December 18, 2012

BEST OF 2012: The Underdogs

by Steve Dollar


As a critic, each week brings a new stack of screeners, a marathon of film festival screenings or advance studio previews. It adds up and like the sorcerer's apprentice, you can find yourself quickly overwhelmed. So much goes by the wayside: ignored, misplaced, forgotten, neglected, put off for another day that never comes. Before 2012 comes to a close it seemed timely to dig into the pile and retrieve some overlooked winners. (Well, not entirely overlooked. I'd already checked out one of these films, but never officially reviewed it).

Below are five favorites—major sleepers all—and the festival or program where I first became aware of them. So far, only two have been (just barely) theatrically released in the United States.

Call Girl

Call Girl (Toronto International Film Festival)
Swedish (and more broadly Scandinavian) cinema has a well-earned reputation for sexual candor and a certain utopian spirit: hippies, pot-smoking, free love, socialism. Yee-haw. Set in the 1970s of ABBA and bell-bottoms, this slow-burning exposé, based on the true story of a national sex scandal, turns all that inside-out. It begins as a harmless enough tale of juvenile misadventure. At night, teenaged Iris (Sofia Karemyr) sneaks out with friends from the girls' home to which she's been assigned and gets into trouble. A local pervert pays them to take off their clothes and dance for his erotic amusement. The girls get some cash and some kicks, but soon they fall into the web of the seductive madam Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August, not shy about showing off some skin herself), who lures the sweet young things into her prostitution ring, servicing a who's who of the nation's political elite. It's all so uncomfortably rape-y that you're actually glad when director Mikael Marcimain turns his voyeuristic camera to furtive observations of the police procedural that shadows these close encounters. At two-and-a-half hours, the movie is way too long. Marcimain directed the second unit for Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and brings much of that film's terrifically fluid camerawork to bear. Best yet, the movie co-stars Sven Nordin as the madam's sleazy consort. Nordin played the abundantly emo father in the Norwegian coming-of-age comedy Sons of Norway, and has lost none of his Sex Viking swagger.

The Hole

The Hole (Sitges Film Festival, 2009. Now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD)
Three years after its festival premiere, Joe Dante's teenage supernatural suspense yarn was dumped into limited release in a handful of theaters—originally conceived as a 3D adventure. Not based on the Charles Burns graphic novel Black Hole, the film is instead a welcome throwback to the good-kid scary movies that Disney once specialized in, one whose adolescents are more-or-less as wholesome and the language, violence and skin exposure is kept to PG levels. New kid on the block Dane (Chris Massoglia) moves into boring Small Town, U.S.A. with his little brother (Nathan Gamble) and single mom (Teri Polo) in tow. But it's not so dull, after all, when the boys discover a bottomless pit tucked away in the basement. The mysterious portal even lures the cute girl next door Julie (Haley Bennett, who was dead-on as the faux-Zen Britney Spears wanna-be in Music and Lyrics). She delivers the movie's best line: "Is that what you do for fun in Brooklyn, play with your holes?" That's about as racy as it gets, but Dante compels grown-up interest with a simple if well-drawn narrative with flourishes of CGI-enhanced J-Horror and A Nightmare on Elm Street tropes.

Generation P

Generation P (Miami International Film Festival)
Something like a Putin-era edition of Mad Men hijacked by Tarkovsky and Jodorowsky (or maybe a vodka-soaked Lindsay Anderson), this satire of Russia after Communism has the capillary-zapping sting of a rail of cocaine. Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifancev) becomes well acquainted with that sensation as a chance encounter elevates him from the bottom rung of black marketeering to the sleek, shiny boardrooms of the rogue capitalist gold rush, where he's pressed into action as a copywriter. Much of the outrageous fun comes from director Victor Ginzburg's visualizations of the advertising campaigns, which spin on boldly irreverent parodies of Russian culture and politics. He's as brutal, sophomoric and awfully hilarious as Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park infamy, but guided by an actual perspective of social critique, not just shotgunning sacred cows. Babylen (his name is a conscious riff on Babylon and Lenin) isn't quite an innocent, but his naïveté aligns him with the audience as he makes his pilgrim's progress toward decadence, cynicism and enlightenment—from the mouth of a reanimated Che Guevara, whom he meets on one of several psychedelic trips, courtesy of mushrooms supplied by a mystic cohort who lives near a Babel-like tower in a forest (see: Tarkvosky reference above). The film played New Directors/New Films and is currently showing at a theater in Coney Island. This weekend, it opens at Manhattan's Cinema Village.

Tiger Tail in Blue

Tiger Tail in Blue (Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, Museum of Modern Art)
Chicago-based actor/writer/director Frank V. Ross is the least widely known, yet perhaps most splendidly singular of mumblecore-era filmmakers. His movies just get better and better. The fact that this delicate, nuanced and heartfelt comedy was turned down by every single festival to which Ross submitted it is just flat-out disgusting. This dude can't even get arrested, it seems, and what a goddamn shame that is. At least, the Museum of Modern Art got it right, securing Ross a Gotham Award nomination (alongside such worthies as Amy Seimetz, Terence Nance and the Zellner Brothers). Thanks to Kentucker Audley and his indispensable website No Budge, Ross got some overdue online exposure this year. He takes a rare lead in this one, playing a witty, struggling thirty-something artist (not unlike himself) who waits tables while his new wife Melody (Rebecca Spence) works as teacher. Because they work opposite shifts, they rarely see each other except for a few hours in bed late at night. Ross casually works up the premise into a subtle, realistic glance at the difficulties of adult relationships, throwing in workplace temptation in the form of Brandy (Megan Mercier)—a cute colleague at the restaurant who happens to look suspiciously like his wife (and, in portions of the film, is actually portrayed by Spence, setting up all kinds of Buñuelian curiousities). The original jazz score by John Medeski and Chris Speed has a lovely tinge of melancholy and upward lilt of hopefulness, its elegance an adroit counterpoint to the interludes of excruciation that Ross nails dead-on with his dialogue. (An awkward conversation with Brandy's hirsute housemate after he decides to accompany her home after work will trigger deep laughs and shudders of recognition).


Kuichisan (LaDiDa Film Festival)
Saving the best for last, this is my top undistributed film of the year. Another one that slipped through the cracks of the festival process, Maiko Endo's impressionistic journey to Okinawa eludes category. Programmer Miriam Bale gave it a US premiere at her inaugural LaDiDa Film Festival, held at Manhattan's 92Y Tribeca in September, but it might be the most obscure great film of 2012. Broadly described, the film follows the adventures of a little boy (Raizo Ishiahara) and an American tourist (Eléonore Hendricks), among others, through the course of some seemingly random wanderings and encounters that variously evoke the transcendence of nature, the force of ritual, and the vitality and danger of the streets. There's not a lot of dialogue, and the cinematography (by ace cinematographer Sean Price Williams) uses rich celluloid in black-and-white and color to create striking and often mysterious compositions that both stand on their own as poetic images and flow into each other to establish a kind of psychic mosaic. The focus on themes of memory, place, childhood and landscape suggested, for me, the meta-documentaries of the Left Bank School (Agnes Varda, Chris Marker) while much of the image-making packed the vivid immediacy of seminal American independent cinema of the '50s and '60s. Maybe if Endo's concept had been more narrowly focused the film would have enjoyed some of the traction pulled by Turner and Bill Ross IV's (sterling) Tchoupitoulas, but it's a more abstract and challenging work—enhanced by an original soundtrack of traditional and avant-garde sounds—that isn't easy to crack. Seek it.

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Posted by ahillis at December 18, 2012 2:44 PM