Our official “B-movie” distribution stream — straight-to-DVD releases — grows in number and variety every year, as fewer films can be, or at least are, affordably shown theatrically than ever before. And these titles still can’t qualify for awards or polls of any kind, or often even reviews, as the number of theatrical screens continues to drop. Does this make any sense? Here’re my favorites from this year, the movies that first saw American screens (big or small) on digital video in 2008, be they brand new or decades old.
1. “Sophie’s Place”
Lawrence Jordan, U.S., 1986
The renowned yet all-but-forgotten avant-garde filmmaker’s grand animated masterpiece, a Victorian-styled dream-collage-painting-fever-feature brimming with hundreds of inexplicable epiphanies and a sense of visual magic that is all but utterly unique to Jordan. This honey was ensconced in Facets’ lavish, under-celebrated set “The Lawrence Jordan Album,” which in itself is more of an honor than I ever guessed an “underground” filmmaker would get in this country, and at this late date.
2. “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?”
William Klein, France, 1966
Klein’s first feature lays into the maelstrom of Euro-fashion mercilessly, making vicious fun of men and sexism and media shallowness and Diana Vreeland and haute couture (the opening sequence plays out behind the scenes at a runway show where a designer has outfitted his girls entirely in giant shards of sharp-edged aluminum) along the way. It’s nothing less than Voltairean in its exactitude.
Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Poland, 1956
A contemporary of Andrzej Wajda who’s little acknowledged in this country, Kawalerowicz helped break the Polish New Wave in the mid-’50s, but even within his underexamined filmography, 1956’s “Shadow” is a mysterious and rarely discussed work, a lurking examination of collaborationism and resistance as it’s expressed in an investigation into the identity of a dead man. Where has this strange, stealthy film been all these years, we may well ask, but you may have to watch it twice before the tendons of the plot reveal themselves to you.
4. “Diva Dolorosa”
Peter Delpeut, Netherlands, 1999
This assemblage constructed of Italian silent-movie footage from the Black Romantic melodramas of the 1910s is literally a litany of mad, love-damned swoons. But Delpeut is crafting a found-object poem here, with a rhapsodic orchestral score and a sure sense of how such weepy, proto-campy mega-sadness can collect in your head as a statement about its own culture, and also as a love song about cinema itself, and therefore about lost time.
Larisa Shepitko, U.S.S.R., 1966
The first feature by the martyred demi-goddess of the Soviet New Wave, and a refreshing, heartfelt character portrait of a middle-aged woman (played by beloved character star Maya Bulgakova) caught in a menopausal lostness between her current lonely and unadventurous life as a headmistress, and her previous one as an aviatrix and war heroine. Made when Shepitko was only 28, it’s one of the great movies about women’s lives (that is, not about their place in the lives of men), and a rare exploration of female mid-life crisis.