Monday, 1 April 2013

Best of 2012, part 2 - April Fools

I am sorry for keeping you waiting so long for the second installment of my year best list. I wanted to make a list featuring all the good stuff that was left without theatrical release - those that went straight to DVD or only had a limited festival screening. Well, I am all the more proud of the conclusive list made here and now. All of these films are lesser known, but well worth searching and checking out.

10. Thunder Gun Express (USA)
Director: Amos Santo

This low-budget action movie owes a big debt to Wages of Fear as well as William Friedkin's Sorceror. In post-apocalyptic Philadelphia, a shipment of experimental guns to the military gets hassled by a gang of outlaw bikers. Obviously, if the guns got in the wrong hands all hell would break loose. But even more dangerous is that secretly one of the trucks in the convoy contains a casket of highly explosive chemicals that could level off several city blocks.

The cast and crew are almost unknown, but they do tremendous work here. The film isn't afraid to experiment with your fast-paced action movie storytelling quite a bit. We see the anguish in people's faces in close ups in the midst of fighting, and surprisingly also spend quite a lot of time to view the ordeal from the biker's point of view. Mark my words, director Amos Santo will make it big one of these days.

9. Octopus Slime (Indonesia)
Director: Patar Lando

Okay, I admit that this is not a good film as such. But this so-called "horror" movie is hilarious in its own right. The Indonesian tradition of making the most hilariously outrageous and madcap exploitation movies truly still lives large today. This cheesefest concerns a nuclear power plant disaster releasing fallout to the sea, which of course makes the octopuses sprout legs and learn to walk on land and prey on the flesh of the people. Not to spoil too much of the story, but it manages to tie together robot butlers, evil clowns and a scientist who saves the day with a power drill. Laughed myself silly.

8. Oliver's Arrow (Surinam)
Director: Roo Okinagabe

African film industry is rising and many countries have started to produce intriguing films based on their native legends and stories. Case in point is this film from Suriname, which updates an old folk tale. A small child travels the African plains, handing the animals their jobs in the circle of life. As he arrives to the mountainside, he finds reaching the mountain-dwelling animals troublesome. On the way, he falls in love with an eagle, that sometimes takes the form of a young girl.

I like the world-view where there is no clear good and evil, and characters are either attempting to do their duties or dismissing them because of their own personal reasons. All the talking animals are animated traditionally, while humans are portrayed by actors, Roger Rabbit-style. The story brings to mind the Kirikou movies, and this proves to be as stylish as they are.

7. Space Orcs (Orkusu spaisu, Japan)
Director: Isagawa Oni

This Japanese splatter has a surprisingly heavy athmosphere. It's a bit too much to compare it to Alien, when more suitable comparisons would be Sunshine or Dante 01. Cross-bred with Braindead. A cargo shuttle finds out that a mysterious breed of yes, Space Orcs, is on their tail. Initially seeming like an odd alien race, there's a lot more sinister secret behind the monsters.

Violence is inventive, gruesome and very, very silly at the same time. The CGI shots are reserved to outerior shots of spaceships and the vastness of space. The titular monsters are done with good old-fashioned rubber masks. Which is good that they hid mostly in shadows, hiding the clunkiness of that departement. This is a really rare breed, a convincing sci-fi story that forces you to think, yet serves our most primal blood-hunger and makes us laugh at the same time. A future cult movie.

6. Prognosis: Negative (Israel)
Director: Lamar Fuleh

A talkative spy thriller from the Middle East showcases much of the daily routines of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. Agent Avi Azulai (Rami Fortis) discovers his partner is a traitor. In order to determine how he has been infiltrated he has to go through old files, and at the same time goes through his own history in the agency. His mission is to set up a trap to the enemies, but instead he finds out he might have not been on the side of the good so firmly as he has believed.

Naturally, this is on Israel's side of the Palestinian conflict, but that doesn't stop it from questioning the nation's policies. Morally, it's set on a grey area, questioning a lot of Israel's status of free speech, right to religion and even the power of the government. This is told mostly in dialogue scenes, with only a few outside shots. It's captivating stuff to watch. This would make a good double feature with The Gatekeepers.

