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Straight Outta Digi: The Best Non-Theatrical Debuts of ’07

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Nao Omori and Shinobu Terajima in “Vibrator,” Kino Video, 2007]

So, here’s the return of the Revenge of the Straight-to-Video Best-of muster roll because, as we should all know by now, fewer films can be (or at least are) affordably shown theatrically than ever before, and as a result, scores of worthwhile movies see their first “release” in the U.S. on DVD every year. But where are the kudos? A film that premieres on disc can’t qualify for inclusion in critics’ polls and award systems, despite the fact that the receipts are often higher than a specialty theatrical run would garner since the rentable/buyable indie or import in question is far more accessible (Amazonable, Netflixable, etc.) and can be seen by more people. Of course, some of this year’s standouts are decades old, so blame and shame cannot be laid solely upon contemporary distributors; perhaps, instead of kvetching, we should declare a toast to the digital video formats we have and ones to come, which as they keep people home and from tossing a ten-spot at the newest tripe, also democratize and egalitarianize the history of cinema. Skol!

1. “Vibrator” (Dir. Ryuichi Hiroki, 2003; Kino) [Amazon link]

Japanese ultra-naturalism-cum-subjective plunge, tracing the ersatz romance between an unstable bulimic girl (the amazing Shinobu Terajima) and a slack but sweet-natured truck driver (Nao Omori). Urban cool, until it sneaks up to your soft side with a sledgehammer.

2. “Pitfall” (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962; Criterion Collection) [Amazon link]

Teshigahara’s feature debut: A miner and his son, escaping from slave-like employment, wander into the remains of a deunionized coal mining town, followed by a company assassin and faced with the town’s population of company-murdered ghosts soon after. “Pitfall” was the most impressive film debut of 1962, beating out, I dare say, even Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.”

3. “Wooden Crosses” (Dir. Raymond Bernard, 1932; Eclipse) [Amazon link]

Arguably the greatest of the early talkie WWI antiwar sagas, beating out Milestone’s revered “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Gance’s “J’Accuse” (partly because the film is peerlessly cynical about military life and its purpose), this lost and found resonator follows a ramshackle regiment of French trench soldiers in a seemingly pointless undulation between irreverent downtime camaraderie and combat experiences that are tantamount to running into a plane propeller.

4. “FIVE dedicated to Ozu” (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2003; Kino) [Amazon link]

On one hand, AK’s mega-minimalist experiment is the antithesis of everything we take movies to be — momentum, speed, energy, character, story, glamour, visual saturation. On the other, it’s so winnowed down, so pure in its affect that it comes close to being distilled cinema — nothing but the ping-pong between images, your eyeballs, time, and your cerebral cortex acting and reacting, observing the film and itself in the process.

5. “Green Chair” (Dir. Park Chul-soo, 2005; ImaginAsian/Genius Products) [Amazon link]

A tempestuous, achingly lovely, slightly batty and overwhelmingly horny Korean romance that begins with a familiar news item: A thirty-something woman caught and persecuted for having a sexual relationship with an underage teen. But the upshot is much more complex — the two vrooming lovers fit together like ragged puzzle pieces; they have fun as they gamble everything that society holds dear to be together, and have more spirited, moving and realistic sex than I think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie.

6. “On the Silver Globe” (Dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 1987; Polart) [Amazon link]

Torrential, notorious, incomplete, scary crazy Polish sci-fi — canceled in mid-shoot and reassembled after the fall of communism — by Europe’s reigning hyperbolist.

7. “Radio On” (Dir. Christopher Petit, 1979; Plexifilm) [Amazon link]

Rich in zeitgeisty goodness, Petit’s debut freeze-dries England on the dusk of the punk era in the backseat of a sullen roadtrip, during which the landscape does most of the talking.

8. “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (Dir. Catalin Mitulescu, 2006; Film Movement) [Amazon link]

The Romanian New Wave’s generational anthem film, returning yet again to the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall, but with a tempestuous high school heroine (Doroteea Petre, a trophy winner at Cannes) lost in the burgs who defies categorization. Might hit theaters in ’08.

