lover, you’ll be glad you did.
1. HELL AND BACK AGAIN. This year, I could not decide on a runaway favorite for my list; however, this film stayed with me the longest as the war in Afghanistan drags on, sucking the last shred of optimism and innocence from the working class men and women who fight it. Hell and Back Again, a 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, offers an insider’s view of the struggles faced by American soldiers returning from the front in Afghanistan. Embedded in Echo Company during a 2009 assault on a Taliban stronghold, director Danfung Dennis captures the frontline action as the unit is attacked by a ghostlike enemy. Compounding their problems are hostile villagers displaced by a war they have no say in. However, it isn’t the combat scenes that are the most devastating; it’s the footage of Sergeant Nathan Harris’s return to the States after he’s injured in battle. Expecting to return to a normal life with his wife and family, Harris discovers his transition complicated by mental instability and emotional trauma. That these problems are the direct result of combat experience is made clear by the film’s structure. Instead of organizing the footage chronologically, Dennis intercuts between the Afghanistan sequences and Harris’s hardships stateside. The nonlinear structure is innovative for a documentary in a verite style, but it clearly reveals that Harris’s pain, trauma, and delusions are the result of battle.
2. THE FRONT LINE. Another film that made a lasting impression on me is also about the horrors of combat. A war drama from South Korea, The Front Line (Go-ji-jeon) is set during the final weeks of the Korean War, as commanders are hammering out the truce and arguing over the exact border between North and South Korea. Each side fights for every inch of land, particularly on the Eastern Front where the barren, scarred Aerok Hill has changed hands dozens of times. Kang, played by Shin Ha-Kyun, is sent to the front to investigate whether a North Korean mole has infiltrated a platoon of South Korean troops. Once there, he joins the efforts to re-take and hold Aerok Hill, an exercise in futility that illustrates the absurdity of war. Director Jang Hun’s command of filmmaking techniques is evident in the tense and gruesome combat scenes, but it’s the powerful story and sincere emotion among the characters that make the film vivid and compelling.
3. THIN ICE. A mystery thriller with a touch of black humor, Thin Ice stars Greg Kinnear as insurance agent Mickey Prohaska who is always looking for a big score. And, Mickey is willing to lie, scheme, and cheat the good people of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to land it. When he discovers that elderly, senile Gorvy Hauer owns a rare violin, he decides to steal the violin and replace it with a worthless fiddle. One of the pleasures of this film is the way it makes great use of the actors’ star images. Kinnear plays against his nice-guy image to great advantage while the film spins on Alan Arkin’s performance as Gorvy . As much as I liked him in Argo, Arkin’s role here is much richer. Near the end of the film, he will break your heart as his defeated character ruminates on the cold-hearted nature of contemporary society; and yet, there is more to Gorvy than Mickey—or, the viewer—realizes. Thin Ice was directed by Jill Sprecher, who deftly switches tone from black comedy to mystery to a caper film before the viewer realizes the tone and direction have changed. Thin Ice did not get a fair shake upon release; it deserves a second look.
4. SHADOW DANCER. James Marsh, whose 2009 documentary Man on Wire won an Oscar, directed this Irish political drama. The story is set in 1993 and revolves around a young Belfast woman named Colette McVeigh, who is played by newcomer Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s W.E.). Colette works for the IRA underground, a cause with a clear purpose in the 1970s when her little brother was killed in violent crossfire. Twenty years later, compromises and deals between the Irish and the English make the cause less noble and less clear-cut. The always-appealing Clive Owen costars as a British intelligence officer who makes a secret deal with Colette. The film charts the impact of long-term imperialist occupation and terrorist retaliation on the lives of ordinary people—a theme still relevant today.
5. BERNIE. Recently, Matthew McConaughey was named Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle for his performances in Steven Soderberg’s highly touted Magic Mike and Richard Linklater’s under-rated Bernie. This quirky comedy is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a former Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral home director who confessed to killing Marjorie Nugent, a rich 81-year-old widow, in 1996. Linklater offers something rarely seen in Hollywood—a regional story with warmly drawn characters. Offbeat, quirky, and humorous, the characters make up the fabric of a community recognizable to those familiar with small towns. Jack Black’s joy in playing the title role is infectious, while McConaughey offers a layered performance as a character who is something of a performer himself. However, it is old pro Shirley MacLaine as the reviled Marjorie Nugent who delivers an amazing performance more dependent on expression and gesture than dialogue. Marjorie and Bernie’s story unfolds as an ordinary narrative, which is intercut with interview footage of real-life residents of Carthage as well as actors playing characters. Just when you think one of the actors is over the top, an interview with a real-life resident proves otherwise!
6. PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY. Directors Joseph Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky not only chronicled the fate of the West Memphis 3 for 20 year in their trilogy of documentaries, but their work kept the case in the news. Without the attention brought by the films, the fates of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley might have been different. The original Paradise Lost covered the arrest and conviction of the trio for killing three small boys. Because Echols wore black, listened to metal music, had been arrested for minor offenses, and reportedly talked about drinking blood, stories of Satanism and human sacrifice swirled around the first trial. All three were working class kids whose families did not have the means to fight the system with high-powered attorneys. Echols was sentenced to death; Baldwin got a life sentence; and Misskelley was given life plus 40 years. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations speculated on other potential suspects. The thrust of Paradise Lost 3 was to follow the forensic evidence brought to light in 2007, which excluded the Memphis 3 as possible murderers. The prosecuting team, the chief investigator, and the original judge dug their heels in, refused to consider the forensic analysis, and did not want new evidence to be formally presented in court as a means to free the Memphis 3. They simply did not want to admit they bungled the case originally. The Paradise Lost Trilogy is a reminder of the inequalities of the justice system, especially for those who do not have the means for decent legal representation.
7. THE GIRLS IN THE BAND. Directed by Judy Chaikin (Legacy of the Blacklist), The Girls in the Band chronicles the forgotten history of women jazz musicians, from pre-WWII to the present day, focusing on The Ada Leonard Orchestra, Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The women tell powerful stories about their struggles against blatant gender and racial discrimination. All-girl bands were formed because men refused to play with women. Even if a bandleader was bold enough to hire a woman, the other musicians refused to work until she was fired. Many of the musicians proved enduring and influential, such as Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Lil; others were significant arrangers, including Mary Lou Williams, who was responsible for the sounds of famous jazz orchestras. This documentary is truly a crowd pleaser because the women are colorful and charismatic, the big-band era is appealing as nostalgia, and the music is terrific.
8. THE BENGALI DETECTIVE. I include this documentary because the subject is truly quirky yet so sincere that it is touching. A hit at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, the film follows a Bengali private detective, Rajesh Ji, and his assistants as they investigate crimes ranging from counterfeiting to adultery to triple homicide. Though he does not want to quit his day job, Rajesh dreams of winning a national TV talent show. To that end, he and his detectives practice extravagant dance routines in the hopes of performing on their favorite TV talent show. Through both his investigative work and personal life, Rajesh the detective reveals the realities of modern India. The Bengali Detective was picked up by Fox Searchlight for a fictional remake; it will be interesting to see Hollywood interpret this one.
9. KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Already declared a major box office bomb, this challenging gangster drama tells the story of hired killer Cogan, played by Brad Pitt, who is asked to re-set the balance of power in the criminal underworld after two idiots rob an illegal poker game. Set in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, the demolished neighborhood has changed little since Hurricane Katrina—despite promises by politicians to rebuild. The only enterprise left in the 9th Ward is illegal in nature—gambling, prostitution, drugs—so when the game is hit by greedy amateurs, the delicate economic balance is upset. The balance is restored by making the lowest rung of the ladder pay and by clearing out middlemen who represent the last vestiges of loyalty and logic. Only the greedy and the ruthless remain. Like traditional gangster films, Killing Them Softly is a metaphor for the world of business in which characters with no morality or ethics claw their way up the ladder of success on the backs of others. The “business” referenced in this film is the financial community of investments, banking, and Wall Street, who nearly collapsed the country with their unmitigated greed in 2008. To make this clear, the time frame of the film is the 2008 election; we see televisions continually showing glimpses of the outgoing and incoming presidents making speeches about the economy. Killing Them Softly is as unkind to Obama as it is to Bush, accusing both parties of meaningless rhetoric while those who caused the collapse were never held accountable for their sins.
This film is relentlessly brutal with nasty characters who are disgusting in word and deed. There is no “cool-looking” violence and no sympathetic thugs made likable by quirky personalities or ironic one-liners. It is the antithesis of the Tarantino wannabes who, lacking his talent, have devalued the crime thriller and gangster drama with trite, self-reflexive banter and romanticized thugs and killers (see Seven Psychopaths for a perfect example, or, rather, don’t see it). Killing Them Softly is a harsh viewing experience and not to everyone’s taste, but I don’t think that accounted entirely for its failure. The studio’s marketing strategy was to tout it as a Seven Psychopaths, which misrepresented it, especially to the target audience of teenage boys who revel in immature behavior and adolescent rebellion. It’s certainly not an action romp but the sharpest social commentary.
10. THE RAVEN. I consider Killing Them Softly and The Raven examples of “middle movies” as defined above. Though flawed in different ways, each is worth checking out because they offer something of interest to viewers who are not part of the target demographic. Unfortunately, neither film was marketed properly nor given much of a chance in theaters, which were too eager to rid themselves of movies declared to be bombs by an entertainment press obsessed with opening weekend. The Raven follows Edgar Allan Poe, played by John Cusack, during the last weeks of his life as he helps a police detective solve a series of murders inspired by his stories. Reviewers dismissed the film as too pulpy or not as good as an actual Poe story, which seems a bizarre criticism to me. I liked the Gothic atmosphere as well as the highly speculative interpretation of Poe’s mysterious death. But, I really appreciated director James McTiegue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare use of Poe—who is presented as the originator of genre—to ponder the connection between popular culture and antisocial behavior. Did Poe’s stories influence a killer to strike down innocent victims, and by extension do today’s violent movies inspire comparable negative behavior?
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