5. Boyfight 2 (Luta meninos 2, Brazil)
Director: Fender Lasco

The first in this series of Brazilian crime action was brutal, the second one delves a lot deeper. Drug cartels kidnap children in the slums, forcing them to fight for money. In the first one, a full-grown former fighter Del (City of God's Leandro Firmino) rose to a battle against his mob overlords, reflecting Spartacus in a modern-day environment. Now, Del has risen to a public campaigner for having raids to stop the illegal fighting rings. Yet dirty politicians attempt to keep the slums isolated and quiet, particularly since Rio's tourist season is approaching. Del must fight on two fronts.

The film does seem to overplay Rio's crime problems a bit, but since director Lasco offers some of the most jaw-dropping action scenes of recent years, one can forgive a little jump into fiction. After all, the film shines light on how corrupt the society is that doesn't even bother to check into something as horrifying as boyfighting. The style is kept gritty and Firmino is as good as ever.

4. The Bonar Law Story (UK)
Director: Ollie Islington

Based on an old script written by none other than Monty Python's John Cleese back in the 1970's, it's no wonder this surreal comedy took this long to make. For one, the release of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and the discussion in Britain afterwards eerily seemed to echo a lot of Cleese's text. Later, a lot of his lawyer character here was rewritten for Archie Leach in A Fish Called Wanda. This is a pitch-black satire on the reception of art and entertainment. It concerns the trial of a filmmaker whose latest experimental film has had a series of rather peculiar effects on the audience. Or the rag-tag team of bullies and higher-ups just finds to blame an already down-on-his luck man for their own crimes.

The film's biggest surprise, as well as it's strength, is it's odd turn to surrealism in the third act. In contrast, modern technology is better suited for visions such as people growing a billion years old in seconds. The risque sex sequences would have been hard to get through the censors back in the day. The film seethes with the good, old-time John Cleese wit and comedy, both physical as well as banter and keeping up appearances. Comedian Islington is a worthy successor and makes the lofty Python satisfied with his vivid storytelling skills, even if Cleese had denounced the script before the project started.

3. Harvest of the Blood Oranges (India/USA)
Director: Oren R. Peli

Who could've known that the director of Paranormal Activity actually had the chops to make a good horror movie? It helps that the funding comes from his native India, even if the film is in English. Bollywood superstar (and True Lies villain) Art Malik makes an early appearance that essentially casts him in the role of Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea.

In a vast Indian orange farm, foul play is afoot. The battle for the inheritance of the farm makes a jealous uncle summon shadow demons from the netherworlds. They lurk within the trees, day or night. As most horror films are used to having jump-scares in the dark, Peli manages to bring the genre to light and somehow use the heat of Indian Summer in his advantage. The film feels sweaty, uncomfortable and, crucially scary. Well done, Mr. Peli! Now, please stay where you are.

2. Ponce De Leon (The Netherlands)
Director: Len Paulaner

The Dutch adventure film of a famous explorer who may or may not have discovered the fountain of youth. Ponce (Derek De Lint) is a conquistador attempting to prove that there are mystical Inca treasures hidden in the jungle, but have his expedition cut short as all the other members keep dying. nevertheless, he presses forward. In a double role, De Lint also plays a 1930's explorer Paul Lindtmann that has similar obsessions of the jungle. Is he a reincarnation or even Ponce himself having survived for so long?

There's a real Indiana Jones-like quality with the adventure here, with a lot of native mysticism, raw willpower and cliffhanger-like situations. The flashback-like cutting style is familiar to anyone who has watched Lost. Unlike that series, however, this film raises a lot of questions but doesn't bother to give a left-handed explanation to even the major ones. There's a real mindfuck ending that makes one want to return to the jungles with Ponce again and again.

1. Changing Season (Canada)
Director: Sally Avril

Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz meet Terrence Malick. This out-of-sequence story of a marriage crumbling down is exhilaratingly sad and visually stunning. Lenny (Edwin Autridge) is happily married to Anna (Katharine Isabelle), but when he meets a new business partner Brett (David Lawrence), he seems to start to question his sexuality. We don't know what becomes of the men, but we cut forward to the following winter when Anna is alone, her life crumbled and afraid to trust anyone.

Much like life in general, the film tends to have a soft focus around its story. Director Avril plays a lot with symbolism and intercuts the personal drama with a lot of breathtaking nature scenes. In a sort of Lynchian manner, several scenes are also done with crude stop-motion animation. While heartbreaking, it's also inventive, surprising and more than a bit odd. There's only so many relationship stories one can tell, but this film proves that the number of how they can be told are endless.

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