9. “The Castle” (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997; Kino) [Amazon link]

Haneke’s Austrian TV version of Kafka’s novel is so lean and wintry and moldy and claustrophobic, it may be a definitive adaptation.

10. “And Quiet Flows the Don” (Dir. Sergei Gerasimov, 1957; Kino) [Amazon link]

This five-and-a-half-hour epic is famously regarded as the “Gone With The Wind” of Soviet cinema — a rambling, episodic, and muscular peasant melodrama based on a novel by Nobelist Mikhail Sholokhov that follows two extremely unlucky lovers as they face untold tragedy before, during and after the October Revolution. But actually, it’s all about sex and the struggle between traditional agrarian-social values and the messy reality of sex desired, refused, consummated, forcibly taken and child-productive.

11. “Moscow Elegy” (Dir. Alexander Sokurov, 1987; Ideale Audience) [Amazon link]

Sokurov’s salute to his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky one year after the master’s death is personal without getting personal. Spare on biography, the film is an unaccented eulogy, a melancholy portrait of the man at work (on “Nostalghia” and “The Sacrifice”) and at repose. Typically, Sokurov finds reason to eulogize Russia as well in the mix of footage (some rough and small gauge, some old and found); being quintessentially Russian, he rarely abandons an opportunity to examine the mournfulness of the landscape that surrounds his subject.

12. “The Freethinker” (Dir. Peter Watkins, 1994; New Yorker Video) [Amazon link]

Watkins’ four-and-a-half-hour essay on the life and legacy of the famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg, the controversial misanthrope, notoriously disastrous family man and self-destructive genius, is no mere mock doc, but a collage of formal ideas that mixes faux-documentary elements with cohesive dramatization, archival footage, photos, huge chunks of Strindbergian text, direct camera address, group discussions, documentary footage of the making of the film itself, texts by Watkins about Strindberg, the film and Watkins’ outrageous, but indisputable, summary evaluation of modern media, and so on.

13. “Black Test Car” (Dir. Yasuzo Masumura, 1962; Fantoma) [Amazon link]

Running neck and neck with notorious auteur maudit Seijun Suzuki as the most outrageous and breakneck Japanese pulp force of the ’60s, Masumura is only now being revealed to us, one DVD at a time. This ridiculously feverish and visually elegant thriller about industrial espionage is another brick in a distinctive wall.

14. “The Doll” (Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1919; Kino) [Amazon link]

Midway through his German period, Lubitsch knocked out this cardboard fairy tale answer to “Lars and the Real Girl,” a year before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Still witty as hell.

15. “The Call of Cthulhu” (Dir. Andrew Leman, 2005; Microcinema DVD) [Amazon link]

An “all-new silent” film, scrupulously faithful to H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal 1928 tale, that runs only 47 minutes but packs enough storytelling and energetic incident to fill out a mini-series. Leman et al. cut every corner and freely employ obvious miniatures to tell the tale within a tale within a tale, from the Providence streets all the way to the mid-Pacific night and the stop-motion appearance of the Old God himself. Manages to be creepy in a cheap, unstable, kids-pretending-in-the-woods kind of way.

Runners-up: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (Dir. David Lee Fisher, 2005; Image Entertainment), “Able Edwards” (Dir. Graham Robertson, 2004; Heretic Films), “Isolation” (Dir. Billy O’Brien, 2005; First Look Pictures), “Horrors of Malformed Men” (Dir. Teruo Ishii, 1969; Synapse Films), “Casshern” (Dir. Kasuaki Kiriya, 2004; Paramount Home Video), “The District” (Dir. Aron Gauder, 2004; Atopia). Special mention goes to the long-unseen and largely intolerable anti-film Jean Isidore Isou’s “Venom and Eternity” (1951), presented in Kino’s “Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema from 1928-1954” set, and a historical freak you need experience only once.

[Additional photo: “The Way I Spent The End of the World,” Film Movement, 2006]

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