Best in Unseen Cinema 2008

One of the banes and benefits of being a professional film critic is the screener. Indie movies that are either too small to warrant a screening or so desperate for press that publicists will get the movie into your hands anyway, anyhow lots of times get viewed at home. These advance screeners used to come on VHS tape but now arrive on disk, copied from computers onto DVD-Rs.

Lots of times they’re awful, and that they don’t get seen anywhere else but in movie critics’ living rooms isn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes, though … sometimes they’re great, and it’s a real shame that you probably didn’t see them. Here is the best unseen cinema from last year, most of which I saw on screener:

  1. Self-effacing vanity projects—B-listers Adam Carolla and Bruce Campbell both shepherded personal projects to the big screen last year. Carolla’s modest The Hammer drew on his experiences as a carpenter and an amateur boxer before he became a radio and television celebrity. And Campbell pokes fun at his own celebrity in the spoof My Name Is Bruce. Both are musts if you’re a fan and worth seeing even if you’re not.
  2. Actors’ actors—Indian director Udayan Prasad’s lovely drama The Yellow Handkerchief attracted a quartet of performers—William Hurt (The Incredible Hulk, Vantage Point), Maria Bello (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), Kristen Stewart (Jumper, Twilight), and Eddie Redmayne (The Other Boleyn Girl)—unlikely to find such rich characters in the mainstream movies in which they also appear in order to pay the bills while they wait for more scripts like this one to come along.
  3. Foreign films—Spain’s Elsa & Fred is a beautiful romance about love found late in life. Israel’s Jellyfish is comprised of three elegiac vignettes about three disparate Tel Aviv women. And Argentina’s Sangre de mi Sangre explores the Mexican immigrant experience in New York City. All three are discoveries worthy seeking out.
  4. Sports documentaries—Chris Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster* and Adam Yauch’s Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot both offer nuanced portraits of athletics. The former investigates steroids, exploring its benefits as well as its side effects, while the latter is a poetic ode to high-school basketball with a peek at the underbelly of the industry.
  5. Foreign docs—Man on Wire, which revisits Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope stunt at the World Trade Center in the guise of a heist film, has captured the imagination of moviegoers and earned almost $3 million. Heddy Honigmann’s Forever also captures the imagination with its portrait of life and death set against the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
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